books


I just read this, by 刘慈欣 Liú Cíxīn, a name almost designed to confuse people who don’t know Chinese. You can get close to it with lyoh tse-sheen. His given name means ‘kind (and) glad’; the surname Liu has no current meaning, but happens to be that of the rulers of the Han dynasty.

I liked the book a lot, though I’m going to have trouble describing it, because it’s written in the form a mystery. So even saying what it’s about is a spoiler. This mystery is initially faced by a nanotech physicist, Wang Miao, and a cop, Shi Qiang. In the near future, they’re called to a strange meeting where they hear about a wave of suicides among top physics researchers. One of the physicists they meet is playing a virtual reality game called Three Body, and that gets Wang playing the game as well. Oh, and the book starts with a sequence set in the Cultural Revolution, focused on a very unlucky physics student, Ye Wenjie.

This sounds rather random and slow, but it’s a whole Chekhov’s armory. Everything ends up being connected and important.

I always skip the testimonials and other stuff that comes before the title page, and now I see that the very first page gives the plot away. But, well, I still won’t. I’ll say, though, that the trilogy of which this is the first book can be described as space opera.

So the first thing I’d say about the book is that it’s very tightly plotted, though it doesn’t seem so at first. And the second thing is that it’s pretty compelling– once I got going, I kept reading till the end.

It’s pretty interesting to see sf from a non-American perspective. Liu has said that he doesn’t write sf to comment on contemporary society; but he does of course write within it. American sf has tracked the corruption of our own society: classic sf came from a confident, ever-more-prosperous society, and largely projected that into the future; as plutocracy took over, sf plunged into endless dystopias. China has almost the opposite trajectory: two centuries of frustrating oppression, of which the Cultural Revolution was only a  part, and then a burst of dizzying progress. But while the Cultural Revolution lives in current memory, there’s not the same triumphalism of 1950s American sf. (In an interview, Liu mentions that Chinese sf is usually dystopian, and he’s considered an optimist.)

If you’ve read my China Construction Kit, that would be excellent preparation for this book, as you’ll already know some historical figures that show up here. (They’re explained in footnotes, but it’s more fun to recognize them rather than be told.)

I would say, on the whole, that Liu is like classic sf in that he’s more interested in ideas than in people. It’s not that he’s bad with people, or that they seem artificial; but it’s definitely not a character study, and for the most part they are fulfilling roles demanded by the plot. So, Wang is just curious enough to go talk to people and play the Three Body game, and react with the appropriate puzzlement or despair; Shi is the cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done, on loan from every cop movie. It works fine, but Liu obviously has more fun when he gets to talk about string theory or the titular problem in celestial mechanics.

(One bit did seem unconvincing: a description of future technology involving a couple of protons. They seemed a bit overpowered. But it is future tech, which is after all pretty hard to talk about.)

One more thought, which I’ll leave in white to avoid spoilers. Liu makes a case that the existence of aliens would be terrifying news. The book has been compared to War of the Worlds, and it’s notable that both Wells and Liu are well aware of the problem of colonialism. China was a great victim of it; Wells had a guilty conscience about it. Americans, by contrast, barely got into the business of direct colonialism; they’re neither conquerors or conquered, so they’re far more likely to think about aliens as exciting and interesting. 

I finished the Talmud, or rather Norman Solomon’s selections from it, which is less than 10% of the whole thing. But at 800 pages I feel that reading even that is an accomplishment.

Now, all too much of the book reads like this:

If someone bends down to drink, the water that comes up on his mouth or his moustache is ki yuttan, but [that which comes up] in his nose or on his head or beard is not ki yuttan.

Ki yuttan is “if it is put”, from Lev. 31:37-38:

If such a carcass falls upon seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean; but if water is put on the seed and any part of a carcass falls upon it, it shall be unclean for you.

You see, don’t you, that ki yuttan implies that the water got there by human intention, so it’s important to clarify what actions are intentional and what are not. Drinking, your intention is to get water in your mouth but not on your head. Why the moustache but not the rest of the beard is ki yuttan I can’t tell you, presumably because Solomon does not include the gemara in this chapter.

