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  • Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji: Philosophical Perspectives ed. by James McMullen
  • Sonja Arntzen (bio)
Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji: Philosophical Perspectives. Edited by James McMullen. Oxford University Press, New York, 2019. xxii, 305 pages. $99.00, cloth; $24.95, paper.

This volume, comprised of eight essays that examine different aspects of Genji monogatari from a "philosophical perspective," is the sixth in a series, "Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature," which ranges from the Oedipus Plays of Sophocles to Franz Kafka's The Trial. In his foreword, the series editor, Richard Eldridge, posits that a rift between philosophy and literature in the Western tradition began as early as Plato when he had Socrates "criticize the poets and attempt to displace Homer as the authoritative [End Page 184] articulator and transmitter of human experience and values" (p. vii). The aim of this series is to repair that rift.

Since this volume is the fourth major work on the Genji to appear in seven years (including the new translation by Dennis Washburn),1 my first reaction was to wonder whether another volume on the tale was needed at this moment. After reading this engaging volume, however, I was inspired to reflect philosophically on the source of that reaction and recognized that such a concern is rooted in the utilitarianism that dominates North American culture. There is no compelling reason for "need" to be an important criterion when judging works of literary reflection. I give a brief overview of the eight essays and then reflect on the scholarly contribution of this volume as a whole.

For the volume's first essay, which is entitled "The Structure of Genji's Career: Myth, Politics, and Pride," Royall Tyler was tasked to provide an outline of the novel. He chose to focus on Genji's political career and to reveal in detail how the plot line of the rivalry between Genji and his elder half-brother Suzaku is underpinned by a myth told in the oldest Japanese chronicles about the rivalry between two brothers: Hikohohodemi, who had the luck of the mountains, and Honosusori, who had the luck of the sea. The result is a thought-provoking analysis of the first 40 chapters of Genji monogatari. As Tyler himself admits, however, it sets "aside most of the work's best known and most admired characters, scenes, and themes" (p. 36). Notably, all the women characters vital to the narrative are sidelined. If the reading focuses on the hero, a clear, linear narrative line can be discerned, but if the reading focuses on the women characters, the structure appears episodic. In the end, this essay confirms Tyler's own assertion, that trying to grasp Genji monogatari as a whole "resembles striving to capture one picture of a landscape that changes with every hour, season, and play of light, as well as with the viewer's own mood and interests" (p. 36).

The second essay, "The Epistemology of Space in The Tale of Genji" by Wiebke Denecke, employs the concept of space to recuperate the importance of the tale's engagement with China "as a geographical, political, social, textual, linguistic, literary, material, and aesthetic presence" (p. 69). She assembles an impressive array of Chinese references in the novel to show how the narrative structures space and how space is known by the characters. Denecke avoids establishing an essential duality between wa [End Page 185] (Japanese) and kan (Chinese) elements. Rather, she emphasizes a playful "'juxtaposition' of variables" along a wa/kan spectrum. In this way, she extends some of the critical territory opened up by Thomas Lamarre's Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensation and Inscription (Duke University Press, 2000). In a daring conclusion, she addresses whether her own essay is "philosophical overkill" and in so doing interrogates the entire project of the present volume and even the series. Drawing an insightful analogy with the Eurocentric resistance to considering the Chinese tradition of "masters literature" as true philosophy, she argues not for "philosophy" in Genji but "philosophicality." It is a stirring polemic.

The third essay, "Ritual, Moral Personhood, and Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji" by volume editor James McMullen, examines...