“History has sometimes been defined as a permanent conspiracy against the truth” – A. Goulevitch

This headline comes from “Czarism and Revolution” by A. Goulevitch


I am only part way through this book but I felt it was worth sharing a few passages that resonated with me.

Page 7

“Here are some of the universally accepted and mistaken ideas about Russia under the Czars which the author sets out to rectify. [I have tabulated with bullets for clarity:]

  • Russia was immensely wealthy in arable land; there was no excuse for any land shortage among the peasants, except the greed of large estate owners.
  • The peasantry was browbeaten, destitute and underfed.
  • The monarchy was an instrument of despotism and ruled the country by means of a corrupt and in­ competent administration.
  • The upper classes were effete, degenerate and retrograde. Education and any form of progress was opposed, as a matter of principle, by the government.
  • Industry and trade were permitted to lag a score of decades behind the West and were given no encouragement.
  • Avenal police rode roughshod over the lives of the population and the individual. Liberty was a thing unknown to the average Russian.
  • Siberia was a vast concentration camp of convicts and wretched political deportees.
  • The external policy of Russia was expressed by imperialism in its crudest form. This policy was pursued by the maintenance of an unnecessarily large army and by the domination of unfortunate minorities, always oppressed and generally exploited.”

Page 12

“Indeed, has not Czarism been for ages synonymous with tyranny, unenlightenment, cruelty and stupidity?

The reason for this view is not difficult to find. At present, suffice it to keep in mind that the Soviets and their friends are fostering and spreading it by using the most modern methods of “scientific propaganda.”

Page 13

“Those of my readers, who will accompany me along the path which I intend to follow, unrewarding as it may appear, will find less difficult than generally supposed, to decipher the past, read the present or even to forecast the future of the “Sphynx,” provided one is acquainted with the essential facts of Russian history and psychology.

When I commenced writing this book there were many who tried to dissuade me and numerous objections were raised.  I was told that to attack Bolshevism and to reveal some of its hideous aspects was an excellent thing. On the other hand, it was pointed out, that if no criticism of Czarism were offered in a comprehensive work on Russia, it would merely challenge public opinion, certain convictions being too firmly rooted in people’s minds.”

Page 15

“the history of most nations is written by their friends, that of Russia, abroad, mainly by her enemies and detractors.”

Page 16

“Some of the greatest falsehoods about Russia were spread by influential Polish emigres and I need not remind my readers of the amazing ability of the Jews for propaganda.


In the second half of the 19th century small, but extremely active groups of Russian revolutionaries, collectively known as Nihilists,”

Page 18 – Notes to Preface:

(1) The toll of human life under Soviet dictatorship. 
Civil War, 19174,500,000
Famine, 1921-19236,000,000
Red Terror, 1917-1923 
Professional classes: scientists, authors, scholars, 
artists, university students, et al.160,000
Civil and Public Servants, Civilians, Officers, other ranks740,000
Priests and members of religious bodies40,000
Peasants and Workmen1,300,000
Massacred by the Che-Ka and G.P.U., 1923-19302,050,000
Famine, 1930-19337,000,000
Executed during the collectivization750,000
Executed by the G.P.U. and N.K.V.D., 1933-19371,600,000
Massacred during the period of “Intensification of 
the Red Terror,” 1937-1938. 
Intellectuals, peasants and workmen635,000
Members of the Communist party340,000
Political Cadres and Higher Command of the Red Army30,000
Executed by the N.K.V.D., 1938-1947 
Sundry classes of the population2,720,000
Priests and members of religious bodies5,000
Officers and soldiers23,000
Perished in Concentration camps and prisons, 1917-194721,000,000
Table from Page 18 – Notes to Preface:

“Shall We All Commit Suicide?” by Winston S Churchill

The essay “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” by Winston S Churchill was first published in the September 1924 number of “Nash’s Pall Mall”.  Later that year it appeared as a separate pamphlet (omitting “All” from the title) by the Eilert Printing Company in New York.  In 1929 it was adapted within the conclusion of The Aftermath, fourth volume in Churchill’s “The World Crisis”. Churchill thought enough of it to include it in his 1932 essay collection, “Thoughts and Adventures”. In 1948 he quotes it early in “The Gathering Storm”, first volume of “The Second World War”.