So, it’s fun when the rabbis instead decide to include a comedy routine. This comes in the context of a discussion of first-borns. Rabbi Joshua ben Ħanania goes to Athens to debate the Greek elders in their fortified academy. The Greeks had a rule that if the inner guards see a foot enter,  the outer guards are killed for their negligence; if the outer guards see a foot leaving, the inner guards are killed. Joshua places his shoe down facing the interior, then facing the exterior, so that the elders killed both sets of guards, and he could enter.

He then enters a debate with the elders, where they try to trick him and he one-ups them each time:

Elders: If salt goes bad, what do they salt it with?

Joshua: With the placenta of a mule.

Elders: Does a mule have a placenta?

Joshua: Does salt go bad?

Elders: Build us a house in the air!

Joshua uttered a divine Name and suspended himself between the earth and the sky. Pass me up bricks and mortar! he demanded.

Elders: If a chick inside an egg dies, which way does its spirit emerge?

Joshua: It goes out the way it came in!

And so on, for a page or two. Apparently some scholars did not find the comedy and instead tried to extract deep meanings from the debate.

It’s also interesting to find some bits of weird science.

  • There’s a discussion of “refining gold a thousand times”, so that a thousand measures of gold were reduced to one. Gold is an element and can’t be refined. (An alloy can be refined, though something that was just 0.1% gold would hardly be called an alloy of gold!)
  • It was believed that flies and other creatures spontaneously generate in, say, meat. This was relevant to cleanliness rules. Were they part of the meat, or were they separate, unclean “swarming things”?
  • There’s a discussion of what happens when a cow gives birth to a camel, or vice versa. This was considered rare, but a definite possibility and therefore something to worry about, as cows are kosher but camels are not.
  • The rabbis suggested that the father produces a baby’s bones, sinews, and the whites of its eyes, the mother its flesh, skin, pupils, and hair; and God the spirit and the power of sensation and movement. It’s striking that this white/red division of genetic labor was the same as that posited by the Indians. (India Construction Kit p. 179)

Finally, here’s a taste of gematria. Hebrew doesn’t have separate numerals; rather, each letter has a numerical value as well. This means that every word can be read either as a linguistic sign or as a number, and that invites endless esoteric discussion. Proverbs 8:11 states

I endow those who love me with substance;
I will fill their treasuries.

E.g., ‘substance’ yesh is ישׁ. Now שׁ is 300 and י is 10, so the numerical value of yesh is 310. So Rabbi Joshua ben Levi concluded that “the Holy One will reward every righteous person with 310 worlds.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m reading the Talmud right now. It’s good coronavirus reading since there’s 37 volumes in the 1886 Vilna edition. (I am not reading that edition.  I’m reading a one-volume, 800-page selection, translated by Norman Solomon.)

To get you in the mood, here’s a lovely scholarly putdown from the Talmud:

If you learned [Scripture] you did not review it; if you reviewed it you did not go over it a third time; if you went over it a third time they never explained it to you.

You probably know that for many Jews, lifelong study in a yeshiva is the highest aspiration. What are they studying, the Bible?  Not really– it doesn’t take years to read the Bible. They’re studying the Talmud. Here’s the first page of the Vilna edition:

talmud2

This page has been helpfully color-coded.

  • The pink in the middle is the Mishna (3C)
  • The orange just below it is the gemara (6C), the Babylonian rabbis’ discussion of the Mishna. The pink + orange is the Talmud proper
  • The cyan column to the right is the commentary of Rashi (11C, France)
  • The blue to the left is the commentary of the Tosafists (Rashi’s successors)
  • The yellow is commentary by Nissim ben Jacob (11C)
  • The other colors are cross-references and other helps

And there’s 5500 more pages like that. You can see it’d take awhile to absorb.

So, what is it? Well, the rabbis believed there was an “Oral Torah” which accompanied and explained the written Torah. After the destruction of the Temple in 70, rabbis gathered in yeshivot, first in Yavne near Jerusalem and later in Galilee, to codify the Oral Torah. It was finally written down (edited by Judah ha-Nasi) in the 3C; this is the Mishna.

