Impediments to an Otherwise Delightful Life
October 6, 2014 9:19 PM   Subscribe

I love the sharp observations of the original Pillow Book. There are some unexpected joys of the modern world too... such as seeing a friend's rambunctious MetaFilter post and knowing that they are in a good mood.
posted by helmutdog at 9:43 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe not everybody knows The Pillow Book:
The Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi) is a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi (定子) during the 990s and early 11th century in Heian Japan. The book was completed in the year 1002.
In it she included lists of all kinds, personal thoughts, interesting events in court, poetry, and some opinions on her contemporaries.
Some of these lists and personal thoughts are a bit quirky: Oxen Should Have Very Small Foreheads.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:49 PM on October 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

the pillow book is one of my great pleasures
posted by PinkMoose at 11:10 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


-Arranging affairs to a subtle degree of perfection for the benefit of one who has no subtlety.

I'm going to quote this at my next performance review.
posted by sockpup at 3:05 AM on October 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

Sei Shōnagon also prompted Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji) to write what may be the very first insulting literary review: "Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections ... She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous."
posted by kyrademon at 3:32 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would like to add to Unpleasantnesses: A wet sleeve.
posted by HotToddy at 3:44 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am endlessly amused by The Pillow Book, it delights me. Stuff You Missed in History Class had a podcast about Sei Shōnagon and the pillow book that I really enjoyed.

sockpuphah, you and me both! That is definitely going in my next review.
posted by halcyonday at 3:46 AM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

And now I want to know much, much more about "The Dog Pillow."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:58 AM on October 7, 2014

This book delighted me endlessly when I first found it. I always wished it had taken off as a genre so I could read a hundred pillow books with all the scattered thoughts in many forms of a hundred interesting people. I like to think that there are many more out there just like it, unpublished and unknown except to their authors.
posted by forgetful snow at 5:42 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always wished it had taken off as a genre so I could read a hundred pillow books with all the scattered thoughts in many forms of a hundred interesting people.

It is a genre! It's called zuihitsu. Not too many get translated into English, but there are a handful out there (The Confessions of Lady Nijo is probably my favorite of the bunch).
posted by Itaxpica at 5:54 AM on October 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Piggy backing off of Itaxpica, Pillow books are what people are talking about when they say the novel started in Japan.

They started as poetry collections (because in the Heian period onward that is how you talked to anyone and everyone if you were part of the nobility), with a little description illustrating some context. (I saw Lady So and So the other day and she sent me this little ditty about the fall chill).

As time went on the poetry gets less and less and the descriptions become longer and boom, you got a novel. Tale of Genji evolved this way.

If you want to read another one I also second Nijo, who is my favorite. It's this every day reflection on her life, but there's this undercurrent of political genus. Because Kamakura era court, while not quite Kings Landing level stakes, did have some mad politicking going on.

There's also As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams which is basically this one really sad woman's nostalgia for the Heian period who is WAY to into the Tale of Genji. But it's also an interesting read.

posted by KernalM at 6:09 AM on October 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Re-piggybacking off KernalM, who I took a handful of EAS classes with in undergrad: as a little bit of historical context, The Pillow Book was written in the Heian period of Japanese history, around the year 1000 AD. The Heian period was something of a golden age for the Japanese aristocracy - the aristocrats and the imperial family held political power (and the capital of the country was Kyoto, the seat of the emperor and the home of the majority of the nobility), Buddhism was really beginning to take off in Japan, and there was all-around peace and stability (more or less). A few hundred years later saw the shift to the Kamakura period, in which political power had largely transferred to a military dictatorship called the bakufu, or the Kamakura shogunate, led by the first shoguns (this period also saw the rise of samurai, and is what most people think of when they think 'feudal Japan'). They moved the capital to Kamakura, and while they left the emperor in place as a respected figurehead and allowed the nobility to keep their lands and money, they seized nearly all control of politics and governance in Japan.

This left the old nobility in Kyoto with a large amount of money and time with almost nothing to do with it. They wound up filling their lives with enormous amounts of ritual and social games, coupled with a consuming nostalgia for a semi-imagined courtly Heian past. Around this time the Pillow Book resurfaced, and it's observations of Heian life were super popular. Other books, almost always by courtly women writing about their observations of the Kamakura court, sprinkled with allusions to Buddhism and references to how the court had fallen since the Heian days, started popping up by the dozen. A lot haven't survived, but the ones that have are fascinating.

