The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 17

a Picture Contest

Fujitsubo was most eager that Akikonomu, the former high priestess of Ise, be received at court. Genji knew that Akikonomu had no strong and reliable backer but, not wanting to alienate the Suzaku emperor, had decided not to bring her to Nijō. Making every effort to appear withdrawn and impartial, he took general responsibility for the proceedings and stood in the place of the girl’s father.

The Suzaku emperor knew of course that it would not do to write to her of his disappointment. On the day of her presentation at court he sent magnificent robes and other gifts as well, wonderfully wrought cases and vanity chests and incense coffers, and incomparable incenses and sachets, so remarkable that they could be detected even beyond the legendary hundred paces. It may have been that the very special attention he gave to his gifts had to do with the fact that Genji would see them.

Akikonomu’s lady of honor showed them to Genji. He took up a comb box of the most remarkable workmanship, endlessly fascinating in its detail. Among the rosettes on the box of decorative combs was a poem in the Suzaku emperor’s own hand:

“I gave you combs and sent you far away.

The god now sends me far away from you?”

Genji almost felt as if he were guilty of sacrilege and blasphemy. From his own way of letting his emotions run wild, he could imagine Suzaku’s feelings when the priestess had departed for Ise, and his disappointment when, after years of waiting, she had returned to the city and everything had seemed in order, and this new obstacle had intervened. Would bitterness and resentment mar the serenity of his retirement? Genji knew that he himself would have been very much upset indeed. And it was he who had brought Akikonomu to the new emperor at the cost of hurting the retired emperor. There had been a time, of course, when he had felt bitter and angry at Suzaku; but he had known through it all that his brother was of a gentle, sensitive nature. He sat lost in thought.

“And how does she mean to answer? Have there been other letters? What have they said?”

But the lady of honor showed no disposition to let him see them.

Akikonomu was not feeling well and would have preferred not to answer.

“But you must, my lady.” Genji could hear the discussion through blinds and curtains. “You know that you owe him a little respect.”

“They are quite right,” said Genji. “It will not do at all. You must let him have something, if only a line or two.”

Though the inclination not to answer was very strong, Akikonomu remembered her departure for Ise. Gently, softly handsome, the emperor had wept that she must leave. Though only a child, she had been deeply touched. And she remembered her dead mother, then and on other occasions. This (and only this?) was the poem which she nally set down:

“Long ago, one word you said: Away!

Sorry now am I that I paid no heed.”

She rewarded Suzaku’s messenger lavishly. Genji would have liked to see her reply, but could hardly say so. He was genuinely troubled. Suzaku was so handsome a man that one could imagine falling in love with him were he a woman, and Akikonomu was by no means an ill match for him. Indeed they would have been a perfect couple. And the present emperor was still a boy. Genji wondered whether Akikonomu herself might not feel uneasy at so incongruous a match. But it was too late now to halt the proceedings.

He gave careful instructions to the superintendent of palace repairs. Not wishing the Suzaku emperor to think that he was managing the girl’s affairs, he paid only a brief courtesy call upon her arrival at court. She had always been surrounded by gifted and accomplished women, and now that the ones who had gone home were back with her she had easily the finest retinue at court. Genji thought of the Rokujō lady, her dead mother. With what feelings of pride would she now be overseeing her daughter’s affairs! He would have thought her death a great loss even if he had not loved her. She had had few rivals. Her tastes had been genuinely superior, and she was much in his thoughts these days.

Fujitsubo was also at court. The emperor had heard that a fine new lady had arrived, and his eagerness was most charming.

“Yes, she is splendid,” said his mother. “You must be on your best behavior when you meet her.”