An example. Exodus gives instructions for Passover: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”

Now, if you want to take this seriously… and, let’s be honest, if you have a pedantic mindset… this raises a lot of questions. First, do you remove the leaven the first day, or the day before that? The Mishna comments:

This [Ex. 12:15] means on the eve of the festival. Or could it mean on the first day of the festival itself?  No, for it is written, “you shall not slaughter my sacrifice with leaven.” ….But Rabbi Aqiva says, This is not necessary. It says “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your house”, and it is written, “No work shall be done on those days”; since burning is a principal category of forbidden work, it is clear that the removal of ħametz [food with leaven] should not take place on the festival day itself.

Now, even this wasn’t considered enough by the rabbis. They kept talking for a few more centuries, both in Palestine and in Babylonia, where there was a large community of Jews safe from Roman persecution (whether pagan or Christian). The result was two Talmuds, though the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud is both more thorough and more authoritative. It was finally written down in the 6C. It took a few more centuries to get to Europe.

Here’s a sampling of the discussion of the above point:

Evidently, [Meir and Judah] both agree that it is forbidden to eat ħametz after the 6th hour [of 14 Nisan, the day before Passover]. On what is this based?

Abbaye said, on two verses. One states, “No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days”, and the other states, “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.” What does this imply? The 14th of Nisan is added to remove ħametz.

…It was taught in the School of Rabbi Ishmael: “We find that the 14th is called first, as it is said, “In the first, on the 14th day of the month.” Rav Naħman bar Isaac said, “First may mean previous, as when Scripture says “Were you the first of men to be born?” [Job 15:7]

Then what about “You shall take for yourselves on the first day”? Can that mean the previous day? That is different, for it continues, “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”; just as the 7th day must be the 7th of the festival, so the 1st day is the first of the festival.

Oh dear, and they’re not done yet. They go on to analyze why “first” has a definite article and what that means, and the use of “first” elsewhere in the Bible. They conclude that indeed you must remove the leaven on the 14th, because burning it on the 15th would be work, which is forbidden. (Which is what the Mishna had already concluded.)

After this there’s a discussion of what to do if there are two houses that are already pure, and a mouse takes a bundle of ħametz, but we don’t know which house it entered. They discuss variations on this for several pages.

Isn’t this faintly ridiculous?  Well, the Talmud isn’t above telling jokes. But it’s a thought experiment, no sillier (and perhaps no more serious) than modern ethicists telling stories about trolleys.

The yeshivot had masters and students, but proceeded by argument and discussion. This is reproduced in both Mishna and Talmud, but it’s an artful editorial creation: the rabbis mentioned lived in different times and centuries. Sometimes the issue is resolved, and sometimes it’s not– Elijah would rule on all the unresolved issues when he came. I like the way that disagreements are recorded– even if a point is resolved, it’s a reminder that things will look different to different sages. It’s evident that the compilers relished a juicy rejoinder or a clever bit of logic.

Linguistic note: the Torah and Mishna are written in Hebrew; the Gemara is written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the time. So you need to know both languages to study the Talmud. (And even so the discussion can be difficult, which is where Rashi is invaluable.)

Now, the rabbis believed that the Mishna might be mistaken, but the Torah itself was inerrant. This led to a good number of problems, which were faced and addressed:

It is written, “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly” (Proverbs 26:4), and it is written “Answer a fool in accord with his folly (26:5). No problem! One verse refers to matters of Torah, the other to worldly things.

That seems like a stretch, but often the rabbis are pretty free with their interpretations… if a verse anywhere in the Tanakh sounds vaguely appropriate they’ll cite it. A particularly freewheeling example: Abba Arika is discussing astrology, and recounts a discussion between Abraham and God. Abraham says (this is not in the Tanakh!) that his horoscope says he won’t have a son. God replies that if Abraham’s belief is based on Jupiter being in the west, he (God) can move Jupiter to the east. The citation is Isaiah 41:2: “Who has roused a victor from the East, summoned him to His service?” Huh?  As it happens, ṣedeq ‘victory’ is also the name for Jupiter!

