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THE TALE OF GENJI (ca. 1021)
by Murasaki Shikibu

The Aesthetic of Impermanence

Haruo Shirane :: The notion of impermanence is an extremely salient characteristic of the Tale of Genji, of all the works of the Heian period. The notion that all things are ephemeral, that things must change.

On the one hand the aesthetics of the period are based on the beauty of impermanence — the scattering of the cherry blossoms, the dew disappearing before the sun rises. Even though it reminds us of the futility of the world, it's precisely that — it's the sorrow in the impermanence that brings us aesthetic pleasure. But toward the end of the novel, that becomes not simply an aesthetic pursuit, but a cold reality that turns the characters toward the other world and inward.

So eventually it becomes an inward quest. It starts as an outward quest for either other women or an outward quest for social mobility within society, but eventually it turns inward and becomes this internal quest for salvation, finding your own spirit. And that kind of foreshadows the great literature of the medieval period, which was the inward quest and the darkness outside.