He feared that a lady of such advanced years might not be easy to talk to. It was late in the night when she made her appearance. She was small and delicately molded, and she seemed quiet and very much in control of herself, and in general made a very good impression on the emperor. His favorite companion was Tō no Chūjō‘s little daughter, who occupied the Kokiden apartments. The new arrival, so calm and self-possessed, did make him feel on the defensive, and then Genji behaved towards her with such solemnity that the emperor was lured into rather solemn devoirs. Though he distributed his nights impartially between the two ladies, he preferred the Kokiden apartments for diurnal amusements. Tō no Chūjō had ambitious plans for his daughter and was worried about this new competitor.

The Suzaku emperor had difficulty resigning himself to what had happened. Genji came calling one day and they had a long and affectionate talk. The Suzaku emperor, who had more than once spoken to Genji of the priestess’s departure for Ise, mentioned it again, though somewhat circum- spectly. Genji gave no open indication that he knew what had happened, but he did discuss it in a manner which he hoped would elicit further remarks from his brother. It was clear that the Suzaku emperor had not ceased to love the girl, and Genji was very sorry for him indeed. He knew and regretted that he could not see for himself the beauty which seemed to have such a powerful effect upon everyone who did see it. Akikonomu permitted not the briefest glimpse. And so of course he was fascinated. He saw enough to convince him that she must be very near perfection.

The emperor had two ladies and there was no room for a third. Prince Hyōbu’s plans for sending his daughter to court had foundered. He could only hope that as the emperor grew older he would be in a more receptive mood.

The emperor loved art more than anything else. He loved to look at paintings and he painted beautifully. Akikonomu was also an accomplished artist. He went more and more frequently to her apartments, where the two of them would paint for each other. His favorites among the young courtiers were painters and students of painting. It delighted him to watch this new lady, so beautiful and so elegant, casually sketching a scene, now and again pulling back to think the matter over. He liked her much better now.

Tō no Chūjō kept himself well informed. A man of affairs who had strong competitive instincts, he was determined not to lose this competition. He assembled master painters and he told them exactly what he wanted, and gave them the best materials to work with. Of the opinion that illustrations for the works of established authors could always be counted on, he chose his favorites and set his painters to illustrating them. He also commissioned paintings of the seasons and showed considerable flair with the captions. The emperor liked them all and wanted to share his pleasure with Akikonomu; but Tō no Chūjō objected. The paintings were not to leave the Kokiden apartments.

Genji smiled. “He was that way when he was a boy, and in many ways he still is a boy. I do not think it a very deft way to manage His Majesty. I’ll send off my whole collection and let him do with it as he pleases.”

All the chests and bookcases at Nijō were ransacked for old paintings and new, and Genji and Murasaki sorted out the ones that best suited current fancies. There were interesting and moving pictures of those sad Chinese ladies Yang Kuei-fei and Wang Chao-chün. Genji feared, however, that the subjects were inauspicious.

Thinking this a good occasion to show them to Murasaki, he took out the sketchbooks and journals of his exile. Any moderately sensitive lady would have found tears coming to her eyes. For Murasaki those days had been unrelieved pain, not easily forgotten. Why, she asked, had he not let her see them before?

“Better to see these strands where the fishermen dwell

Than far away to weep, all, all alone.

“I think the uncertainty might have been less cruel.”

It was true.

“Now more than in those painful days I weep

As tracings of them bring them back to me.”

He must let Fujitsubo see them. Choosing the more presentable scrolls, the ones in which life upon those shores came forward most vividly, he could almost feel that he was back at Akashi once more.

Hearing of Genji’s activities, Tō no Chūjō redoubled his own efforts. He quite outdid himself with all the accessories, spindles and mountings and cords and the like. It was now the middle of the Third Month, a time of soft, delicious air, when everyone somehow seemed happy and at peace. It was also a quiet time at court, when people had leisure for these avocations. Tō no Chūjō saw a chance to bring the young emperor to new raptures. He would offer his collection for the royal review.

Both in the Kokiden apartments and in Akikonomu’s Plum Pavilion there were paintings in endless variety. Illustrations for old romances seemed to interest both painter and viewer. Akikonomu rather preferred secure and established classics, while the Kokiden girl chose the romances that were the rage of the day. To the casual observer it might have seemed perhaps that her collection was the brighter and the more stylish. Connoisseurs among the court ladies had made the appraisal of art their principal work.

