Tale of Genji Essay

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Genji

Why Is Angst So Universally Appealing?

The course of true love never did run smooth according to the Bard of Avon. Certainly any relationship involving at least two people must allow for at least a good chance of turbulence. But surely true love might indeed run smoothly within the pages of a novel or the rolls of an epic? Well, yes, if that were what the author wanted and (at least as importantly) what the audience wants and expects. But the idea of love that we as humans in different eras and different places often seem most content to embrace as we follow fictional lovers is one in which there is confusion and angst. Fictional lovers are often those who do not know their own minds about what will make them happy and must be forced by fate and the gods to acknowledge the love simmering within them.

This paper examines the ways in which love is presented as a function of the gods and of fate rather than of the human heart in two of the world's most enduring love songs, The Tale of Genji and The Mahabharata. The fact that these two love stories (although it should be noted that both of these epics are much more than only love stories) originate outside of classically influenced European narrative traditions is key because they reflect ideas about love that emphasize a different balance between personal desire and the social construction of love.

Greek and Roman precedents of modern Western literature often focus on the ways in which there are external barriers to true love. Shakespeare -- to bring us back to the opening line of this paper -- created the archetypal Western lovers as the star-cross'd Romeo and Juliet. The two fall in love the moment that they first meet each other: They are embodiments of the Greek idea that lovers who experience such true love are in fact two parts of the same whole, two aspects of the same soul. When they see each other, such lovers recognize their other self and do what they must to stay reunited, even if such an effort requires one to follow another of the two into death. The world may try to interfere -- with families or even kings forbidding the two lovers to stay together. But love will find a way against all odds.

Such is the trope of romantic love that runs most broadly through Western literature. There is love and there are lovers, and often love must stand against the rest of the world. The trope of love that is played out in the two works examined here proffer a different view of love, one in which the lovers themselves are often their own worst enemies. They stand in their own way, most often because they do not and do not seem to be able to know their own minds. Love is not for them a blinding flash of light, an epiphanous' strike that makes clear something that was obscure before. Love is something that must be revealed (Caddeau 113).

Love as presented to an audience in a narrative is more interesting when there are barriers. The great question that audiences and readers seem to want to have posed to them is whether the lovers will find themselves together at the end of the story. For this to be an intriguing question, there have to be barriers placed between the lovers. Those barriers can be exterior, such as in a story like that of Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers could well have lived happily ever after had it not been for their families and the larger social structures that their families represent.

But the barriers that threaten lovers can be internal as well. The lovers themselves may not recognize their true attraction to each other. Such a trope is not uncommon in Western narrative. To pick two from a wide field, the television shows Remington Steele and Moonlighting depended for their existence on the question of whether the protagonists would ever consummate their relationships. But while such a narrative arc seems to be very different from the kind of story that is told about the two lovers from Verona, they are in fact very much the same.

For whether it is Juliet and her Romeo or Dave and Maddie from Moonlighting, love will have its way when the two protagonists recognize their true attraction for each other. Some lovers are quick on the uptake about this: They recognize love at the first subtle whisper. Other lovers are amazingly obtuse and take being beaten over the head time and time again, a narrative strategy that is actually as common in Shakespeare's comedies as it is on American television.

In the two texts under study here, however, lovers are kept apart by an entirely different internal mechanism. They are incapable of understanding what love means to them or of recognizing what their own love will look like. It is not simply a question of time and proximity as it is for Shakespeare's lovers in (for example) Twelfth Night. Rather, there is something missing in the psyche of the lovers in these two stories. In each case, they have to loosen their ties to other people in their lives so that they can become properly attached to their lovers.

The Tale of Genji is generally referred to as the first extant novel, although others have criticized it as being too episodic to qualify as a true novel (Shirane 38). The book is over 1000 pages and is marked by almost savant-like complexity and consistency. The conventions of the Japanese court at the time forbid the use of particular names in the novel, which meant that Murasaki used vaguely metaphorical titles. But despite this necessary slipperiness (to the modern reader) of names and titles, the vast and interconnected cast of characters are kept properly aligned in their hierarchical genealogies over the many years spanned in the novel.

The novel focuses on the character of Genji, a son of the emperor by a beloved concubine. He spends nearly all of his time writing poetry to the series of women that he falls in love with, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are uninterested in pursuing or being pursued by him. The women of the court to whom he is attracted are sometimes attracted to him in return, but possessed of better sense than he is they know better than to become involved with someone who has so little insight and so little desire to understand either himself or them any better.

Genji thus turns to women from outside the court to fall in love with. Such behavior would have been scandalous at best; as a result, the character takes great (and sometimes very humorous) measures to keep from being discovered. Clandestine affairs are certainly common in every literary tradition. But what is most striking about the secrecy with which Genji shrouds his affairs is that he seems to be keeping secrets from himself as much as from anyone else. He is interested in being in love, he is indeed fascinated by the idea of love. But he is not capable of the kind of blinding clarity of the transformative power of love that is evident in a character like Juliet. This is true whether he is the pursuer (as he is so often) or, as in one of his last affairs, the pursued (in this case by an old woman). It is not wing'd Cupid who is painted blind here, but (to extend the Shakespearean analogy) but Romeo.

Murasaki has given us a story in which love never does find its mark. Genji falls in love again and again, but in the end this is not a story of successful love but rather of an essentially sterile life. Nothing in the worlds of either the court or the mundane world can help bring enlightenment to Genji.

The story of the lovers Dushyant and Shakuntala is more of a traditional love story in the Western sense in that in the end the central pair is united. But this story too is marked by a conception of love that is very different from that of the classical story of love-as-epiphany. For the lovers in this story would never have lived anything like happily-ever-after had there not been a deus ex-machina twist in which the human actors must be made to acknowledge a truth that only the gods seem to be able to perceive accurately.

The story of the lovers King Dushyant (a king of the Puru dynasty) and the hermit Shakuntala, who meet when the king is on a hunting trip and fall in love, is told in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata. The two cannot marry in a formal way because Shakuntala's father is not there to give his blessing, so the woman proposes that they marry in a ceremony of "ghandharva." This is a traditional form of marriage that is…[continue]

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