starlady: (tomoyo magic hope)
[personal profile] starlady
Sei Shônagon. Makura no sôshi | The Pillow Book (ca. 1005). Trans. Meredith McKinney. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Meredith McKinney has done the world a great service by bringing out a new, comprehensive and compulsively readable version of Sei Shônagon's idiosyncratic classic of Heian literature in English. The previous widely-known version by Ivan Morris, while eminently literary, omitted most of the sections of lists of things with which Sei sprinkles her miscellany, and which form a vital part of the book, conveying much more of her worldview and the culture it came from than at first one realizes.

Sei Shônagon was in service at the court of Empress Teishi from roughly 993 to 1000, several years older than many of her fellow gentlewomen and far outstripping many of them in literary-poetic talent; The Pillow Book is among other things a selected recollection of various moments from the acme of Teishi and her branch of the Fujiwara family's glory, which was cut short in 995 with her father Regent Michitaka's sudden death. Her brothers Korechika and Taka'ie were easily shunted aside by their uncle Michinaga, who married his daughter Shôshi to the Emperor Ichijô on the day of the birth of Teishi's son and who went on to subsidize Murasaki Shikibu's service at Shôshi's court at the summit of Fujiwara and Heian glory, recorded vividly in Murasaki's diary and heavily fictionalized in The Tale of Genji. Sei, associated with Teishi and Michitaka despite her well-known admiration for Michinaga, left the court after her mistress's death in childbirth, and completed The Pillow Book, probably close kin to the commonplace books that many aristocrats and courtiers of both genders kept at their bedsides, sometime later. She did so without the official patronage that supported Murasaki's diary, which is obviously meant as a public record of Michinaga's magnificence and munificence, giving The Pillow Book the freedom to be more personal.

I enjoyed this book a lot, partly because while Sei is very much of her time she is also in some important ways quite a contrarian to it--indeed, her admiration for Michinaga makes perfect sense, as she and Michinaga obviously shared a certain determination to enjoy life and the pleasure it offers, without focusing unduly on its sorrows. In this they stood in stark contrast to the prevailing mood in the literature of the period that survives and especially in Murasaki's work of mono no aware--but more on this later. If there is something in the "Japanese character" that is enamoured of the romance of failure, as 20thC scholars have argued, Sei and Michinaga were entirely entranced with success.

It's hard to imagine a society more different from the modern world than Heian Japan, and even within the scope of classical societies Heian Japan presents a challenge, but one of the marvelous things about The Pillow Book is that every so often a tesseract opens across the abyss of years and Sei seems to be describing experiences that are available to anyone in Kyoto:

The lamps that burn in front of the sacred image [at Kiyomizu-dera] are not the usual ones, but those that people offer as dedicatory lamps for the inner sanctum, They burn quite terrifyingly fiercely, and he sight of the sacred image glittering in the light overwhelms you with reverence. The priests gathered on the dedication platform before the altar keep raising aloft the dedicatory petitions of the pilgrims, swaying slightly as they intone the accompanying vows and prayers. Such an incessant drone of voices fills the hall that it's impossible to distinguish any individual prayer, yet the straining voices of the priests still manage to carry clearly above all the surrounding noise, and you'll suddenly catch an occasional phrase--'one thousand lamps offered with the humble prayers of So-and-so,' or the like. (§115)

You have an urge to go on a pilgrimage to Inari Shrine, and as you're laboriously gasping your way up the steep mountainside to the middle shrine, you're filled with admiration to see others who've obviously started behind you go climbing straight up without the least effort; when you arrive, there they stand, already at their worship. (§151)

I've had both those experiences, and not just in Kyoto, either; there aren't as many differences between now and then as we tend to assume, I always think, and we often fixate on things that weren't actually crucial. There's a tendency in Heian studies to see the period as the time when a quintessentially "Japanese" identity was somehow consolidated, but one never actually sees any trace of that in the literature of the period and it's essentially a modern nationalist construction. (I follow Tom LaMarre in his emphasis on the period's cosmopolitanism.) Of course court society was its own closed world, and the classism of the aristocrats is so entrenched as to be breathtaking when one actually considers it.

