I’ve been interested for quite some time now in the canon, how it is formed, how it evolves and changes, and its impacts upon our world. I think it comes, in large part, from studying Japan, and Okinawa (and, increasingly in the last few months, Hawaii and the Pacific), and developing a sort of anti-Eurocentric perspective, or even agenda – and thus learning to question the Western canon, and the supposedly universal value assessments upon which it is based. There is a widespread popular belief, I think, that the most famous works, the most well-known works, have achieved that status because they deserve it – because they are genuinely, inherently, of superior quality in some way. And that may well be true for many of these pieces, in one way or another. An art historian expert in the Western canon could likely explain in quite some detail just what it is about Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that make them just so worth elevating. But what the art historian recognizes that I think the average person on the street never questions, is that these works came to be appreciated in this way, for these reasons, at a particular time. Just because something is a classic today does not mean it was always a classic – someone made that decision, that distinction, at a given time, and pushed it forward, pushing it into the canon through exhibition display, critical publication, emulation of style, referencing, or by other means.
In his new book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich argues that this is what happened with the Tale of Genji. People today, both in Japan and around the world, count the Genji among the greatest works of Japanese literature, and at least insofar as it is oft-claimed as the world’s very first novel (and written by a woman, no less!), has gained a place in the canons of world literature, being often touched upon, if however briefly, in survey courses and survey textbooks of world history, global art history, and world literature. It would be easy to believe that the Genji has always held this status, at least within Japan; I have no doubt that a great many people do believe so. And, the great numbers of paintings, poems, and other visual and literary artworks throughout Japanese history that make reference to the Genji would seem to support this. Emmerich, however, argues that the Genji – though perhaps relatively well-known among elites – was not popularly well-known or well-read among the masses until as late as the early 19th century. Where scholars have been for years and years describing the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (“A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji”), an illustrated book published in 1829-1842, as a “parody” of the Genji, making humorous references to the Genji and presenting amusing twists on the interpretation of characters and events in the original text, Emmerich suggests that in fact, for the majority of readers, this was not a twist on a well-known classic, but something brand-new, introducing them to an ancient story of which they were previous unaware – in short, Emmerich claims it was the Inaka Genji, and its popularity, that led to the “original” Tale of Genji attaining the canonical position it holds today.
This, of course, is a radical enough claim already, questioning and asserting a new understanding of the most canonical classical text in the Japanese literary canon. But what I find particularly fascinating are the various concepts he introduces in the process of addressing this subject.
He points out the way we all come to experience, understand, relate to, engage with a given literary or theatrical work differently, because our experiences are mediated by – among other things – different versions, translations, or performances of the work. It’s not mentioned explicitly in the interview, but I am pretty sure that no original manuscripts of the Genji survive today – that means that everyone who has read the Genji in any form in the last few hundred years (or, perhaps, even going back as far as seven, eight, or even nine hundred years ago) has only ever read, at best, a later re-copying. Far more likely, they read some kind of translation or adaptation. Even putting aside manga, anime, TV, and movie forms of the story, which we would all immediately recognize as not being the real thing, relative to those, in comparison to those, we tend to think of whatever translation of it we’ve read – by Royall Tyler, or Arthur Waley, or whomever – as having truly read the Genji. Or, if you’re Japanese (or a reader of Japanese literature), maybe you’ve read it in translation into modern Japanese – Emmerich gets into this, as to how this too is a translation – or maybe you’ve even read it in a modern movable-type transcription of the original phrasing. I’ve actually read one chapter – “Yugao” – in the original grammar. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever read.
But, not only are we experiencing the work through different forms, we’re experiencing it in relation to, in connection to, in reflection of, numerous other impressions we have of the work, based on other media, and on things we’ve heard or read or learned about it. The Genji was everywhere in premodern Japanese art – paintings, poetry, woodblock prints – and today, at least, people learn about it in school, and one can practically guarantee that just about every Japanese knows at least something of the story. Now, I don’t know how much the average Japanese person on the street might be familiar with any of this at all, but speaking for myself, as someone who has never really studied literature at all, I know the Genji through paintings, and through woodblock prints, and through “historical” sites I’ve come across in Kyoto, and this most definitely has impacted my impressions of the Genji. So, in a sense, the work is alive, dynamic, existing in countless variant forms, and ever-evolving; if there can be said to be a true, genuine, original version of the Genji, it is not the only one, and all these others are, in their own way, no less real, for these, and not the original, are the many Genjis that readers (and non-readers) know.
It’s for that reason that Emmerich writes, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” All of these people – people who have read or are otherwise familiar with the Genji – are by the very definition of the category linked by their association with the Genji; but, each is familiar with a different Genji.
As for the rest, I invite you to read the Interview with Michael Emmerich on Critical Margins, and Emmerich’s actual book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, which itself already has begun to exist in multiple forms – the book itself, as it exists on the page, versus the book as it exists in the minds of those who have some (pre)conception of it based on this blog post, or on the interview linked to.
All photos my own.