In this first of several items on Churchill I have in mind, I am just going to share the text of this essay with passages highlighted as they caught my attention, but otherwise no other subjective commentary.

Quoting Article in full …

Shall We All Commit Suicide?

By The Right Honourable WINSTON S. CHURCHILL

The story of the human race is War. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending. But up  to the present time the means of destruction at the disposal of man have not kept pace with his ferocity. Reciprocal extermination was impossible in the Stone Age. One cannot do much with a clumsy club. Besides, men were so scarce and hid so well that they were hard to find. They fled so fast that they were hard to catch. Human legs could only cover a certain distance each day. With the best will in the world to destroy his species, each man was restricted to a very limited area of activity. It was impossible to make any effective progress on these lines. Meanwhile one had to live and hunt and sleep.  So on the balance the life-forces kept a steady lead over the forces of death, and gradually tribes, villages, and Governments were evolved.

The effort at destruction then entered upon a new phase.  War became a collective enterprise. Roads were made which facilitated the movement of large numbers of men. Armies were organised. Many improvements in the apparatus of slaughter were devised. In particular the use of metal, and above all steel, for piercing and cutting human flesh, opened out a promising field. Bows and arrows, slings, chariots, horses, and elephants lent a valuable assistance. But here again another set of checks began to operate. The Governments were not sufficiently secure. The Armies were liable to violent internal disagreements. It was extremely difficult to feed large numbers of men once they were concentrated, and consequently the efficiency of the efforts at destruction became fitful and was tremendously hampered by defective organisation.  Thus again there was a balance on the credit side of life. The world rolled forward, and human society entered upon a vaster and more complex age.

It was not until the dawn of the twentieth century of the Christian era that War really began to enter into its kingdom as a potential destroyer of the human race. The organisation of mankind into great States and Empires and the rise of nations to full collective consciousness enabled enterprises of slaughter to be planned and executed upon a scale with a perseverance never before imagined. All the noblest virtues of individuals were gathered together to strengthen the destructive capacity of the mass. Good finances, the resources of world-wide credit and trade, the accumulation of large capital reserves, made it possible to divert for considerable periods the energies of whole peoples to the task of Devastation.  Democratic institutions gave expression to the will-power of millions.

Education not only brought the course of the conflict within the comprehension of everyone, but rendered each person serviceable in a high degree for the purpose in hand. The Press afforded a means of unification and of mutual encouragement; Religion, having discreetly avoided conflict on the fundamental issues, offered its encouragements and consolations, through all its forms, impartially to all the combatants. Lastly, .Science unfolded her treasures and her secrets to the desperate demands of men and placed in their hands agencies and apparatus almost decisive in their character.

In consequence many novel features presented themselves.  Instead of merely starving fortified towns, whole nations were methodically subjected, or sought to be subjected, to the process of reduction by famine. The entire population in one capacity or another took part in the War; all were equally the object of attack.

The Air opened paths along which death and terror could be carried far behind the lines of the actual armies, to women, children, the aged, the sick, who in earlier struggles would perforce have been left untouched. 

Marvellous organisations of railroads, steamships, and motor vehicles placed and maintained tens of millions of men continuously in action. Healing and surgery in their exquisite developments returned them again and again to the shambles. Nothing was wasted that could contribute to the process of waste. The last dying kick was brought into military utility.