The real uniqueness of the Heian world is its emphasis on what I've called literary-poetic talent above, which might be called song if we really needed just one word for it and which was the single skill that equalized all the members of aristocratic society regardless of birth or gender--the ability to compose witty, punning poetry that picked up on and wove in allusions to the acknowledge poetic canon of two societies, in a tasteful fashion. Sei Shônagon, the daughter and granddaughter of famous poets, excelled in this skill, and frequently bested even the men around her with her knowledge, somewhat unseemly for a woman, of the Chinese classics.

Sei's work is quite different from the other surviving works of Heian women--the artfully constructed rhetorical arguments of the Kagerô nikki (written by a relative of Murasaki) and its cousins, Murasaki's romance-grown-interiority/novel Genji monogatari--in its tone, but it shares the same knowingly constructed literary persona, couched to be private but well aware that any text was subject to "public" distribution--indeed, the close quarters at which aristocrats lived and the integral role eavesdropping and overhearing and spying on others, or choosing to pretend one had not done so when one had played in social interactions, obviates the Western public-private binary. Women's position over the Heian period degraded, so that in the beginning they participated in public poetry contests but by its height were pathologically concerned with not being seen, while by the end they had lost their inheritance and property rights entirely, but words and their shaping, as well as one's dress, were still the means by which one established a reputation in society. Yet it is this women's literature that has come to dominate our understanding of the origins of Japanese literature, and this female persona that even men of the time adopted when they wished to speak of similar concerns--thus betraying, in an unlikely way, the social construction of gender.

I like Sei because the transience of things never gets her down for long, and her writing provides a full-bore corrective to Ivan Morris and his conception of the Heian courtiers as passive layabouts stricken with mono no aware day in and day out. This stands in real contrast to Murasaki, whose writing is drenched in that awareness and in comparison with whom Sei Shônagon has traditionally come off quite poorly; indeed, in Liza Dalby's novel The Tale of Murasaki Murasaki more or less has depression, while in her brief appearance Sei is obnoxious, poor, and aggressively direct. It's disappointing to see Dalby falling in with the party line of mostly male scholars and denigrating Sei, who does provide a foil for Murasaki, but in far more interesting ways than the slander of later critics would indicate.

Has anyone seen the movie?

References
  • Thomas Lamarre, Uncovering Heian Japan
  • Tomiko Yoda, Gender and National Literature
  • Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince (wrong about marriage customs)
  • Liza Dalby, The Tale of Murasaki
  • John Wallace, Objects of Discourse

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-22 19:47 (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
Oh, thank you for posting this! It has been on my to-read list forever, but I was unsure about translations, so this is really good information. And your essay is very interesting.

By "the movie" do you mean The Pillow Book with Vivian Wu and Ewan MacGregor? It was...very weird, but had almost nothing to do with Sei Shonagon.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-22 20:47 (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
It's a very strange movie. Artsy and disturbing, some morbid nightmare fodder, lots of nudity and calligraphy. I couldn't say anything about it from a cultural accuracy POV.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-22 20:18 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
I sometimes suspect the divide in reputation of Shônagon and Murasaki exactly mirrors that of Ovid and Virgil. I don't have enough sense of their reception through history to confirm this, though.

I was surprised to find how much I preferred McKinney's version over Morris's -- a lively and lifelike translation. It's what I reach for when I'm writing Heian setting and need to pick up atmosphere and attitude.

As an aside, have you read Torikaebaya Monogatari? If not, it'd be worth tracking down while The Pillow Book is still fresh as period background. It's a post-Genji story about siblings whose gender sense is swapped at birth, with the sister growing up to become a courtier and the brother a handmaiden to an imperial princess. It is, alas, the sort of comedy that resolves everything to the social norms of the day, but it's still a hoot and a half to read. The translation called The Changelings by Rosette Willig is smoothly readable (though apparently she mistranslates what exactly caused the genderbending and how it's resolved). (There's also a modern light-novel adaptation called The Change!, with a manga adaptation of that, which has been scanlated.)

