Pillow Talk
April 17, 2004 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Pillow Talk -- what blogs were like 1000 years ago.
posted by sfenders (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sei Shonagan was an elegant writer.
In spring, it is the dawn. The sky at the edge of the mountains slowly starts to brighten with the approach of day, and the thinly trailing clouds nearby are tinted purple.
In summer, it is the night. It is of course delightful when the moon is out, but no less so on dark nights when countless fireflies can be seen mingling in flight. One even feels charmed when just one or two pass by, giving off a gentle glow. Rainy nights, too, are delightful.

In autumn, it is the evening. As the setting sun draws closer to the mountains, the crows hastily fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos. Even more delightful is the sight of a line of geese flying far overhead. Then, after the sun has set, the crying of insects and the sound of the wind have a charm that goes without saying.

In winter, it is the early morning. Of course it is delightful when snow is falling, but even when there is a pure-white frost -- or in the freezing cold without either snow or frost -- the way the fire is hurriedly stirred up and coals carried to all the rooms seems most suited to the season. As the day wears on and the cold gradually loses its sharpness, the braziers go untended and the coals become coated with a disagreeable white ash.
I much prefer the Ivan Morris translation, like the quote above.

Here are more examples.

An elegant writer. This Pillow Talk is most inelegant and trivializes a great writer for a lame trope. The titles are especially loathsome. The concept lacks merit.
posted by y2karl at 6:28 PM on April 17, 2004

Aw, lighten up. I thought this rocked. Thanks, sfenders!
posted by Asparagirl at 8:51 PM on April 17, 2004

I found this a few months ago and sent it to a friend who, when trying to get me to read the Pillow Book, called it "essentially a 10th century LiveJournal." She was incredibly amused to find out that someone else had thought pretty much the same thing.
posted by Electric Elf at 12:55 AM on April 18, 2004

I did like the comment on Things that really piss me off.
posted by raygirvan at 4:29 AM on April 18, 2004

I have great respect for the original as well, although my Japanese is not good enough for the original text. However, I think this is a pretty cool attempt at making this sort of writing relevant for young contemporary readers.
I don't think the book was ever meant to be 'literature' in our sense of the word, anyway. If Sei Shonagon was alive today, she would probably be a blogger, although she'd be one worth reading.
posted by bashos_frog at 4:30 AM on April 18, 2004

However, I think this is a pretty cool attempt at making this sort of writing relevant for young contemporary readers.

Oh? Compare and contrast these sentences from Hateful Things and Things That Piss Me off.

Hateful Things

If it is someone of no importance, one can get rid of him by saying, "You must tell me all about it next time"; but, should it be the sort of visitor whose presence commands one's best behavior, the situation is hateful indeed.

Things That Piss Me Off

If it's just some random, you can say "you should tell me all about it next time;" unfortunately, if it's people you're meant to respect, it's really annoying.

I don't think the book was ever meant to be 'literature' in our sense of the word, anyway.

From Three Heian Women:

...Donald Keene says, The Pillow Book is "perhaps the closest approach to high comedy in Japanese literature," while Ivan Morris, the translator of the English edition, calls it, "by far our most detailed source of factual material on the life of the time and . . . also a work of great literary beauty, full of lively humor and subtle impressions of the world she lived in."

As for making writing relevant for young contemporary readers, man, your estimation of young contemporary readers is much much lower than mine.

On the first day of the First Month

On the first day of the First Month and on the third day of the Third I like the sky to be perfectly clear. On the fifth day of the Fifth Month I prefer a cloudy sky. On the seventh day of the Seventh Month it should also be cloudy; but in the evening, it should be clear, so that the moon shines brightly in the sky and one can see the outlines of the stars. On the ninth day of the Ninth Month there should be drizzle from the early dawn. Then there will be heavy dew on the chrysanthemums, while the floss silk that covers them will be
wet through and drenched also with the precious scent of blossoms. Sometimes the rain stops early in the morning, but the sky is still overcast, and it looks as if it may start raining again at any moment. This too I find very pleasant.

This is not the rough equivalent of some 21st Century teenager with a know-it-all attitude and a Live Journal account. To compare the two is to elevate Live Journal and debase Shonagon far beyond their rightful levels. Her writing was far more subtle and involved than mere random natterings about being pissed of at your boyfriend and what's on TV. If bloggers wrote at her level, blogging would be literature and it would count for something. They don't and it is and does not.

I failed to link Alberto Mignani's quotation page above. There's sections from Ivan Morris's translation to be found here and there on the web while blog riffs and improvisations on Shonagon's list are far more common--and pedestrian.
posted by y2karl at 7:48 AM on April 18, 2004

Thanks for the perspective y2karl. I had never heard of the work before.

It did not make me think of a know-it-all teenager on livejournal, though. Not at all. Contrary to what you say, there are many blogs that are sometimes worth reading. I'm not all that knowledgeable on the subject, but I'd be very surprised if there wasn't, somewhere out there, a blog that counts as great literature by any standard.
posted by sfenders at 8:30 AM on April 18, 2004

y2karl, I agree with your assessment of the relative merits, but I don't think of this as competing with the original -- more as a modern low-rent riff on it, like the movie Clueless taking off from Jane Austen. If it gets even a few people to investigate further, surely it's worth it.
posted by languagehat at 11:39 AM on April 18, 2004

Comparing The Pillow Book Of Shonagan to blogs is not a novel conceit, languagehat. Not be picking on you, sfenders--I've yet to see one I've liked. It is one of my favorite books, so I'm biased. A book worth reading to add flavor and baackground to both The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji is Ivan Morris's The World Of The Shining Prince. Heian Japan was a most amazing and alien place.

Sei Shonagon's journal is worthy of emulation, I will grant that.
posted by y2karl at 12:42 PM on April 18, 2004

I second y2karl's recommendation with enthusiasm—a fantastic book. Visit Heian Japan today!
posted by languagehat at 1:46 PM on April 18, 2004

loan me your time machine, languagehat? : >

Was this Pillow Book and Genji written at the same time? (i'm a big fan of Genji, but have never read this.)
posted by amberglow at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2004

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. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people’s esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one. 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. And how can things turn out well for such a woman?

The Murasaki Shikibu Diary (trans. Ivan Morris) from Ladies in Rivalry

You will love reading Shonagon, amberglow. I guarantee it. /George Zimmer
posted by y2karl at 2:15 PM on April 18, 2004

aren't people here comparing two translations? anyone know what the style is like in the original?
posted by andrew cooke at 2:21 PM on April 18, 2004

It is a style that has to be translated into modern Japanese for modern Japanese to be able to read it. Jonathan Delacour discusses the three leading translations of A Tale of Genji in the link above and wishes for three similar translations of The Pillow Book.

The Pillow Book is full of subtleties that can only be brought out in footnotes for modern readers. The celebrated passage Morris translated beginning as In Spring, it is the dawn... mentions no season by name, for example.

Morris could read Heian Japanese. I suspect that Simon Cozens cannot.
posted by y2karl at 2:32 PM on April 18, 2004

i trust you, y2k.

is it online anywhere? or only in book form?
posted by amberglow at 2:33 PM on April 18, 2004

I knew those classical Japanese lessons would be useful someday.

I stand corrected.
posted by y2karl at 2:34 PM on April 18, 2004

Buy the book, amber--there are only fragments online. There is an Penguin Classics edition of the Ivan Morris translation that you can find in any better used bookstore.
posted by y2karl at 2:44 PM on April 18, 2004

ok (this is the thing that greenaway made a movie about, right? i never saw that either.)
posted by amberglow at 2:53 PM on April 18, 2004

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