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Music and Genji
Re-Reading Genji #6 末摘花 / suetsumuhana
Here we go again. Genji is on the prowl. Obsessed with his desire to find a high-ranking damsel in distress, even the barest hint that there is such a princess, fallen on hard times, living in a ramshackle house —and he is all over it. But this time, the lady in question fails to live up to his imagination. Yes, she is a high-ranking woman who has fallen on hard times—And yet she is inept at poetry, her calligraphy is officious, and even clothes are hopelessly out of fashion, as are her gifts and even her manners.
And there is that red bulgy nose too.
The mind boggles.
By the end of the chapter, it is too much and he is back to playing with dolls in his palace with his little captive Murasaki.
But all this happens amidst much music—and this will continue into the next chapter, which is a favorite of mine. In Genji’s world, people were expected to play an instrument—even if just adequately like the princess’ uninspired koto playing in this chapter.
Not only could people play an instrument, but in the same way they could write poetry impromptu, so too could they play music spontaneously and unplanned. One of the joys of chapter six is to read about Genji’s impromptu jam session when he and To-no-Chujo, arriving back to the palace late at night grab their flutes and start to play music together. There are ladies playing the biwa or lute and more women on the koto or zither .
The komabue (高麗笛) ("Koma flute") is a transverse flute.
While most people were adept at one instrument, Genji is highly-skilled at four. As I mentioned in my last post, the world of the shining prince has often been described as an aesthetic-based society (as opposed to a modern rule-based society)—such that, Genji’s massive moral transgressions are much mitigated in the mind of the narrator by his artistic accomplishments.
This is not similar to the current debate about art and science done by morally bankrupt persons (see this, for example, for a just-published book on this subject)—but rather, I am talking about a culture where artistic achievement was an ethical accomplishment in and of itself. It is almost like Murasaki Shikibu is saying that Genji must be a good guy if he can play all those instruments and dance so beautifully—for that was what really mattered in their culture. It is an aesthetic-ethical worldview where the two modes are conflated. Beautiful art is made by beautiful and Good people.
Repeating again the words of Ivan Morris:
What makes Murasaki’s world so unusual is the way in which refined standards of cultural appreciation and performance had become generally accepted values among members of the ruling class. Artistic insensitivity damned a gentleman of the Heian court as fatally as did a reputation for cowardice among the nobility of the West. Genji and his friends are all critics, and one of their great pleasures when they meet is to engage in ‘judgements’ (sadame). Sometimes (as when the group of young men meet in the palace on a rainy night) they will exchange critical observations about different types of women; but far more often the objects of their discussions are paintings, books, styles of musical performance. The women are not behindhand in this, and the Pillow Book describes the ladies of Empress Sadako’s court engaged in heated ‘judgements’ about books or picture scrolls.
More on music next time!
Here is a spotify list of Genji music put together by the Gardner museum
Japan, like much of East Asia and almost all of North and South America (before European contact) was monophonic. Scholars used to think that Europe was the source of polyphonic music but the more they opened their eyes the more they found if was very common around the world—not in China or Japan though.
This kind of connoisseurship depended on the internalization of exemplary models in music and poetry. For more, see my post on memory palaces.
A book I love on the way artistic accomplishments function to convey merit even in modern Japan is Christine Guth’s fantastic Art, Tea, and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle.