Robin Camille Davis
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Excerpts from "The Pillow Book"

November 06, 2009
Tags: books, history

The Pillow Book was written by Sei Shōnagon (c. 966–1017) during the peaceful Heian period in Japan. She was a gentlewoman in the imperial court known for her wit and clever poetry. (Poetry was a big deal then — you would be justified in severing all contact with a lover if he sent you poor poetry.) The Pillow Book is a compendium of Sei's thoughts on various subjects, in the form of anecdotes, rants, and lists. I've excerpted some of the more interesting lists (as translated by Meredith McKinney), and here they are.

[25] Infuriating things
A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.
A hair has got on to your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. Also, the grating sound when a bit of stone gets ground in with the ink.
A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.
A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamoring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.
Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all. This is quite infuriating.

[26] Things that make your heart beat fast
A sparrow with nestlings. Going past a place where tiny children are playing. Lighting some fine incense and then lying down alone to sleep. Looking into a Chinese mirror that’s a little clouded. A fine gentleman pulls up in his carriage and sends in some request.
To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well-scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.
On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster.

[49] Cats
Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

[80] Things that create the appearance of deep emotion
The sound of your voice when you’re constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk.
Plucking your eyebrows.

[143] Things that make the heart lurch with anxiety
Watching a horse-race. Twisting up a paper hair-binding cord [because it might break].
When a parent looks out of sorts, and remarks that they’re not feeling well. This particularly worries you to distraction when you’ve been hearing panicky tales of plague sweeping the land. [...]
Your heart naturally lurches when you hear the voice of your secret lover in an unexpected place, but the same thing happens even when you hear someone else talking about him. It also lurches when someone you really detest arrives for a visit.
Indeed the heart is a creature amazingly prone to lurching. It even lurches in sympathy with another woman when the next-morning letter from a man who stayed with her for the first time the night before is late in arriving.

I'd heard the title The Pillow Book in passing before, but Sans Soleil (see previous entry) mentioned some of the lists. Here's an excerpt from the English translation of the script:

He spoke to me of Sei Shōnagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor's court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shōnagon had a passion for lists: the list of 'elegant things,' 'distressing things,' or even of 'things not worth doing.' One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of 'things that quicken the heart.' Not a bad criterion I realize when I'm filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.