poetics of life

Sei Shonagon’s Lists

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is one of the strangest and most delightful works of literature in the entire human history.

Shonagon (966-1017) was a Lady-In-Waiting serving the Japanese empress Sadako in the peaceful Heian era. She authored the Pillow Book, a “collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court.” In other words, while the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was creating Beowulf, Shonagon was writing a blog. Pillow books (Makura no Soshi) were a genre of personal writing of the time, and it wasn’t unusual for court ladies to swap and read them: the one that survives to our time is the one that was most fun to read.

And it is fun to read; and not just compared to OTHER 1,000-year-old books. Shonagon describes the trivial, everyday minutiae of a world extremely alien to us, that of a totally secluded Heian court: one in which people rarely walk, but rather crawl; in which women blacken their teeth; in which polygamy is normal, but men and women hardly ever see each other’s faces; in which professional posts are obtained through poetry contests; and in which referring to a woman by name was considered so rude, and thus so thoroughly avoided, that nobody knows what Sei Shonagon’s actual name was. You read Pillow Book, and you really get a sense of who these people were, these people who lived a thousand years ago: what other book does that?

And you can very quickly become immersed into the spatiality and the temporality of their life: the seasons, the festivals, how people’s careers progress, what to wear when, what to never wear, how to find a husband, what is uncool, what happens to the dead, the spatiality of flirting and romance, the spatiality of old age and abandonment. And I suppose that’s why I love it so much: for the way it is eschews grand themes. Everyday life is an incredibly under-appreciated thing. How it works, why it works, why it fails, why we’re happy or miserable living it. As Chris Marker said, “I’ve been around the world several times, and only banality still interests me.”

The most famous thing about Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s lists. Here are some:

16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shatters.

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

25. Infuriating things
A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.
A hair has got on to your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. Also, the grating sound when a bit of stone gets ground in with the ink.
[…]
A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.
[…]
A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamoring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
[…]
I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.
Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all. This is quite infuriating.
[…]

26. Things that make your heart beat fast
A sparrow with nestlings. Going past a place where tiny children are playing. Lighting some fine incense and then lying down alone to sleep. Looking into a Chinese mirror that’s a little clouded. A fine gentleman pulls up in his carriage and sends in some request.
To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well-scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.
On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster.

29. Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

32. Unsuitable Things
A woman with ugly hair wearing a robe of white damask.
Hollyhock worn in frizzled hair.
Ugly handwriting on red paper.
Snow on the house of common people. This is especially regrettable with the moonlight shines down to it.
A plain wagon on a moonlit night; or a light auburn ox harnessed to such a wagon.
A woman who, thought well past her youth, is pregnant and walks along panting. It is unpleasant to see a woman of a certain age with a young husband; and it is most unsuitable when she becomes jealous of him because he has gone to visit someone else.
An elderly man who has overslept and who wakes up with a start; or a greybeard munching some acorns that he has plucked. An old woman who eats a plum and, finding it sour, puckers her toothless mouth.
A woman of the lower classes dressed in scarlet trouser-skirt. The sight is all too common these days.
A handsome man with an ugly wife.
An elderly man with a black beard and a disagreeable expression playing with a little child who has just learnt to talk.

39. Nothing Can Be Worse

Nothing can be worse than allowing the driver of one’s ox-carriage to be poorly dressed. It does not matter too much if the other attendants are shabby, since they can remain at the rear of the carriage; but the drivers are bound to be noticed and, if they are badly turned out, it makes a painful impression.

The servants who follow one’s carriage must have at least a few good points. Some people choose slender young men who look as if they were really made to be after-runners, but then let them wear threadbare hunting costumes and trouser-skirts that are dark at the hems and actually seem to be of shaded materials. This is a great mistake, for, as they amble along beside the carriage, these badly dressed young men do not seem to be part of their master’s equipage to all.

The fact is that the people in one’s employ should always be decently dressed. To be sure, servants of ten tear their clothes; but, so long as they have been wearing them for some time, this is no great loss and one can let the matter pass.

Gentlemen who have had official servants allotted to their households must certainly not allow them to go about looking slovenly. When a messenger or a visitor arrives, it is very pleasant, both for the master and for the members of his household, to have a collection of good-looking pages in attendance.

44. Things That Cannot Be Compared

Summer and winter. Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person’s laughter and his anger. Black and white. Love and hatred. The little indigo plant and the great philodendron. Rain and mist.

When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.

