Thoughts on Sei Shonagon and "Makura no Soshi" (long)
- Out of left field this comes...
(Like Yoda I am writing... why?)
In a recent seminar discussion on Sei Shonagon and her wonderful "Makura no
Soshi" (The Pillowbook), my brain juices started flowing, and I thought I'd
inflic... um, share them with you.
One writer, in a moment of purple prose, suggested that "Chinese was the
virus, and hiragana was the Japanese cultural antibody." Interesting concept
I thought I'd pass along.
Writers tried to find the inner vs. outer binary relationship, and in Heian
society produced "mundane vs. alien" -- mundane being Japanese culture,
alien Chinese. This was owing to the Heian court being a closed society.
I pointed out that, if it's a closed society, all the various cultural and
social variations must be found within it, so it isn't just mundane vs.
alien, as Japanese vs. Chinese. The Heian court was very sinified, to the
point that the "rustics" of nearby provinces were more foreign than the
Chinese court was. If we take "mundane" to be "the familiar" and the
"alien" to be "the exotic", then in terms of the Heian court it was the
opposite of what the writer intended. The other world wasn't Chinese, it was
rustic Japan. So the binary becomes "familiar vs. exotic" -- the irony being
that the familiar was foreign, and the exotic was Japanese.
Japan created its own interface with Chinese things, so the rustic in Japan
was more alien to court society than the Chinese were.
Also, given the closed society, you find all the microcosms there; the
importance of rank and connection to qualify for title and position and
acceptance. You were just as much on the outs *within* the Heian court if
you were at such-and-such a level as would be the rustic to the Heian social
milieu en toto. In this case, the binary becomes "center vs. periphery"
Another binary that came up was mundane vs. boredom, and the importance of
boredom as a motivation for cultural development became obvious. Think of
high French court culture of the 17 and 18th centuries; surely these people
had too much leisure in their lives, so their poetry and balls and so on,
their pastimes and hobbies and games, were the product of a desire to
The same with Japan, with its endless list of parlour games (all the various
matchings) all the poetry, the great number of monogatari (writings meant to
be passed around and read for entertainment). The pillowbook is classic in
this display of ways to stave off boredom. And why else would one of the
classics of the period be called "Essays in Idleness"?
Now... about the Pillowbook.
Are these randomly ordered texts really random? They aren't sequential,
they're all over the map. So... why the order they're in? And who decided
this was the "proper" order (and why?) There are extant Makura text
traditions with a different organization (if the "main text" is ABCDEF,
there are also BDKFAC and FACBE and so on). This shows that people have
played the game, but the question becomes, why were they ordered THAT way,
Something that doesn't come across in the translation at all is that the
text is written entirely in present tense, even when it recounts past
events. In conventional J. lit, this is a method to drag the reader in, to
collapse the distance, and make the reader an observer at the spot and
instant of the events, but Sei uses it for a different reason, to separate
herself from the material.
It makes her our virtual companion, she's with us on the outside (even as
she figures in the tale she's recounting), rather than inside the story.
There's a scene at the court where everyone is sewing some garment, and Sei
sews her part wrong so it doesn't come together, and there is laughter...
but in historical context, they're sewing a mofu, a shroud for Empress
Teishi's father, Michitaka. His death, while a personal tragedy, is also
full of other context; with his death, Teishi has lost her most powerful
backer, and her uncle Michinaga takes over supporting *his* daughter Soshi;
so his death mean's the fall of Teishi's star, and the loss of importance
and preeminence of her entire salon, including Sei Shonagon... but Sei
writes this in a lighthearted mode to make herself the butt of humor to take
the edge off of what it all means, something that no one in Heian society
reading it would miss. This shows that Sei was not just a good observer, she
was also a good politician. It also might show that she was incapable of
dealing with the reality and sadness of the situation, but whether that was
due to a pathology or a need to present another face to the audience, we
just don't know.
Besides, she kept writing after Teishi's death (Teishi died in 1000 in
childbirth at the age of 24). Who was her audience?