Wednesday, 29 July 2020

A more sober view on The Pillow Book

In the introduction of The Pillow Book, Meredith McKinney quotes Murasaki Shikibu’s lines about her in her diary: 
“Sei Shonagon… was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves of being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them?” 
I’m going to dismiss the possibility of jealousy, which people often bring up when an artist speaks scathingly of another, as I don’t think it’s always, or even often, the case—I think a writer would be bound to clash with another who has different aesthetics and different approaches to writing. The questions that interest me are: why do they think so? does it make sense that they think that way? 
In this case, there are 3 things to unpack. Sei Shonagon is witty and fascinating, but she’s certainly vain and arrogant—The Pillow Book is full of accounts of men being unable to respond to her poems, the Empress and others admiring her witty poetic exchanges, and her looking down on others. I know nothing about her Chinese writing so cannot comment, but one can easily tell that Sei Shonagon has such a strong personality and a tendency to be confrontational that people would either adore her or loathe her. 
What about the final point—that she tries to capture every moment of interest and ends up sounding superficial?
As I wrote in the earlier blog post, Sei Shonagon sometimes does appear superficial because of her interest in things and scenes. The brilliance of the book is that life at court appears so vivid and we get to learn about not only the festivals and rituals but also the day-to-day life of people at court, as seen through the eyes of a gentlewoman serving the Empress. The best thing, I would say, is that from afar we may think of people in the Heian period as solemn, austere, bound by all kinds of rules and rituals, but Sei Shonagon and the people in her book are full of life, with the same weaknesses, irritations, and absurdities that we can all recognise in ourselves and people around us. 
Sei Shonagon’s observations are always sharp, if not always profound. 
But after a while I cannot help thinking, would I be interested in The Pillow Book if it depicted life today, written the same way? Or is the main attraction the unfamiliar world it depicts, and the amazement that it resonates across 1000 years? Of course, the fact that it resonates today proves its universality and timelessness, and I don’t deny that The Pillow Book is both enjoyable and brilliant, but after a while does it not sound a bit, I don’t know, trivial? 
I don’t mean that writing about human behaviour is trivial, the question is whether there is anything beyond it. Sometimes there are some great insights (entry 273 in the Meredith McKinney translation), but overall there is no moral vision as far as I can see, and Sei Shonagon depicts and comments on behaviour but doesn’t examine it and doesn’t go further. It’s not without reason that most readers use the word “gossip” when talking about the content of The Pillow Book
More importantly, about halfway through the book, I started realising something else: readers (almost) always comment on Sei Shonagon’s snobbery and contempt for the lower classes (especially when she makes fun of, and laughs at, a man whose house burns down—entry 293), but not only so, she is fascinated by high rank and splendour and royal activities, adores the Emperor and Empress, and judges people based on class, rank, clothes, and manners. For example, entry 178 is called “Nothing is more splendid than rank” (referring to high rank, not the institution of ranking itself). 
I would have to read the diary to get a glimpse of Murasaki Shikibu as a person, but the implied author of The Tale of Genji has a Buddhist worldview, recognises the vanity of all things, and makes a point about education and promotions—Genji refuses to promote Yugiri easily, and forces him to focus on studies and prove himself. On the page Murasaki Shikibu is elusive and we may not know her views for certain, but I think she is critical of the ranking system, to some extent, or at least she is critical of gender inequality and double standards in Japanese society—the fact that a woman’s rank is dependent on her father’s and her position at court is precarious without strong backing (i.e. powerful male relatives). 
This is what Meredith McKinney writes in the introduction:  
“She has been dismissed by some as a mere chatterbox of a woman, and The Pillow Book considered to be nothing more than a silly gentlewoman’s idle thoughts spilling themselves haphazardly on to the page. It is common in Japan to contrast her with Murasaki Shikibu, and those who side with Sei Shonagon in this perceived rivalry are often characterized as vacuous and frivolous. 

Given this criticism, it is all the more impressive that The Pillow Book has always been accorded important status as a classic. Its fascination and odd genius are undeniable, and there have been and are many scholars happy to give it the attention it richly deserves, just as there will surely always be new readers who rediscover its delights.” 
That’s quite a weak defence, no? (That’s the ending of the introduction). 
Sei Shonagon’s definitely not “a mere chatterbox of a woman”, and she doesn’t just spill her thoughts haphazardly onto the page. She writes well, has good observations, and lots of sensitivity to beauty in nature and in things. Over time she has become a historian, capturing the aesthetic sensibility of Teishi’s court and depicting life at court from the point of view of a gentlewoman. In that sense, The Pillow Book is invaluable, and even more so as her view of life contrasts with Murasaki Shikibu’s. 
Personally I do think that, brilliant and witty as she is, she does appear superficial and trivial, especially next to Murasaki Shikibu. 
But how much does it matter? Sei Shonagon speaks directly to us from a millennium ago.


  1. I love how you are immersing yourself in their world.

  2. Yes, I'd agree. Her writing is fun, a good depiction of the time, I suppose the equivalent of a well-written and witty personal essay nowadays. Murasaki Shikibu distances herself through fiction and is much more serious, digs a lot deeper.

    1. Yeah, I think it's like a blog.
      I find it hard to see why people would side with her against Murasaki, hahaha.