Doris G. Bargen. Mapping Courtship and Kinship in Classical Japan: "The Tale of Genji" and Its Predecessors. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015. xix + 372 pp. + 8 unnumbered pp. of plates. $59.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-5154-5.
Reviewed by Keller Kimbrough (University of Colorado)
Published on H-Asia (March, 2017)
Commissioned by Douglas Slaymaker (University of Kentucky)
Doris Bargen has dedicated much of her career to the study of Murasaki Shikibu’s early eleventh-century Tale of Genji. Bargen’s first book, A Woman’s Weapon: Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji (1997), has become a classic in English-language scholarship on the Tale. Her second book, Suicidal Honor: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki (2006), pulled her into the twentieth century for a while, but with her Mapping Courtship and Kinship in Classical Japan, Bargen is back in the Heian court probing the rich and disturbing world of Murasaki Shikibu’s imagination.
Bargen’s new book arrives amid a flurry of activity on The Tale of Genji. In 2008 Haruo Shirane published an edited volume of essays titled Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production, followed in 2013 and 2014 by Michael Emmerich’s The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature and Royall Tyler’s self-published A Reading of The Tale of Genji. Then, in 2015, the year of Bargen’s monograph, Dennis Washburn published his new translation of The Tale of Genji, and Thomas Harper and Haruo Shirane released their monumental collection of premodern criticism and apocrypha titled Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millenium. For English-language readers of the Tale, the last decade has been a bountiful one.
In Mapping Courtship and Kinship in Classical Japan, Bargen explores what she describes as “the spatial dimensions of courtship outside as well as inside the residential complex” (p. xii) as a way to examine The Tale of Genji as “a mainly political narrative,” rather than “a mainly psychological narrative” (p. 2)––the latter being the approach that she took in her first book on the Tale. Unlike Shirane’s Envisioning The Tale of Genji, Emmerich’s The Tale of Genji, and Harper and Shirane’s Reading The Tale of Genji, all of which are principally concerned with reception history, Bargen’s book (in its third and most substantial part, at least) tends to focus on the internal world of the Tale itself, making it a very different kind of monograph. The work is highly sophisticated, thoroughly researched, and extremely well written. It is largely free of jargon, but it is seemingly written for specialists insofar as it often includes passages of transcribed Japanese to supplement its discussions of the text (e.g., on pages 165 and 191). Bargen’s arguments reflect the deep thought that she has given to the Tale over the years, and her conclusions are both strikingly original, and, in some cases, profoundly insightful. Like her first book on the trope of spirit possession in The Tale of Genji, this one seems destined to become a classic in the field of English-language Genji studies.
Bargen’s volume is divided into three parts of two, two, and four chapters each, preceded by a five-page preface and a seven-page introduction. In part 1, “Matching Courtship and Kinship,” Bargen establishes the physical and conceptual bases for “mapping courtship and kinship in the writings of mid-Heian Japan” (p. xiii). She focuses on actual physical space––the geography of the Heian capital and the architectural characteristics of its nobles’ residences––as a backdrop to her discussions of the sociohistorical dimensions of the polygynous marital system. For Bargen, “courtship was influenced as much by the architectural design of Heian-kyō’s palaces and domestic residences as it was by the spatial configuration of the city” (p. 16). In a particularly engaging section of chapter 1 titled “Sei Shōnagon at Empress Teishi’s Court,” Bargen draws on The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi) to elucidate Heian courtship conventions in the architectural space of the palace; in another section titled “Residential Architecture (shinden-zukuri),” she does the same for the private compounds of Heian nobles.
In part 2, “The Gap in the Fence: Courtship before The Tale of Genji,” Bargen explores the dynamics of what she calls “the courtship practice” (p. 6) of kaimami (stolen glimpses, through or around a visual barrier, of a typically female object of attraction) in a variety of works from before or near the time of The Tale of Genji, including The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori monogatari), The Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari), The Sumiyoshi Tale (Sumiyoshi monogatari), The Pillow Book, and many more. Bargen takes a particular interest in The Sumiyoshi Tale, explaining that it is noteworthy “not only for its unusual kaimami but also for the amazingly detailed descriptions of the characters’ movements in space, be it within residential complexes, in the countryside, or on journeys between the capital and Sumiyoshi on the sea” (p. 80). The first of the two chapters in part 2 is only a little over six pages long, but the second is more substantial, at twenty-five. Nevertheless, part 2 comprises only approximately an eighth of the book as a whole, and like part 1, it seems to function largely to lay the groundwork for the final four chapters.