But all that happened in the four years of the Great War was only a prelude to what was preparing for the fifth year.  The campaign of the year 1919 would have witnessed an immense accession to the power of destruction. Had the Germans retained the moral to make good their retreat to the Rhine, they would have been assaulted in the summer 1919 with forces and by methods incomparably more prodigious than any yet employed. Thousands of aeroplanes would have shattered their cities. Scores of thousands of cannon would have blasted their front. Arrangements were being made to carry simultaneously a quarter of a million men, together with all their requirements, continuously forward across country in mechanical vehicles moving ten or fifteen miles each day.  Poison gases of incredible malignity, against which only a secret mask (which the Germans could not obtain in time) was proof, would have stifled all resistance and paralysed all life on the hostile front subjected to attack. No doubt the Germans too had their plans. But the hour of wrath had passed. The signal of relief was given, and the horrors of 1919 remain buried in the archives of the great antagonists.

The War stopped as suddenly and as universally as it had begun. The world lifted its head, surveyed the scene of ruin, and victors and vanquished alike drew breath. In a hundred laboratories, in a thousand arsenals, factories, and bureaux, men pulled themselves up with a jerk, turned from the task in which they had been absorbed. Their projects were put aside unfinished, unexecuted; but their knowledge was preserved; their data, calculations, and discoveries were hastily bundled together and docketed “for future reference” by the War Offices in every country. The campaign of 1919 was never fought; but its ideas go marching along. In every Army they are being explored, elaborated, refined under the surface of peace, and should war come again to the world it is not with the weapons and agencies prepared for 1919 that it will be fought, but with developments and extensions of these which will be incomparably more formidable and fatal.

It is in these circumstances that we have entered upon that period of Exhaustion which has been described as Peace.  It gives us at any rate an opportunity to consider the general situation. Certain sombre facts emerge solid, inexorable, like the shapes of mountains from drifting mist. It is established that hence forward whole populations will take part in war, all doing their utmost, all subjected to the fury of the enemy. It is established that nations who believe their life is at stake will not be restrained from using any means to secure their existence. It is probable-nay, certain-that among the means which will next time be at their disposal will be agencies and processes of destruction whole-sale, unlimited, and perhaps, once launched, uncontrollable.

Mankind has never been in this position before. With-out having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destinies to which all the glories and toils of men have at last led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities. Death stands to attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverize, without hope of repair, what is left of civilisation.  He [Death] awaits only the word of command.  He awaits it from a frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now-for one occasion only-his Master.  Let it not be thought for a moment that the danger of another explosion in Europe has passed. For the time being the stupor and the collapse which followed the World War ensured a sullen passivity, and the horror of war, its carnage and its tyrannies, have sunk into the soul, have dominated the mind of every class and in every race. But the causes of war have been in no way removed; indeed they are in some respects aggravated by the so-called Peace Treaty and the reactions following thereupon. Two mighty branches of the European family will never rest content with their existing situation.  Russia, stripped of her Baltic Provinces, will, as the years pass by, brood incessantly upon the wars of Peter the Great.  From one end of Germany to the other an intense hatred of France unites the whole population.  This passion is fanned continuously by the action of the French Government. The enormous contingents of German youth growing to military manhood year by year are inspired by the fiercest sentiments, and the soul of Germany smoulders with dreams of a War of Liberation or Revenge. These ideas are restrained at the present moment only by physical impotence. France is armed to the teeth. Germany has been to a great extent disarmed and her military system broken up. The French hope to preserve this situation by their technical military apparatus, by their black troops, and by a system of alliances with the smaller States of Europe; and for the present at any rate overwhelming force is on their side. But physical force alone, unsustained by world opinion, affords no durable foundation for security. Germany is a far stronger entity than France, and can- not be kept in permanent subjugation.

“Wars,” said a distinguished American to me last summer, “are fought with Steel; weapons may change, but Steel remains the core of all modern warfare. France has got the Steel of Europe, and Germany has lost it. Here, at any rate, is an element of permanency.” “Are  you sure,” I asked. “that wars of the future will be fought with Steel?” A few weeks later I talked with a German.  “What about Aluminium?” he replied.  “Some think,” he said,”that the next war will be fought with Electricity.”

