Sei Shonagon

Sei Shonagon

For March I will complete the set of what is for me that trinity of great Heian women writers (who lived in the same world, in a sense dominated by the mystique of the tanka, but were so different from one another) by adding to the legendary poet Ono no Komachi, and the incomparable novelist Murasaki Shikibu, the essayist (or diarist) Sei Shonagon, author of The Pillow Book.

The writing of The Pillow Book would have overlapped that of The Tale of Genji, shortly before and after the year 1000,  and was going on in the same court environment.  Sei Shonagon, like Murasaki Shikibu, was a lady-in-waiting to an empress at this time, too, but to the older, retired Empress Sadako, who evidently conducted a more relaxed court, and, since Sei Shonagon has the reputation of being the most natural wit in the history of Japanese literature, we are dealing with a very different temperament and different product than that being written by Lady Murasaki (they knew one another well enough for Lady Murasaki to criticize Sei Shonagon in her own dairy for being frivolous in her impulse "to sample each interesting thing that comes along," and overly self-satisfied in her Chinese compositions, that are "full of imperfections"1).  Donald Keene says, The Pillow Book is "perhaps the closest approach to high comedy in Japanese literature,"2 while Ivan Morris, the translator of the English edition I have read (in abridged version), calls it, "by far our most detailed source of factual material on the life of the time and . . . also a work of great literary beauty, full of lively humor and subtle impressions of the world she lived in."3

The Pillow Book is so called because the author tells about the Empress receiving a "bundle of notebooks" that she didn't know what to do with, and Sei Shonagon asked if she might then make a pillow of them.  The Japanese pillow is a solid support, not normally made of a "bundle of notebooks," but quite possibly with a drawer that might contain such for a person who liked to write things down at odd times, and no set of writings could be more miscellaneous than these of Sei Shonagon.  She particularly liked to make lists of things.  As Morris notes, there are 164 lists in the book's "1098 closely printed pages," but, beyond this, "Shonagon's collection contains nature descriptions, diary entries, character sketches, and anecdotes . . . a list of 'awkward things', for example, is followed by an account of the Emperor's return from a shrine, after which comes a totally unrelated incident about the Chancellor that occurred a year or two earlier and then a short, lyrical description of the dew on a clear autumn morning."4  The textual history is such that no one can be sure that the order of items even approximates either the original order or that finally intended by the author.  Morris speculates that she very likely did begin just making random notes, then may have begun to put them in some order as they began to be read by others in the court.  But, in any case, order doesn't seem to matter much, for the collection as a whole, composed of personal notes covering ten years at court, "reveals a complicated, intelligent, well-informed woman who was quick, impatient, keenly observant of detail, high-spirited, witty, emulative, sensitive to the charms and beauties of the world and the pathos of things, yet intolerant and callous about people whom she regarded as her social or intellectual inferiors."5

That total sense of candid commentary on an environment presented in enough detail that you feel you come to know it, is important, of course, but just as important, for me, is the completeness with which you come to feel you know the woman who is speaking to you, about whatever happens to provoke her to speak today, and I come to have a great affection for her--as I do for these other two Heian ladies that are so different from her.  She reacts to things.  I invite you to read just the four pages where she tells how the dog, Okinamaru, is officially beaten almost to death after attacking the Empress's cat, Lady Myobu, but still returns, and, thanks to the sympathy of the ladies at court, finally receives an Imperial pardon, at the end of which she says, "even now, when I remember how he whimpered and trembled in response to our sympathy, it strikes me as a strange and moving scene; when people talk to me about it, I start crying myself."This has a kind of universality in spite of being set in the special conventions of that court society.  And her list of "Depressing Things" ("A dog howling in daytime . . . A lying-in room when the baby has died . . . a hot bath when one has just woken"--and a number that tell little stories a paragraph long, about a letter that didn't get delivered, or a poem written by an elderly person) or "Hateful Things" (a hair on one's inkstone, a clandestine lover and the dog starts barking) or "Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past" ("Last year's paper fan.  A night with a clear moon.") are both very personal, sketch her character, yet you find yourself nodding your head to most of them.  I definitely encourage you to make her acquaintance--you won't be sorry.

1The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth,
        England, 1970), pp. 9-10.
2Anthology of Japanese Literature: from the Earliest Era to the Mid-nineteenth Century, edited by
        Donald Keene (Grove Weidenfield: New York, 1955), p. 137.
3Morris, p. 10.
4Morris, p. 13.
5Morris, p. 10.
6Morris, pp. 30-32