Monday 07 April 2003

Things and people, charming and splendid

The only surviving description of Sei Shonagon comes from a less than reliable source: an entry in the diary of Murasaki Shikibu—her contemporary and rival at court—that begins: “Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction…”

Her father was Kiyowara no Motosuke, a scholar and poet. She might have been born in 965, or 966. Perhaps she married Tachibana no Norimitsu though it’s more likely he was merely one of many lovers. They possibly had a son.

Though, according to legend, she died in old age, lonely and impoverished, this is probably wish fulfillment on the part of those—including Murasaki—who disapproved of Shonagon’s lively intelligence, argumentative spirit, intolerance towards inferiors, lack of inhibition, and masterful prose style.

The paucity of detail about her life matters little when she is so entirely present in every word she wrote.

On the first day of the First Month and on the third of the Third I like the sky to be perfectly clear.

On the fifth of the Fifth Month I prefer a cloudy sky.

On the seventh day of the Seventh Month it should also be cloudy; but in the evening it should clear, so that the moon shines brightly in the sky and one can see the outline of the stars.

On the ninth of the Ninth Month there should be a drizzle from early dawn. Then there will be heavy dew on the chrysanthemums, while the floss silk that covers them will be wet through and drenched also with the precious scent of blossoms. Sometimes the rain stops early in the morning, but the sky is still overcast, and it looks as if it may start raining again at any moment. This too I find very pleasant.”

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book (translated by Ivan Morris)

Cover of a German edition of Sei Shonagon's Pillow BookThis is one passage in The Pillow Book I never tire of reading.

I love the rigorous order in the numerical pattern she fashions and how the year advances as a consequence. I love the steady rhythm as cloudy skies alternate with clear. I love the fact that she enjoys the clouds, the rain, the drizzle, as do I. I love the quality of her attention. I love the sense that she is instructing nature, expecting it to furnish her with the weather she requires.

To put it simply, I love her: who she is, or was, or rather how she creates herself on the page, regardless of who she may have been.

I imagine her, clothed in layers of beaten silk, gossamer, and gauze, of differing lengths and in meticulously chosen colors, strolling in the garden of the Kokiden apartments on the ninth of the Ninth. The rain has stopped earlier that morning but could start again without warning. She seems unconcerned that her hair, which is just slightly longer than her height, brushes lightly on the dewy grass. She is plump, with a whitened face, and bright red lips. Her teeth are dyed black, her eyebrows plucked and replaced with two rectangular black blotches, about an inch above where her real ones used to be.

She may be alone, though given her partiality for company, she is probably not. I wonder, as she looks at the heavy dew on those chrysanthemums, if she is already thinking about what she will write.

One day Lord Korechika, the Minister of the Center, brought the Empress a bundle of notebooks. “What shall we do with them?” Her Majesty asked me. “The Emperor has already made arrangements for copying the Records of the Historian.”

“‘Let me make them into a pillow,” I said.

“Very well,” said Her Majesty. “You may have them.”

I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

I imagine her later the same day in her “room,” really nothing more than an enclosure of thick curtains, seated at a writing table, with her inkstick, her brushes, her notebooks. She stares briefly at an empty page then picks up a brush, wets it lightly with ink, and—quickly and fluidly—covers the paper with characters.

I suspect her sentences arrive fully formed: surely to have her writing a rough draft in one notebook for later transcription in another is at odds with her sharp wit and ability to summon up an apt quotation.

And yet, in her list of Rare Things, she includes: “to avoid getting ink stains on the notebook into which one is copying stories, poems, or the like. If it is a very fine notebook, one takes the greatest care not to make a blot; yet somehow one never seems to succeed.”