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-22 20:21 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
(Also, I suspect I need to track down Uncovering Heian Japan. After I reread Brocade by Night, though.)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-23 02:53 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
And by nice coincidence, Lamarre's book showed up in the lit section of the book catalog I got today. Hmmm ...

If there's drama, especially with romance, it's a safe bet there's been a Takarazuka version. (Heh -- finding a publicity photo from the production with the comment "mustache technology has improved since the '80s.)

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-22 20:28 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
(More intertextuality! The Takarazuka production is based on a different manga adaptation, one by Toshie Kihara of the '49ers.)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-23 02:56 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
The closest equivalent to Catullus I can think of would be Ōtomo no Yakamochi ...

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-24 01:26 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
Ovid has has his ups and downs -- down in the late classical and early middle ages, up in the high middle age and renaissance, down again in the neo-classical and 19th centuries, up again in the 20th. I had the impression that Sei has also had ups and downs, if not as many. Certainly her star is high now -- if a westerner knows a second classical Japanese work (after Genji), it's tPB.

I like Catullus, but Horace more, but Ovid uber alles fur mich. (Dang that looks weird without umlauts-I-can't-type.)

Brocade by Night has been very useful for me at teasing out the layers of history jumbled together in the Kokinshu, and has helped me get a better handle on evaluating style in these poems. Useful enough, I squealed when I received a copy for a solstice gift this week. There's probably more recent scholarship on various aspects of the court style, but as far as I'm aware this is the only comprehensive treatment in English of the styles and their influences. It probably helps if you've already read the anthology and have a moderate grounding in pre-T'ang Chinese poetry, but McCullough does include extensive translations.

(tl;dr: I'm no scholar, but as a poet and would-be translator, it's a gold mine.)

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-24 15:06 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
I've lost track of the number of times I've reread the Metamorphoses. And the number of times I've mined it for stories.

McCullough does indeed go deep into the content -- it's an analysis of the style (and origins of same) of the poems. It's a companion (published the same year) of her complete translation, and includes the texts of about a third of them, with varying degrees of commentary.

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-23 08:14 (UTC)
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rushthatspeaks
I love the movie so much. I actually think that the portions of it which are specifically adapting the book (maybe a quarter of the film if that) are the best film adaptation I can imagine; Greenaway films several of the lists, and I don't think most directors would. The life of the main character of the film, who is trying to write her own pillow book, reflects and comments on Shônagon's in some very interesting ways-- they're both scandalous, fashionable, wrapped in familial status issues, but they have different options available to them and different allowable modes of sexuality.

I do not find the film disturbing, and I don't understand why other people do, but apparently they mostly do, and I get told fairly frequently that it's really weird of me not to find it disturbing, so your mileage may vary. I think it's well worth watching, especially if you are at all interested in calligraphy, because the calligraphy is amazing. Also it has a very good soundtrack. It's high up in my short list of favorite movies.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-12-24 03:56 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
(BTW, Morris's translation doesn't omit the funky and essential lists -- but the Penguin Classics reprint was an abridgment that did. The full translation also has more extensive annotations.)

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-29 15:42 (UTC)
tuulentupa: (Sei Shonagon)
From: [personal profile] tuulentupa
I just wandered over from AO3 where I read your Heian age fics (I'm still stunned that such things exist! Heian age fics! The world is a little bit closer to perfect, methinks.) I noticed there, in the comments, that you mentioned Ivan Morris' book having mistakes, and here's the same again... so the stuff about marriage customs is wrong? What about otherwise, are there many other mistakes? It's been my primary source of Heian age knowledge, is all.

I've been meaning to reread the Pillow Book. Seems like I need to get myself Meredith McKinney's translation (I've got the Morris one, though mainly just because the book was so beautiful. I can't resist beautiful books.) ...and I see a bunch of books in the end of this post I need to read some day, too...

Oh, and, I just about have to add you.

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