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.
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