Tag Archives: nature

A Japanese Literary Masterpiece

The Tale of Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman who served among the royal court in the tenth century Heian period in present day Kyoto. This fascinating tale, the length of Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ David Copperfield combined, is revered as the finest work of Japanese literature and indeed one of the world’s greatest novels. Written in the lyrical style exclusive to Japanese poetics and prose, The Tale Of Genji flows in its original form as uninterrupted poetry. English translation does alter the original with paragraph-breaks and punctuation, yet the tale was so well crafted that the integral feeling of beauty holds forth, delighting and inspiring us.

Murasaki Shikibu, who was brought into the royal court as a girl, wrote her story probably with a brush and ink in the exquisitely painted characters of the syllabary, or alphabet, which had been developed over time as intrinsically Japanese and therefore distinguishable from its derivative Chinese. The Tale of Genji was written at the height of Japanese literary excellence, when artistic brilliance was cherished throughout the country, and women in particular were known to be the greatest writers of poetry and prose. Moreover, to be gifted in poetics was revered as a supreme talent in the royal court and among society at large and remains so today.

Of Japanese poetry, the Japanese poet, Kino Tsurayuki, has said,

The poetry of Japan has its roots in the human heart.

The Tale Of Genji, a masterpiece of poetics, reads as something of a Siddhartha tale; although, Genji, unlike the young Buddha, experiences a number of pivotal romantic relationships on his journey rather than spiritual encounters: Siddhartha, the son of an emperor, chose to leave the sanctuary of the court and follow his own yearning to know the world and all of human suffering first hand. In Genji’s case, his father, the emperor, forces Genji out into the world to save his beloved son from the jealousies and intrigues of the court, where highly contentious political backbiting could, his father believed, kill a spirit of such divine charisma as Genji’s.

In the genre of courtly romance, the extraordinary infuses Genji’s environment even as a commoner living amidst a realm far from the royal court. Beauty and refinement are written into the flowers, trees and things of nature. Coming from a tradition of, not only Buddhism but, firstly, the Shinto religion, in which reverence for feminine nature-deities, as the sun, mountains and rivers, Murasaki draws from these nature-tropes to imbue her tale with a subtle, supernatural ambiance. Here, the various relationships of our chivalrous Genji include the poetry, symbolism and quiet eroticism of flowers. Cantillation, or the reading out loud of poems as declarations of love, describes Genji’s character while also exhibiting Murasaki’s rarified art of poetic verse. Genji learns through his adventures the poignancy and anguish of romantic love as well as that of death’s shadow.

The evening sky was serenely beautiful. The flowers below the veranda were withered, the songs of the insects were dying too, and autumn tints were coming over the maples. Looking out upon the scene, which might have been a painting, Ukon thought what a lovely asylum she had found herself. She wanted to avert her eyes at the thought of the house of the ‘evening faces.’ A pigeon called, somewhat discordantly, from a bamboo thicket. Remembering how the same call had frightened the girl in that deserted villa, Genji could see the little figure as if an apparition were there before him.

‘How old was she? She seemed so delicate, because she was not long for this world, I suppose.’

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter entitled Evening Faces. Other chapter titles include: Lavender, The Sacred Tree, Wisteria Leaves, Evening Mist, The Wizard, Beneath the Oak, and The Drake Fly. Within these wilderness motifs, Genji embarks on his romantic adventures. As an Orpheus hero, the prodigy evinces the nobility of his ancestry, knows something of its effects, but disavows any show of rightful hubris.

Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a low ranking nobleman and was recognized as a gifted writer with superior potential and was thereby invited to serve in the salon of a royal consort. Shikibu’s father preferred the education of boys, but he too saw his daughter’s genius and so allowed her to live outside of her home, inside the opulence of courtly-life. It was here, in these most ideal surroundings, for classical education and writing, that a tenth-century Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel.

It has been observed that any English translation of The Tale of Genji loses much of the natural grace of the original, and this may be a metaphor for the Japanese culture at large: we as Westerners are captivated by its charm, find mystery and adoration in it’s artistry; yet, we can perhaps never fully appreciate the essential beauty of its enigmatic language.

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Goddess Season

fog in park

In the short story, “Demeter” by Maile Meloy, the writer draws parallels between a modern-day woman named Demeter and the ancient goddess of the harvest in Greek mythology. “The Rape of Persephone,” one of the most sorrowful tales in mythology, is the story of a young girl torn from her mother, Demeter, by a great, colossal fiend – Pluto, the king of hell. In some of the mythical versions, Persephone is a maiden and in other versions she is a goddess in her own right – the goddess of spring.