In a garden full of evergreens the crows are all asleep. Then, towards the middle of the night, the crows in one of the trees suddenly wake up in a great flurry and start flapping about. Their unrest spreads to the other trees, and soon all the birds have been startled from their sleep and are cawing in alarm. How different from the same crows in daytime!

47. Rare Things
A son-in-law who is praised by his adoptive father; a young bride who is loved by her mother-inlaw.
A silver tweezer that is good at plucking out the hair.
A servant who does not speak badly about his master.
A person who is in no way eccentric or imperfect, who is superior in both mind and body, and who remains flawless all his life.
People who live together and still manage to behave with reserve towards each other. However much these people may try to hide their weaknesses, they usually fail.
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.
When people, whether they be men or women or priests, have promised each other eternal friendship, itis rare for them to stay on good terms until the end.
A servant who is pleasant to his master.
One has give some silk to the fuller and, when he sends it back, it is so beautiful that one cries out in admiration.

49. Cats
Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

80. Things that create the appearance of deep emotion
The sound of your voice when you’re constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk.
Plucking your eyebrows.

80. Things That Have Lost Their Power
A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebb-tide.
A woman who has taken off her false locks to comb the short hair that remains.
A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air.
The retreating figure of a sumo wrestler who has been defeated in a match.
A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant.
An old man who removes his hat, uncovering his scanty top-knot.
A woman, who is angry with her husband about some trifling matter, leaves home and goes somewhere to hide. She is certain that he will rush about looking for her; but he does nothing of the kind and shows the most infuriating indifference. Since she cannot stay away for ever, she swallows her pride and returns.

81. Awkward Things
One has gone to a house and asked to see someone; but the wrong person appears, thinking that it is he who is wanted; this is especially awkward if one has brought a present.
One has allowed oneself to speak badly about someone without really intending to do so; a young child who has overheard it all goes and repeats what one has said in front of the person in question.

Someone sobs out a pathetic story. One is deeply moved; but it so happens that not a single tear comes to one’s eyes— most awkward. Though one makes one’s face look as if one is going to cry, it is no use: not a single tear will come. Yet there are times when, having heard something happy, one feels the tears streaming out.

92. Disconcerting things
An ox cart that’s overturned. You’ve assumed that something of such enormous bulk must of course be thoroughly stable, and you’re simply stunned to see it lying there, and deeply disconcerted.

Spilling something is always very startling and disconcerting.

92. Things Without Merit
An ugly person with a bad character.

Rice starch that has become mixed with water… I know that this is a very vulgar item and everyone will dislike my mentioning it, but that should not stop me. In fact I must feel free to include anything, even tongs used for the parting-fires. After all, these objects do exist in our world and people all know about them. I admit they do not belong to a list that others will see.

But I 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.

97. Things That Give a Clean Feeling
An earthen cup.
A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

98. Things That Give an Unclean Feeling
A rat’s nest.
Someone who is late in washing his hands in the morning.
White snivel, and children who sniffle as they walk.
The containers used for oil.
Little sparrows.
A person who does not bathe for a long time even thought the weather is hot.
All faded clothes give me an unclean feeling, especially those that have glossy colors.

104. Things That One is in a Hurry to See or to Hear
Rolled dyeing, uneven shading, and all other forms of dappled dyeing.
When a woman has first had a child, one is in a hurry to find out whether it is a boy or a girl. If she is a
lady of quality, one is obviously most curious; but, even if she is a servant or someone else of humble station, one still wants to know.
Early in the morning on the first day of the period of official appointments one is eager to hear whether a certain acquaintance will receive his governorship.
A letter from the man one loves.

109. Things That Are Distant Though Near

Festivals celebrated near the Palace.
Relations between brothers, sisters, and other members of a family who do not love each other.
The zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama.
The last day of the Twelfth Month and the first of the First.

116. Deeply Irritating Things

One is in a hurry to leave, but one’s visitor keeps chattering away. If it is someone of no importance, one can get rid of him by saying, “You must tell me all about it next time”; but, should it be the sort of visitor whose presence commands one’s best behaviour, the situation is hateful indeed.

One finds that a hair has got caught in the stone on which one is rubbing one’s inkstick, or again that gravel is lodged in the inkstick, making a nasty, grating sound.

Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long, fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcizing too many evil spirits lately, for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful!

A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.

