The Pillow Book

Essay by Michael Dirda

Once upon a time, there flourished in Japan what seems a fairy-tale civilization. From roughly 800 to 1100, the isolated island nation was at peace, governed by the shrewd Fujiwara family. This freed the rest of the aristocracy to concentrate on the important things in life: attending to the ceremonial make-believe of the emperor's court at Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto), playing backgammon and go, composing occasional verse on just the right kind of paper, carefully choosing one's scent and the colors of one's clothes, spending hours appreciating the evanescent beauty of flowering trees and winter snowfalls and, of course, flirting and making love in the moonlight. As one of the period's greatest writers observed, it was "a moment in the history of our country when the whole energy of the nation seemed to be concentrated upon the search for the prettiest method of mounting paper-scrolls."

During this happy period -- happy, that is, for the two or three thousand members of the upper classes -- esthetics merged into ethics, and a man's worth might be judged by the suavity of his handwriting or by his ability to quickly recall a line from a classic Chinese poem. Indeed, as readily as Florentine humanists might casually drop a line from Horace, Heian gentlemen were expected be able to quote the work of, say, Po-Chui. So great was their admiration for Chinese art and literature that they even wrote much of their own poetry in that language, pallid imitative work that has been largely forgotten.

Which partly explains why the finest writers of the Heian period were mainly women. The most famous is certainly Murasaki Shikibu, who made the above observation about paper scrolls in her enthralling, if immensely long, novel The Tale of Genji. Two poets also stand out, both women of charismatic beauty as well as lyric genius: Ono No Komachi from the 9th century and Izumi Shikibu from the 10th. While reputed to be promiscuous heartbreakers, both suffered deeply for love. Here is one famous lament by Ono:

The flowers withered,
Their color faded away,
While meaninglessly
I spent my days in the world
And the long rains were falling.

That evocation of wistfulness and impermanence, of the pathos in things -- what is called mono no aware -- is particularly characteristic of the Japanese sensibility. It gives The Tale of Genji its autumnal, almost Proustian character of loss and regret. Yet Japanese literature isn't always so plaintive, so sad. The opposite of mono no aware is okashi, meaning delightful, amusing, diverting, beautiful. And as it happens, the fourth great woman writer of Heian Japan provides the classic literary expression of okashi.

In what is called her Pillow Book -- Makura no Soshi -- Sei Shonagon celebrates the highly refined and ordered world of the imperial court, in particular what Arthur Waley once called "its rampant aestheticism and sophisticated unmorality." In lists, mini-essays on love and life, descriptions of rainstorms and religious ceremonies, portraits of witty courtiers and their even more witty ladies, in romantic anecdotes and fragments of short stories and in her own occasional personal confessions, Sei jots down anything and everything that catches her attention. The result is a virtually unique book -- a mixture of diary, aide-memoire, naturalist's journal, gossip column and oral history. It is an early form of what the Japanese call zuihitsu, meaning occasional writings or random notes. At its heart, Makura no Soshi simply records quite ordinary things, memorializing in its darting, quicksilver fashion the wonderful dailiness of life.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagonis probably best known for its lists, arranged in such beguiling categories as "Infuriating things," "Occasions when the time drags by," "Things that make the heart lurch with anxiety," "People who seem enviable." Sometimes the listed items hint at unspoken dramas or offer a winsome glimpse of court life. When noting "Things that give you pleasure," Sei includes "Piecing back together a letter that someone has torn up and thrown away, and finding that you can read line after line of it." Under "Things of elegant beauty," she notes: "A charming cat with a white tag on her red collar walking along by the railing of the veranda beyond the blinds, trailing her long leash behind her." And who doesn't recognize this annoyance from "Infuriating things": "You've just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail, and starts flying round your face. It's horrible how you can feel the soft wind of its tiny wings."

Sei Shonagon probably entered court service around the year 990, while in her mid-20s, and spent most of her known ten-year career as a companion to Empress Teishi. Sei quickly became celebrated for her quick wit and her ability to cap a poetic compliment with one of her own pieces of instant verse, as well for as her knowledge of Chinese (unusual for a woman at this time). During this very same period Murasaki Shikubu was serving the rival Empress Akiko. There's no evidence that the two ever met, though they obviously knew about each other. In her diaries Murasaki writes cattily of Sei:

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 as 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 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?

While not a sex manual by any means -- that is a quite different kind of pillow book -- love is of central interest to Sei Shonagon. In Heian Japan erotic relations were casual and fluid. Discretion was expected, but there was no serious shame in even extramarital relations. As a result, men and women alike could enjoy multiple spouses and lovers. Sei writes often about what one might call love's proprieties:

I do wish men, when they're taking their leave from a lady at dawn, wouldn't insist on adjusting their clothes to a nicety, or fussily tying their lacquered cap into place.... One does want a lover's dawn departure to be tasteful. There he lies, reluctant to move, so that she has to press him to rise. "Come on, it's past dawn," she urges. "How shocking you are!" and his sighs reassure her that he really hasn't yet had his fill of love, and is sunk in gloom at the thought that he must leave.

At one point, Sei tells a story about a woman gazing at the moonlight as her lover departs. As the man saunters home through the dewy morning, he thinks about the poem he will send his lady that day. But suddenly his attention is drawn to a lattice window. On an impulse he peeps in and sees another woman, whose own lover has just left, and the pair soon begin to banter provocatively. Sei leaves it unclear whether they grow physically intimate, but the man only says goodbye when he notices that a servant is waiting to deliver a poem from the woman's original lover and he realizes he still has to write one himself to his own lady. Perhaps, he wonders as he continues on his way, she too has been visited by some other woman's lover. Shades of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde!