As the myth is told, Persephone was picking flowers in a vast, summery field among her friends, when Pluto, the king of the underworld, snatched her up and brought her down to Hades to be his wife and his queen.

Terrified,

In tears, the goddess called her mother, called

Her comrades too, but oftenest her mother;

And, as she’d torn the shoulder of her dress,

The folds slipped down and out the flowers fell,

And she, in innocent simplicity,

Grieved in her girlish heart for their loss too.*

The myth, while portraying Pluto as a monster, also allows for the fact that Venus, the goddess of love, had arranged for the coupling by instructing Cupid to shoot Pluto in the heart with an arrow that had Persephone’s name on it.

Meloy’s short story brilliantly translates the sorrow of the Persephone myth into an everyday tale of relationships and divorce, linking the modern world to the myth of antiquity. Here, Demeter’s daughter, Perry is fourteen, perhaps a couple of years older than her mythological counterpart. And her real name is Elizabeth, an intimation of the name-confusion in the Roman vs. the Greek. For example, Persephone and Demeter in the Greek version are named Proserpine and Ceres in the Roman.

As a somewhat sporty, straight-forward and logical girl, Perry hardly mimics the nature-loving, flower child who, rather anemic, rises from the dead every spring, like Persephone – and Perry is spared from actually being abducted, but she fits well into the narrative of a young girl torn between two worlds. In her parents’ divorce-settlement, Perry is to live with her father for half the year and her mother the other half, a harrowing division of the year.

Meloy begins:

When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.** 

This correlation with the annual division of the seasons stands out as the most telling, connecting theme. In Meloy, Perry disappears into her father’s house: The dark interior of the house engulfed her. The screen door slammed shut.

Meloy sprinkles her story generously with such tropes that hearken to the original tale. Perry refuses to eat Demeter’s ultra-healthy, organic food: It’s not real food! I will not eat millet! she shouts – a nod to Persephone’s seven pomegranate seeds. Perry’s parents, Demeter and Hank, are at opposite extremes, just as the goddess of grain, who gives life and vitality to the earth vs. the king of hell, who lives in a dark, cold land underground.

mv stream

Hank is a scuba diver, and though he is not really a hateful character, death clings to his preoccupation with the extreme. The premise of plunging underwater or swimming works well in Meloy as both symbols of death and transformation – two key ideas that fill the Greek myths.

While Hank’s scuba diving conjures death in Meloy’s story; for instance, their friend, Duncan – Demeter’s lover – drowns on a scuba diving expedition lead by Hank, conversely, Meloy uses swimming as a platform for transformation and healing with Demeter. Just as Arethusa transformed into a beautiful, streaming pool in Ovid, the modern Demeter transforms as she swims in the local swimming pool:

It was her favorite moment of swimming, the passage from dry to wet, her skin shedding tiny bubbles of air as she kicked. It felt as if the world were washing off her. She was starting over, newborn.**

Among many brilliant references to the gods, the celestial-constellations, lightening bolts and “thundersnow,” Meloy supplies her Demeter with plenty of similarities to the character of Demeter in the ancient myth. Both women are the quintessential earth mother; one can imagine each of them cultivating the earth, barefoot – long, wavy hair billowing in the flower-scented air. At her most subtle and brilliant moments, Meloy brings the two together in spirit:

As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Demeter had stopped smoking pot. She started meeting the black-coated Hutterites in their truck to buy chickens and eggs. She bought vegetables at the farmers’ market from the Hmong refugees, who coaxed green shoots from the ground so much earlier in the year than anyone else. She ordered milk from the dairy and made baked eggs and cream with Hmong chives. She didn’t worry about getting fat – she was supposed to get fat.** 

The goddess Demeter can be inserted into this scenario of natural, culinary, food preparation with these nomadic, pastoral peoples. As well, both Demeters bear powerful feelings and emotions: the tormented, inner thoughts of the modern Demeter often match the violent responses of the sometimes angry, ancient mother-goddess.  And, of course, they both suffer with the tragedy of separation – the consequence of their unbreakable ties to a young daughter.