The Talmud can be charmingly digressive– e.g. a discussion of the Sabbath leads into this discussion of whether astrology is true (the best rabbis say that it doesn’t apply to Jews). In the middle of the discussion of Passover, the rabbis are suddenly insulting “ignoramuses” (those Jews who didn’t take the Law seriously) and discussing the benefits or disadvantages of marrying a priest’s daughter.

Or, there’s this nice story contrasting Shammai and Hillel, teachers in the -1 to 1C:

A heathen presented himself to Shammai saying, Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one leg! Shammai drove him away with the builder’s measure he was holding.

He came to Hillel with the same request, and Hillel accepted him as a convert.He said to him, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you! That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

Now, the statement of the Golden Rule is elevating and all that, but the piquancy comes from Hillel’s evasion of the pagan’s trap (teach the Torah in a few moments), as well as the contrast to the irascible Shammai. (Rabbinic Judaism goes with Hillel in the few instances where they disagree, thus the slightly negative picture of Shammai here.)

I’m reading about the Talmud and about Judaism as research for my book on the ancient Middle East. And really, I’m surprised the Talmud is so little known or studied outside Judaism. For one thing, it’s one of the largest troves of literature from its time… we can only dream of a similarly voluminous text from Babylonia or Egypt. (As I’ve noted before, you can read almost all of ancient Egyptian literature in three short volumes.)

The other thing is undoubtedly Christianity’s uneasy relationship with Judaism. Christians read the “Old Testament” basically with the idea that they can ignore the Law… except on those issues where they can use it to support a prejudice of theirs. (E.g. they carefully read the prohibition on male homosexuality, and ignore the bits on forgiving debts.) The overall result is that Christians are very interested in Jews… up till the lifetime of Paul, and after that not at all, except for the occasional persecution.

And the result of that is that I think most Christians imagine that the Jews “just have the Old Testament”– that their religion is focused on the Tanakh as Christianity is focused on the New Testament. No, there’s this whole Talmud thing too!

(It’s more complicated than that, of course. There were those that rejected the Talmud, such as the Karaites. There’s Kaballah, which adds a whole mystical element. And the chaos of modernity, which was as disruptive to Judaism as it was to literalist Christianity.)

There is one group of non-Jews that study the Talmud. That’s… South Koreans, where study and discussion of (a simplified, translated) Talmud is a big craze.

 

Jeffrey’s book, Langmaker: Celebrating Conlangs, is out!

File photo of Jeffrey conlanging

Well, the print edition has been out for a couple weeks, but the Kindle edition is finally out too. The Kindle Create program was not cooperative. First, it refused to import the base document, so I had to import a plain text version and redo all the formatting. And then the program got slower and slower till it was almost unusable. It’s fine for touchups but not so good for actually formatting your book.

But never mind that, it’s done! Admire the editing, and Jeffrey’s work too! Did I mention how much groovy Fith is?  And the lovingly satirical Tev’Meckian?  And bask in over a thousand conlangs which will make 2005 live for you once again.

Here’s a depressing thought. What if all of British and American literature, in three thousand years, were reduced to this:

  • one book of short stories
  • one book of inspirational poems
  • a couple hundred identical Bible translations
  • some labels from Dr. Bronner’s soap

hunefer

That’s about where we are with Ancient Egyptian. I’ve just read most of it, in two not-too-large books: The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian Poems (tr. R.B. Parkinson, 1997), which focuses on stories, and Ancient Egyptian Readings (tr. Wim van den Dungen, 2018), which focuses on wisdom literature.  That’s in addition to the Book of the Dead.  The one thing I haven’t read is the medical-magical literature. Plus, the two books overlap– e.g. you get the Teachings of Ptahhotep in both.

We’ve probably lost an immense lot. For one thing, almost anything in the Nile Valley itself is permanently lost. Papyrus scrolls don’t like humidity, and what wasn’t buried in Nile silt is rotted. Almost everything we have is what someone took the trouble to store in a tomb up in the desert. Mostly the Book of the Dead, but also a few other scrolls. Some of the pieces in these books, originally written in the Middle Kingdom, at least 3500 years ago, only exist in one or two scrolls. It’s probably completely arbitary what survived and what did not.

