Lists, anecdotes, poetry, and small essays surrounding fleeting moments: reading The Pillow Book (枕草子 – Makura no sōshi, c.1002) is an experiment on estrangement – like trying to trap exotic birds in our hands, their hearts furiously beating and ready for the flight.
Written between the years 994 and 1001, yours are detailed observations on the life in the Japanese court, as well as landscape descriptions full of colour: a record of the passing of the seasons inside the house, in the garden, and on people. We have things that make the heart beat faster (sparrows feeding their young; the sound of raindrops when scattered by the wind; a Chinese mirror becoming cloudy) and things that are far away even though they are near (members of a family who do not love each other), things distorted by shadows (everything in the lilac shade of the wisteria loses its beauty) and things that fade when painted (cherry blossoms).
The world you described in minutiae, more than a thousand years ago, in Japan, is delightfully strange to us now. In this world, women darken their teeth; polygamy is natural, but men and women almost never see each other’s faces; and official messages are exchanged through poetry challenges. It is a world where the mastery of the classical poetic forms as well as of beautiful calligraphy are distinctive signs of power and nobility.
We have insightful character sketches, reminiscences, personal confessions, some nature writing, journal entries, and about 164 idiosyncratic lists. The random notes collected here have little connection to one another except for the fact that they follow your whims, and are centred on a deep feeling of delight with the world around you. The book reads as if we were following your brushstrokes, as you write down your spontaneous flow of thoughts, randomly, and with the same inconstancy with which time and life pass through us.
The book also has a narrative component, albeit a fleeting one. You alternate long passages, short stories, and poetic lists. Each image you use is rich in historical or symbolic associations, whose meaning is enhanced by your use of overlapping contrasts: the astonishment we feel when we read some of your lists seems to be caused by the juxtaposition of heterogeneous and seemingly incomparable elements. Your lists contrast, overlap, contradict each other: they are symbolic, paradoxical, impossible. The use of repetition gives a certain rhythm to the book, and the lists are its refrain. They incorporate the reader in the act of creating, improvising the poetic form, as if we were caught in the pauses and silences, in-between the lines.
Printed in the 17th century, the book exists in different versions, in at least four major forms: the order of entries has been changed by the scribes who copied the manuscripts, so that comments and passages were later added, edited or deleted. The edition translated by Meredith McKinney (2006) used the version known as Sankanbon, whose earliest extant copy dates from 1228, and traditionally includes a supplementary group of sections apparently added to a previous version of the text. The edition translated by Ivan Morris (1967), on the other hand, is largely based on the version of the book known as Nōinbon, which contains the same material but in different order, omits some passages found in the Sankanbon version and adds others.
As for the translation itself, I found Morris’ more elegant and didactic, while McKinney’s is more succinct and has a certain strangeness to it. Compare the opening sentences:
“1. In Spring It Is The Dawn
In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.”
“1. In spring, the dawn – when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.”
Now consider the list of “Things that make you feel nostalgic”:
“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.”
“On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.”
And, finally, compare this passage:
“84. I Remember A Clear Morning
I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.
As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.”
“124. It’s beautiful the way the water drops hang so thick and dripping on the garden plants after a night of rain in the ninth month, when the morning sun shines fresh and dazzling on them. Where the rain clings in the spider webs that hang in the open weave of a screening fence or draped on the eaves, it forms the most moving and beautiful strings of white pearly drops. I also love the way, when the sun has risen higher, the bush clover, all bowed down beneath the weight of the drops, will shed its dew, and a branch will suddenly spring up though no hand has touched it. And I also find it fascinating that things like this can utterly fail to delight others.”
All in all, the two versions are complementary, and their differences may reflect slightly different original sources. Both feature introductions that trace the historical, cultural, and literary contexts in which the book was written, as well as illustrations and explanatory notes about some of the references cited in the text, such as classical poems and specific ceremonies.
Your writing is witty and full of joy, depicting in detail the routines and rituals of your day: you have an eye for finding the amusing side of things, and we become quickly immersed in the spatiality and temporality of life in the court. We become familiar with the most trivial experiences of this strange world: the parties, the clothes, the nature of aristocratic life and its flaws, its small disputes.
The fragmented entries in the book almost read like personal blog posts – in fact, in the late 2000’s, there was a blogger who attempted a new translation of the Pillow Book, published in blog format, where each segment corresponded to a different post. As it turned out, your book fits the format perfectly: it is, after all, an idiosyncratic commonplace book, almost like a series of still life pictures, covering a wide range of subjects, from art, nature, and politics, to religion, gossip, poetry, and relationships between men and women.
Your book is also steeped in mono no aware: the ‘pathos in things’, a special feeling for the ephemerous, impermanent side of things, the sense that every small thing is precious because nothing lasts: the cherry blossoms are torn off branches by the wind; the wild geese fly into the setting sun, and disappear into darkness. The seasons replace each other, year after year in your pillow book, like colours brushed on top of one another on a painting that is never finished.
Your voice, in its uniqueness, pervades the book in alternating cadences. This voice crosses through the space of a thousand years that separates our worlds, and strikes us with its freshness, like the trembling light of an ancient star.
“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 rain drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.” – Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book, tr. Ivan Morris, 1967
“26. Things that make your heart beat fast – A sparrow with nestlings. Going past 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.” – Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book, tr. Meredith McKinney, 2006
About the book
- Columbia University Press, 1991, tr. Ivan Morris, 419 p. Goodreads
- Penguin Classics, 2006, tr. Meredith McKinney, 364 p. Goodreads
- First published in c. 1002
- Original title: 枕草子 [Makura no sōshi]
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- The book is mentioned in the film The Pillow Book (1996, directed by Peter Greenaway, IMDb), which borrows some of the aesthetic elements of Shōnagon’s work
- I read this book for Japanese Literature Challenge 12