The World of Genji

The world’s great fictions are remarkably limited in number. In fact, there seems to be but one sharply focused expression of each highly organized culture. Homer, the Scandinavian Burnt Njal, the Chinese The Dream of the Red Chamber, the Indian Mahabharata, the Spanish Don Quixote, and probably if we had the complete work, instead of the small fragment that we do, the Roman Satyricon. In spite of the illimitable output of fiction in the modern world, it is doubtful if we have a comparable work. Possibly this is due to the fact that Western culture, after the thirteenth century, has been too poorly focused and too disorderly. Certainly, we have never produced as great a novel as the Japanese Tale of Genji.

When Japanese culture was still in its infancy and the benefits of civilization were enjoyed by only a few thousand people at the most, set apart in the midst of a vast mass which was in fact at a lower level of civilization than the contemporary Polynesians, Lady Murasaki wrote what may well be the world’s greatest novel. That is, it is a non-epic, non-dramatic fiction concerned with the shifting values and motives of what nowadays we call “interpersonal relations” — I suppose that could do as one definition of the word novel.

For a generation it has been a steady seller in Arthur Waley’s beautiful translation. Parenthetically, this translation is itself the most illuminating of all documents on the Japanese text. It, rather than the original, has been translated into many languages, including the modern Japanese, and the extraordinary subtlety, exquisite refinement of sensibility, and psychological, moral and religious profundity are brought out by Waley to a degree that could easily be missed by even the most scholarly and sympathetic reader of the medieval Japanese text.

The literature on Genji in modern Japanese is immense. It is fantastically contradictory. In certain circles it is considered a sort of feminist tract and a denunciation of male promiscuity. Marxist critics have claimed it as a satire on the evils of the upper classes, a quaint notion comparable to George Luk√°cs’s whimsy that King Lear is a proletarian play. On the other hand, mystical Buddhists have seen in Prince Genji a bodhisattva, and modern commentators have compared Lady Murasaki to Marcel Proust.

Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince takes sides in all these controversies only against the most fantastic interpreters. He has written a sort of social, historical Baedeker to the novel. He provides all the relevant information about life at the Heian court and amongst the common people of early medieval Japan. Beyond that he does not go. Lifelong Genjists like myself might wish for more and for an adventure into subtle and imaginative interpretation. We ferreted all these things out for ourselves long ago. But the book has been read by many, many thousands of people and nobody who ever read it ever forgot it or failed to be deeply moved, and only a handful of them even know how to find the relevant background information. It is for them that this book is written and it does a superlative job of meeting their needs.

I should not want to give the impression that it is either a dry or fatuous “Daily Life in Old Time Japan.” It is an imaginative reconstruction of a tiny over-civilized world which flourished when Europe was sunk in barbarism. Nothing quite like the Heian court has ever existed; although certain parallels might be found in Persia or India, nowhere has civilization ever been entirely confined to so tiny a caste or, possibly for that reason, so intensely cultivated. Ivan Morris’s picture is clear and accurate.

Nor is Ivan Morris insensitive to the ever receding subtleties encapsuled one in another, like Chinese boxes, that distinguish this novel from all others. It is possible that some of the more refined interpretations of these subtleties would only confuse the Western reader and so he leaves them aside. However, he makes it very clear that the greatest writing and the most profound drama occurs in the latter half of the novel after Prince Genji himself is dead, and he is well aware that the plot is basically the story of the working out, the reduction, and the final redemption of an evil karma, the consequence of jealousy, anger and irresponsibility.

I feel that Morris’ guide to Genji is about as complicated as most people are prepared to take and I doubt if a short essay is the place to go into these complications. However, there’s nothing like trying.

It is my personal belief that The Tale of Genji is a cryptic, artistic statement of Buddhist erotic mysticism. A bodhisattva, in case you don’t know, is one who, at the brink of absorption into Nirvana, turns away with the vow that he shall not enter final peace until he can bring all other beings with him. He does this, says the most advanced Buddhist thought, “indifferently” because he knows that there is neither being nor not-being, neither peace nor illusion, neither saved nor saviors, neither truth nor consequence. This is the reason for that benign, world-weary expression on the faces in Far Eastern religious art.

Lady Murasaki presents Genji as a bodhisattva. “Hikaru,” “The Shining One,” is a bodhisattva epithet, and she gives him the distinguishing natural perfume of such a savior, but she presents him not only as an indifferent bodhisattva, but as an unconscious one, a religious notion of startlingly original profundity.

From a momentary spasm of the most extreme jealous anger on the part of one of his mistresses, Lady Rokujo, a being, an incarnation of evil karma, “takes foot,” as the Japanese say, and struggles throughout the book with the grace that emanates from Genji gratuitously.

In succeeding generations, the karma, the consequences of a lifetime that belonged to him and to his beloved friend, Tojo no Chugo, crosses and re-crosses in their descendants and comes finally to a resolution when a young girl, beloved of both descendants, struggles with the demon and destroys it forever in a series of acts as gratuitous, as indifferent and unconscious as the original evil or the original grace. Needless to say, a complex of moral notions of this sort involves a kind of religious thinking which not only the Western world but even modern Japan might find outlandish. As I say, Ivan Morris avoids such speculations, but nowhere does he rule them out, and his book lays firm foundations on which the many thousands of English-speaking people who love The Tale of Genji may rear whatever airy superstructures suit their taste. The Tale of Genji is the incomparably great novel it is because it admits an indefinite number of such superstructures.

The only place I disagree with Ivan Morris is where he calls the hannya (the devil who speaks through the mediums who are called in when the girls it is killing are dying) the ghost of Lady Rokujo. It is not the ghost, although it speaks in her name. It is the embodiment of a single instant of wrath which grows by feeding on the souls it destroys. Lady Rokujo herself, in fact, goes off and becomes a priestess of Ise and dies in what we would call a state of grace. This idea is not Buddhist, but is derived from the Chinese philosopher Wang Ch’ung (ca. 30-90 AD) and from Shintoist animism.

The substantiating quotation:

Every long-cherished thought; every word, every impassioned piece of music; every violent emotion, love or hate; all that can be exteriorized by the living and can survive death; can subsist, can act, not always, but for a time, until satiated. Thence the power of magicians and witches, men and women trained to concentrate an intense passion in the formulas they utter. Thence the special power, for good or for bad, of words uttered by little children, who always put all their strength into what they say. Thence the cries one sometimes hears at night; exteriorized lamentations of the oppressed. Thence all apparitions which men call kuei. These are the subsisting loves or the persisting hates, which tend to satiate themselves. It was not the soul of Tu-po which killed the Emperor Hsuan of the third dynasty; it was the subsisting hate of that unfortunate man, put to death contrary to all justice, which gratified itself, when the vital spirit of Tu-po had already been dissipated long beforehand. The blue dog which bit the side of the Empress Lu of the first Han dynasty, a bite from which she died, was not the soul of her victim Prince Ju-i, but the subsisting curse of that poor child, who gratified itself, and became extinct in its gratification, long after its death. In the music which still resounds among the reeds of the river P’u, there survives, not the soul of the musician Yen, but his perverse intention. [Wang Ch’ung]



This review of Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune (Book Week, 29 November 1964) and was reprinted in The Elastic Retort (Seabury, 1973). Copyright 1973. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Another Rexroth essay on The Tale of Genji
Other Rexroth essays