An elderly person warms the palms of his hands over a brazier and stretches out the wrinkles. No young man would dream of behaving in such a fashion; old people can really be quite shameless. I have seen some dreary old creatures actually resting their feet on the brazier and rubbing them against the edge while they speak. These are the kind of people who in visiting someone’s house first use their fans to wipe away the dust from the mat and, when they finally sit on it, cannot stay still but are forever spreading out the front of their hunting costume1 or even tucking it up under their knees. One might suppose that such behaviour was restricted to people of humble station, but I have observed it in quite well-bred people, including a Senior Secretary of the Fifth Rank in the Ministry of Ceremonial and a former Governor of Suruga.

I hate the sight of men in their cups who shout, poke their fingers in their mouths, stroke their beards, and pass on the wine to their neighbours with cries of “Have some more! Drink up!” They tremble, shake their heads, twist their faces, and gesticulate like children who are singing, “We’re off to see the governor!” I have seen really well-bred people behave like this and I find it most distasteful.

To envy others and complain about one’s own lot; to speak badly about people; to be inquisitive about the most trivial matters and to resent and abuse people for not telling one, or, if one does manage to worm out some facts, to inform everyone in the most detailed fashion as if one had known all from the beginning—oh, how hateful!

One is just about to be told some interesting piece of news when a baby starts crying.

A flight of crows circle over with loud caws.

An admirer has come on a clandestine visit, but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking. One feels like killing the beast.

One has been foolish enough to invite a man to spend the night in an unsuitable place—and then he starts snoring.

A gentleman has visited one secretly. Though he is wearing a tall, lacquered hat,2 he nevertheless wants no one to see him. He is so flurried, in fact, that on leaving he bangs into something with his hat. Most hateful! It is annoying too when he lifts up the Iyo blind3 that hangs at the entrance of the room, then lets it fall with a great rattle. If it is a head-blind, things are still worse, for being more solid it makes a terrible noise when it is dropped. There is no excuse for such carelessness. Even a head-blind does not make any noise if one lifts it up gently when entering and leaving the room; the same applies to sliding-doors. If one’s movements are rough, even a paper door will bend and resonate when opened; but, if one lifts the door a little when pushing it, there need be no sound.

One has gone to bed and is about to doze off when a mosquito appears, announcing himself in a reedy voice. One can actually feel the wind made by his wings, and, slight though it is, one finds it hateful in the extreme.

A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise. Annoying to think that the passengers may not even be aware of this! If I am travelling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but the owner of the carriage.

One is in the middle of a story when someone butts in and tries to show that he is the only clever person in the room. Such a person is hateful, and so, indeed, is anyone, child or adult, who tries to push himself forward.

One is telling a story about old times when someone breaks in with a little detail that he happens to know, implying that one’s own version is inaccurate—disgusting behaviour!

Very hateful is a mouse that scurries all over the place.

Some children have called at one’s house. One makes a great fuss of them and gives them toys to play with. The children become accustomed to this treatment and start to come regularly, forcing their way into one’s inner rooms and scattering one’s furnishings and possessions. Hateful!

A certain gentleman whom one does not wish to see visits one at home or in the Palace, and one pretends to be asleep. But a maid comes to tell one and shakes one awake, with a look on her face that says, “What a sleepyhead!” Very hateful.

A newcomer pushes ahead of the other members in a group; with a knowing look, this person starts laying down the law and forcing advice upon everyone—most hateful.

A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman! (Yet sometimes I find it is not as unpleasant as all that.)

A person who recites a spell himself after sneezing.4 In fact I detest anyone who sneezes, except the master of the house.

Fleas too, are very hateful. When they dance about under someone’s clothes, they really seem to be lifting them up.

The sound of dogs when they bark for a long time in chorus is ominous and hateful.

I cannot stand people who leave without closing the panel behind them.

I hate people whose letters show that they lack respect for worldly civilities, whether by discourtesy in the phrasing or by extreme politeness to someone who does not deserve it. This sort of thing is, of course, most odious if the letter is for oneself, but it is bad enough even if it is addressed to someone else.

As a matter of fact, most people are too casual, not only in their letters but in their direct conversation. Sometimes I am quite disgusted at noting how little decorum people observe when talking to each other. It is particularly unpleasant to hear some foolish man or woman omit the proper marks of respect when addressing a person of quality; and, when servants fail to use honorific forms of speech in referring to their masters, it is very bad indeed. No less odious, however, are those masters who, in addressing their servants, use such phrases as ‘When you were good enough to do such-and-such’ or ‘As you so kindly remarked.’ No doubt there are some masters who, in describing their own actions to a servant, say, ‘I presumed to do so-and-so’!5

Sometimes a person who is utterly devoid of charm will try to create a good impression by using very elegant language; yet he succeeds only in being ridiculous. No doubt he believes this refined language to be just what the occasion demands, but, when it goes so far that everyone bursts out laughing, surely something must be wrong.