Fujitsubo was among them. She had had no trouble giving up most pleasures, but a fondness for art had refused to be shaken off. Listening to the aesthetic debates, she hit upon an idea: the ladies must divide into two sides.

On the left was the Plum Pavilion or Akikonomu faction, led by Heinaishinosuke, Jijū no Naishi, and Shōshō no Myōbu; and in the right or Kokiden faction, Daini no Naishinosuke, Chūjō no Myōbu, and Hyōe no Myōbu. Fujitsubo listened with great interest as each gave forth with her opinions.

The first match was between an illustration for The Bamboo Cutter, the ancestor of all romances, and a scene centering upon Toshikage from The Tale of the Hollow Tree.

From the left came this view: “The story has been with us for a very long time, as familiar as the bamboo growing before us, joint upon joint. There is not much in it that is likely to take us by surprise. Yet the moon princess did avoid sullying herself with the affairs of this world, and her proud fate took her back to the far heavens; and so perhaps we must accept something august and godly in it, far beyond the reach of silly, superficial women.”

And this from the right: “It may be as you say, that she returned to a realm beyond our sight and so beyond our understanding. But this too must be said: that in our world she lived in a stalk of bamboo, which fact suggests rather dubious lineage. She exuded a radiance, we are told, which flooded her stepfather’s house with light; but what is that to the light which suffuses these many-fenced halls and pavilions? Lord Abe threw away a thousand pieces of gold and another thousand in a desperate at mpt to purchase the fire rat’s skin, and in an instant it was up in flames — a rather disappointing conclusion. Nor is it very edifying, really, that Prince Kuramochi, who should have known how well informed the princess was in these matters, should have forged a jeweled branch and so made of himself a forgery too.”

The Bamboo Cutter illustration, by Kose no Omi with a caption by Ki no Tsurayuki, was mounted on cerise and had a spindle of sandalwood — rather uninteresring, ill in all.

“Now let us look at the other. Toshikage was battered by tempests and waves and swept off to foreign parts, but he finally came home, whence his musical activities sent his fame back across the waters and down through the centuries. This painting successfully blends the Chinese and the Japanese and the new and the old, and I say that it is without rival.”

On stiff white paper with a blue mounting and a spindle of yellow jade, it was the work of Tsunenori and bore a caption by Michikaze. The effect was dazzlingly modern. The left had to admit defeat.

The Tales of Ise was pitted against The Tale of Jōsammi. No decision was forthcoming. The picture offered by the right was again a bright, lively painting of contemporary life with much, including details of the palace itself, to recommend it.

“Shall we forget how deep is the sea of Ise

Because the waves have washed away old tracks?”

It was Heinaishinosuke, pleading the cause of the left, though without great fire or eloquence. “Are the grand accomplishments of Lord Narihira to be dwarfed by a little love story done with a certain cleverness and plausibility?”

“To this Jōsammi, high above august clouds,

The thousand-fathomed sea seems very shallow.”

It was Daini, speaking for the right.

Fujitsubo offered an opinion. “However one may admire the proud spirit of Lady Hyōe, one certainly would not wish to malign Lord Narihira.

“At first the strands of sea grass may seem old,

But the fisherfolk of Ise are with us yet.”

And so poem answered poem in an endless feminine dispute. The younger and less practiced women hung upon the debate as if for their very lives; but security precautions had been elaborate, and they were permitted to see only the smallest part of the riches.

Genji stopped by and was much diverted. If it was all the same, he said, why not make the final judgments in the emperor’s presence? He had had a royal inspection in mind from the start, and so had taken very great pains with his selections, which included a scroll of his own Suma and of his Akashi paintings. Nor was Tō no Chūjō to be given low marks for effort. The thief business at court these days had become the collecting of evocative paintings.

