Sunday Salon: Self-Indulgence
I told Hodmandod Senior that this year I wished to forgo my usual chocolate-rich diet for Easter, and instead indulge in a single Cadbury creme egg. Hodmandod Senior obviously only heard the part of the message because although he did indeed buy me a creme egg,
it unfortunately came with a clutch of others, and also the Tyranosaurus-rex-sized one pictured at the top of this post. No doubt I shall be eating these all by myself later while I finish few pages I have left of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, because, alas, I have no self-control when it comes to chocolate or reading.
There seems to be a similar lack of self-control in the court of eleventh century Japan. It was, undoubtedly, a magnificent but claustrophobic place, and the people there, especially the main character, Genji, had no self-control whatsoever. In each chapter he becomes romantically involved with a different woman. The oldest is fifty-eight and the youngest is a child of eight - although he does have enough restraint to realise he needs to wait awhile to 'have his way' with the eight year old. These days I think he might be labelled a sex addict, and in some ways he is a victim, because his behaviour is certainly manipulated by women who know of his vice.
The court of eleventh century Japan was completely isolated from the majority of the population which provided them with the day-to-day essentials like food, fuel and clothing. It reminded me of end -of-the siecle places like eighteenth century France, early twentieth century Russia and fifth century BC Greece. It is luxurious and self-indulgent, and yet also in a state of decay. There is a hierarchy, and position and associated etiquette is of huge importance. The people were judged almost entirely on appearance, with prowess in the Arts, notably ability to choose and quote snatches of poetry in conversation, also taken into account. Men and women of the court were expected to play musical instruments, write in an elegant manner (in terms of both content and physical style), and also, if male, dance. I found a snatch of solo Heian style dancing here, on YouTube.
There is a scene in the novel where Genji dances so beautifully that the whole court weeps.
The people become inward looking, precious and produce great works, but there is also a sense that it will not last. The princess of high rank has old-fashioned faded clothes for example, and several characters live in houses that are starting to fall apart. As I read I kept waiting for the revolution. The people are witty, and their motives are astutely analysed. At first I found my progress a little slow, but now I am almost finished I find I would not only like to read the rest of the six volumes which make up this book, but also a couple of other accounts (The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina) so I have ordered those too. I have also discovered there is a well-known book dealing with the cultural context of the novels and biographies, The World of the the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris, so that went in the shopping basket as well. No doubt I am being side-tracked again, and being a little Heianian self-indulgent too. But a little investigation revealed to me that this era and court also fascinated Virginia Woolf, so at least I am in good company.