Friday, March 05, 2010

'Pillow Book' Friday: Week Three

The Pillow BookThis week, after a slow start last month, we resume our leisurely read-along of The Pillowbook of Sei Shōnagon.  But even if you haven't started yet, we are only a few pages in, plus it's the type of book you can just dip into here and there, so feel free to join in any time. Also just a reminder that for the numbered entries, we're following the McKinney translation, but I'll include the corresponding numbers in the Morris translation when possible.  For more information on the different translations, please visit the 'Pillow Book' Friday page.  So it's Week Three, and we're looking at entries 21 to 30.

[21]  Women without prospect, who lead dull earnest lives and rejoice in their petty little pseudo-pleasures, I find quite depressing and despicable.
Morris (12): When I make myself imagine what it is like to be one of those women who live at home, faithfully serving their husbands - women who have not a single exciting prospect in life yet who believe that they are perfectly happy - I am filled with scorn.  (p. 39)

[22]  Dispiriting things
Morris (13):  Depressing things  (p. 40)

[23]  Occasions that induce half-heartedness

[24]  Things people despise

[25]  Infuriating things - A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages.  It 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.
Morris (14):  Hateful things  - One is in a hurry to leave, but one's visitor keeps chattering away.  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 behaviour, the situation is hateful indeed.  (p. 44~)

[26]  Things that make your heart beat fast
Morris (16):  Things that make one's heart beat faster (p. 51)

[27]  Things that make you feel nostalgic
Morris (17):  Things that arouse a fond memory of the past

[28]  Things that make you feel cheerful

[29]  A palm-leaf carriage should move at a sedate pace.
Morris (18):  A Palm-leaf carriage should move slowly...

[30]  A priest who gives a sermon should be handsome.  After all, you're most aware of the profundity of his teaching if you're gazing at his face as he speaks.  If your eyes drift elsewhere you tend to forget what you've just heard...
Morris (21):  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.  (p. 53~)

The Pillow Book

My thoughts:
These are the kinds of entries that I most enjoy in The Pillowbook , the ones where Sei lists all manner of things that annoy her, please her, excite her, and so on.  Some of them are reflections of the time she lived in, but some of them we can easily relate to, even now.  I think my favourite section this week was Infuriating Things, and is a good example of the mix of timeless grievances with those specific to the time.  I included the first 'infuriating thing' above.  Have you never been stuck listening to someone drone on while subtly looking at your watch and wondering how you'll escape?  In the same vein, she also mentions "a very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on" as another 'infuriating thing'.  Sei may be at times snobby and condescending but her observations just go to show that human nature hasn't changed all that much in the last 1000 years.

Other 'infuriating things' include:
I also really hate the way some people go about envying others, bemoaning their own lot in life, demanding to be let in on every trivial little thing, being venomous about someone who won't tell them what they want to know, and passing on their own dramatized version of some snippet of rumour they've heard, while making out that they knew all along.  
Someone who butts in when you're talking and smugly provides the ending herself.  
You've just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail, and starts flying round your face.
A man you're in a relationship with speaks admiringly of some woman who was once his lover.
And I hate people who don't close a door that they've opened to go in or out. 
 Some of the things she mentions are things we're not likely to encounter in our modern lives, like the exorcist falling asleep on the job, but they're still amusing and fascinating to read about, especially coming from Sei's sometimes acidic tongue.  And some of them just make me laugh, like "a man you've had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore."
And it's not all negative and snarky.
In entry [26] Things that make your heart beat fast:
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.  I know I've certainly felt that way, alone at night, and hearing a strange noise. 

In entry [27] Things that make you feel nostalgic:
Coming across a torn scrap of lavender- or grape-coloured fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book.  How about finding a forgotten photo, or something similar? 
On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.  Just reading that make me feel nostalgic, remembering some old friends and the letters we shared.  In the good ol' days before email, when I still sometimes wrote actual pen-on-paper letters. 

How about you?  Could you relate to anything in her lists this week?  
What would be in your own list of Infuriating things, or Things that make your heart beat fast, or Things that make you feel nostalgic, or Things that make you feel cheerful

As always, feel free to ask any questions you may have, or simply comment on this week's reading.  I'd love to know if you're reading along.

Sei Shonagon

Previous posts:
Week One (Entries 1-10)
Week Two (11-20)

For next time:
McKinney:  Entries 31 - 40 (p. 33 to 47)
Morris:  Entries 22 - 30 (p. 55 to 70)

[31]  While I was visiting Bodai Temple...
Morris (22):  When I visited Bodai Temple...

[32]  The place known as Koshirakawa...
Morris (23):   Smaller Shirakawa...

[33]  In the seventh month, when the heat is dreadful...
Morris (24):   It is so stifingly hot...

[34]  Flowering trees
Morris (25): Flowering trees

[35]  Ponds

[36]  Seasonal palace festivals
Morris (26):  Festivals

[37]  Trees that have no flowers
Morris (27):  Trees

[38]  Birds
Morris (28):  Birds

[39]  Refined and elegant things
Morris (29):  Elegant things

[40]  Insects
Morris (30):  Insects

Until next week then, happy reading!

Image (page from The Pillow Book):
Image (Sei Shonagon): source not clearly identified

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  1. I'm now caught up, and I have to say I'm really loving The Pillow Book so far. :D I love the mix of timelessness (especially in the infuriating things section you've focused on) and specific cultural things.

    Sei really is quite funny!

    McKinney's translation seems great, although I don't know Japanese at all, so I don't have any reference. :) My only wish would be that the endnotes were footnotes instead, just so that referring to things was easier.

    I'm off to read your posts on the first two weeks!

  2. Shonagon was just so wonderfully classist wasn't she. The comments she makes about women throughout The Pillowbook are at times horrifying and yet you have to smile at her cattiness.

  3. I do not have much to add to your what you have said. I will say, that I enjoyed this week's reading. I really liked the lists, far more interesting than the prior sections.

  4. I'm catching up! I have read our 'assigment' ;) for the first two weeks and hope to finish the next part by the end of this week. Just dropped in to tell you ;)

  5. Eva - Yay, I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying The Pillow Book. She is pretty amusing, isn't she? I love that mix of timelessness and things specific to the era too.

    I'm also enjoying McKinney's translation this time. I can't compare it to the original either, although it's not really clear what exactly is the true original since the only manuscripts that exist are copies from a few hundred years later. There are apparently two main versions accepted by scholars and the Morris translation is from one, the McKinney from the other, for the most part. When I check out the Morris for the relevant entries each week, I tend to prefer the McKinney. It seems to read more smoothly to me, but I think that's a personal preference.

    Trisha - Oh yes, some of the comments she makes are awful, but still so amusing to read.

    ibeeeg - The lists are a lot of fun, and really are some of my favourite entries. I especially like the seeming randomness of the things in her lists, and how many of them are still so relevant today.

    gnoegnoe - Thanks for stopping by to let me know. :)


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