Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sei Shonagon the ultimate hipster

I recently got The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon from the library and it is the oddest and most perfect collection of lists and anecdotes and opinionated rants.

Sei Shonagon was a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, the 11th century author of Tale of Genji. Both were ladies in the Heian court, where an individual's taste in poetry, lovers and clothing was the ultimate test of refinement. Shikibu rather disliked Sei Shonagon, calling her "dreadfully conceited" for using lots of Chinese characters in her writings and "so precious that [she goes] out of [her] way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight". At the time, Chinese was used predominantly by men, while women kept mostly to the phonetic hiragana script.

I can see Murasaki Shikibu's point - Sei Shonagon was an obsessive and merciless aesthete. She was the ultimate hipster who could out-snob the most judgmental hipster in Brooklyn. She focused on the tiniest details and had little pity for the failings of other people. She disdained the lower classes. She was not fond of loud children (I can relate...) or clumsy men or slovenly women.

But there's this charming, intimate tone to The Pillow Book that makes me want to forgive her. She writes as if she's having a chat with a girlfriend, talking about clothes, past lovers good and bad, the daily beauties and annoyances of life.

I could never get into Tale of Genji because it held me at arm's length with its formality and utterly foreign setting. Not the case with The Pillow Book.

Here are a few samples:

Cats - Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

Refined and elegant things - A girl's over-robe of white on white over pale violet-gray. The eggs of the spot-billed duck. Shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl. A crystal rosary. Wisteria flowers. Snow on plum blossoms. An adorable little child eating strawberries.

Oxen - An ox should have a tiny splash of white on its forehead, and the underbelly, legs and tail should all be white.

Things that make your heart beat fast - A sparrow with nestlings. Going past a place where tiny children are playing. Lighting some incense and then lying down alone to sleep. Looking into a Chinese mirror that's a little clouded. A fine gentleman pulls up in his carriage and sends in some request.

To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well-scented with incense. Even if you're somewhere where no one special will see you, you will still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.

On a night when you're waiting for someone to come, there's a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster.

Things that create the appearance of deep emotion - The sound of your voice when you're constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk. Plucking your eyebrows.

1 comment:

  1. I recently got The Tale of Genji from the library and so far it is just him chasing after women. I want to get The Pillow Book now. It sounds so awesome.