The longest piece is a complete translation of the Pyramid Text of King Unas– the texts written in his tomb, around 2300 BCE. As such they may be the oldest religious texts in the world, earlier than the Rigveda and far earlier than the Bible. They’re ancestral to the Book of the Dead, and curiously they’re far easier to understand. They are not as filled with allusions and strange metaphors, and mostly they’re pretty straightforward: the record of a large array of sacrifices, then a long set of prayers and spells to introduce Unas to the gods, identify him with Horus and Osiris, and scare off a few minor demons. It’s probably most notable for its extreme confidence, bordering on hubris. No, not bordering on hubris: barging over the border flagrantly. The hymns sound like Unas is going to rule not just alongside the gods but over most of them. He’s going to sit next to Re, and climb on the thighs of Isis and Nephthys, and suckle the breasts of the goddess Ipy. Seems kinda bold, man.

“Sinuhe” is a little tale of adventure. The title character is a courtier accompanying the Prince on an expedition against the Libyans, and overhears a messenger reporting the assassination of King Amenemhat. He’s seized by a terrible panic and flees the Prince’s camp. He doesn’t stop running till he gets to Canaan– which to the Egyptians was a near-desert, a place of lawless nomads who live in tents, don’t dress in fine linen, and don’t attack the army openly like gentlemen. (Why go there at all? Trees, far taller than anything back home.) Nonetheless the Canaanites treat him well and he becomes a chieftain there, marrying a native.

He grows old and, near death, misses Egypt. He prays that he might return rather than dying in a strange land. Mirabile dictu, the king sends him a letter inviting him to return. His desertion is forgiven. He gladly accepts, leaving his family and his tents, and reports to the king, urging him to invade and pacify the land he left. He becomes a councilor before he dies and is buried in a nice though small pyramid.

Honestly the attitudes are those of an Anglo-Indian who carves out a satrapy in the Northwest Frontier Province, but never really took to living among the natives, and dreams of retiring on a little estate back in Stropshire.

The most unusual of the pieces is the “Dialog of a Man and his Soul”, which is in both books. The man is as surprised to be arguing with his soul as you or I would. Philosophical questions aside, the soul’s position is, perhaps surprisingly, that longing for the Afterworld is foolish: one should simply enjoy life while it lasts. The man will have none of it– he’s sick of life, his reputation is ruined anyway, and he has no friends, and the Afterworld will be much more pleasant. Not with that attitude, you might think. But he and his soul patch things up for the moment.

The most amusing piece is the Teaching of Khety. Khety is a scribe, and the piece is propaganda for the profession, and includes a long survey of other jobs and how horrible they are. A sample:

I shall tell you about the wall-builder;
His sides hurt,
for he must be outside in a howling wind,
building without a kilt,
his loincloth is a cord of the weaving shop,
a string for his backside;
his arms are covered with earth,
and mixed with all kinds of shit.
Though he eats bread with his fingers
he can wash himself only once a day.

This was highly popular with scribes, who assigned it to their students to copy, so we have this text in a good number of copies.

For nuggets of wisdom from Ptahhotep about surviving in the rough world of the Egyptian elite, you’ll have to wait for my book. A hint, though: quietness. The ideal official was even-tempered and courteous, as well as pious and full of ma’at (truth/order).

Would you enjoy the book? Well, probably a lot more than the Book of the Dead, and less than Gilgamesh. If you know your Bible, you may be interested to see how the genres of hymnology, lamentations, prophecy, and wisdom were not invented by the Hebrews. Really, Isaiah couldn’t think of harsher rhetoric about Egypt than the Egyptians had already come up with themselves.

(If you’re curious, the Egyptians were not too discriminating when they looked at foreigners– there were Libyans, Nubians, and Aamu (Canaanites), and no one really cared to delve deeper. Even the Babylonians don’t get a mention.)

If you do read these, I recommend the Parkinson translation. It’s more scholarly, though a little less vivid. But really it’s because he has all the best stuff– the stories.

