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[751] The Pillow Book – Sei Shonagon


” ” I have written in this book things I have seen and thought, in the long idle hours spent at home, without ever dreaming that others would see it, fearing that some of my foolish remarks could well strike others as excessive and objectionable, I did my best to keep it secret, but despite all my intentions I’m afraid it has come to light. ” ([S29], p.255)

The Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s diary during the time she serves as a gentlewoman (lady-in-attendance) to Empress Teishi toward the end of 10th century. The world and the scope of this book, originally meant for her own amusement, are the walled palace grounds and most particularly the household of the Empress. But throughout most of Japanese history, the Emperor himself, for all his prestige, has been effectively powerless. During Shonagon’s time, the real power lay in the hands of the Fujiware family, whose members dominate top positions in the court hierarchy. One of the chief aims is to provide from their immediate family the woman who would become the mother of the future emperor. Teishi is Emperor Ichijo’s first Empress through an arranged marriage by her father, so her position as the Empress rests precariously on the continued power of her father Fujiwara Michitaka. Her Majesty (as Sei Shonagon addresses her) enjoys a quiet life of artistic and literary pursuit on the palace ground and favors Shonagon over all the other gentlewomen.

Although Shonagon is profoundly affected by these political events in the court, they are almost entirely absent from her pillow book. In entries ranging in size from brief reflections (like a status update) to longer, lyrical tales, Shonagon’s gaze is determinedly fixed on the delights of this confined court life. She describes in details the pleasures of poetry, fashion, ceremonies, flirtations, and the excursions that puncture the monotony of court life.

From behind the haze of fine reed blinds and curtains, the world she observes is far from dull to the senses. Her writing revels in the nuances of sound and scent—the soft tap of a lid placed on a kettle, the ruffle of fine paper, the faint susurration of fire tongs gently stirring ash in a brazier, or the lingering scent of incense impregnated on clothes. Visual acuteness is also acute. She is quick to observe, to compliment, to criticize on colors and style of clothing. This heightened awareness of taste and aesthetic sensibility is ubiquitous apparent in the court culture that Shonagon so lovingly documents, and nowhere more so than in relations between men and women. Her taste and opinion affirm her identity with others in her social circle, and so individual variation is often looked at askance. She is as perceptive in observation as she is cruel in her commentary.

355 pp. Penguin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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