Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair: Body, Woman, and Desire in Medieval Japanese Narratives
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222pp. February 2016
Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair: Body, Woman, and Desire in Medieval Japanese Narratives
Author: Pandey, Rajyashree;
Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair explores the possibilities and limits of terms such as “body,” “woman,” “gender,” and “agency”—categories that emerged within the context of western philosophical, religious, and feminist debates—to analyze texts that come out of altogether different temporal and cultural contexts. Through close textual readings of a wide range of classical and medieval narratives, from well-known works such as the Tale of Genji to popular Buddhist tales, Rajyashree Pandey offers new ways of understanding such terms within the context of medieval Buddhist knowledge.

Pandey suggests that “woman” in medieval Japanese narratives does not constitute a self-evident and distinct category, and that there is little in these works to indicate that the sexed body was the single most important and overarching site of difference between men and women. She argues that the body in classical and medieval texts is not understood as something constituted through flesh, blood, and bones, or as divorced from the mind, and that in the Tale of Genji it becomes intelligible not as an anatomical entity but rather as something apprehended through robes and hair. Pandey provocatively claims that “woman” is a fluid and malleable category, one that often functions as a topos or figural site for staging debates not about real life women, but rather about delusion, attachment, and enlightenment, issues of the utmost importance to the Buddhist medieval world.

Pandey’s book challenges many of the assumptions that have become commonplace in academic writings on women and Buddhism in medieval Japan. She questions the validity of speaking of Buddhism’s misogyny, women’s oppression, passivity, or proto-feminism, and points to the anachronistic readings that result when fundamentally modern questions and concerns are transposed unreflexively onto medieval Japanese texts. Taking a broad, interdisciplinary approach, and engaging widely with literature, religious studies, and feminism, while paying close attention to medieval texts and genres, Pandey boldly throws down the gauntlet, challenging some of the sacred cows of contemporary scholarship on medieval Japanese women and Buddhism.

8 b&w illustrations

"There is a certain symmetrical beauty to the intellectual architecture of this outstanding book that expertly opens up, for the general and specialized reader alike, the semiotics of the body and personhood in stories and poems of medieval Japan. Pandey strikes a very fine balance between the emic and the etic by using her interpretive exercise to reflect back on, and trouble, the mind-body and other dualisms that inhere in the provincial concerns of the modern, concerns that her own work—she acknowledges—cannot quite escape. The book holds lessons for scholars far beyond the field of medieval Japanese studies." —Dipesh Chakrabarty, The University of Chicago

“Rajyashree Pandey skillfully guides us along a fascinating journey through the Tale of Genji and related texts. On the way she discovers that a good deal of our accustomed conceptual vocabulary evident in notions such as ‘the body,’ ‘desire,’ and ‘sexuality’ is not up to the task. This is a book that not only provides a wonderfully illuminating account of a key episode in Japanese cultural formation, it also makes us reflect on our own categorical apparatus and prejudices. An outstanding book that goes deep into the distant past to strike at the heart of the present.” —Mike Featherstone, Editor-in-Chief of Theory, Culture & Society

Author: Pandey, Rajyashree;
Rajyashree Pandey is reader in Asian studies in the Politics Department of Goldsmiths, University of London.



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