Now I can say I’ve read the Book of the Dead— the real one, not a crankish “symbolic translation“. This one translates the Papyrus of Sobekmose, and the translator is Paul O’Rourke. I don’t feel like uploading a new picture, though.

hunefer

Sobekmose lived sometime in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1050). He is identified in the text as “Goldworker of Amun”, presumably some sort of jeweler. He got the slightly less expensive version of the Book without so many pretty pictures… but a lot more text. It contains about 75 chapters instead of 3.  (The total from all versions of the Book of the Dead amount to over 200 chapters.) Curiously, the scroll was written in cursive hieroglyphics on the recto, and in hieratic characters on the verso. (Hieratic is basically a faster, simplified form of hieroglyphics.)

So, I’ve read it, but I don’t understand it.  That’s fine, and it’s what I expected. Here, you can see what I mean: here’s a random chapter.

Allowing the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, to go forth amongst his enemies. I have hacked up the sky. I have ripened the horizons. I have traveled through the earth (to) its edges. I have put the akhs (and) the great ones in an uproar because I am one who is equipped with his millions, namely with my magic. I eat with my mouth. I defecate with my anus because I am, indeed, a god, lord of the Duat. I was given these things fixed that make the Goldworker of Amun Sobekmose, justified, prosper.

You might hope that it sometimes becomes clear, like some poems in the Rigveda; but not really– it’s all like that.

An akh is a transfigured soul, with superpowers. It’s the desired end state of the whole process of mummification, judgment, and going through the many ordeals of the afterlife. The Duat is the netherworld, both the place where the dead live and the place where the Sun (Re) travels after it dies in the west and is reborn in the east.

The overall purpose of the book is clear, too. It’s a collection of spells and instructions for the deceased to get the best possible afterlife. The Duat turns out to be full of perils. There is the judgment of Anubis and that of the 42 gods to go through, of course. But there are also monsters who want to destroy you.  There’s a ferryman who will take you where you need to go only if you can correctly name all the parts of his ship (and this means the poetic/metaphorical names, not the technical terms):

Tell me my name, says the mooring post. Lady of the Two Lands in the Shrines is your name. Tell me my name, says the mallet. Leg of Apis is your name. Tell me my name, says the prow-rope. Braid of the Mooring-Post of Anubis in the Work of Embalming is your name. Tell me my name, says the steering-post. Columns of the Path of the Necropolis is your name….

Plus, it seems to be a struggle merely to get your body together and working. There are spells to “open the mouth”– you need to speak in order to say the spells. There are spells to keep your organs working, to allow you to move around, to eat proper food. There are spells to turn into an animal temporarily (mostly birds) to avoid dangers or get around better.

Many of the chapters involve a claim to divinity. Sobekmose is supposed to not just invoke Osiris but become Osiris– or other gods– in some way. I suspect this is tied to the origins of the Book of the Dead as Pyramid Texts– spells written on the wall of the king’s tomb. The king was a god, the son of Horus, so of course he would assert his divinity in the Duat. Apparently this was taken as the birthright– excuse me, the deathright– of any Egyptian who could afford mummification.

Here, by the way, is the translation of the same text from my other post:

I am purified on the day that I am born. I am cleansed in the two very great swamp waters which are in Herakleopolis (on) the day of the food offerings of the common people, (for) this great god who is in it.

Nothing resembling the  “dazzling illusion of life”!

When you do come before the 42 gods, you must declare your innocence, but also your knowledge of their names. E.g.:

O bone-breakers who came forth from Herakleopolis, I have not spoken falsehoods.

O lord of truth who came forth from the Two Truths, I have no stolen offering portions.

O traveler who came forth from Bubastis, I have not eavesdropped.

O pale one who came forth from Heliopolis, I have not run at the mouth.

O wammty-snake who came forth from the place of execution, I hav enot commited adultery.

O reciter of words who came forth from Weryt, I have not been hot-tempered.

And so on. Curiously, there’s not much instruction on what to do if you have sinned. Presumably you brazen it out. There are other spells which sound like the gods will purify you if you approach them correctly.

