Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Returning to the Internet after a long absence, & hoping to share some thoughts with whoever. See below.

A very short posting this time, "of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings," as my shoes are somewhat damp from the rain today. I'm too far from the coast to see or have dealings with ships. I'm all out of sealing wax, and the cabbages and kings will have to wait for another time.  Back later.
Gwin Lee Cox

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gwin's Blog continuation of "The Tale of Genji"Hi

Hi, I'm back, (I hope) with a blog on a new computer & a new Internet connection, but the same subject. I found an editorial by Robert Silverberg in the latest issue of  the SF magazine he edits relating to "The Tale of Genji." He was writing about his discovery of a Japanese historical chronicle that dated events from the time of a retired emperor, which he thought was rather odd. "The Tale of Genji" has retired emperors as characters. Indeed, the title character's father retires in the course of the novel. I had assumed there was an historical parallel with the late Roman Emperors like Hadrian or Diocletian, who were able to turn the cares  of office over to a designated successor, & retire to a comfortable life in the country, a good long way from Rome. And, of course, in the modern Rome, the good 'ol USA, ex-presidents must retire after 2 terms. It's not a lifetime job. This predicates a level of security & stability that is rarely reached in history. Tho', according to Silverberg's research, that's not how it worked in medieval Japan. The reason for an emperor's retirement fairly early in his reign was because the ceremonial duties required of him were so numerous & heavy that, in order to take care of the business of state, it was necessary to have his successor take over the ceremonial duties & devote himself to state business full time. This worked fairly well until emperors started to turn over their ceremonial duties to six-year-olds. It helps to remember that the Japanese royal family was never monogamous until the 19th century & also allowed adopted sons to succeed as emperors. When the retirement system broke down, the shogunate succeeded it, under which hereditary shoguns, who functioned as viziers or prime ministers to the emperors took over, & when the hereditary shoguns started producing morons, an appointive system of ministers actually ran the country. This is the system Commodore Perry found when he "opened" Japan to the West in the 1860s. If you think Japan & the Japanese are hard to understand now, it's nothing compared to 19th century Japan! :) I must add that the Meiji Emperor took over in his own name after the 1860s, & the Emperor remains the Head of State to this day, tho' the Diet & elected ministers have ruled Japan since WWII. But the Japanese emperor remains largely inaccessible to the general public. Emperor Akihito's appearance on TV to his people after the earthquake & tsunami this spring, was his first appearance on TV since his accession. I gather retirement is no longer an option for reigning emperors in Japan any more, since the advent of an elected Diet & ministers who run the government. As a constitutional monarch, the emperor is expected to reign lifelong. It's surprising what serendipitous connections  a little research can turn up.
Signing off for now,
Gwin Lee

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Continuing with "The Tale of Genji"

Thanks for the responses to my blog. (I won't publish names, but you know who you are. :) I should note that I'll try to remember to post whether the books I blog about are from the library I work at, Moye Library, or Steele Memorial Library, the branch of Wayne County Public Library that's nearest where I live, or whether the book is my own copy. The new translation and abridgement of "The Tale of Genji" I blogged about is part of the circulating collection in Moye Library & may be checked out either in person or interlibrary loan from Moye Library. The translator's name is Edward G. Seidensticker & the edition came out in 1990 from Vintage Classics. The author's name is given in Japanese form, Murasaki Shikibu. The old Modern Library edition I mentioned in my blog is my own copy, which I acquired many years ago second-hand.   Moving on from these bibliographical details to the text itself, which is a much better translation than the old 19th century one I first read, the translator conveys the ambience (an overused word, but the best I think of at the moment) of Japanese court life a thousand years ago with descriptions of the physical setting of the novel, including the natural world & the built world of the court and the clothing & modes of transportation the characters use. The delightful 17th century woodcut illustrations are a great help for a modern Western reader in imagining what these long-ago & far-away, in time & place people looked like. As an instance, the the ladies' hair is frequently mentioned in the text as a mark of beauty, but without the illustrations, I wouldn't have realized that Heian court ladies wore their hair very long and straight and unconfined, sweeping down their backs to their waists or longer. One of the secondary meanings of the Japanese word "murasaki" which usually means purple, is curly-headed. I don't know if this is derived from purple chrysanthemums, which are a symbol of Japan (chrysanthemums is general, not just purple ones) or some other reference I'm not familiar enough with in Japanese to know. To extend the literary reference, chrysanthemum means golden flower, from the Greek chrysos, meaning gold & anthemos, meaning flower. It's one of my favorite words in English, as the whole word, not just the shortened version "mum" is so satisfyingly mouth-filling. I also like the flower itself, especially as a potted plant. I wish I could grow them in my yard, but chrysanthemums need a fair amount of care & cultivation, which I can't give them. Mais, retournons a nos moutons. ( Being translated, the previous sentence means "Let's return to our sheep, or the subject at hand.)   By the way, I understand from a Japanese exchange student, whom I asked about the book, that curly hair is not considered a mark of beauty in Japan. Long, thick, straight hair was considered a great beauty in Heian Japan. Of course, court ladies had the time & servants to care for all their hair. (On a personal note, I once grew my hair down to my waist, when I was much younger, & discovered that long thick hair, curly or not, takes a great deal of time & effort to look after, either by the possesor or servants, which I didn't have. By the way, I have short hair now.) The male characters in "The Tale of Genji" wore their hair in a kind of topknot, judging from the illustrations. Neither the woodcuts nor the text of the novel indicate when or where the men "took their hair down," or how long it was when taken down.
Another fascinating subject, which both the text of the novel & the illustrations deal with at length, is costume. Both men & women wore very elaborate clothing in silks & brocades & occasionally cotton. The translator uses the English word "singlet" for what appears to be both male & female undergarments. The hero Genji is officially put into men's trousers in a great court ceremony, tho' it's not clear at what age this was done. I would guess that the "singlet" was a kind of long shirt or chemise worn by both men & women, as in the European Middle Ages. I find it difficult to visualize 10th century Japanese in the garment which is presently known as a singlet, which I think is a tight-fitting undershirt, either with or without sleeves...i.e. a tank top. The singlet was just he first layer of clothing, which would be worn by men with trousers (don't know if the wrapped loin cloth worn by Japanese men in later history was part of Heian court costume.) There would be a long robe, with a train, whether attached to the robe or not I can't tell, worn over the singlet and/or trousers. The robe would be tied, pinned and draped. The illustrations appear to show kimono-style sleeves on the outer robe. The feet are almost always covered in the woodcuts, but there are some showing the feet & legs nearly to the knee, with the men's trousers pulled up. There seem to be some kind of socks or slippers for indoor wear. I suppose the custom of removing the shoes when coming indoors & wearing fitted socks was so taken for granted that Lady Murasaki never mentions it. The same probably applies to "answering the calls of Nature" as Victorian writers in the West used to write. I assume Japanese society made provisions for "the calls of Nature," even in the 10th century, but it's not mentioned or illustrated. Bathing is frequently mentioned, tho'. I gather the Japanese were as fond of bathing a thousand years ago as they are now. Going back to the foot coverings, the text of the novel does mention riding boots & sandals. I assume the former were worn with socks.
Since I observe this post is getting quite lengthy, I will defer any mention of scenery, court intrigues, etc. to a later date.
Gwin Lee