“I think it spoils the fun to have them painted specially,” said Genji. “I think we should limit ourselves to the ones we have had all along.”

He was of course referring to Tō no Chūjō and his secret studio.

The Suzaku emperor heard of the stir and gave Akikonomu paintings of his own, among them representations of court festivals for which the emperor Daigo had done the captions; and on a scroll depicting events from his own reign was the scene, for him unforgettable, of Akikonomu’s departure for Ise. He himself had carefully gone over the sketches, and the finished painting, by Kose no Kimmochi, quite lived up to his hopes. It was in a box, completely modern, of pierced aloeswood with rosettes that quietly enhanced its beauty. He sent a verbal message through a guards captain on special assignment to Suzaku, setting down only this verse, beside a painting of the solemn arrival at the Grand Hall:

“Though now I dwell beyond the sacred confines,

My heart is there committing you to the gods.”

It required an answer. Bending a corner of one of the sacred combs, she tied a poem to it and wrapped it in azure Chinese paper:

“Within these sacred precincts all has changed.

Fondly I think of the days when I served the gods.”

She rewarded the messenger very elegantly.

The Suzaku emperor was deeply moved and longed to return to his days on the throne. He was annoyed at Genji, and perhaps was now having a gentle sort of revenge. It would seem that he sent large numbers of pictures through his mother to the Kokiden lady. Oborozukiyo, another fancier of painting, had also put together a distinguished collection.

The day was appointed. The careful casualness of all the details would have done justice to far more leisurely preparations. The royal seat was put out in the ladies’ withdrawing rooms, and the ladies were ranged to the north and south. The seats of the courtiers faced them on the west. The paintings of the left were in boxes of red sandalwood on sappanwood stands with flaring legs. Purple Chinese brocades were spread under the stands, which were covered with delicate lavender Chinese embroidery. Six little girls sat behind them, their robes of red and their jackets of white lined with red, from under which peeped red and lavender. As for the right or Kokiden side, the boxes were of heavy aloes and the stands of lighter aloes. Green Korean brocades covered the stands, and the streamers and the flaring legs were all in the latest style. The little page girls wore green robes and over them white jackets with green linings, and their singlets were of a grayish green lined with yellow. Most solemnly they lined up their treasures. The emperor’s own women were in the uniforms of the two sides.

Genji and Tō no Chūjō were present, upon royal invitation. Prince Hotaru, a man of taste and cultivation and especially a connoisseur of painting, had taken an inconspicuous place among the courtiers. Perhaps Genji had suggested inviting him. It was the emperor’s wish that he act as umpire. He found it almost impossible to hand down decisions. Old masters had painted cycles of the four seasons with uncommon power, fluency, and grace, and a rather wonderful sense of unity; but they sometimes seemed to run out of space, so that the observer was left to imagine the grandeur of nature for himself. Some of the more superficial pictures of our own day, their telling points in the dexterity and ingenuity of the strokes and in a certain impressionism, did not seem markedly their inferior, and sometimes indeed seemed ahead of them in brightness and good spirits. Several interesting points were made in favor of both.

The doors to the breakfast suite, north of the ladies’ withdrawing rooms, had been slid open so that Fujitsubo might observe the proceedings. Having long admired her taste in painting, Genji was hoping that she might be persuaded to give her views. When, though infrequently, he was not entirely satisfied with something Prince Hotaru said and offered an opinion of his own, he had a way of sweeping everything before him.

Evening came, and still Prince Hotaru had not reached a final decision. As its very last offering Akikonomu’s side brought out a scroll depicting life at Suma. Tō no Chūjō was startled. Knowing that the final inning had come, the Kokiden faction too brought out a very remarkable scroll, but there was no describing the sure delicacy with which Genji had quietly set down the moods of those years. The assembly, Prince Hotaru and the rest, fell silent, trying to hold back tears. They had pitied him and thought of themselves as suffering with him; and now they saw how it had really been. They had before their eyes the bleakness of those nameless strands and inlets. Here and there, not so much open description as poetic impressions, were captions in cursive Chinese and Japanese. There was no point now in turning to the painting offered by the right. The Suma scroll had blocked everything else from view. The triumph of the left was complete.

