Tag Archives: Pillow Book

More revolted by than admiring of Sei Shônagon’s miscellaney

I have been on a Heian Japan tear, greatly admiring American anthropologist Lisa Dalby’s novel about the author of The Tale of Genji in The Tale of Murasaki and Columbia Japanologist Ivan Morris’s comprehensive analysis of Heian court culture and society in 1964 The World of the Shining Prince.

Morris drew on material from various extant Heian writings in addition to Genji, particularly The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, which he would translate a few years later (1967). I know that I read it long ago, probably in small chunks. There are 185 of these entires, covering 243 pages in Morris’s Penguin edition. He also produced 584 notes that take 110 pages, a ten-page introduction, 33 pages of appendices and a one page list of “further reading.”

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Considering the high regard I have for Morris’s explication of Heian culture, the high proportion of the book that is explication rather than translation if not a problem for me. The problem is the Heian author. I cannot think of a more snobbish writer in the whole of my experience of world literature than Sei Shônagon. She does not consider just servants and peasants as subhuman, but also members of the elite who are not as refined or as knowledgeable of classic Chinese poetry as she is or who commit what she considers some fault of couture.

Juxtaposed to her dismissing of most people, including most other members of the imperial court, there is also a sycophancy that seems pathological to me. I realize that flattering is what courtiers do to rulers, but the paeans to the empress Teishi’s beauty, poise, and poetic choices is so excessive as to turn my stomach. All the more so, since the book was mostly written secretly without expectation of being read by the empress and emperor. Rather than currying favor through flattery, Sei seems to have been so dazzled by rank as to be turned into a fool, however sharp-tongued she was about those of rank equal to or less than her own.

Plus I have vastly less interest in the robes and underrobes worn by the empress, empress, chamberlain, and officials (considering ladies in waiting as official) than Sei did, find the lack of development even in the fairly extended narratives included in the book disappointing. The lack of organization, within entries as well as in the total collection of judgments and observations, particularly in the many, many lists further alienates me. I do not agree with Morris that part of the book’s “charm lies precisely in its bizarre, haphazard arrangement in which a list of ‘awkward things,’ for example is followed by an account of the Emperor’s return form a shrine, after which a totally unrelated incident about the Chancellor that occurred a year or two earlier and then a short, lyrical description of the dew on a clear autumn morning.” I am not charmed. I might appreciate the occasional lyricism if it was not cheek-to-jowl with the putdowns of the many and the sychophantic praise of Sei’s social superiors.

What puzzles me is that I don’t have negative memories from when I first read the Pillow Book long ago. In contrast, my admiration for the structure (at the level of episodes as well as that of the whole huge book) for The Tale of Genji has grown, as I have read three translations of it. In her diary, Lady Murasaki herself castigated Sei Shônagon(‘s jottings and character) “frivolous,” an adjective that I think might be applied to the aesthetes of the court in the times of both writers. Though acknowledging that Sei Shônagon was a “gifted woman,” Muraskai was also put off by “the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction” in Sei’s writing.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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