- Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair: Body, Woman, and Desire in Medieval Japanese Narratives by Rajyashree Pandey
Rajyashree Pandey's Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair offers a new approach for studying the body in medieval Japanese narratives. The texts she studies range from courtly writings (Genji monogatari and Murasaki shikibu nikki) to setsuwa collections (Hosshinshū, Kankyo no tomo, and Shasekishū) and otogizōshi tales (Izumi shikibu and Jippon ōgi). Though scholars do not typically group these texts together because they represent very different genres, Pandey does so to show that there is no transhistorical or stable category of "woman" across these diverse articulations of female sexuality. Her broadest claim is that we overstate the somatophobia in medieval Japanese literature, assuming incorrectly that Buddhist ideas about negative female biology prevailed in contemporary discourses. The female body, in her view, was a rhetorical topos for depicting Buddhist truths such as the mutability of the world and the spiritual burdens of all living beings. More generally, Pandey argues that the female body had no fixed essence, no underlying meaning behind its appearance, and no ontological status beyond the performative and metaphorical modes that constitute it.
In chapter 1, "Rethinking Body, Woman, Sex, and Agency in Medieval Japanese Narratives," Pandey lays the theoretical groundwork. After a deft survey of embodiment in premodern societies around the world, she turns to medieval Japan, where, she argues, the body was not understood as flesh, bones, or muscle. In keeping with East Asian philosophical traditions, it was seen as a "psychosomatic" entity in [End Page 281] which mental/emotional processes were intertwined (p. 12). The gendered body, in particular, was not simply the sexed body; described in terms such as onna no mi, it meant the "social, psychic, and cultural body" anchored in the particulars of social standing (p. 23). Furthermore, terms like onna (woman) and otoko (man) in the Tale of Genji treat women and men as participants in an amorous drama, as complementary parts rather than as autonomous subjects. These actors perform a gendered script, playing the personae of onna and otoko, always leaving open the possibility of "deviating from the script" (p. 22).
Medieval literary texts frequently cite the idea of "five obstructions," a set of hindrances that disqualify women from salvation while still in their female form. Only by miraculous transformation into a male form could women get deliverance, much like the eight-year-old dragon girl in the "Devadatta" chapter of the Lotus Sutra who sheds her female body before attaining salvation. Pandey argues that the dragon girl is not held back from salvation by her female biology. Echoing Rita Gross and Nancy Schuster, Pandey suggests that she is a figure in a drama about dramatic reversals, her agility in transformation attesting to her already spiritually advanced state. Through her speedy transformation she illustrates how bodily forms or perceived realities are only provisional and can be easily overturned. Pandey thus builds the case that the category of "woman" was merely a conceptual placeholder in Buddhist texts. "Woman" was a topos, a figure of speech to illustrate the hurdles all living beings face in striving for enlightenment.
Pandey is at her best when suggesting how modern concerns about agency are transposed onto premodern texts. The practice of tonsure is conventionally understood as either an empowered act of resistance to patriarchy or a defeatist response to patriarchy's control over women. Suggesting that we abandon the liberal conception of "self-owning individuals" who can resist social norms, she asserts that we should instead see tonsure as a tension between worldly attachment and religious striving, as the remaking of the self toward ascetic discipline. Decoupling tonsure from Western liberal ideas of autonomy and freedom, we may see alternative forms of selfhood in literary texts.
In chapter 2, "The Erotics of the Body in the Tale of Genji," Pandey presents her first case study contesting our scholarly preoccupation with the sexed body. As she points out, this classic of love and desire features very little of...