雨夜の品定め, amayo no shina sadame.
Chapter Two begins in a rainy night conversation between four high-ranking Heian period men. The Japanese really says, “a rainy night deciding quality.”
What we have is four guys, whiling away the night in conversation —though Genji starts to snooze— trying to decide what makes for the finest qualities in a woman. Specifically what they should be on the look out for in a wife or lover.
How annoying if a woman has bad breath.
Or worse, if she is more accomplished in Chinese than he is.
This points to the way language functioned in Japan in the 10th and 11th centuries. Educated men wrote in Chinese. While women wrote in hiragana. The Tale of Genji was written in Hiragana. The author Murasaki Shikibu being the daughter of a scholar of Chinese was adept at reading and writing in the language. But she didn’t think a woman should show off—she disliked this about Sei Shonagon, she would write in her diary.
No, a woman should be pliable, pleasant and supportive, the guys declare. Even if she is not beautiful or charming, being forgiving is very important. Forgiving of what? Well of all their foibles. One of the guys even suggests how delightful it is to find a diamond in the rough. Perhaps a noble family has fallen into a decline but has a daughter who is charming and educated but —given the family’s situation—can’t be too picky about whom to marry.
Better still to find a young girl and groom her for a future wife.
The episode of the “rainy night conversation” is quite famous. And yet it does not appear in Seidensticker’s abridged version. Perhaps because it is hard to know how to approach this chapter, which ends with Genji forcing himself on a married woman in the house where this conversation takes place.
When I re-read this chapter, I was thinking I should recreate a similar conversation with women doing the quality appraising 品定め. But then I thought it was a woman who wrote this. Was she being subversive?
How can we even approach work like this when we always look at literature through the lens of current concerns? That is, we will always see how power dynamics are expressed in our contemporary anxieties as we read. I find it impossible not to. I guess my real question is how to gain a critical distance from one’s own preconceived notions in order to understand a world so far away from us in time and place?
Rajyashree Pandey, in her book Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair, has tried to push back a little in reading medieval and classical literature through the lens of contemporary feminist theory and notions about gender. She compares the Japanese understanding of gender to that of medieval Europe:
The word in the Japanese medieval lexicon that corresponds to the term “body,” mi (身), unlike the word shintai (身体), which is used today to signify the physical body, made no distinction between the physical body and what we might call the psychic, social, or cultural body; indeed, mi extended beyond the body to signify a self, understood not as an individual subject or autonomous agent separate from society, but rather as one that was meaningful only as a social being. It is for this reason that one of the most common usages of the term mi was to signify a person’s status or standing. There are no words in the medieval lexicon for sex or gender.
Does this change the way we read the scene above? Does it matter if gender is biological or performative in this case? Not sure. But I do think we cannot overestimate how much Cartesian thinking infects the way we view our human selves.
The other notion that Pandey resists is regarding agency. This is also of great interest to me because it also brings us back to Descartes.
Genevieve Lloyd's Providence Lost was one of the most interesting philosophy books to come out in a long time. To examine Western notions of Providence, Lloyd goes back to a certain moment in time to examine two rival approaches to the nature of free-will and human freedom: “Descartes' account of the will as the locus of freedom and Spinoza's rival treatment of freedom as involving the capacity to shape one's life in accordance to the recognition of necessity.” Most traditional cultures —before the Protestant Reformation— tended toward the latter.
From our contemporary post-Reformation standpoint, it is very interesting to be reminded that there were once alternatives to Descartes’ idea that autonomous will (and choice) is the locus of freedom. And Lloyd argues that the formation of the “controlling, autonomous self of modernity–which we now take so readily for granted– was conceptually dependent on changing ideas of providence.” Indeed, so overwhelmingly dominant has the Cartesian conception of human agency as the locus of freedom become that we could almost forget that there is another equally compelling tradition seen, for example in Spinoza & Hegel's transfiguration of Stoic views on freedom that posit freedom and the Good Life as being taken up with the capacity to adapt oneself to necessity in the form of the cosmos. For example, for the Stoics, “following nature” had an ethical force that de-emphasized personal choice and posited agency as being a kind of attunement with nature and submission to the rationality of the cosmos.
Pandey is interesting in reminding us that for the people back in Genji’s day, they did not believe that personal agency was the locus of all action. In this chapter, the characters are constantly—almost overwhelmingly—referencing every single romantic encounter as being tied to karma and destiny. It is annoying to us because we know Genji is a piece of work. We want to scream: where is your sense of personal responsibility, dude…?
But then again, contrasting this to the modern secular age, Lloyd suggests that what we are left now is what can only be described as an unending sense of responsibility-- it never ends (this human cause of fault in everything) because we no longer have Providence (God or Luck or Spinoza's nature to fall back on as blame) so that now it's always up to Us. So the blaming never stops —-and this never ending sense of responsibility is too much for some people.
One of the most interesting translation jobs I ever had involved me trying—and failing—to not have my Cartesian notions inform my English translations. For more, see my essay Translating Descartes
PERFUMED SLEEVES AND TANGLED HAIR: BODY, WOMAN, AND DESIRE IN MEDIEVAL JAPANESE NARRATIVES—Rajyashree Pandey
PROVIDENCE LOST— Genevieve Lloyd
Genji chapter 2 also popped up unexpectedly in my essay this week! Reading Genji in the 21st century has been really difficult for me. I started by buying Yamato Waki's manga version a few years ago, but interestingly, she skips chapter 2 and the Utsusemi story. I was fascinated when you mentioned that Seidensticker skipped it too, I've never read the Seidensticker version. I quoted Waley in my essay, but then it occurred to me to check Royall Tyler. I hadn't read his translation but I'd just bought it. He changed the tone of that passage with paragraphing!
Imagining what Yamato Waki would have drawn if she had included Utsusemi is really scary. I'm finding it hard to get rid of that mental image of Chujo standing in the hallway outside Genji's room.
I was a terrible philosophy student, so I desperately need to go read your 3 Quarks essay!
I hope you continue this wonderful series (and I see it becoming a book). I will want to have this with me the next time I reread Genji.