The Pillow Book

Guess what? I have a piece up on The Toast today! If you have never visited The Toast, don’t click over unless you’re prepared to lose yourself for hours. They do thoughtful long essays as well as humor that hits that perfect balance of quirky, smart, and an odd something that you might not get at first but find yourself chuckling over hours later. (In other words, they are like that multigrain bread you love, not the cardboard-y one, the one that is all virtue and no sugar, but the good one that is your favorite vehicle for butter and that kumquat preserve you’re so unaccountably fond of.)

My piece is not humor, not essay. It is a short little thing that I suppose one could classify as anachronistic literary homage.* I wrote it after reading The Pillow Book (枕草子), an amazing document by a 10th/11th-century Japanese court lady. Her name is usually given as Sei Shōnagon (清少納言) although that’s not her actual name; it’s a sort of court nickname. Not much is known about her except what she wrote in this book.

I don’t remember when I first heard of The Pillow Book but by the time I got around to reading it, it had been on my radar for years.** It’s incredible. It’s a thousand years old, set in an atmosphere that would have been extremely rarefied even for the average contemporary Japanese person, and yet it reads like a blog. A tumblr, to be exact. It is so full of daily life and personal perspective that I found it impossible not to love, even if the conditions of that life remain obscure to me. (I was very thankful for the introductory notes, footnotes, and appendices. I thought that our time in Kyoto would have made the book a little clearer to me, but it made almost no difference at all.)

a note on this image


According to the intro, The Pillow Book wasn’t originally intended for publication, and even if it had been so, the author would have been writing more to affirm existing cultural values than to set down her own particular, individual opinions. But we still get a strong sense of her. When she wrote the book, she was in the court of the empress, where she spent her time doing things like quoting poetry and studying people’s garments and waiting on Her Majesty. She was an unusually literate woman in a very literary time, and she excelled at the games of creative poetic one-upmanship the aristocracy favored, e.g., man sends you a letter with two lines of a poem referencing some famous Chinese poem, you write another two lines incorporating that reference but throwing in a reference to yet another poem, he shows it to his entourage and they all write your reply on their fans in a demonstration of approval. It’s beautifully esoteric and yet on some basic emotional level it’s completely easy to see how this worked.

Sei Shōnagon lived during the Heian period, an era of peace if not prosperity, but there were still (of course) upheavals in the power dynamics at court. These are almost entirely unmentioned in the book. Maybe she was just clueless and/or willfully superficial (and sometimes certainly unsympathetic), but I find a curious valiantness in her fixation on the beauties and small agonies of life, amidst these potentially very disruptive changes. And the entire book just breathes with mono no aware, because everything she writes about is so far vanished as to be almost unknown to us — just as, another thousand years into the future, everything we know as “the world” will completely pass away and be just as quaint and foreign to our descendants as our descendants are unimaginable to us. That should be depressing, but I found it very comforting to read The Pillow Book, especially while ill and in a city where I was new. It was a reminder to enjoy the present.

Some quotes from the edition I read (2006, Penguin Classics, translated by Meredith McKinney):

[139] “It’s amusing to see someone of high standing playing go against a social inferior. He lounges there relaxed, the ties of his robe loosened, casually scooping up the pieces and putting them on the board, while the man of lesser rank sits a little back from the board, maintaining a carefully respectful posture, and when he leans forward to play he’ll politely raise his other hand to draw back the hanging flap of his sleeve.”

Excerpt from [143] “Things that make the heart lurch with anxiety.

Your heart naturally lurches when you hear the voice of your secret lover in an unexpected place, but the same thing happens even when you hear someone else talking about him. It also lurches when someone you really detest arrives for a visit.

Indeed the heart is a creature amazingly prone to lurching. It even lurches in sympathy with another woman when the next-morning letter from a man who stayed with her for the first time the night before is late in arriving.”

Top item in [151] “People who seem enviable:

You set about learning to recite a sutra, stumbling along, going endlessly over the same places and constantly forgetting bits. When you hear the same words tripping smoothly off the tongue of others — not only the priests, but other men and women — you wonder enviously if you’ll ever be able to perform it like that.”

Excerpts from [153] “Occasions for anxious waiting:

Someone’s expecting a child, but the due date has come and gone and there’s still no sign of the birth beginning.

You set off late to see a festival, and alas the procession has already begun. You glimpse the white batons of the policemen who are clearing the way ahead of the procession, and while your carriage is being manoeuvred into a closer position in the crowd, you’re filled with despair at the thought of what you’ll be missing, and long to be able simply to get out and walk.”

Excerpts from [210] “Things that give you pleasure:

You’ve read the first volume of a tale you hadn’t come across before, and are longing to go on with it — then you find the other volume.

It’s also wonderfully pleasing when you’re in a large company of people in the presence of someone great, and she’s talking, either about something in the past or on a matter she’s only just heard about, some topic of the moment, and as she speaks it’s you she singles out to look at.

Managing to lay hands on some… good quality paper.

You feel very pleased with yourself when a person who rather overawes you asks you to supply the beginning or end of some bit of poem they quote, and you suddenly recall it. It so often happens that as soon as anyone asks you, even something you know perfectly well goes clean out of your head.

Finding something you need in a hurry.

When someone you don’t like meets with some misfortune, you’re pleased even though you know this is wicked of you.

It’s very pleasing when you’ve finally recovered from a nasty illness that’s plagued you day in, day out for months. This is even more the case when it’s not your own illness but that of someone you love.”

Excerpt from [148] “Repulsive things.

The back of a piece of sewing. Hairless baby mice tumbled out of their nest… The inside of a cat’s ear. A rather dirty place in darkness.”

The top item in [149] “Occasions when something inconsequential has its day:

Daikon radishes at New Year.”

The book is full of such lists. My piece at The Toast is meant as a tribute, but I imagine Sei Shōnagon would look upon it (and me) with elegant disfavor. Really, you should just read the book. You can even get it as an e-book. Check out the online sample and just see if you aren’t fascinated.

*I once tried to do an Austenesque version of this but it turned out to be too much work, since I was also trying to write about my mother and family dynamics. go back

**I read it a year ago, in Boston, while I was ill. I’d forgotten about the book for a long time but one afternoon I found it on a low bookshelf in the Boston sublet. Obviously it was meant to be. go back

***This is not really an appropriate image for this post. First, it’s from the Genji Monogatari Emaki (源氏物語絵巻), illustrating The Tale of Genji (源氏物語), whose author, Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), wrote condescendingly about Sei Shōnagon in her diary. The two are usually considered literary rivals, and given Sei Shōnagon’s finely tuned understanding of favor, competition, and insult, I do not think she’d be pleased. Second, although all dates are a bit rough, this scroll is estimated to have been painted about a hundred years after Sei Shōnagon’s death. So this is something like offering up a 2005 drawing of a Victorian woman to illustrate an article about Edith Wharton… and the woman in question is Wharton’s rival. Apologies all around, but I had a surprisingly hard time finding any art online from Sei Shōnagon’s period, and what I did find was mostly Buddhist, which isn’t especially appropriate either. go back