Books Genre Recommendations Short stories

Sei Shonagon and her glorious lists

Here’s a Christmas gift: this post, by the delightful Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown (recently the organizer of #mooreandme), which explains why and how Sei Shonagon‘s Pillow Book should seem familiar to contemporary readers:

But the book, despite being written from and about a way of life that ended centuries ago, reads as nigh-freakishly contemporary. In point of fact, it is not just contemporary, but (she said, causing every Japanese classical scholar in the entire world to simultaneously have an aneurysm and die, due to her massive lack of scholarship) bloggy. Reading Sei Shonagon is almost exactly like reading a thousand-year-old Tumblr. It’s about everything, it’s about nothing; it’s deeply boring, it’s riveting; it’s shapeless, it is its own shape; it’s catty, touching, lyrical, banal, witty, self-absorbed, indiscreet, pensive, gossipy, introspective, everything, held together only by the force of Sei Shonagon’s personality.

Dear Lord, Sei Shonagon’s personality. One does not get introduced to it; one ENCOUNTERS it, and hopes the experience leaves no lasting scars. Ivan Morris, the translator of the version I own, sums her up as follows: “A complicated, intelligent, well-informed woman who was quick, impatient, keenly observant of detail, high-spirited, witty, emulative, sensitive to the charms and beauties of the world and to the pathos of things, yet intolerant and callous about people whom she regarded as her social or intellectual inferiors.” Now, there are two things to notice about this passage: First, that Ivan Morris is not so great at summing up (those are a lot of adjectives, Ivan!) and second, that it is absurdly reverent and polite. In fact, Sei Shonagon was not “impatient” or “intolerant” or anything so socially acceptable as those adjectives would imply: Girlfriend was, in a word, fucking mean. She hated children, poor people, ugly people, people in bad outfits, people with an inadequate number of servants, their servants, her servants, servants in general, and everyone else in Japan who had the misfortune to be less intelligent, well-connected, and sophisticated than Sei Shonagon — which, in her view, was everyone, with a few necessary exceptions being made for the Royal Family. She really did love the Royal Family, however!

Shonagon was both bloggy and poetic. Her longer prose entries can be striking and evocative, but her lists do something else, something finer and more unique, something that reminds me of modernist poetry. (The slippery prose-poetry nature of her work seems to be catching if you only borrow her style, too; I wrote something I thought was a piece of flash fiction, after Shonagon, and LCRW published it as a poem.) Maybe the most tumblr-ish of all are the pieces that aren’t quite prose scenes or lists, just opinions, boldly stated. For example:

19. Oxen Should Have Very Small Foreheads

Oxen should have very small foreheads with white hair; their underbellies, the ends of their legs, and the tips of their tails should also be white.

I like horses to be chestnut, piebald, dapple-grey, or black road, with white patches near their shoulders and feet; I also like horses with light chestnut coats and extremely white manes and tails — so white, indeed, that their hair looks like mulberry threads.

I like a cat whose back is black and all the rest white.

[The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, transl. and ed. Ivan Morris, 52]

Why should oxen have very small foreheads? They simply should, and Shonagon will tell you about it if you let her. And you should.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *