Interiority and the Novel: The Tale of Genji at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Zeny May D. Recidoro

April 20, 2019

Tosa Mitsunori (Japanese, 1583–1638). Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015.

In the Sacred Icon of Murasaki Shikibu (Murasaki Shikibu seizō) (16th century), Lady Murasaki looks at six different scenes from her novel. The copper-based pigment has become faded and brittle—it is difficult to make out many of the inscriptions the painting contains, though some of the legible ones refer to the sacredness of waka poetry. What remains vivid are her pens and paper upon the work-table, her white robe, and her delicate, pale face with the fine features of a Heian era courtesan, framed by straight, ink dark hair. The spiritual and interior aspects of the work might be barely discernible but it is clear that in the image, we are afforded a precious icon of a writer in the process of making her novel. Though “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features more well-preserved and colorful objects and books inlaid with gold leaf, I am particularly drawn to this frail painting mounted on turquoise-colored, patterned silk. One sees the author at work yet one also senses the sacred aura that binds the worldly art of writing to the spiritual-interior world and, perhaps, the divine. It is possible to present oneself and one’s works while maintaining a condition of secrecy; that is, the interiority and spirituality imbued in a work or text.

Appeals to deities and spiritual rituals were part of the creative process for women writers in the Heian Period of Japan, which lasted from 794 to 1185. In The Sarashina Diary, written roughly a millenia ago, author Lady Musume describes herself as “a girl raised in the back of beyond, even farther than the end of the road to the East Country, how rusty and odd I must have been… once I knew that such things as tales existed in the world, all I could think of over and over was how much I wanted to read them.” She intimates how, by listening to her sister and step-mother talk about the ways of Shining Genji, she was filled with longing to read such tales. So much so that she created a life-size image of the Healing Buddha and implored the deity to grant her wish of going to the capital (Heian-kyō or Kyōto) so that she might visit libraries and mingle with storytellers.

Through the painting of Lady Murasaki gazing upon six chapters of her novel, and Lady Musume’s brief anecdote, we glimpse a way of production that was at once public and spiritual. Far from being an anomaly, such creative pursuits parallel the writings of other great writers, from the 13th century Dutch Beguine mystic Hadewijch’s poetry to the philoso-political meditations of Simone Weil. Could there also be contemporary writing that  draws from this lineage?

Considered the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), was written by Murasaki Shikibu (born: c. 976 – 978; died: c. 1026 – 1031), a novelist and court attendant of Empress Shōshi (988 – 1074). Her real name is unknown. The name Murasaki means “violet” and possibly derives from the novel’s character, Murasaki, who was Genji’s paramour.

“The Tale of Genji: a Classical Tale Illuminated” is the first major loan exhibition in North America of art objects and artworks focusing on Japan’s most celebrated work of literature. Traditional objects, books, scrolls, and a majestic bridal palanquin are accompanied by contemporary artworks that have been inspired by the tale. A replica of the temple altar from Ishiyamadera Temple (8th century) in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture sets the tone for the exhibit, namely a glimpse not only of Japanese life and culture during the Heian period but also of Lady Murasaki’s poetic practice. According to legend she wrote The Tale of Genji at the temple, which connects it with the teachings of Buddhism, and particularly the philosophies of its Esoteric branch.

The development of literature in Japan, especially the flourishing of women’s writing, came about during the Heian Period,when women were encouraged and often acknowledged for their nikki, or diaries. Similar works such as The Pillow Book (c. 1000) and The Sarashina Diary (c. 1060), among countless others, appeared alongside Lady Murasaki’s diaries. In an introduction to The Sarashina Diary (published 2014 by Columbia University Press), translators Sonja Arntzen and Itō Moriyuki note the similarities between Heian era diaries and present day blogs, in that both are private writings directed toward a public readership. Indeed, the development of Japanese literacy is deeply tied with popular culture, with narratives often drawn from itinerant storytelling and oral folk songs. The language of The Tale of Genji is deeply poetic and thus can confusing for the ordinary Japanese reader without dedicated study. There is reason to believe that the popularity of the tale is due in part to its oral transmission. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a poetess named Yosano Akiko translated the tale into modern Japanese that it became fully accessible.

Religion also propelled Japan’s literary tradition—Buddhist temples that needed to instruct their novices and disseminate knowledge of Buddha’s teachings created books and scrolls containing transcriptions of chants, the basic tenets of faith, and accompanying commentaries. Through time the practice of bookmaking became increasingly elaborate and permeated the Japanese way of life. By the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) both oral and written literature, as well as art and craftsmanship, were fully developed to suit the tastes and needs of a highly literate and cultured society.

