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Never Again (Until the Next Time)

A short summary of the last fifteen or so hours would be: a cocktail party with elegant and refined lighting, tastefully-chosen food, and more alcohol than I would have thought possible, much less necessary. After too many martini's (remind me to thank the bartender for that one), I ended up leaving early feeling fairly ill. I've spent the rest of the time since paying for my sins. Having left without saying goodbye to either host, my hangover was coupled with a wracking sense of guilt.

As normal, I woke up at seven, and since doing any work this morning would have been an exercise in futility, I've been rereading Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince. Quite possibly the most engaging history I've ever read, it captures the spirit of a Japan of poetry, romance, rivalry, economic disjunction, superstition, and manners.

The Heian period, roughly speaking 782-1167 A.D., is the world of The Tale of Genji, not Ran or Shogun. Unlike the bushido-beating samurai eras better known to Western readers, Heian Japan was focused almost completely around the politics of courtiers more skilled in matching fabrics and perfumes than marching and swordsmanship. Courtiers derived their power from rank, and social grace and artistic accomplishment were valued more highly than horse-riding or marksmanship. Because men wrote mostly in Chinese, the finest literature to come out of this period was written almost exclusively by women such as Izumi Shikibu, Sei Shonagon, and most famously Murasaki Shikibu.

As much as I enjoyed studying Tokugawa era Japan, there's something much more lovely about the Heian period, and appreciation I gained largely through Morris' book. Study of Heian Japan has few battles, no bushido, but instead a triumph of style in letters over the substance of arms. There are historians who state that the 'immoral' and 'effiminate' nature of the age lead to its downfall, that the tensions among a people who did not recognize raw power as an asset were eventually too much to bear. Intellectually I sympathize with the view, but my heart so wishes it weren't so. In the words of the Scotch historian James Murdoch (quoted by Morris), the Heian aristocracy were:

"An ever-pullulating brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilettanti--as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapable of any worth achievement, but withal the polished exponents of high breeding and correct 'form'....Now and then a better man did emerge; but one just man is impotent to avert the doom of an intellectual Sodom....A pretty showing, indeed, these pampered minions and bepowdered poetasters might be expected to make."

As I said, my kind of people.

Update: You know, I never realized it before this, but Ivan Morris did the bulk of his teaching work at Columbia University. Another one of those heroes of mine I sort of stumble across. I wish I'd managed to meet him before he died. I'm posting my two favorite volumes of his work below this entry, and I recommend either of them very highly.


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