And on this a vista opens out of electrical rays which could paralyse the engines of a motor-car, could claw down aeroplanes from the sky, and conceivably be made destructive of human life or human vision. Then there are Explosives. Have we reached the end? Has Science turned its last page on them? May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to posses a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings- nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives even of the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp or dockyard?

As for Poison Gas and Chemical Warfare in all its forms, only the first chapter has been written of a terrible book.  Certainly every one of these new avenues to destruction is being studied on both sides of the Rhine, with all the science and patience of which man is capable.  And why should it be supposed that these resources will be limited to Inorganic Chemistry? A study of Disease-of Pestilences methodically prepared and deliberately launched upon man and beast-is certainly being pursued in the laboratories of more than one great country. Blight to destroy crops, Anthrax to slay horses and cattle, Plague to poison not armies only but whole districts- such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing.

It is evident that whereas an equally contested war under such conditions might work the ruin of the world and cause an immeasurable diminution of the human race, the possession by one side of some overwhelming scientific advantage would lead to the complete enslavement of the unwary party.  Not only are the powers now in the hand of man capable of destroying the life of nations, but for the first time they afford to one group of civilised men the opportunity of reducing their opponents to absolute helplessness.

In barbarous times superior martial virtues-physical strength, courage, skill, discipline-were required to secure such a supremacy; and in the hard evolution of mankind the best and fittest stocks come to the fore. But no such saving guarantee exists to-day.

There is no reason why a base, degenerate, immoral race should not make an enemy far above them in quality the prostrate subject of their caprice or tyranny, simply because they happened to be possessed at a given moment of some new death-dealing or terror-working process and were ruthless in its employment.  The liberties of men are no longer to be guarded by their natural qualities, but by their dodges; and superior virtue and valour may fall an easy prey to the latest diabolical trick.

In the sombre paths of destructive science there was one new turning-point which seemed to promise a corrective to these mortal tendencies. It might have been hoped that the electromagnetic waves would in certain scales be found capable of detonating explosives of all kinds from a great distance. Were such a process discovered in time to become common property, War would in important respects return again to the crude but healthy limits of the barbarous ages. The sword, the spear, the bludgeon, and above all the fighting man, would regain at a bound their old sovereignty. But it is depressing to learn that the categories into which these rays are divided are now so fully explored that there is not much expectation of this. All the hideousness of the Explosive era will continue; and to it will surely be added the gruesome complications of Poison and of Pestilence scientifically applied.

Such, then, is the peril with which mankind menaces itself.  Means of destruction incalculable in their effects, wholesale and frightful in their character, and unrelated to any form of human merit: the march of Science unfolding ever more appalling possibilities; and the fires of hatred burning deep in the hearts of some of the greatest peoples of the world, fanned by continual provocation and unceasing fear and fed by the deepest sense of national wrong or national danger! On the other hand, there is the blessed respite of Exhaustion, offering to the nations a final chance to control their destinies and avert what may well be a general doom.  Surely if a sense of self-preservation still exists among men, if the wills to live resides not merely in individuals or nations but in humanity as a whole, the prevention of the supreme catastrophe ought to be the paramount object of all endeavour.

Against the gathering but still distant tempest the League of Nations, deserted by the United States, scorned by Soviet Russia, flouted by Italy, distrusted equally by France and Germany, raises feebly but faithfully its standards of sanity and hope. Its structure, airy and unsubstantial, framed of shining but too often visionary idealism, is in its present form incapable of guarding the world from its dangers and of protecting mankind from itself. Yet it is through the League of Nations alone that the path to safety and salvation can be found. To sustain and aid the League of Nations is the duty of all. To reinforce it and bring it into vital and practical relation with actual world-politics by sincere agreements and understanding between great Powers, between the leading races, should be the first aim of all who wish to spare their children torments and disasters compared to which those we have suffered will be but a pale preliminary.


End of quoted article

More background here (a friendly review):

  • Winston Churchill and the Scientific Imagination – International Churchill Society – Paul K Alkon

Russian History Museum

Introducing the Russian History Museum via their latest in a monthly “Second Saturdays” lecture series, although the latest was on 1st October.

