I was introduced to Sei Shonogan around the time the word “blog” was coined. I say introduced but of course that is physically impossible, as Sei Shonogan was a Japanese author over one thousand years ago. Ruth Ozeki made the connections – quoting Sei Shonogan in her debut novel “My Year of Meats” – and thereby bringing Sei Shonogan into my consciousness. Long, looooong, before I got into this blogging business. When I recently saw “The Pillow Book” in the local library I picked it up mainly out of amusement, definitely not as research or expecting to be so struck by the similarities between Shonogan’s words and those of the modern day blogger.
Sei Shonagon was the daughter of a poet and official and seems to have been a single mother or at least, probably, divorced at the time she begun her position as a lady of the court to Empress Teishi, hired for her skill with poetry and writing. I am no Shonagon scholar and it’s hard to separate out cultural and historical norms and factors but to me Shonagon seems kind of, well, ballsy. As Peter Greenaway said – “Sei Shonagon feels modern, almost a proto-feminist in such a paternalistic age that women at court stayed, for the most part, silent and still and available, indoors all their lives.” To me Shonagon seems independent, both thoughtful and somewhat judgemental, honest and ambitious but her book, “The Pillow Book”, is really just a series of musings. A diary, a place to jot down ideas and observations. Just like today’s version – the blog.
My favourite parts of “The Pillow Book” are Shonagon’s lists. They remind me of lists that bloggers often make at the end of a week, month, or season (e.g. our Best of Seasons). Shonagon’s lists are simple observations of a period in history, and yet many of the items still hold true today. Like these ones:
A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.”
A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.”
Other lists are sweetly evocative:
A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries. “
“Things That Give a Clean Feeling…
An earthen cup.
A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.”
Sei Shonagon’s observations may be domestic and ordinary, but there is beauty in them. In fact, that is the beauty of them. She describes what makes her annoyed, what makes her surprised and what makes her feel good. This is what modern-day bloggers do too. They share their feelings for things and events and in doing so, give the reader permission for his / her own feelings. There is heart in that.
And not only heart but wisdom too. How true are some of these observations:
“There is nothing in the whole world so painful as feeling that one is not liked.”
“In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.”
(I like to think Shonagon would add chocolate, had she the opportunity to try it…)
“The Pillow Book” isn’t all beautiful or wise or relevant. Like any diary or blog, there are entries that appeal and have eloquence and others that do not; some that are more meaningful as documentation of the historical context – life in a Japanese Heian court – and therefore hold less relevance to the modern day reader. In the end it doesn’t matter, not to me anyway, because the essence of “The Pillow Book” and Sei Shonagon herself is a commitment to observation, honesty and attempting to capture everyday life and emotion with words. Not in order to be important or liked but for the pursuit and practice itself. To me that’s demonstration of both integrity and courage. And I think it’s for those reasons that Sei Shonagon is still read, studied and discussed. Over one thousand years after “The Pillow Book” was written.
Perhaps the similarities between Shonagon and modern-day bloggers is just another piece of (both reassuring and somewhat disconcerting) evidence that nothing creative is original. Maybe everything we express has been expressed before. Maybe there is no new content and no unique experience or emotion. But, assuming that is true, it doesn’t really discourage me. Because, as our original blogger, Shonagon herself, said so succinctly:
“If writing did not exist, what terrible depressions we should suffer from.”
Hear, hear. どうも 有難う 御座います, Sei Shonagon.