It’s her lists for which The Pillow Book is best known; they include lists of:

Elegant Things
Unsuitable Things
Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
Things That Give a Pathetic Impression
Surprising Things
Depressing Things
Things That Gain by Being Painted
Things That Give a Hot Feeling
Squalid Things
Things That are Distant Though Near
Things That Have Lost Their Power
Things That Should Be Short

When I read in her list of Different Ways of Speaking that “the common people always tend to add extra syllables to their words,” I thought instantly of my father who loved words and, in an idiosyncrasy at odds with his kind and compassionate character, took delight in hearing people mispronounce words, even to the extent of contriving to have them repeat their mistake.

Shonagon’s disdainful attitude towards “the common people” is a constant of The Pillow Book, a sensibility at odds with the mandatory egalitarianism of today. In her list of Unsuitable Things she includes:

Snow on the houses of common people. This is especially regrettable when the moonlight shines down on it.

And, later on:

It is very annoying when one has visited Hase Temple and has retired into one’s enclosure, to be disturbed by a herd of common people who come and sit outside in a row, crowded so close together that the tails of their robes fall over each other in utter disarray.

But the snobbishness and elitism is part of the Shonagon package, an intrinsic component of her opinionated, abrasive way of looking at the world. And since the outstanding quality of The Pillow Book, apart from her incomparable prose, is precisely the freedom with which she offers her opinions on absolutely everything—from taking a daytime nap to the ideal size of an ox’s forehead to the qualities of the perfect lover—it’s hardly reasonable to damn her for offering them a little more freely than we might like.

The way in which carpenters eat is really odd… I cannot stand a woman who wears sleeves of unequal width… Nothing annoys me so much as someone who arrives at a ceremony in a shabby, poorly decorated carriage… Men have really strange emotions and behave in the most bizarre ways. Sometimes a man will leave a very pretty woman to marry an ugly one.

I realize I’m attracted to her willingness to give voice to the thoughts we all have but are too polite, ashamed, or afraid to say—especially nowadays when even what we may think is so severely circumscribed. She writes, about halfway through, that she “never thought that these notes would be read by anyone else, and so I included everything that came into my head, however strange or unpleasant.”

And yet I wonder if Sei Shonagon, in her writer’s heart, ever gave more than scant consideration to keeping her thoughts to herself.

When the Middle Captain of the Left Guards Division was still Governor of Ise, he visited me one day at my home. There was a straw mat at the edge of the veranda, and I pulled it out for him. This notebook of mine happened to be lying on the mat, but I did not notice it in time. I snatched at the book and made a desperate effort to get it back; but the Captain instantly took it off with him and did not return it until much later. I suppose it was from this time that my book began to be passed about at Court.

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

That her notebooks rapidly attracted a wide and enthusiastic audience seems to have curbed neither her wit nor her candor.

It’s a commonplace observation that nowadays Sei Shonagon would have a weblog since The Pillow Book is an obvious precursor of the quintessentially Japanese genre known as zuihitsu—literally “following the brush”, but commonly translated as “random jottings,” “occasional writings,” “informal essay,” or, perhaps most accurately, “miscellany.” Yet the weblog could also be said to draw upon two other equally important Japanese genres: the nikki (diary) and shi-shosetsu (very loosely translated as “autobiographical novel” or “I-novel”)—but I shall leave that discussion until another day.

Sei Shonagon

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The Pillow Book! Certainly one of my very favorite pieces of writing of all time. And as a model, most liberating.

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 8 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Actually, marriage, at least among the uppercrust, in the Heian period was hardly a formulized affair. Since, in particular the late 10th and 11th centuries, this is a period between mandatory registration of individuals, there's no central, or even centralized, record of marriage.

Marriage in the Heian, and into the Kamakura, periods was a fairly informal affair, it seems: easily made, easily broken. Telling a serial divorcee from someone with a string of lovers is therefore tricky. With no official legitimization at the time (and therefore, no official process for a divorce), but some official consequences for if someone was currently married or not (in the case of Kamakura inheritence law, among the buke).... V. tricky, v. murky. William McCullough did the most definitive work on Heian courtly marriage, I think.

Posted by Kristina on 9 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour