Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki

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[Rushed and delayed by travel… sorry for late publishing. I mean this review as a direct follow-up to my post from last week, about pre-regret for my will-have-wasted hundreds of hours playing World of Warcraft Classic. Maybe I’m stretching that connection, but I’m glad to have read this book when I did]

I’ve spent the last week traveling (again, ugh, I’m tired), so I grabbed an old Japanese travel account to read along the way: the Heian-Period Sarashina Nikki, written by an unnamed Kyoto courtier identified to history only by relation to her father – the daughter of Takasue or “Lady Sarashina” – and given the fanciful title As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams by translator Ivan Morris for the 1971 Penguin English edition (Morris recommends against the earlier translation, though I am pretty indifferent to his own. I did not read the newer 2014 translation from Arntzen and Moriyuki).

As travel writing, it didn’t much capture me – the Lady maybe makes for a frustrating companion on the journey with her timid, weepy, and, above all, passive personality. But having read the book, I don’t know why Morris even introduces it as “one of the first extant examples of the typically Japanese genre of travel writing” when the autobiographical nikki – “diary” – instead focuses much more on the Lady’s stationary existence reading “tales” late into the night by lamplight (and when she does travel, she relates it to her beloved fiction, for example, imagining her favorite characters while waiting for a ferry at Uji!).

In that adjusted context then, the book becomes much more interesting for her passive personality than in spite of it by offering an early examination of the value of a life overtaken by fantasy and escapism. The Lady struggles with niggling regret (to accompany torrents of despair over more serious issues like death) that she wasted too much of her life reading frivolous fiction when she could have instead sought worldly success in the imperial court or (especially) spiritual enlightenment on the path to the Buddha. But then by the end she had me wondering: did she even consider those more noble pursuits worthwhile either?

First though, a quick annotated summary-by-quotation of the parts relevant to fantasy escapism:

The Lady opens by describing her childhood in the far-off provinces, where she could only ever catch snippets of the “Tales” as related by her mother and sister. But even in their incomplete retellings, the fiction still captivated her:

I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself.

Upon her return to Kyoto from the provinces, she realizes that desire when a relative gifts her a collection of various tales, including a coveted multi-volume set of the Tale of Genji. She reads them with extreme zeal — all day and through most of the night — developing an almost fan-girlish obsession with Genji especially:

The height of my aspirations was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in the mountain village where he would have hidden me like Lady Ukifune. There I should live my lonely existence, gazing at the blossoms and the autumn leaves and the moon and the snow, and wait for an occasional splendid letter from him. This was all I wanted; and in time I came to believe that it would actually happen.

A little older now, a priest in a dream admonishes her against her fanciful excess. But, like in most of her dreams, she ignores the warning:

“Engaged in senseless trifling,” he said, “you are risking your future salvation.” Having delivered this scolding, he disappeared behind the curtain and I woke up. I told no one about the dream and left the temple without giving it any further thought.

However, age brings new responsibilities at court and at home, where she cares first for her sister’s orphaned children and later her own. She loses sight of her fantasies:

Things now became rather hectic for me. I forgot all about my Tales and became much more conscientious. How could I have let all those years slip by, instead of practicing my devotions and going on pilgrimages? I began to doubt whether any of my romantic fancies, even those that had seemed most plausible, had the slightest basis in fact. How could anyone as wonderful as Shining Genji or as beautiful as the girl whom Captain Kaoru kept hidden in Uji really exist in this world of ours? Oh, what a fool I had been to believe such nonsense!

And later in life she begins to regret that she wasted her youth on escapism instead of piety:

Now I really began to regret having wasted so much time on my silly fancies, and I bitterly reproached myself for not having accompanied Mother and Father on their pilgrimages.

The regret only intensifies as she ages:

If only I had not given myself over to the Tales and poems since my young days but had spent my time in religious devotions, I should have been spared this misery … so I had wandered through life without realizing any of my hopes or accumulating any [Buddhist] merit.

Morris presents the story as a progression from girlish naivete to a more mature piety focused on taking in the beauty of her pilgrimages to various temples, or as he puts it “She had abandoned her illusions about mundane success, family life, and the roseate world of romances.” She certainly abandons aspirations to mundane success: always anxious at court, she even departs for one of her pilgrimages to avoid a once-in-a-lifetime Imperial ceremony, thus missing the opportunity to move among the high-ranking courtiers assembled for the event.

However, I’m not sure that she really abandons her romances in favor of faith. Onlookers interpret her departure for pilgrimage during the Imperial ceremony as evidence of her resolute piety – why else would she abandon the capital on the day of such a momentous occasion? Before leaving, at least, the Lady herself even floats such pious intentions. But then on the journey, she seems to slip into her usual ‘fancies’ by imagining characters from the tales who might have passed through the same places. Even at the temples, she does not devote herself to religion with much serious diligence: when studying sutras, she falls asleep and, when she prays, she wakes up realizing that she had only dreamed it. She may scold herself for the fantastic escapism of her youth, but then she doesn’t reform to match the regret.

To me then, instead of presenting moralizing tale about the superiority of the pious path, Sarashina Nikki ends with a more ambiguous message professing a general neurotic pessimism. Via her last poem, written to a nun while living out her widowhood alone and miserable:

Wildly the sagebrush grows

outside this house where no one comes to call

and my tears well up

like the drops of dew upon those leaves.

The nun replies:

Your sagebrush and your dew belong to worldly homes.

Think how overgrown the thickets are

in the cell of one who finally renounced the world.

In one sense, the nun maybe chides the Lady for self-pity – something to the effect of “Stop crying and imagine how awful total renouncement might feel.” But in another sense, the nun also maybe validates the Lady’s frivolous life — “We took different paths but discovered the same tangled thicket.” It seems to suggest one of those ironically comforting conclusions of pessimism: if two paths lead to the same awful place, why regret taking one rather than the other?* Or, in the context of the story, did the Lady waste her entire youth day-dreaming over fantastic tales? No: she would have wasted it just as well praying in a nun’s cell. By following the pious path, she would have merely replaced one fiction with another (more respectable) one. At the very least, she enjoyed the fantasy more.

* [Here I am reminded of Robert Frost’s often-misinterpreted poem, “The Road Not Taken”]

I think another late poem cuts even closer to the matter. On one of her final pilgrimages, the Lady passes through an area she had visited once before in her fanciful youth. Despite her freshly aged wisdom, she finds the essential scenery unchanged:

There is no difference in their sounds—

This wind that blows across the Barrier now

And the one I heard so many years ago

The poem observes the howling indifference in the universe: whether the Lady became a chief courtier or merited herself into sainthood or even lived her fantasy as Lady Ukifune from The Tale of Genji, that wind would have never changed.

So, what does she have to regret?

To close, I am not confident in my interpretation. I lack the cultural context to appreciate the literary features of the Sarashina Nikki. What allusions to Tale of Genji did I miss? Does that “sagebrush” have some specific symbolism (and why translate it as sagebrush, which isn’t native to Japan?) Heck, where is she even going on all of those pilgrimages? The book is so short (not counting the lengthy translator’s introduction, I finished it in only a few hours) that I would recommend it to anyone. Please, read it and tell me that I’m wrong!

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