  • The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln – by Marilyn Swezey

Tsar Alexander II of Russia and President Abraham Lincoln both profoundly influenced the destinies of their respective nations. What were relations like between the autocratic ruler of a centuries-old empire and the elected president of a young democracy?

Marilyn Swezey examines the relationship of these two national leaders, their cordial correspondence, their parallel endeavors (the emancipation of serfs in Russia and the end of slavery in the U.S.) and their common tragic fate. Swezey speaks about the visit of Russian imperial naval squadrons to New York and San Francisco during the Civil War as a demonstration of Russia’s support of the Union.

Go to their main channel for more fascinating events – see videos and/or playlists.


The lectures are hosted and facilitated by either of the following:

  • Michael Perekrestov – Executive Director
  • Nicholas (Nick) Nicholson – Museum Curator
  • Hannah Phillips – Public Engagement Coordinator

“You can hide memories, but you can’t erase history“ – Haruki Murakami

Cover of “Colourless Tsukuru Tazake” by Haruki Murakami
Intense Drought Exposes 4,000-Year-Old ‘Stonehenge’ in Spain
Archaeologists Discover 12th Dead Sea Scrolls Cave

“The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. […] As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.“

What better way to introduce Haruki Murakami than through the above passage from his book “Colourless Tsukuru Tazake”.

I won’t provide a full book review here as there are ample reviews online I am sure.

I became acquainted with Murakami on reading “1Q84”.  In Japanese, the word for the number “nine” is pronounced “kyuu”, hence the clever play on phonetics to mimic the title “1984” by George Orwell.  The parallel really stops there however, as “1Q84”, typical of Murakami’s style, is really of what I would term “psychological dystopian” genre and it has nothing really to do with Orwell’s plot.

A feature that shines through each of Murakami’s books is his broad knowledge of the various arts including literature (of course), art and music, as well as general knowledge and history in a broad sense.

Like a song that won’t leave your head all day, he will often take a theme and reference it repeatedly throughout the book with appropriate rhetorical effect.

In “Killing Commendatore” it is the opening scene to the opera “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in which the old dude suspects the young dude of ‘dishonouring’ his daughter and challenges the young dude to a duel – the old dude loses.

Don Giovanni opening scene

In “Colourless Tsukuru Tazake” it is Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” which is the defining signature piece for one of the central characters, Shiro.  Shiro, with the “long slender neck”, loves to play “Le mal du pays”, a rather forlorn, ethereal piece perfectly depicting the mood in its meaning of “homesickness”

Liszt – Le mal du pays

In “Colourless Tsukuru Tazake” there is a dark, pivotal event which results in (colourless) Tsukuru being unjustly and abruptly ostracised from his very close group of (colourful) high school friends without explanation.  It is only some 16 years later that circumstances arise and with some encouragement [from Sara] he summons the courage to pursue answers to why he was mercilessly ostracised all those years ago.

As Tsukuru retraces events and reacquaints with his old friends, Murakami paints wonderful word pictures of each of these main characters.  [Spoiler Alert: one is now deceased and another is living in Finland.]  As usual, Murakami does a splendid job of describing the deepest thoughts and sense of their personal meaning in life of each of his characters.

To choose one word to describe Murakami’s work, it would be “metaphorical”, although he can overdo it a bit at times.

As the past is unravelled in “Colourless”, we read at one point:

“Maybe there’s not much point in doing this now, but I wanted to clear up a misunderstanding.” Tsukuru said …

“The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand.“ Aka said.  “As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.“

[..] Tsukuru gazed at the face of his old friend …

“You can hide memories, but you can’t erase history.“  Tsukuru recalled Sara’s words and said them aloud.

You can hide [or confuse] memories, but you can’t erase history [the truth].  Indeed, that phrase could be the central theme for any discussion or debate about almost any aspect of ‘history’ as we ‘know’ it.

After all,

“What is history but a fable agreed upon?”

also often stated as … 

“What is history but a series of lies agreed upon?”


Perhaps readers could uncover their own piles of sand and ponder some ‘agreed upon fables’ (rhetorically).


Sparks of a New Renaissance in Painting Emerge from China – Song Di – by Matthew Ehret

I left this comment … under moderation

That is so uplifting and encouraging.  Thanks for the introduction to Song Di.

I know I am just one beholder but … 

Kazimir Malevich – Black Square on White Background 1913 or 1915


His manifesto is titled “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism


“How often have we seen the abstract impressionist paint splatterings, post-modernist chicken scratch or atonal randomized sounds performed by artistic reformers whom we are told by “authorities” are brilliant.”

Enough said – and beautifully worded Matthew.


This Book Will Give You Nightmares – Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004)

Featured here

PDF copy of the book …


Surprisingly frank but gets Hitler wrong at the end.

Related reading

The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia” by Tim Tzouliadis



The Tale of Genji

The noble mind that soars on high,

Beyond the star-bespangled sky:

Looks down with ease on depths that lie

A thousand fathoms ‘neath his eye

Cover of “The Tale of Genji” by Lady Murasaki Shikibu – translated by Kencho Suematsu

The Tale of Genji is reported to be the world’s earliest novel.  It was written in the early 11th century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.  Born in 978, she was “a daughter of Tametoki of the Fujiwara clan”, who “joined the entourage of Empress Akiko (Shōshi)”.  Lady Murasaki‘s main character is Prince Genji.

[The Tale of] Genji has 54 chapters.  The benchmark translation is by Arthur Waley in six volumes from 1925-1933.

  • The Tale of Genji: A novel in Six Parts by Lady Murasaki – Translated by Arthur Waley  (Vol One)


The version I wish to share is the original (partial) translation in 1882 by Kencho Suematsu of 17 chapters,.  See the cover picture above.

One particularly relaxing way to read books is with the aid of an audio recording.  By downloading the audio files and playing them through your preferred audio player (I use FTW but I am sure there are many others), this enables you to follow the text at a speed that is comfortable for you; the advantage is that you also get to hear the skilled reader pronounce those foreign names of characters, places and events with precision, especially when it involves a language like Japanese.

Here for example is a link to the Librivox recording of Genji (various readers by chapter)


All you need to know about the plot for now is summarised on the back cover:

The Tale of Genji follows Prince Genji through his many [adventures and] loves, and varied passions.“

From the Introduction by the translator Kencho Suematsu

“The early death of her husband and her dissatisfaction with court life gave Lady Murasaki [Shikibu – the authoress] cause to turn to the truths of Buddhism and to watch the floating world about her with dispassionate yet observing eyes.“

With that last phrase I am already hooked, but it gets so much better …

From the authoress herself over 1000 years ago, speaking through her main character Prince Genji.

Ordinary histories are the mere records of events and are generally treated in a one-sided manner.  They give no insight into the true state of society.  This, however, is the very sphere on which romances principally dwell.  Romances are indeed fictions, but they are by no means pure inventions; their only peculiarities being these, that in them the writers often trace out, among numerous real characters, the best, when they wish to represent the good, and the oddest when they wish to amuse.”

Throughout the book we stumble across many aphorisms that ring true to our world today, such as on page 180

“It seems that in a world of intrigue none dares do what is right for fear of risking his own interests.”

Another insight into the sociopolitical awareness of Lady Murasaki is given on page 40:

“Public business can only be tranquilly conducted when the superior receives the assistance of subordinates, and when the subordinate yields a becoming respect and loyalty to his superior, and affairs are thus conducted in a spirit of mutual conciliation.”

[My mind immediately wanders to Catherine The Great’s philosophy of “benevolent despotism” – no doubt inspired by her reading of and communication with Voltaire, her contemporary.]

