The Sensualist

Ian Buruma in the New Yorker:

Much of “The Tale of Genji,” the eleventh-century Japanese masterpiece often called the world’s first novel, is about the art of seduction. Not that any sexual act is ever mentioned; very little in Murasaki Shikibu’s prose is plainly stated. Things are suggested, alluded to, often nebulously. What counts in the seduction scenes is the art, the poetry. Quite literally so: the proper approach to a desired lady was through poems, written on scented paper of the finest quality, delivered by an elegantly dressed go-between of appropriate social rank. More poems would be exchanged as soon as the approach bore fruit. A “morning after” poem was an essential part of etiquette.

One reason that physical contact between men and women is hardly ever described in “Genji” is that courtly lovers almost never saw one another clearly, and certainly not naked; full nudity is rare even in traditional Japanese erotic art. Women of the upper class sat hidden in murky rooms, behind curtains, screens, and sliding doors. For a respectable woman to be seen in daylight, especially standing up, instead of reclining in an interior, under many layers of clothing, would have been provocative beyond belief. Women were shielded by curtains even when they spoke to male members of their own family. A male suitor could be driven wild by the sight of a woman’s sleeve spilling out from underneath a shade, or by the mere sound of silk rustling behind a lacquer screen.

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