Two Diaries

March 22, 2007


The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and The Diary of Lady Murasaki were written by two contemporaries during the Heian period in Japan (784 to 1185). This period, considered the peak of the Imperial Court, was known for its art, especially poetry and literature. These two writers, Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki (Murasaki Shikibu) were primary contributors to that literary recognition. Murasaki is best know as the author of The Tale of Genji.

Initially I envisioned the two writers hanging out together, chatting about writing and poetry. Unfortunately, that was not the case. They were actually competitors, and in her brief diary, Lady Murasaki makes her feelings about her peer quite clear.

“Sei Shonagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them?”

Sorry Lady Murasaki, but based upon a comparison of these two books, Sei Shonagon is very clever. The Diary of Lady Murasaki is rather, well, boring. Very dry and boring. Fortunately, if one excludes the introduction and appendix the book only runs a little over 60 pages. The first portion describes some typical events of the period, and the last 15 or 20 pages describe some of the people. The introduction and the appendix are the more useful and interesting parts of the book. Tale of Genji is a superior reading experience to this diary.

Shonagon’s “Pillow Book” is just plain fun. The book is a collection of random notes, occurrences, thoughts, insights, descriptions, and lists(161 lists to be exact- the most consistent feature of the book). It is also sprinkled with poetry, which based on the books I have read so far, is a prevalent feature of the period. People actual conversed with poetry, and took pride in their skill as poets – as least those of the “higher” classes.

Ah, what house is this
Where the eyebrows of the willow’s leaves
Grow so impudently broad
That they make the spring itself lose face!

Shonagon was a interesting list creator- everything and everyone was a list candidate:

Things that give a pathetic impression
Things that arouse a fond memory of the past
Hateful Things
Things that make one’s heart beat faster
Things that are distant though near
Adorable things
Things that fall from the sky

Some lists are brief entries, others are more descriptive, for example-

Ackward Things
One has gone to a house and asked to see someone; but the wrong person appears, thinking it is he who is wanted; this is especially awkward if one has brought a present.

One has allowed oneself to speak badly about someone without really intending to do so; a young child who has overheard it all goes and repeats what one has said in front of the person in question.

Someone sobs out a pathetic story. One is deeply moved; but it so happens that not a single tear comes to one’s eyes – most awkward. Though one makes one’s face look as if one is going to cry, it is no use; not a single tear will come. Yet there are times when, having heard something happy, one feels the tears streaming out.

Obviously, Shonagon has a sense of humor. Sometimes she combines that with the conceit and superiority that Murasaki described- This note is a bit awful, but I had to chuckle:

A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks; should we look away, we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin…
But I really must stop writing this kind of thing. If I were still young enough, I might risk the consequence of putting down such impieties, but at my present stage of life I should be less flippant.

Ok, I have to share one more along the same lines included in the list of things that are unpleasant to see…

A lean, hirsute man taking a nap in the daytime. Does it occur to him what a spectacle he is making of himself? Ugly men should sleep only at night, for they cannot be seen in the dark and besides, most people are in bed themselves. But they should get up at the crack of dawn, so that no one has to see them lying down.

The book is not loaded with such conceit, although class superiority is readily apparent throughout this book, as in others throughout the period. An early chapter in The Tale of Genji mentioned that although one may not be physically alone because there are always attendants nearby, one is still essentially alone since that class of people don’t really count. (not a direct quote).

There are many beautiful entries in the book. Shonagon seems to enjoy and embrace life, and honed her observational skills. One gains a lot of insight into this period of Japanese history through her descriptions of events. Many of the descriptions paint lovely pictures including this vision of a letter reader-

An attractive woman, whose hair tumbles loosely over her forehead, has received a letter in the dark. Evidently she is too impatient to wait for a lamp; instead she takes some fire-tongs, and, lifting a piece of burning charcoal from the brazier, laboriously reads by its pale light. It is a charming scene.

Last quote- another which again paints a lovely picture, but this one ends with another bit of humor-

I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.
As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

I had to look through my books read so far this year to see if this was the favorite to date. Maybe not, but highly recommended. It is one of those that can be read in a day or two, or enjoyed a passage at a time each night before bed. Even though I completed it, I have already picked it up again a few times to reread an random entry. If the Internet had been available 1000 years ago, I suspect we all would have a link to in our Blogroll.


2 Responses to “Two Diaries”

  1. Dorothy W. Says:

    The Pillow Book sounds quite interesting — thanks for the informative post!

  2. imani Says:

    I enjoyed the quotations. I have a special fondness for books are written so that one could choose a “complete” passage or two to read before going to bed.

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