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Latest book read; "The Tale of Genji"

This blog will mostly be about books I've read, or am reading, or sometimes hope to read. The latest book I've finished is a new translation of Lady Murasaki's "The Tale of Genji." It's sometimes known as the world's oldest novel, or at least the world's oldest Japanese novel. It's set in 10th century Heian Japan, at the imperial court. And,yes, the royal family of Japan goes back not just a thousand years, but two thousand. It's the oldest royal family still reigning in the world. What particularly struck me about the characters in the novel, in both the old Modern Library translation I first read, & the newer one, is how literate they are. The title character, who is the son of the reigning emperor, but not crown prince, is constantly exchanging poems & notes with his various inamorati, at the drop of a fan. And fans also figure largely in the story. The difficulty with writing about the other characters is that most of them don't have names as we think of them in this day & age. The Lady of the Orange Blossoms, or the Lady of the Wisteria Court, who are two of the many loves of the hero, are known by these sobriquets only. The reader does find out, finally, the name of Genji's (which means the Shining One) one true love, which is Fujitsubo. The hero's first wife is, probably, the Lady Aoi, tho' this isn't certain,as the reader is warned in a foonote. And,to complicate matter still further, Genji's probable second wife is named Murasaki, the name of the author of the novel. Also, Genji isn't Prince Genji, as his father, the emperor, deliberately assigns him a commoner's rank. It has to do with the hero's mother's rank & her family connections, which are not as powerful as the Empress, the mother of the crown prince. Oh, did I mention that Genji is the actual father of the second crown prince, who succeeds Genji's half-brother as emperor? A geneaological chart would be a useful appendix to this novel. The settings & descriptions are a large part of the charm of this historical novel.  It's difficult to say much about characterization (as Isaac Asimov noted in his essay "The Little Tin God of Characterization") becuase trying to judge the accuracy of character depiction at such a distance in time & space isn't easy. But, as Ernest Bramah remarked in "The Golden Hours of Kai Lung" from the mouth of his title character, "all the persons in the novel are of noble birth and an air of utmost refinement hangs over the whole story." I would not be surprised if Bramah hadn't read "The Tale of Genji," even tho' his novels are set in medieval China.  For this American reader in the 21st century, this charming tale is almost a fantasy. I had read Frank Herbert's "Dune" just before "The Tale of Genji." Heian Japan realy existed, tho' Arrakis & the galactic empire it belongs do not, or will not for thousands of year in the future, but the two novels are alike in their appeal to me. I only wish the Lady Murasaki had provided a more definite ending to her novel, but since the charm and delight of the novel lies in its haziness and misty outlines, perhaps that's too much to ask. I don't know if any later writer has tried to provide a sequel or sequels to this classic novel, but it would be rather like the hundreds of sequels to Jane Austen's classic novels...not up to the original.
Signing off
Gwin Lee Cox

Monday, April 4, 2011

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