Meloy’s story is a tale of grief and loss, just as sorrowful as the original mythological tale. Demeter’s feelings emerge in waves over the separation with Perry as much as for the death of Duncan. And the writer brings us ever closer to Demeter’s loss, by degrees, to the culminating moment in the pool when Demeter tries to imagine, while swimming, what Duncan may have felt as he drowned. Then, the whole universe seems to react to Demeter’s slight flirtation with drowning. Annie, the lifeguard who also happens to be Duncan’s eighteen-year-old daughter by his marriage, becomes the sentry amidst all of nature’s omnipresence – blowing her whistle and clamoring down the ladder.

pool storm

And as in the Greek, Meloy ends with a measure of justice – but with an almost joyful portion of hope. Scenes in which Demeter frolics in the snow with the teenagers, after the summer snowstorm of mythic proportions, symbolize a christening or a blessing of eternal hope – perhaps even Duncan’s blessing. The complications and challenges within a lifetime have brought Demeter to middle age, yet Annie represents the next generation, and she does so with a sense of anticipation. Annie includes and accepts Demeter where Perry, her own daughter, had always shunned and marginalized. Yet, Annie also lightly ridicules her own mother – such is the way of mother/daughter relationships in the modern world.

Meloy renders a beautiful ending worthy of the goddess who promotes the continuation of all life. Whether you are a mother, a daughter, and/or a lover of mythology, you will love and appreciate this story.

* Metamorphoses by Ovid, Translated by A.D. Melville.  Book V, The Rape of Proserpine.

** “Demeter,” by Maile Meloy, appeared in The New Yorker, November 19th, 2012.

The Hero, Perseus

The Goddess Athena Alongside Him

Ovid begins the story of Perseus roaming the “balmy skies,” high among constellations, holding up the severed head of Medusa. The Gorgon’s head is dripping blood so that when each drop falls to earth the blood transforms into snakes, thus populating the land with Medusa’s curse. It isn’t Perseus’s intent to propagate deadly serpents on random islands, but the viperous Gorgon, Medusa, is nearly as dangerous dead as she was alive.

Also, Perseus has his mind on other things. Now that he’s done the job of killing the Gorgon, he must bring her head back to the king, who wanted nothing more than to own Medusa’s head. But actually, the king has sent Perseus on a dangerous mission for the single purpose of getting rid of him.

Ovid’s myth, which he knew from the Greek tales, is told with epic imagery and lots of dramatic landscapes, mindlessly-homicidal monsters and shape-shifting gods. The lines are poetic and flowing – penned in elegiac couplets:

“Thence through the firmament the warring winds propelled him like a rain-cloud back and forth.
From heaven’s height he gazed down on the lands
Far, far below and flew the whole world over.”

Perseus, the son of Zeus, flies with winged shoes and carries an invisible wallet, (not a wallet for holding money but a “wallet” in which to drop Medusa’s cutt off head,) and he wears an invisibility cap and magic sword. All of these magical items, Perseus obtains from the nymphs, those divine creatures that frequent rivers and forests and often favor young men like Perseus. In this case, the god, Hermes, and the goddess, Athena, also favor Perseus, as they assist him in the job of defeating Medusa. Perseus has to sever the head while not looking directly at Medusa, for to do so would turn him into stone. This is how powerful one look from Medusa would be. So the goddess, Athena, lends Perseus her breast-shield to use as a mirror in which to peer instead of looking at the Gorgon directly.

The Greek gods, like Hermes and Athena, are often depicted as being unpredictable, unavailable, or even vengeful, but when the gods are on your side, you cannot lose! As a reward, Perseus obtains Pegasus, the winged horse, finally a non-threatening animal, who springs up from Medusa’s blood.

Once he has the Gorgon’s head in hand, Perseus is on his own, but he is tired and needs a rest. This is when he comes upon, the giant, Atlas, something of a gentle giant, of whom Perseus asks the favor of lodging for the night. Plot-turns such as these seem a bit out of context: why would a hero with the powers to fly around the world as fast as Superman need to ask for a place to sleep? But, this is how the tales were formed, and Ovid was the best at interpreting and enhancing details for the sake of posterity as well as poetry!

The giant, Atlas, refuses Perseus because of something the giant heard about Zeus’s son from an oracle. Perseus tries politely to entreat the giant again, but Atlas still says no, so Perseus makes use of Medusa’s head and, turning his gaze away, transforms Atlas into a mountain with trees, cliffs, stones…

And on his shoulders rested the whole vault
Of heaven with all the innumerable stars.

In Ovid, nature is an intrinsic part of the story. The Greeks were unfathomably close to nature: forests, rivers, seas, the sky and even the winds are beautifully personified. Thus, the ancient narrative has a lingering quality that urges us to read on to the next mythic adventure.

Next post: Perseus and Andromeda

Excerpts: Book 4 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by A.D. Melville. This includes all 15 “books” and over 100 myths.