I have been reading Kenneth Rexroth, best known for his poetry, original and translated, but also for his critical writings on literature and society. Much of this I've encountered by way of a rather inauspiciously titled compilation, The Elastic Retort, available through the Open Library. There's easily a dozen posts of material to be mined out of my encounter with this man's work, but I want to focus on the implications of some of the things Rexroth has to say about The Tale Of Genji.
Much of Genji, available at that time in English by way of Arthur Waley's translation, is under- and over-laid with meaning that would only matter to a reader of the time and place it was written in — essentially, Lady Murasaki's court. A modern reader in any culture, Japan included, would have trouble grasping all that. Waley's translation focuses on readability for a modern audience that would be confounded by such subtleties. So successful was he at doing this that Waley's English version was translated back into Japanese for the sake of bringing the classic to a modern audience there. (I couldn't say how well it's sold versus, say, native abridgements or renderings into modern Japanese, but the mere fact of this is itself striking.)
Most of what Rexroth writes about Genji in his essay is not by way of the book itself, but a companion book of sorts — Ivan Morris's The World Of The Shining Prince, which provides much of the cultural context Waley elides, and which comes highly recommended by Rexroth as a way to understand the book and the milieu that created it. Of those two things, Rexroth has this to say, remarkable enough that I want to quote it at length, from p. 141 of Retort:
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.
I agree with Rexroth, up to a point, about Genji's greatness. I think it is a great novel, but the words "too poorly focused and too disorderly" made me think about what else Rexroth meant.
What I suspect Rexroth implies is that in a culture that is relatively small — as he says, where "the benefits of civilization were enjoyed by only a few thousand people at the most" — and where a high degree of cultural homogeneity existed simply because life was too inherently hard to allow much in the way of experimental differentiation, it's easier for someone in the higher reaches of that culture, tiny as it is, to produce a gem whose facets reflect the culture around it to near-perfection. There was just that much less for someone to know, and that more opportunity to know it all the more deeply and synthesize it into an art of personal experience. It is not possible to filter all of a culture through the lens of one person's story anymore — not because the modern human lens could not focus such things, but because we are acutely conscious now of how culture was never that monolithic or cohesive to begin with.
Rexroth believed we have produced nothing of such greatness in the centuries since. I think this has less to do with earlier societies being better, or purer, or some other generally subjective term pressed into the service of morality-play didactics about culture; it's about Heian Japan, or the Qing dynasty, being a miserable place that could occasionally produce beautiful things.
It's not like I don't want to agree with him, if only because I have my own snobbishness about literature. My feeling is that we could go up to maybe Proust's Remembrance Of Things Past and be forced to stop there. (Ulysses feels more and more to me like a gross error in aesthetic judgment; I'll take Mrs. Dalloway instead.) But I say this only because Proust's France marked the last time a work of high literary art was produced by something we could call a Western society that bore resemblance in the key aspects I have described above to previous civilizations. If the fact we no longer have societies like that means we are no longer producing works of such totality, maybe that is less lamentable than we might think.
Economists have the term "misery index" to describe how the average citizen is getting along economically relative to previous eras. I'm going to steal the term and use it to talk about the general quality of lived life in a society — that a society where there was no rule of law, or only the rule of law for the nobility, where material comfort was scarce, where preventable illness was rampant, and where (maybe most important of all) there was no expectation or ambition of those things ever being different for one's self or one's descendants, had a high misery index. Heian high culture was a plateau over a charnel-pit, and before long the plateau gave way. But even a society like that can turn out a Tale Of Genji. It might well even be easier to recognize such a thing when it comes from such a place, since it stands out all the more in contrast from the rest of its surroundings.
Over the last century or so, we've moved to a point where we understand, as a matter of course, that the value in a society lies in the quality of its life as it is lived in the present moment, by everyone from the bottom up. A miserable place that produces beautiful things is still a miserable place. Bad times may produce great art, but emphasis on the may: misery never guarantees aesthetic heights, and more often than not it guarantees only misery.
A less miserable world may not produce the same kind of beauty as the ones before, but maybe it is a matter of first learning to see the beauty created. It was centuries before Genji was read widely, even amongst Japanese, let alone anyone else; now, we read and we know what beauty there was. And maybe it is also a matter of time and knowing. The modern world as we know it is maybe 150 years old, depending on what index you choose for its starting point. Our Genji may simply not be yet. How long did Heian Japan exist before Lady Murasaki took out her brush?
There is a part of me that shares Rexroth's sense of true greatness being impossibly rare across recorded history, and even a part of me that shares his less-explicitly-spoken contempt for modernity. But contempt for modernity is easy. Contempt for the peculiar horror of the immediate moment is easiest of all, especially for the historically conscious or the spiritually enlightened. (Who wants to read the news right now? Not me, that's for sure.) But even those who advocated such contempt knew its limits. Thomas Merton encouraged the spiritually inclined to have contempt for the earthly moment, but not to the degree that our fellow man is left to burn; rather, that he can be shown how better things are possible, first within and then without.
Like Merton, and I suppose Rexroth as well, I know full well contempt for the present moment is no answer. Loving Genji for being the culmination of something that now seems forever lost and forever once again unattainable is the highest of aesthetics, the most refined way one can hold the present moment in contempt. It is also unsustainable, in the sense that it forces us to live with not just one eye but both of them turned behind us. It trains us to ignore — to hold in contempt — whatever present or future Murasaki is just now setting down a line, unknown to use because we aren't equipped to see it.
Genji might well help us shed light on such a new thing, or understand how it too stems ineluctably from its moment in time. But it cannot tell us how to bring it about. It is not a model for what might yet come, for that truly new thing always comes on its own terms. If Genji can help, it is by being so removed from all that we have right here and now in its general conceits, and yet at the same time so humanly familiar in its specifics, that it teaches us by proxy how to see what's new — a step we have to take entirely on our own.
None of this stops me from casting an eye back at Genji, at Don Quixote, at The Dream Of The Red Chamber, and marveling at how they existed not only because of what they were surrounded by, but in spite of it all. But I think about the latter part of that formula a lot more now than I do the former. And then I try to think about how what's around me right now deserves better.
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