Now, a lot of the obscurity was probably not present for the original writers. It’s easy to imagine a similar text, full of metaphors and allusions, which would only be intelligible to Christians:

Bring me to the promised land, O Word of God. I have been washed in the Jordan. I have been cleansed by the Lamb. I have been through the valley of the shadow of death; I have seen the single set of footprints on the sand. I trust the Shepherd who was born of a virgin, the Carpenter who came riding on a donkey.

It’s also likely, of course, that the original writers were purposefully obscure. If Sobekmose is paying for a book of powerful spells, he might well be disappointed if he could actually understand it. Magic seems more convincing when it’s difficult and suggestive, when it seems to mean something but refuses to explain itself.

There’s also evidence that the texts were difficult even for the scribes copying them, and they made errors as a result. E.g., the list of ferry parts gives the same name for the ferry and the ferryman (“the one who finds faces, who uplifts faces”). O’Rourke suggests that this is a copyist’s error.  Another example: the 42 gods are said to “swallow from their excesses”, which makes no sense. Other versions of the book have “who swallow truth”.

 

I just read Lady Murasaki’s diary, a procedure that fortunately did not require breaking into the Tsuchimikado Palace and burglarizing her room, which would have greatly put her out, but reading Richard Bowring’s Penguin Classics version.

Murasaki_Shikibu_by_Hiroshige

Picture of Murasaki by Hiroshige, 1880

Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 is an icon of Japanese literature, and indeed world literature, as she’s the author of the world’s first novel, 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatari / The Tale of Genji). Now you know who to blame for all those annoying Genjis in Overwatch. Her novel was recognized as a classic within a century and has remained popular ever since, and naturally it’s been turned into illustrated scrolls, manga, anime, and live-action films.

For all this fame, it’s surprising that we don’t even know her real name. Partly this is due to Heian court etiquette, in which names were avoided as much as possible. Shikibu refers to the Ministry of Ceremonial, which her father briefly ran. Murasaki means ‘purple’ and is a nickname, borrowed from one of the women in her own novel. It’s a native Japanese word, borrowing the kanji from ‘purple’. Shikibu is however a direct borrowing of *shiəkbhǒ ‘style-section’, pronounced shìbù in modern Mandarin.

She was a member of the Fujiwara clan which dominated the capital, Heian 平安 (the earlier name for Kyōto). Its leader, Michinaga no Fujiwara, had arranged for his daughter Shōshi to marry the Emperor, and he appointed Murasaki as a lady-in-waiting to her.  When the diary opens, in 1008, Shōshi was 21 and Murasaki around 34. She was already known for her ongoing writing of Genji, and for knowing Chinese, very unusual for a woman of the time; Michinaga’s choice was undoubtedly made to help build a salon for his daughter. (Murasaki was married but her husband died young. She had a daughter, who isn’t mentioned in the diary, though she must have been about 9— it’s not clear where she was living.)

The diary is short— the introduction is almost as long— and mostly concerned with the events surrounding the birth of Shōshi’s first son. There are long descriptions of the many court ceremonials, with careful attention paid to the subtle signals of Heian court life: where people were seated, what clothes they wore, how close they came to the ideal of being lively without being rowdy or boring. (Don’t picture the kimono with wide obi of our times; rather, women wore multiple kimono tied with a cord.)

There’s a constant theme of melancholy:

But then for some strange reason— if only my appetites were more mundane, I might find more joy in life, regain a little youth, and face it all with equanimity— seeing and hearing these marvelous, auspicious events only served to strengthen my yearnings. I felt downcast, vexed that nothing was turning out as I had hoped and that my misery simply seemed to increase.

Toward the end she offers some portraits of the women she know. Most are carefully positive, but one stands out for its negativity:

Sei Shōnagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examined them carefully, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial.

This passage is of particular interest because Sei Shōnagon is another prominent Heian female writer, author of the Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi, not a novel but more a book of anecdotes, poems, and essays). Murasaki herself mentions learning Chinese faster and better than her brother, but she mostly hides her learning— though she casually mentions things like a minister in a ceremonial reciting the beginning lines of Sīmǎ Qián’s Records. (Which itself is a telling detail: the ceremonial in question is the baby prince’s first bathing: nothing to do with Chinese history. It’s like reading from Herodotus, in Greek, at a christening.)