Part 3, “The Genealogical Maze: Courtship in The Tale of Genji,” from page 89 to 246, constitutes the core of Bargen’s book. In this section Bargen examines “interrelated instances of courtship in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji,” considering what “the mapping of these episodes across the generations (time) and the capital and beyond (space) reveal about courtship as an exploration of the self, its genealogy, and its positioning in the social hierarchy of the court aristocracy” (p. 7). Bargen investigates the political side of courtship and its rituals in the Tale by elucidating what she calls the “genealogical maze”: a complicated authorial construct “at the center of which is the prize of imperial rule” (p. 249), to which many of the characters in the Tale competitively and instinctively aspire. Bargen’s readings of the ways in which particular characters engage in both sanctioned and illicit courtship activities in their navigation of this sociopolitical labyrinth has fascinating implications for our understanding of the Tale. For example, in discussing Genji’s unhappy liaison with the Rokujō Haven, Bargen explains that Rokujō “is, like Genji, irreversibly frustrated in her hopes of ascending the throne because of the premature and unnarrated death of her husband, Crown Prince Zenbō. In genealogical terms, the union between Genji and Rokujō miyasudokoro is unproductive since it cannot realize their imperial ambition but is, instead, a constant reminder of something irretrievably lost” (p. 252). Conversely, Genji’s liaisons with Fujitsubo and the Akashi Lady, among others, allow Genji to prove himself “a true imperial heir, someone who surveys the realm like an emperor of old and seizes it vicariously, through fathering children who have a chance at the imperial throne that is denied to Genji himself” (p. 137). For Bargen, the most tragic figures may be Kaoru and Ukifune, who, “bearing the heavy load of their parents’ transgressions,” can be seen to “wander cluelessly through the genealogical maze” (p. 241).
One of the more interesting yet problematic aspects of Bargen’s analysis of Heian-period marriage politics in The Tale of Genji and its literary predecessors is her use of an especially broad, culturally comparative approach. For example, Bargen compares “the nobility of the Heian capital” to “intermarried European royalty of the premodern era” (p. 4); female sequestration in the Heian palace compound to similar practices in the harems of Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India (pp. 21-25); the domestic interior spaces of Algerian Kabyle houses to those of Heian courtly residences (p. 38); the veils of Heian noblewomen to the burkas of Bedouin society (p. 42); and young Murasaki’s plight in the “Wakamurasaki” chapter to that of “girls between the ages of five and puberty in classical Greece” (p. 150). The comparisons can be jarring, and although they may function to situate Heian social mores within a wider world of human social history, their relevance is often unclear, and they may do more to distract the reader than to shed additional light.
Mapping Courtship and Kinship in Classical Japan contains numerous maps and genealogical charts, as well as an eight-page color insert that includes eleven plates reproducing photographs and painted images of architectural models and scenes from the Tale. At first glance, the color insert is a lovely addition to the book. Yet, strangely, Bargen discusses few of the images that she employs. For example, although she mentions her first plate––an early Edo-period painting of Genji’s horseback visit to the Akashi Lady in the “Akashi” chapter––at the top of page 5, she has nothing in particular to say about it there or anywhere else that I could see. Likewise, on page 147, Bargen refers to plate 8––a seventeenth-century Kanō School painting of Genji staring through a hedge at young Murasaki––without discussing it at all. Nevertheless, Bargen frequently considers images in the course of her disquisitions––just not the ones that she includes in her book. For example, on page 148 Bargen discusses a sixteenth-century painting by Keifukuin Gyokuei in the Spencer Collection of the New York Public Library, from which she certainly could have received permission to reproduce the image. Likewise, on page 160, she discusses album leaves by Tosa Mitsunori in the Burke Collection in New York City and the Nezu Art Museum in Tokyo, both of which readily grant reproduction rights to those who seek them. Bargen’s reasons for including images that she does not discuss, and for excluding images that she does, are a mystery.
These relatively minor quibbles aside, Bargen’s Mapping Courtship and Kinship in Classical Japan is a very fine book. Bargen seems to engage in a running conversation with other Genji scholars, including Norma Field, Haruo Shirane, Royall Tyler, Richard Okada, Mitani Kuniaki, Aileen Gatten, Lewis Cook, and numerous others, whose works and ideas she cites, discusses, and in some cases contests. As a result, reading Bargen’s book feels somewhat like reading a selective history of modern Genji scholarship. Whether in A Woman’s Weapon or the present volume, Bargen is at her best when she is ruminating on the psychological complexities and mixed motivations of individual characters in the Tale. The empathy that she demonstrates for those characters (e.g., Kaoru in her discussion on page 241) will likely inspire empathy in her readers, who may never see The Tale of Genji in quite the same way again. Bargen is to be commended for her second great contribution to English-language studies of the Tale.
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Keller Kimbrough. Review of Bargen, Doris G., Mapping Courtship and Kinship in Classical Japan: "The Tale of Genji" and Its Predecessors.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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