The Fourth Month Sky

December 8, 2008

“There was something indefinably pleasant about the Fourth Month sky and the trees were a lovely expanse of new green.”
The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (trans. Seidensticker)

I reread this phrase several times, wondering why I found it more affecting than I would have found a statement about an April sky — wondering how a Westerner is supposed to parse this reference to the lunar calendar, which would have been invisible in the original. I hate to think, of course, that it’s just the use of a different name and a foreign system of time-keeping that gave me pause. Borges said, in reference to Genji, that “what interests us is not the exoticism — the horrible word — but rather the human passions of the novel.” So if the Fourth Month piques me, it’s not, I hope, simply by giving me reason to reflect on some mysterious essence which the name “April” had shielded from my view, but that the ordinal system of naming months reveals a view of time in which noticing the pleasantness of the sky and the “new green” is especially touching.

I wonder whether giving months the names of ordinals is more appropriate in a society given to nostalgia. References to the Heian Period as an age of decline occur regularly throughout Genji, with some characters saying that even the ability to play music — but how could they even pretend to know this? — had suffered sadly since its height among the ancients; likewise, nearly every conversation labelled “intimate” is later said to be about old times. Giving months numbered names would allow a more easily gauged distance between the past and the present, even within the space of a year, just as numbered years almost inevitably make us ask, “Has it really been so long?”

The business of putting distance between the past and present — objectifying it enough to make it suitable for nostalgia — means making a linear story, and the ordinal names of months seem to demand a certain clarity in the order of events. And if we’re able to spread analogies across onomastic fields, we can say that the Japanese naming system for months makes our own system seem as whimsical as the Indian system of giving proper names to single-family houses does today. When we consider how converting names to numbers is always touted as an increase in efficiency, it’s worth considering that the ordinal system for naming months might seem positively bureaucratic. The affection a Westerner might feel for the quote that began this entry, then, might stem from an apparent contrast between lingering enough to notice the sky and the relentless ordering of time within a system that denies any essence to a month outside of its numerical position.

This is the easiest way that the humane, perhaps, can appear to modern people: as the exception, even as the ineffectual.

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