The details of court life differ, but the basic humanity comes through. Well, of course, you think— how hard is it to write about small human interactions and one’s own feelings? But we’re used to a thousand year of novels, personal essays, and journalism. A lot of early literature is epics, chronicles, manuals, poetry, or religious stuff, genres where people are normally very serious and aloof. One can only wish that we had anything as quotidian and candid as the diary from, say, Babylonia.

What was Heian court life like? From Murasaki’s account, very crowded. She describes a number of ceremonies that were jam-packed with dozens of nobles. In daily life, she was almost constantly surrounded by other court women and servants. She could retire to her room, but it was small, walls didn’t go up to the ceiling, and people would be bustling about at all hours.

A point of pride for both men and women was being able to quickly improvise verse. She mentions one event where, bored, she was leaving with another woman, when Michinaga himself caught them. He demanded a poem for the new prince, and she answered,

How on this fiftieth day can we possibly count
The countless years of our prince’s reign!

“Oh! Splendid!” he said, reciting it twice to himself; then he gave a very quick reply:

Had I as many years as the crane, then might I count
How many thousand years his eternal reign would be.

Elsewhere she admits that she sometimes (though not on this occasion) prepared poems in advance in case she was asked to improvise one.

Another time, Murasaki is away from court and misses her friend Lady Dainagon. She sends her a poem by letter, and receives back:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost
The mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.

The translator explains that mandarin ducks were believed to make inseparable pair-bonds and were a metaphor for lovers— but then goes on to insist that the poem should be taken as “a conventional exchange between close friends— nothing more.” This is an odd comment!  It’s presumably offered so that we won’t suspect a lesbian affair. But how can a British professor a thousand years later, however learned, know all about the sexuality of Heian courtiers?

Elsewhere Murasaki mentions that she and another lady-in-waiting used to remove the panel between their rooms, making a larger room. Michinaga notices and makes a “tasteless remark” that it would be awkward if one of them had a lover the other didn’t know. But she answers it anyway, in her diary: there would be no problem, because they were “very close.”

From her own account, Murasaki is very attentive to female beauty— though you could say it was part of her job. Then there’s this incident:

I looked in at Lady Saishō’s door, only to find her asleep. She lay with her head pillowed on a writing box, her face all but hidden by a series of robes— dark red lined with green, purple lined with dark red…. The shape of her forehead was enchanting and so delicate. She looked just like one of those princesses you find depicted in illustrations. I pulled back the sleeves that covered her face.

“You remind me of a fairy-tale princess!” I said.

She looked up with a start. “You are dreadful!” she said, propping herself up. “Waking people up like that without a thought!”

That’s a degree of closeness one can describe as pretty darn close. And if it did get closer than friendship, what record would one expect to find after all these years?

The female perspective here reminds me of the Míng novel Golden Lotus. That was an elite but not royal family, and Chinese, and written a few centuries later, but the cultural milieu and the concentration on minor events of daily life are similar. I’m also reminded of the French elite of the 17th century, a time when you might not be expected to improvise a poem on the spot, but where the rich and the erudite mingled and shared their values.

I haven’t read The Tale of Genji itself, though it’s on my list. From reviews, it seems to be extremely lusty— it’s almost entirely devoted to Genji’s many loves. This contrasts with the retiring persona Murasaki presents in her diary— there is not a single hint of any amorous intrigue on her part. The nature of the novel at least explains a passage in the diary, when Michinaga gives her this poem:

She is known for her tartness
So I am sure that no one seeing her
Could pass without a taste.

The continuation— it’s unclear if it’s his or Murasaki’s:

She is a fruit that no one has yet tasted—
Who then can smack his lips and talk of tartness?

From the diary, this is a rather rude imposition. But then, the reserved persona of the diary might have been a conscious presentation, a necessary counterbalance to a rather racy novel.

 

 

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