For all her urbanity, Sei can also be deeply romantic. For instance, in one chiaroscuro vignette she mentions how charming it is to imagine "a lovely lady, with fine features and hair falling over her forehead, who receives a letter in a dark room and is so anxious to open it that she doesn't take the time to light a lamp, but instead picks up a glowing coal from the brazier with the fire tongs and sits straining to make out the words by its light."

Sei and her own lover, Tadanobu, invent a secret language -- based on the game of go -- through which they are able to allude to intimate matters in public. But then another courtier, the rather bumptious Nobutaka, figures out the lingo and starts to use it with Sei in a clumsy attempt at seduction: "Do you have a go board here? I'd like a round of go with you. How about those stones of yours, eh? Will you lay them down for me? My game's as strong as Tadanobu's, you know. Don't make any distinctions between us in this."

The Pillow Book does include some tedious pages, in particular various lists of lakes and rivers and mountains that carry no particular significance for modern readers. Some of the descriptions of religious and court ceremonies also seem overly detailed. But, in truth, nothing goes on for very long, and before you know it Sei is telling a pathetically moving story about a beaten dog, or remembering the day the ladies of the court completely decked out their carriage with flowers, or recording her bet with the empress about how long a hill of packed snow will last before it melts. (The empress cheats to win.)

Sei even occasionally drops in a kind of world-weary humor: "The post of Sixth-rank Chamberlain is not one that anyone should aspire to." She does, in fact, repeatedly make clear her own pleasure in "managing to get the better of someone who's full of themselves and overconfident." She's obviously the smartest person in the room, though also a bit vain about her intelligence and aristocratic bloodline. We know, too, that Sei disdained commoners, and yet she cannot help but closely observe people as they labor in a rice paddy: "Now instead of women it was men working in the fields, gripping the green stems with their rich red ears of grain and cutting them. It looked so easy, the way they sliced the base with some sort of tool, that I felt I'd like to try it myself. I was intrigued at how for some reason they spread the ears on the ground and squatted over them in a row, and also by the little huts in the fields." As this indicates, Sei writes particularly well about the natural world:

It's beautiful the way the water drops hang so thick and dripping on the garden plants after a night of rain in the ninth month, when the morning sun shines fresh and dazzling on them. Where the rain clings in the spider webs that hang in the open weave of a screening fence or draped on the eaves, it forms the most moving and beautiful strings of white pearly drops. I also love the way, when the sun has risen higher, the bush clover, all bowed down beneath the weight of the drops, will shed its dew, and a branch will suddenly spring up though no hand has touched it. And I also find it fascinating that things like this can utterly fail to delight others.

Only at the very end of The Pillow Bookdoes Sei hint at her reasons for composing the pages we have just read:

Overall, I have chosen to write about the things that delight, or that people find impressive, including poems as well as things such as trees, plants, birds, insects, and so forth, and for this reason people may criticize it for not living up to expectations and only going to prove the limits of my own sensibility. But, after all, I merely wrote for my personal amusement things that I myself have thought and felt, and I never intended that it should be placed alongside other books and judged on a par with them.

Of course, few books in world literature are on a par with Sei Shonagon's inadvertent masterpiece.

As with The Tale of Genji, there are currently three important English versions of The Pillow Book. In 1928 Arthur Waley published a slender volume that mixes in his own commentary with a translation of about a quarter of the original text. In some ways, his is the most appealing version for the general reader: Waley writes beautifully and he emphasizes the best passage of Sei. The most scholarly translation is that by Ivan Morris, first published in 1967, in two volumes, the second being entirely devoted to notes and appendices. Morris's text generally feels more careful and punctilious, sometimes even academic, as one might expect of a contribution to the Columbia College Program of Translations from the Oriental Classics. But Morris certainly knows Heian literature, as he is also the author of The World of the Shining Prince, the best popular account of "Court Life in Ancient Japan"; it is an absolutely enthralling work of cultural history.

The newest translation of The Pillow Book is Meredith McKinney's recent Penguin, which uses an alternate base text to that chosen by Morris and gives Sei a more modern, colloquial voice. It also provides excellent maps, glossaries, and notes. This is now the obvious edition for anyone wishing to read the text in its entirety and is the one I quote from. Yet none of the three translators holds an absolute monopoly for the passionate admirer of Sei's work. Consider that among "Things that make you feel nostalgic," McKinney includes this item: "On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it." But here is Morris: "It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love." The McKinney version is doubtless accurate in its succinctness and may even reflect a slightly different original text, but Morris's words catch us by the heart.

Though sui generis, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon nonetheless occasionally recalls various works of Western autobiographical literature. For me, two somewhat underappreciated books come particularly to mind: Jules Renard's Journal, packed with sharp-witted literary comments and glancing descriptions of late-19th-century village life in France, and the Renaissance mathematician and astrologer Giorlamo Cardano's The Book of My Life, an utterly endearing autobiography arranged according to categories such as "Those things in which I take pleasure" and "Things in which I feel I have failed."

Nonetheless, Sei Shonagon remains something special, if only for the poetry of her observations: "Is there any occasion to match a moonlit night for sending your thoughts winging to distant places, and recalling past moments, their sorrows and joys and pleasures, as if it were today?"

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. The latest, Classics for Pleasure, was published this fall.