Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, written by a court gentlewoman in 10th century Japan, is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s the kind of book best read in small bits and pieces, kind of like a diary, although it isn’t one, exactly. In fact, although I didn’t choose to do this, you could take a hint from the book’s title and read a little bit of it as you hit the pillow every night. The introduction to my edition explains that the meaning of the book’s title is uncertain, but that we can possibly imagine Sei Shonagon:
taking away her pile of paper to keep by her pillow and write, in the form of private jottings and as if purely for her own entertainment, a work that would redound to the credit of Teishi’s court — a work conveying the brilliant wit, exquisite taste and sheer ‘delightfulness’ for which that court had become known and which Sei Shonagon was felt to epitomize.
The book is made up of small sections, some of them as short as one line and the longest ones reaching to 10 or 15 pages. Many of the entries are lists; Sei Shonagon will list, for example, “Things that make you feel nostalgic,” or “Occasions that induce half-heartedness” (including “Preparations for something still far in the future”) or “Things people despise” (including “People who have a reputation for being exceptionally good-natured”). She will also list interesting place names or the names of flowers that sound good in poetry or names that are significant for one reason or another.
Other sections tell stories, many of them having to do with love intrigues and flirtation and cultured conversation. There are many stories about men visiting their lovers at night and women waiting for the note that is sure to come after such a visit. Sei Shonagon also writes about visits the court members make to one another and about court ceremonies and religious festivals.
An element of almost all these stories is poetry, which plays a surprisingly important role in Japanese court culture. Again and again, Sei Shonagon tells stories about receiving letters with poetic allusions to which she must respond with a clever reference of her own, or stories about challenges to produce a poem on the spot, a challenge she must live up to, as she has a reputation for her quick wit. There was a body of poetry that everyone — or at least everyone who hoped to succeed at court — had memorized, and which formed the basis of a whole system of communication. You were expected to write poetry as well. To write a bad poem was a deeply embarrassing thing, as was the failure to write one at all when one was expected of you. To write a clever or beautiful poem could greatly increase your reputation and earn you respect.
The Pillow Book is fascinating for the glimpse it provides into a culture radically different from our own, and it’s also a pleasure to read for the sake of Sei Shonagon’s personality, which shines through every page. She is an astute observer of the world and the people around her, and she never spares judgment, telling her stories and writing up her lists with a forthright, honest, and often funny voice. One of the most famous passages from the book (it’s excerpted in my Art of the Personal Essay anthology) is a list of “Infuriating things,” and here’s a taste of it:
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 very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on….
It’s also quite disgusting to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping round inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them, and forcing the saké cup on others. “Go on, have another!” they’ll cry, and they wriggle and squirm and wag their heads, and pull down the corners of their mouths in a grimace, and generally perform just like a child singing “Going to See the Governor.” I’ve seen even truly great men behave in this way, and I must say I find it most offputting.
I also really hate the way some people go about envying others, bemoaning their own lot in life, demanding to be let in on every trivial little thing, being venomous about someone who won’t tell them what they want to know, and passing on their own dramatized version of some snippet of rumour they’ve heard, while making out that they knew it all along.
A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamouring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
A man you’ve had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore. Or, a man comes in on a secret visit wearing a particularly tall lacquered cap, and of course as he scuttles in hastily he manages to knock it against something with a loud bump ….
And I could go on … it occurs to me that this book would make an excellent source of memes. Perhaps we should start an “infuriating things” meme? Or how about “splendid things” or “things later regretted” or “times when someone’s presence produces foolish excitement” or “endearingly lovely things”?
Sei Shonagon is someone who becomes a companion as you read her thoughts and stories; I’m sorry to have finished this book and will miss her.