Academic journal article The Comparatist

Genji and Faust: A Comparative Reading

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Genji and Faust: A Comparative Reading

Article excerpt

Murasaki Shikibu's Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust are two literary works that represent milestones in world literature, the former the most central work in Japanese literature and the second a culmination in the poetic achievement of one of Germany's leading poets. The Tale of Genji was written around the year 1000 AC, during the Heian period, a time when aristocrats highly valued the fine arts, such as poetry, in the form of waka [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or tanka [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], literature in general, music and calligraphy. Faust, on the other hand, was written seven hundred years later, during the early nineteenth century. Writers of this period adopted the classical world of Greek antiquity as their model, with the national literature focusing on an idealized picture of mankind and striving to combine reason and sentiment, mind and nature. While, of course, a huge body of criticism has emerged around both The Tale of Genji and Faust, no one has yet compared these two works. Genji and Faust, the two protagonists, are exceptional individuals: Genji transcends the conventional limitations of mankind, while Faust aspires to transcend them. They represent individuals who surpass all other human beings because of their superior intellects, conviction, vision and courage.

I compare these two protagonists, even though the literary works belong to different periods in human history as well as different cultures. Despite these differences, there are striking similarities in how the writers portray these exceptional individuals. Juxtaposing Genji and Faust illuminates the universal yearning to transcend the realms of human commonality. Through their ambitious actions they both often challenge social and religious principles. My analysis reveals how this yearning and the defiance of religious limitations play out against two entirely distinct religious traditions. First, I introduce each character briefly and discuss why these protagonists seem so otherworldly. Second, taking into account the respective religious backgrounds of these works as a whole, I analyze the transgressions in which the characters entangle themselves as they strive toward lofty aims. Third, I define the limitations of comparison regarding their atonement and potential salvation.

GENJI, THE SHINING PRINCE

Murasaki Shikibu portrays Genji as an unusual being; from early on, he is described as being outstanding in every faculty, whether music, poetry or painting, and his beauty, as if a glowing halo, envelops his person. Genji is of high birth, the son of the Kiritsubo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Emperor, but for political reasons he is relegated to the status of a commoner and at Court he officiates as Imperial Counselor. Therefore, he is also called the Shining Prince: from childhood on, Murasaki Shikibu states, "he was already so charmingly distinguished in manner" (Tyler 12) ("Ima yori namamekashiu hazukashige ni ohasureba" [Abe, Akiyama and Imai 115]) and "if I [narrator] were to list all the things at which he excelled, I would only succeed in making him sound absurd" (Tyler 13) ("Subete ihi tsuzukeba, kotogotoshiu, utate zo narinu beki hito no onsama narikeru" [Abe, Akiyama and Imai 115]). His pleasing appearance enchants all who see him and regardless of his emotional state, his beauty seems otherworldly: "He wept as he thought back over the past, making as he did so a vision of infinite beauty" (Tyler 236) ("Taishou, yorozu no koto kakiatsume, oboshi tuzukete naki tamaheru keshiki ito tsuki sezu namameki tari" [Abe, Akiyama and Imai 171]).

Genji pursues many women, and engages in innumerable love affairs. Many of his romantic liaisons are controversial, such as that with Oborozukiyo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], daughter of the Minister of the Right and thus a political rival of Genji, and even more so with Fujitsubo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], his stepmother. …

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