Essay Mondays: Sei Shonagon

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It was surprisingly difficult making the call this week for Essay Monday! Lopate introduced me to the fourteenth-century Japanese essayist Kenko, who writes with gorgeous precision and anticipates an hilariously Wordsworthian Romanticism hundreds of years before the English got in on the act. To wit:

Does the love between men and women refer only to the moments when they are in each others' arms? The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone, who lets his thoughts wander to distant skies, who yearns for the past in a dilapidated house - such a man truly knows what love means.

Yearning for the past in a dilapidated house. Awesome. He also suggests composing poems on such subjects as "Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered." Even as I recognize its influence on my own thinking, I tend to have a hard time taking Romanticism (or un-self-critical philosophies resembling Romanticism) very seriously, so on one level I found Kenko's writing to be deliciously ridiculous, but on the other hand I do genuinely admire his eye for detail and mood.

As predicted, though, my final selection for "most compelling" has to be Sei Shonagon's "Hateful Things," a short but representative excerpt from her famous tenth-century Pillow Book. As far as I'm concerned, it's hard to top Shonagon. The Pillow Book is a masterpiece that I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it many years ago, and this brief taste provided by Lopate reminded me that I really should go back for a thorough re-read. Shonagon has a genius eye for detail, and her tone is conversational, opinionated, even blunt. She is not afraid to air her grievances and opinions, even if they conflict with the expected, and she is refreshingly frank about sexual themes.

The trademark of the Pillow Book is Shonagon's lists of things or situations grouped into specific categories: Depressing Things; Elegant Things; Things that Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past; Things that Make One's Heart Beat Faster; Things that Give a Hot Feeling; Unsuitable Things; Splendid Things; and so on. It also includes delightful vignettes of places she went and happenings at court (she was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Teishi), as well as disconnected thoughts and opinions that strike her ("Oxen Should Have Very Small Foreheads"), but it's in list-making that Shonagon really shines. The entries in each one tend to be tiny, evocative gems, that have me alternating between laughing out loud, nodding my head, and dwelling in the moment of quiet feeling she creates. Some of my favorites from "Hateful Things":

A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.

[...]

A gentleman has visited one secretly. Though is he wearing a tall, lacquered hat, he nevertheless wants no one to see him. He is so flurried, in fact, that upon leaving he bangs into something with his hat. Most hateful!

[...]

One is telling a story about old times when someone breaks in with a little detail that he happens to know, implying that one's own version is inaccurate - disgusting behavior!
Very hateful is a mouse that scurries all over the place.

[...]

A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman! (Yet sometimes I find that it is not as unpleasant as all that.)
A person who recites a spell himself after sneezing. In fact, I detest anyone who sneezes, except the master of the house.

[...]

A gentleman who travels alone in his carriage to see a procession or some other spectacle. What sort of a man is he? Even though he may not be a person of the greatest quality, surely he should have taken along a few of the many young men who are anxious to see the sights. But no, there he sits by himself (one can see his silhouette through the blinds) with a proud look on his face, keeping all his impressions to himself.

I love Shonagon's willingness to be unreasonable - detesting everyone who sneezes! - and her ability to double back on herself and admit that she sometimes doesn't really mind her lovers talking about old flames, although she still includes such behavior on her Hateful list. Lopate's decision to include "Hateful Things" rather than some other list plays up Shonagon's irritable, picky side, but in pieces like "Splendid Things" and "Things that Give a Clean Feeling" she displays her gift of finding beauty in life's details as well. Overall, thanks to Lopate for reminding me about this gem of early Japanese literature!

Up next week: three essays by Montaigne ("Of books," "Of a monstrous child," and the classic "On some verses of Virgil"), and one essay by Abraham Cowley ("Of Greatness"). I already love Montaigne, and have also arrived at his On friendship in the Great Ideas series, so if I end up reacting strongly to Cowley I might write about him in order to shake things up a bit. On the other hand, "On some verses of Virgil" is always good for a bawdy laugh. We shall see!

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Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

10 Comments

  • I've added Pillow Talk to my TBR list. Sounds fascinating! I'm enjoying these essay posts - definitely reminds me of an area of reading that I have so far generally ignored. Thanks!

  • I've been hearing a lot about the Pillow Book lately, Emily, but these choice excerpts really seal the deal! Sei Shonagon's penchant for lists happily reminds me of Ibn Hazm of C√≥rdoba, an Andalusian writer from the 11th century whose The Ring of the Dove is a classification-happy treatise on love and lovers with chapter titles like "On those who, having fallen in love with a certain quality, can then no longer love any contrary quality." Genius!

  • What fun! I am very much enjoying you Essay Mondays. I've not read the Pillow Book yet. It is on my perpetual TBR list! Pretty please write about Montaigne next week. I love Montaigne :)

  • Sarah: LOL, whatever could you mean, lady? :-) I do recommend the Pillow Book, incredibly highly.

    Richard: And now you've added to MY to-be-read list, so we're even. Hazm sounds totally engaging & fascinating. Thanks for the tip!

    Stefanie: Oh, I'm so glad you're enjoying Essay Mondays! There will at least be one Montaigne entry very soon, since I'm reading him for Great Ideas, but maybe there will be two! :-)

  • I really enjoyed reading The Pillow Book a while back (a year or two ago). Her attitude is such fun! I read Essays in Idleness as well after liking the selections in Lopate, but his book wasn't as good as hers. I felt like Lopate had gotten many of the good bits already.

  • I do find it fun that we posted on Shonagon the same week! I did love the Pillow Book. Incidently, sneezes were considered very bad luck, so that's why she hates them so much. At least that's what the notes to my translation said.

  • Dorothy: Oh, that's good to know about Kenko. I laughed a lot while reading his selections in Lopate, but I don't think I'm on the verge of seeking him out quite yet.

    Rebecca: Interesting about the sneezes! Spread the Pillow Book love. :-)

  • This sounds wonderful! I LOVE lists and I want to read the Pillow Book so I can read ALL of Shonagon's lists. Thanks for mentioning these: Depressing Things; Elegant Things; Things that Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past; Things that Make One's Heart Beat Faster; Things that Give a Hot Feeling; Unsuitable Things; Splendid Things. I am really enjoying Essay Monday--also the one on Montaigne.

  • Cynthia: Oh yes, you of all people would really appreciate Shonagon's aesthetic. I'll be excited to hear your thoughts when you get around to it. :-)

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