Sunday 31 March 2002

Ladies in Rivalry

Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people’s esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one. She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous. And how can things turn out well for such a woman?

The Murasaki Shikibu Diary (translated by Ivan Morris)

Murasaki Shikibu

What could be more refreshing than the tart envy and barely restrained malice of Murasaki’s judgement on her rival? These two women, who were not only the best writers in eleventh century Japan but remain among the greatest writers of any age, disliked each other for many reasons.

Most obviously, Murasaki and Shonagon served as ladies-in-waiting to, respectively, Empress Akiko and Empress Sadako, the wives of the Emperor Ichijo. One has only to read a few pages of a woman’s diary such as the Kagero nikki (The Gossamer Years) to grasp the bitterness between rival wives under the polygamous marriage system of Heian Japan.

And while the antagonism between the Empresses would have tainted any potential relationship between Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, their contrasting personalities would have fuelled the conflict between the two writers.

Murasaki descrbes herself as shy, gentle, and unsociable, “looked down on like some old outcast,” whereas Shonagon was a glittering success: forthright and opinionated in a milieu where women were expected to be quiet and demure, she seems to have demolished any opposition with the force of her sarcastic wit.

Both women were enthralled by the vagaries of male-female relationships: Murasaki’s novel, The Tale of Genji, is (in Ivan Morris’ words) “primarily a study of the varied manifestations of sexual and romantic love” while Shonagon’s Pillow Book is crammed with gossip and innuendo about the sexual behaviour of the Heian aristocracy.

Sei Shonagon

One always has the sense that whereas Murasaki’s views came from astute observation, Sei Shonagon’s grew out of direct and enthusiastic participation. When we consider too the hothouse atmosphere in which their respective works were handed around and commented upon, it’s little wonder they disliked each other so intensely.

Ultimately though, what separated them then is what separates them now. They are each very different writers, as different as Proust and Barthes. And that, more than anything, can hardly have endeared one to the other.

Arthur Waley, who translated both The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book into English, says about Sei Shonagon:

As a writer she is incomparably the best poet of her time, a fact which is apparent only in her prose and not at all in the conventional uta [31-syllable poems] for which she is also famous. Passages such as that about the stormy lake or the few lines about crossing a moonlit river show a beauty of phrasing that Murasaki, a much more deliberate writer, certainly never surpassed.

Initially I was drawn to Sei Shonagon — to the personal essay rather than to the romance or tale—and I’ve read The Pillow Book four or five times. But recently, I decided to read the three English translations of The Tale of Genji (by Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker, and Royall Tyler), a chapter at a time. Seidensticker’s prose is terse compared to the rich poeticism of Waley’s; Tyler’s is colloquial. I’d love to read three translations of the Pillow Book too. Most of all, I’d like to read both books in Japanese (though, because modern Japanese is so different to that spoken and written a thousand years ago, I’d be reading Japanese “translations” too).

Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon each wrote an extraordinary book. Though the society we inhabit could hardly be more different than theirs, their writing reaches out across a millenium to touch our hearts. With a few exceptions, the books men wrote in that period have been forgotten. Mostly it is the women’s writing that is held in high regard.

I wonder if at any time Murasaki and Shonagon were able to transcend their mutual antipathy and grasp their commonality; to realize that they were both consumed by the same grand passion; that they were not, in essence, rivals but rather colleagues. The evidence seems to suggest not.

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Althought it might be a stretch, I think The Pillow Book
is a kind of weblog :) You have to stretch the definition of "weblog" pretty far to get there, but it is a diary and a commentary on society. And it has survived to this day. I wonder if our weblogs will survive so long and what people will say about them if they do?

Posted by Will Leshner on 31 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Will, I don't think it's much of a stretch at all. I have other essays in the works about Murasaki and Shonagon, and I intend to take up the blogging theme in the latter.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 31 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I can't wait to read them.

Posted by Will Leshner on 31 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I wouldn't mind hearing more about these two ladies myself. Particularly in reference to their opinions about each other, which is fascinating and frighteningly modern in outlook. The section from Murasaki's diary -- such a brilliant put down. Subtle, yet incredibly vicious. I think modern woman has lost that deft touch.

Posted by Burningbird on 31 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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