I’m reading The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi) of Sei Shonagon, a 10th century Japanese courtier and the contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji.
Little is known about Sei Shonagon other than what she reveals about herself in The Pillow Book. Even her name is shrouded in mystery, as “Shonagon” is a title that designates her as a government functionary, and “Sei” is a shorthand reference to her family name, Kiyohara. The picture that emerges from the translated pages of her only work is of an intelligent, sarcastic, incisive, haughty, compassionate, vain, vibrant person who was enchanted by the minutiae of life.
The Pillow Book itself is a collection of lists, reflections, observations, gossip, and poetry, the sort of things that a Japanese noblewoman might have jotted down on loose pages before bedtime. Though spare, her musings offer tantalizing, hypnotically fascinating glimpses of Japan and court life during the Heian period.
Here is her entry on “winds.”
A stormy wind. At dawn, when one is lying in bed with the lattices and panelled doors wide open, the wind suddenly blows into the room and stings one’s face – most delightful.
A cold, wintry wind.
In the Third Month the moist, gentle wind that blows in the evenings moves me greatly.
Also moving is the cool, rainy wind in the Eighth and Ninth Months. Streaks of rain are blown violently from the side, and I enjoy watching people cover their stiff robes of unlined silk with the padded coats that they put away after the summer rains.
Towards the end of the Ninth Month and the beginning of the Tenth the sky is clouded over, there is a strong wind, and the yellow leaves fall gently to the ground, especially from the cherry trees and the elms. All this produces a most pleasant sense of melancholy. In the Tenth Month I love gardens that are full of trees.
Here is Sei on “elegant things.”
A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Duck Eggs. Shaved Ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl. A rosary of rock crystal. Snow on wistaria or plum blossoms. A pretty child eating strawberries.
And on meeting a lover:
To meet one’s lover summer is indee the right season. True, the nights are very short, and dawn creeps up before one has had a wink of sleep. Since all the lattices have been left open, one can lie and look out at the garden in the cool morning air. There are still a few endearments to exchange before the man takes his leave, and the lovers are murmuring to each other when suddenly there is a loud noise. For a moment they are certain that they have been discovered; but it is only the caw of a crow flying past in the garden. In the winter, when it is very cold and one lies buried under the bedclothes listening to one’s lover’s endearments, it is delightful to hear the booming of a temple gong, which seems to come from the bottom of a deep well. The first cry of the birds, whose beaks are still tucked under their wings, is also strange and muffled. Then one bird after another takes up the call. How pleasant it is to lie there listening as the sounds become clearer and clearer!
Increasingly I find that creation is such an incredibly vast affair that the only way to wrap one’s mind around the enormity of it all is to pay attention to the details. Each moment, each occurrence, each phenomenon contains so much that it seems to me a futile exercise to try and understand existence on a macro scale. Perhaps quantum mathematicians and astrophysicists can play comfortably with notions of time, space, and infinity, but such concepts tend to elude and frustrate me. Observing the small and mundane, on the other hand, brings me into more intimate and immediate contact with mystery. That’s what appeals to me so strongly about The Pillow Book.
Sei Shonagon’s style is also useful for me as a lackadaisical blogger. I’ve never mastered the art of the short, pithy entry. My tendency is to write essays (such as this post is becoming). Reading The Pillow Book, I am finding the inspiration to pull back, to say more with less, and hopefully to post more regularly.