Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

A unique and difficult book in many ways -- especially in translation -- since the author's concerns are so literary -- and all the poetry, in both Japanese and Chinese, is inaccessible.

But there's also her life in the court of a 10th C. Heian empress -- and her very personal observations are probably what has made this collection so endurable over the centuries.

And -- it's a something of a puzzle --- where all the pieces have been scattered at random -- and the reader has to make up his own stories about how they could fit together -- i.e. the sequence of vignettes must be considered strictly arbitrary - both as to when the original events actually occurred -- and as to when Shonagon wrote about them.

It's as if each episode was written on a separate sheet of paper, and then the collection was thrown into the wind and re-assembled at random.

Meanwhile the author does not especially write directly about things --- since she seems to be expecting notes addressed to herself to eventually be made public within court.

Yes -- it's a puzzle -- but her world seems so elegant and exotic -- the fascinated reader is driven to puzzle it out.

My first observation -- is that this woman feels rather distant from the world in which she lives. We don't get reports of intense dramatic moments of fulfillment or loss. Was she ever deeply thrilled or wounded by love ? She doesn't even mention the death of her lord, the empress -- although that event ended her dazzling life at court. Maybe it's just that she's such a good Buddhist --- i.e. the world is an illusion -- and these centuries -- in both China and Japan -- do seem to be the high-water mark for this spiritual practice.

So I'm feeling that she's been kind of anesthetized -- where she notices the colors and the scents of things --- but she's not that involved with their unique shapes -- or destinies. Maybe it's that her position as courtier was so vulnerable -- supported only by her wits -- she can afford to be nothing more than self centered.

For all her love of beauty --- she never tells us about a special painting -- ceramic -- seal -- ink stone -- building -- or pattern of fabric. We mostly hear about nature: the moon in the sky, the dew on the spider's web, the morning mists etc. --- all things that I'm guessing are just the standard topics of canonical Chinese poetry. And when we hear about how people are dressed -- it's always about the layers of tinted cloth -- not about the patterns -- or about the cut or shapes.

It leads me to wonder whether she has really felt the feelings she records -- or whether she's just 'feeling' what she is supposed to. For example, when she notes how delightful it is to hear the emperor playing his flute late at night --- is that because she really has an ear for beautiful music -- or just because it's the emperor -- and everything the royals do is just so special. (she never notes that any other musical performance was especially memorable)

And nobody has a story. (unless the reader wants to try cobbling one together)

This is what is most surprising to me -- for a person living at court --- surrounded daily by rumor, gossip, successes, tragedies --- she doesn't want to tell any stories about human destiny --- which leads me to that one story she does tell ---- that is so incredible to my barbaric ear --- the one about the man whose house burned down.

It's the story of a man whose house was built close to the imperial compound -- and when the hay in an imperial stable caught fire --- the fire spread and burned down this man's house, nearly killing his son. There being no insurance companies back in those days -- this man was probably rendered desititute -- and he approached the ladies of court looking for a handout.

Well --- Shonagon gave him a handout all right --- a mocking poem -- full of the puns and the literary allusions that were her specialty -- that the poor, illiterate man couldn't even read -- but thinking that it was some kind of promisary note, would take to some offical to cash in for his compensation. Oh, what a fine joke that was on him -- when he learned that he would receive nothing but contempt. Hah - hah- hah --- now look at that poor wretch cry !

I suppose this is just the meaness that a vulnerable person turns back upon the world --- and while this behavior itself is not especially appealing -- the candor in expressing it is probably what keep our eyes glued to the page -- and digging through the notes to figure out what was going on.

There's really two volumes here: volume one is the translation --- and volume two (equally as long) are the translator's (Ivan Morris) notes -- filling in the reader on the details of historical characters, places, figures of speech, and probable chronologies --- and the two have to be read side-by-side.

When all that digging is done ---- what of value has been discovered ?

By itself -- it's just a small selfish person in a small clannish world -- but its larger context is the life of Chinese culture outside of China -- which is a story that is still being played out.