We also come across little gems by the translator in footnotes such as on page 185:

“In Chinese history it is recounted that a certain artful intriguer made a fool of his Sovereign by bringing a deer to the court and presenting it before the Emperor, declaring it to be a horse.  All the courtiers, induced by his great influence, agreed with him in calling it a horse, to the Emperor’s great astonishment and bewilderment.”

Who didn’t immediately bring to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and wonder how such fairy tales and mythical narratives are common to so many cultures?

And speaking of fairy tales, the reference to “The Bamboo Cutter [and the Moon-Child]” on page 217 takes us down a whole new path of wondrous diversion into Japanese Fairy Tales.

  • Japanese Fairy Tales – Compiled by Yei Theodora Ozaki


Audio files here depending on your mood …


One of the most striking features of sociohistorical note to emerge from reading Genji is the profound influence on Japanese imperial court life of Chinese art and culture.  In parallel is the fact that Buddhism appears to have been axiomatic in terms of their belief system around the turn of the 11th Century.  Buddhism (as well as references to Christianity) pervades all significant dates, ceremonies and festivals, as well as common superstitions dictating everyday behaviour and importantly, the belief in the concept of the afterlife.

Page 155 the character Lady Aoi has become gravely ill.

“He [Genji] tried to soothe her, and said “Pray, don’t trouble yourself too much about matters.  Everything will come right.  Your illness, I think, will soon pass away.  Even supposing you quit this present world, there is another where we shall meet, and where I shall see you once more cheerful, and there will be a time when your mother and father will also join you.”

Genji speaking on page 76

“It is said that when one leaves this world without a single regret, one passes straight to Paradise.“

Translator’s footnote page 97

“According to the Buddhist’s doctrine of the Hosse sect, all the souls of the dead pass, during seven weeks after death, into an intermediate state, and then their fate is decided.  According to the Tendai sect, the best and the worst go immediately where they deserve, but those of a medium nature go through this process.”

But for me, the pièce de résistance of The Tale of Genji lies in the use of the four-line poems called waka “which [from back cover] dance throughout this work, [earning] it a place as a classic text in the study of poetry.”

We see Genji and his friends engage in merry evenings where the prime activity is to exchange these spontaneous waka in a kind of debating game to ultimately determine a winner for the evening –scrabble hadn’t been invented yet, let alone ‘smart’ devices.

The opening quote concerning “The noble mind that soars on high” is a prime example of the wakas that “dance” through this novel.

On page 189, having been exiled for a period to a rather isolated place on the coast because of his social misdemeanors, Genji expresses his thoughts:

Never thought I, in my younger day,

To be thrown on the wild sea-shore,

And like these figures to float away,

And perhaps see my home no more.”

Equally fascinating is how the characters use wakas to communicate formally with each other.  In the waka, the second party [the female in this case] would me metaphorised as a flower and spoken to in third person.

On page 114 Genji leaves no doubt as to his feelings towards the Princess, Lady Wysteria:

“When will be mine this lovely flower

Of tender grace and purple hue?

Like the Wysteria of the bower

It’s charms are lovely to my view.“

But on page 129 Genji is not getting the response he is hoping for

“Not speaking is a wiser part,

And words are sometimes in vain.

But to completely close the heart

In silence, gives me pain.“

In another subplot one target of Genji’s love interest and affection sadly dies, leaving behind a daughter (Violet) whom Genji vows to take under his wing and raise.  In this case the mother is the dead flower and the daughter is represented as a new bud (page 120).

“Though still a bud the violet be,

A still unopened blossom here,

Its tenderness has charms for me,

Recalling one no longer near.”

I could not think of a more appropriate quote to close this teaser with (Genji speaking):

“From my boyhood I paid much attention to reading and writing, and perhaps my father [the Emperor] noticed that I had benefited by these pursuits.  He observed that ‘few very clever men enjoyed worldly happiness and long life’; perhaps because ability and knowledge are too highly valued to admit of other blessings”

And this from the mind and pen of a Japanese woman writing the world’s first novel [as distinct from an epic poem] early in the “11th century after Christ”.  There are so many more nuggets throughout Genji waiting to be savoured.