That Appears To Be What Is In The Book
It’s no spoiler to say that Murasaki dies two-thirds of the way through The Tale of Genji, and Genji soon after. The events may be compelled by poetic logic, but not by causative order of plot; one law of the novel’s world is that disaster will arrive indifferently, at any time. Sudden illness or possession by baneful spirits descends as summarily as the frequent asides that someone or other had to change residence because their house burned down.
One of many poems recurrent in the characters’ minds is Kokinshū 861, traditionally taken to be Ariwara no Narihira’s death poem:
tsui ni yuku
michi to wa kanete
kinō kyō to wa
Long ago I heard
that this is the road we must all
travel in the end,
but I never thought it might
be yesterday or today.
Donald Keene notes that this last line
presents a problem: would it not have been more natural to say instead “today or tomorrow”? Some scholars suggest that the line actually means “until yesterday I never thought it might be today”; others believe it was merely an elaborate way of saying “right about now.”
To me the line is saying something tragic about hindsight bias. We didn’t expect the unthinkable yesterday, because it was unthinkable, and of course our expectation was borne out. We didn’t expect the unthinkable today, because it was unthinkable.
The life of Genji serves to familiarize us with the world of the Heian court: that steep hierarchy of rank, horror of blunt statement, Buddhist aversion to worldly attachments alongside political intrigue and fathomless hedonism, exchanges conducted through intermediaries and allusive poems, women who never show their faces in daylight but converse through opaque screens and glance over the tops of fans. There’s wonderful opportunity for fiction in all of this; at the same time, Genji is an ideal of style, tact and worldly success, and that perfection bathes his story in otherworldly light, making it seem more distant than time and space would alone. His death clears room for what turns out to be an entirely new novel, wonderful in a starkly different way.
In the last third of Genji we meet two noblemen of the younger generation, both sympathetic in their way but badly flawed compared to their predecessor. The introduction of lesser figures suddenly extends the book into a dimension that we students of the European nineteenth century would think of as novelistic depth. Having familiarized us with its social conditions, it now seems to project a crystallography of that society in the way of Fanny Burney through Henry James; within that structure, we observe characters tracing paths mutually determined by their own flaws and the conflicting imperatives of their world. As in Burney and James, it’s women and the lesser-born who are most in danger; the noblemen certainly suffer, but their sorrows keep within what we might call aesthetic bounds. That is to say, tears wet their sleeves. But it is not they who weep so copiously that “sea folk might well have fished below her pillow,” not they who risk death from grief or shame.
The lesson of Genji as a whole is that everything passes and beauty is woven in that passing. But the specific lesson that the last third of Genji at least entertains, if not endorses, is that the wisest choice would be always to ignore that enchanting knock on the sliding door; and the second wisest, having erred, to shave your head and take the nun’s path out of the world the moment you find someone willing to open the way.