Eleven-Headed Kannon (Nankabuchō period, 1336 – 92). Unidentified Artist. Lent by Ishiyamadera Temple

The lives we glimpse, in what can also be described as “gentry novels” such as The Tale of Genji, are lives bound by many social constraints. In most cases, the tension in these novels, whether overtly stated by the author or suggested as undercurrents or subtexts (as it could be considered in these Asian classics), stem from the clashes between social status and passions. Western texts like the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Guy de Maupassant, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry James are not so dissimilar in their narratives.

The Tale of Genji follows the romantic life of the title character the son of an emperor and Kiritsubo Consort, a low-ranking but beloved concubine. Genji is reduced into a commoner by his own father and assigned a commoner’s name, Minamoto. The novel charts his passage through Japanese aristocratic society. Passions are often suppressed in favor of pragmatic sensibilities and a sense of duty is encouraged among people of stature and importance, which overtly implies indebtedness to one’s family and society.  It is difficult to have a relationship with one’s body and others’ bodies when one is not even in full possession of oneself. Further, it can also be said that while every person goes through rites of passage in love, career, family, and self-determination, the particular way in which these passages proceed may vary depending on a person’s class. In a chapter entitled “The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms,”Genji meets a beautiful woman whom he believes is one of the Lady Kokiden’s younger sisters. Overcome by his attraction, he withholds action, worrying that the woman might already be married or engaged to one of the men of the high court. It is later revealed that he also refrained from seeking out this potential amour because “he did not wish to become involved with that unfriendly family.” Here, the dynamics between families belonging to the gentry can also be seen.

Though ordinary people only appear in passing in texts such as The Tale of Genji (being a commoner is a state of being that Genji himself surpasses), there is reason to think that the fully oral and performative songs and epics of the folk—the term used to pertain to farmers, itinerant storytellers, and the working class—allowed for more creative freedom as well as a freedom that responds to and constitutes one’s very being. It is counterintuitive, but the freedom in orality stems from its relationship with, and its exploration of the very boundaries that set up restraints: tradition, social class, filial and civic duties. What becomes evident is that, upon closer examination, regardless of one’s station in life, one is inevitably bound to suffer in some way.

It is along these somewhat clashing lines that the idea of transgressive love becomes a way of understanding the exhibit. In transgressive fiction, characters defy social norms for love, intimacy, and self-determination. Such an idea of love in written fiction finds a character working around constraints and rules. A particular way in which this manifests in The Tale of Genji is in the way a person is remembered or appreciated through specific characteristics, often detached from the individual body. For example in “The Maiden,”an unnamed girl is spoken of as such: “A lady is not perhaps at her most graceful when she is playing the lute, but the sound is rather wonderful. You do not often hear a good lute these days. Let me see now.” In this passage, a girl is appreciated not for her appearance but rather by the sound she produces while playing the lute. Similar expressions can be found throughout the book and in similar writings, where the beauty of a beloved’s hands or eyes are expounded upon in great detail. Perhaps this is, in response to constraint, a way to express desire and want in a way that does not require the exploration and the seizing of another person’s being; to curtail outright possession, which is not encouraged in Buddhist teaching, by affording oneself only morsels of another being, one’s beloved, or objects.

Behind the replica of the Ishiyamadera Temple altar in the exhibition is the statue, the Eleven-Headed Kannon (Nankabuchō period, 1336 – 92) of wood lacquer, gold leaf and metal decoration. Beside her is a recording of the Lotus Repentance Rite plays, intoning:

“… Through innumerable past lives, because of the sense of sight, I have developed an attachment to form and appearances. My attachment to form has resulted in love and longing for the objects that enter my vision. I have received the body of a woman and in birth after birth remain attached to and deluded by appearances…”

The impressions given by a text that is over a thousand years old and spanning over 1300 pages, and the exquisite objects that have inspired them are at once overwhelming and moving.  I realize they are images that respond to my own mind-scape or resonate with a deep and somehow ancient feeling that I cannot grasp, let alone put into words.

The Tale of Genji: a Classical Tale Illuminated is on show view from 5 March to 16 June, 2019 at Tthe Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue, New York.

Zeny May D. Recidoro (Class of 2020) was born and raised in the Philippines. She is an Asian Cultural Council fellow.

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