Today I begin The Pillow Book, a collection of diary entries by a gentlewoman named Sei Shonagon (her name actually is unknown, Shonagon is a rank of government official), who inhabited in the imperial court during the Heian Period in 11th century. She is a court lady to Empress Teishi, who was ensconced in the large Inner Chamber, and much of the comings and goings of life around her were conducted in the wide aisle area that surrounds this central room. Witness to these comings and goings, Shonagon is in a position of advantage to write about the life in the court.
Shonagon lives a very confined life within the walled palace grounds. It’s only when these gentlewomen could be sure of being unobserved that the ladies would venture out to sit on the veranda or wander in the garden beyond. Far from the dulling senses, however, this dimly lit and circumscribed world in fact vivified the perceptions f its inhabitants. Sei Shonagon’s writing revels in the nuanced on a kettle, the faint susurratip of a lid placed on a kettle, the faint susurration of fire tongs gently stirring ash in a brazier, or the lingering scent from someone’s incense-impregnated clothes resonate with peculiar intensity. Visual awareness is very acute. Her writing is steeped in aesthetic sensibility.