I’m sorry to say I was disappointed by Kenko’s Essays in Idleness. I loved the book’s prologue, which I’ve quoted on my sidebar, and I had high hopes that I would enjoy reading Kenko’s “nonsensical thoughts,” but too often I found them inscrutable, dull, or annoying.
I couldn’t help but compare Kenko’s work (from the 14th century) to Sei Shonagon’s earlier (10th century) Pillow Book, and find it lacking. Everyone else makes this comparison too, or at least the writer of the introduction to my edition did, and Kenko himself had Shonagon in mind when he wrote his work. The writers are doing something similar — they both record their observations of society, their thoughts about political and religious figures, the interesting gossip they have heard. But Shonagon is witty in a way that Kenko is not, and her occasional mean spiritedness is highly entertaining, while Kenko is more inclined to be serious and a little stuffy. Shonagon has her odd moments too, but the rest of the work more than made up for those.
I am glad I read Kenko, however, if only for a glimpse into a society radically different from ours. Kenko was a Buddhist priest, and many of his essays touch on Buddhist beliefs such as the impermanence of all things and the pain caused by attachment to the material world. Some of the better essays describe the beauty to be found in impermanence and imperfection:
Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. Are poems written on such themes as “Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered” or “On being prevented from visiting the blossoms” inferior to those on “Seeing the blossoms”? People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now.”
I would have liked the book more had there been more passages like the above, and fewer about, say, the uselessness of women. But even harder to deal with than the misogyny, which is part of the culture, after all, is that so many of the essays simply don’t make sense to me. They too often tell stories the significance of which I don’t grasp, and I’m left shrugging my shoulders and thinking that it must have meant something to people at the time. Perhaps I could have found an edition with better notes that would fill in some of the information I’m missing, so this could simply be an editorial problem, but I fared better in this respect with The Pillow Book, which also didn’t have extensive notes.
But then there are essays like this one (“essay” isn’t the right word, since the passage is so short, but it will have to do), quoted in full:
A certain hermit once said, “There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.” I can understand why he should have felt that way.
And I can understand this too. Reading a book that is so far removed from our day and time as to be completely incomprehensible would make no sense, but there is surely a value in reading a book that has its beautiful moments but its bizarre and disorienting ones too. Even if I sometimes got frustrated at what I wasn’t following, I was aware at getting a glimpse into a world far from mine, and I’m glad I could experience that. There has to be a reason, after all, that this book remains in print and that people still read it.