Reading Heike Monogatarii one is struck by the cabotine mediocrity of the characters

May 13, 2012 § 2 Comments

Reading Heike Monogatarii is bloody grim business.  Not on account of the blood and guts, no, one expects that in an epic, but… on account of the cabotine mediocrity of the characters.

In Book Two, emperor Go-Shirokawa, retired so that he could plot re-taking of power from the safety of the temple, talks openly about his dream of overthrowing the Heike at a drinking party.  Participants — imperial sympathizers without any especially great commitment to the cause — when in their cups perform sarugaku – “monkey turns” — humorous drunken dances with improvised jokes on the theme of “Heiji” — a play on words, meaning both “Heike clan” but also “wine bottles”; perhaps to please the emperor (he’s quite powerless but still controls some lucrative patronage); perhaps to express their own frustrations with the way the Heike have monopolized comfortable sinecures; but mainly because… they are drunk.  “There are too many Heiji here!  What shall we do with all these Heijis? Knock them over!”  And in a drunken showing-off, they vie to decapitate wine bottles with bare hands.

A few days later, having sobered up one of the participants of the plot gets cold feet and — reports them.  All are arrested; some are murdered immediately, some gruesomely, others are sent into exile in commutation of a death sentence, to be murdered there anyway.

One, before being arrested manages an interview with the emperor begging him for aid.  The emperor basically washes his hands — denies any knowledge of the “plot” — but cries into his sleeve to demonstrate his powerlessness.

Perhaps the most terrifying is the story told to summarize the incident:  another Heike malcontent passed up for an office — one not present at the party — followed good advice of a Heike friend:  he went for on a pilgrimage to Heike Kiyomori’s favorite temple; having worshiped there with great show of piety and expense and befriended the priests, he made sure a report of it got to Kiyomori.

“Why on earth would he go all the way there?”  Kiyomori asked flabbergasted on hearing the report.  “Because he’d been passed over in his attempt to secure an appointment.  In his disappointment he wished to obtain guidance at a temple he respects on whether or not to enter priesthood.”  “Very commendable of him”, said Kiyomori, pleased that a Kyoto court official would travel all the way to Hiroshima to worship at his favorite temple, demoted his son from the post in question and appointed the (former) malcontent.

“What a splendid strategy!” continues the poet.  “And what a pity the others have not tried a clever trick like this instead of plotting senseless revolt, which destroyed them and brought countless suffering to their women and dependents!”

For all the poetry, the paintings, the brocades, all the moon and cherry-blossom viewing parties, all the Chinese scholarship and all the biwa playing, twelfth century politics at the Chrysanthemum court were not any more sophisticated than the politics of a second rate advertising agency today.  If there has been any improvement, it is that we don’t slit people’s throats at the drop of a pin.

Not that we don’t want to.

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§ 2 Responses to Reading Heike Monogatarii one is struck by the cabotine mediocrity of the characters

  • pauladkin says:

    You’ve actually inspired a desire to look at this tedious book. If you so detest bloody epic stories perhaps you should indulge yourself in some of my own book, Purgatory, that has just been published in Kindle, available on the Amazon if you can get past all of the piranhas.

    • Ruyiswick says:

      the book isn’t tedious. it’s a good translation of what is one of the better Japanese classical texts, a kind of cross of chancon-de-geste and a homeric epic, still sung in Japan by blind aoidoi, like Homer.

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