When speaking to young noblemen and courtiers of high rank, one should always (unless Their Majesties are present) refer to them by their official posts. Incidentally, I have been very shocked to hear important people use the word ‘I’ while conversing in Their Majesties’ presence.6 Such a breach of etiquette is really distressing, and I fail to see why people cannot avoid it.

A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him, but who speaks in an affected tone and poses as being elegant.

An inkstone with such a hard, smooth surface that the stick glides over it without leaving any deposit of ink.

Ladies-in-waiting who want to know everything that is going on.

Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason—and then that person goes and does something hateful.

A gentleman who travels alone in his carriage to see a procession or some other spectacle. What sort of man is he? Even though he may not be a person of the greatest quality, surely he should have taken along a few of the many young men who are anxious to see the sights. But no, there he sits by himself (one can see his silhouette through the blinds) with a proud look on his face, keeping all his impressions to himself.

A lover who is leaving at dawn announces that he has to find his fan and his paper.7 “I know I put them somewhere last night,” he says. Since it is pitch-dark, he gropes about the room, bumping into the furniture and muttering, “Strange! Where can they be?” Finally he discovers the objects. He thrusts the paper into the breast of his robe with a great rustling sound; then he snaps open his fan and busily fans away with it. Only now is he ready to take his leave. What charmless behaviour! “Hateful” is an understatement.

Equally disagreeable is the man who, when leaving in the middle of the night, takes care to fasten the cord of his headdress. This is quite unnecessary; he could perfectly well put it gently on his head without tying the cord. And why must he spend time adjusting his cloak or hunting costume? Does he really think that someone may see him at this time of night and criticize him for not being impeccably dressed?

A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drags himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face. The lady urges him on: “Come, my friend, it’s getting light. You don’t want anyone to find you here.” He gives a deep sigh, as if to say that the night has not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave. Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers. Instead, he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night. Even when he is dressed, he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash.

Presently he raises the lattice, and the two lovers stand together by the side door while he tells her how he dreads the coming day, which will keep them apart; then he slips away. The lady watches him go, and this moment of parting will remain among her most charming memories.

Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe, or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash—one really begins to hate him.

126. Things That Should Be Large
Priests. Fruit. Houses. Provision bags. Inksticks for inkstones.
Men’s eyes: when they are too narrow, they look feminine. On the other hand, if they were as large as metal bowls, I should find them rather frightening.
Round braziers. Winter cherries. Pine trees. The petals of yellow roses.
Horses as well as oxen should be large

127. Things That Should Be Short
A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.
A lamp stand.
The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.
The speech of a young girl.

143. Things that make the heart lurch with anxiety
Watching a horse-race. Twisting up a paper hair-binding cord [because it might break].
When a parent looks out of sorts, and remarks that they’re not feeling well. This particularly worries you to distraction when you’ve been hearing panicky tales of plague sweeping the land.
Also, a little child who can’t yet talk, who simply cries and cries, refusing to drink from the breast or even to be comforted when the nurse picks it up and holds it.
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.

147. Features That I Particularly Like
Features that I particularly like in someone’s face continue to give a thrill of delight however often I see
the person. With pictures it is different. If I look at them too often, they cease to attract me; indeed, I never so much as glance at the beautiful paintings on the screen that stands near my usual seat.

There is something really fascinating about beautiful faces. Though an object such as a vase or a fan may be ugly in general, there is always one particular part that one can gaze at with pleasure. One would expect this to apply to faces also; but, alas, there is nothing to recommend an ugly face.

173. It is Very Annoying
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. I remember that once I was overcome by great desire to go on a pilgrimage. Having made my way up to log steps, deafened by the fearful roar of the river, I hurried into my enclosure, longing to gaze upon the sacred countenance of Buddha. To my dismay I found that a throng of commoners had settled themselves directly in front of me, where they were incessantly standing up, prostrating themselves, and squatting down again. They looked like so many basket-worms as they crowded together in their hideous clothes, leaving hardly an inch of space between themselves and me. I really felt like pushing them all over sideways.

Important visitors always have attendants to clear such pests from their enclosures; but it is not so easy for ordinary people like me. If one summons one of the priests who is responsible for looking after the pilgrims, he simply says something like “You there, move back a little, won’t you?” and, as soon as he has left, things are as bad as before.

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