KernalM listed two examples that I absolutely love, since they're similar on the surface but very different books. The Confessions of Lady Nijo follows a woman named Nijo, a consort of the emperor and at one point the second most powerful woman in Japan after the empress (she nearly becomes the empress, but falls short in some Game Of Thrones style political maneuvering and gets forced out of court). The book can be a little hard to read at times - she describes clothing and mannerisms in exacting detail, since to a contemporary reader those would have been a clear signal of the rank and status of the people she's talking about, but if you don't have a well-annotated edition those details are almost totally lost. That being said, it's a great read: while she likes to paint herself as a powerless flower getting knocked about by the currents of cruel life (a common theme in these books, since melancholy was seen as an appropriate response to the view of life as fleeting that was central to Buddhism), reading between the lines reveals a brilliant political operator who knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it.

As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams is an almost polar opposite. It's main character is the daughter of a far-flung provincial lord (those positions were extremely lucrative but political and social suicide, since they removed you from the manipulations and machinations of the court at Kyoto), writing about her travels with her father. She's obsessed with The Tale of Genji and Heian nostalgia, and her melancholy and general inability to deal with the world around her goes way past what was expected of a woman then and goes in to what would today probably be recognized as pretty serious depression. It's an interesting counterpoint to Nijo's all-around competence and skill.

Wow, sorry, went a little crazy there. I like this stuff a lot.
posted by Itaxpica at 6:25 AM on October 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

MetaFilter: Thinking up elaborate comebacks to imagined insults.
posted by The Bellman at 6:32 AM on October 7, 2014


Do you have a recommendation for a well annotated edition of Nijo
posted by Dr. Twist at 7:41 AM on October 7, 2014

This book, one of my favorites, directly references Sei Shonagon as an inspiration (the first time I had heard of her, in fact).
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:30 AM on October 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Did anyone ever see the movie The Pillow Book? I loved it oh so much back in the 90s.
posted by Theta States at 9:22 AM on October 7, 2014

This edition is the one we used when I read it in undergrad. I remember it being pretty well annotated, though I might be confusing what was in the book and what our professor told us specifically.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:35 AM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am surprised and disappointed not to find this on Project Gutenberg. :7(
posted by wenestvedt at 9:38 AM on October 7, 2014

In Nijo's case, I suspect that the original Japanese is in the public domain but all translations are recent enough to not be covered yet; the book didn't really resurface until the 50s. You may be able to find some of the older stuff, like The Pillow Book or the Tale of Genji, but I've never looked.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:40 AM on October 7, 2014

Did anyone ever see the movie The Pillow Book? I loved it oh so much back in the 90s.

It only shares a name with the book, you know. There is plenty of alluded sex going on between the lines in Sei Shonagon's but nothing of that weird exoticised eroticism. Love poems aren't written on skin, they're written in this very nice paper of pale lavender color with elegantly fading brushstrokes and attached to a branch of some poetically appropriate tree. And so on.

What I like most of the book is how the author is vexed (vexed!) when Nature is so crass as to not behave according to poetic conventions. :D

I am surprised and disappointed not to find this on Project Gutenberg. :7(

You have the diary of Lady Sarashina here. I'm afraid this is the closest you can get in the public domain.
posted by sukeban at 9:42 AM on October 7, 2014

Ooh, I forgot Sarashina Nikki for public domain - that's the one I mentioned under the name As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams. To put it in to the historical context, this was one of the Heian journals, contemporaneous with The Pillow Book; the kind of thing that the Kamakura nobles would have been taking their cues from. Ironically, she has the same kind of rose-colored view of the Heian court as Kamakura authors despite being alive for the actual era; it may be because she's looking in at the court from her provincial, semi-rural background. It makes a great comparison to the later Kamakura works.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:45 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

And let's not forget the Hōjōki. (I can't believe we've never had a post about, or mentioning, Kamo no Chōmei, but such seems to be the case; I quoted some of Basil Bunting's wonderful translation back in 2002 in the thread for a fine y2karl post.)
posted by languagehat at 11:50 AM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

It only shares a name with the book, you know.

LOL, yes, thanks.
posted by Theta States at 7:30 AM on October 8, 2014

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