Dawn approached and Genji was vaguely melancholy. As the wine flagons went the rounds he fell into reminiscence.

“I worked very hard at my Chinese studies when I was a boy, so hard that Father seemed to fear I might become a scholar. He thought it might be because scholarship seldom attracts wide acclaim, he said, that he had rarely seen it succeed in combining happiness with long life. In any event, he thought it rather pointless in my case, because people would notice me whether I knew anything or not. He himself undertook to tutor me in pursuits not related to the classics. I don’t suppose I would have been called remarkably inept in any of them, but I did not really excel in any of them either. But there was painting. I was the merest dabbler, and yet there were times when I felt a strange urge to do something really good. Then came my years in the provinces and leisure to examine that remarkable seacoast. All that was wanting was the power to express what I saw and felt, and that is why I have kept my inadequate efforts from you until now. I wonder,” he said, turning to Prince Hotaru, “if my presuming to bring them out might set some sort of precedent for impertinence and conceit.”

“It is true of every art,” said the prince, “that real mastery requires concentrated effort, and it is true too that in every art worth mastering (though of course that word ‘mastering’ contains all manner of degrees and stages) the evidences of effort are apparent in the results. There are two mysterious exceptions, painting and the game of Go, in which natural ability seems to be the only thing that really counts. Modest ability can of course be put to modest use. A rather ordinary person who has neither worked nor studied so very hard can paint a decent picture or play a decent game of Go. Sometimes the best families will suddenly produce someone who seems to do everything well.” He was now speaking to Genji. “Father was tutor for all of us, but I thought he took himself seriously only when you were his pupil. There was poetry, of course, and there was music, the flute and the koto. Painting seemed less study than play, something you let your brush have its way with when poetry had worn you out. And now see the results. See all of our professionals running off and hiding their faces.”

The prince may have been in his cups. In any event, the thought of the old emperor brought a new flood of tears.

A quarter moon having risen, the western sky was silver. Musical instruments were ordered from the royal collection. Tō no Chūjō chose a Japanese koto. Genji was generally thought the finest musician in court, but Tō no Chūjō was well above the ordinary. Genji chose a Chinese koto, as did Prince Hotaru, and Shōshō no Myōbu took up a lute Courtiers with a good sense of rhythm were set to marking time, and all in all it was a very good concert indeed. Faces and flowers emerged dimly in the morning twilight, and birds were singing in a clear sky. Gifts were brought from Fujitsubo’s apartments. The emperor himself bestowed a robe on Prince Hotaru.

Examination and criticism of Genji’s journals had become the main business of the court. He asked that his paintings of the seacoast be given to Fujitsubo. She longed to see what went before and came after, but he said only that he would in due course show her everything. The pleasure which he had given the emperor was pleasure for Genji himself. It worried Tō no Chūjō that Genji should so favor Akikonomu. Was her triumph to be complete? He comforted himself with the thought that the emperor would not have forgotten his own early partiality for the Kokiden girl. Surely she would not be cast aside.

Genji had a strong sense of history and wanted this to be one of the ages when things begin. Very great care therefore went into all the fetes and observances. It was an exciting time.

But he was also obsessed with evanescence. He was determined to withdraw from public affairs when the emperor was a little older. Every precedent told him that men who rise to rank and power beyond their years cannot expect long lives. Now, in this benign reign, perhaps by way of compensation for the years of sorrow and disgrace, Genji had an abun- dance, indeed a plethora, of rank and honor. Further glory could only bring uncertainty. He wanted to withdraw quietly and make preparations for the next life, and so add to his years in this one. He had purchased a quiet tract off in a mountain village and was putting up a chapel and collecting images and scriptures. But first he must see that no mistake was made in educating his children. So it was that his intentions remained in some doubt.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09