The Art of Heterogeneous Juxtaposition: Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book)

Sei Shōnagon

Sei Shōnagon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.”

Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book) is an odd and delightful book. The book is so original that it is a genre unto itself, while at the same time is a perfectly sensible, almost necessary, development of its time. Written in Japan at the end of the tenth century, it contains anecdotes, short essays, character sketches, descriptions of nature, diary entries and 164 lists. It is part of the literature of okashi which emphasized charm and interest. The style of Makura no Soshi is rhythmic quick moving, varied. Longer passages alternate with short anecdotes and lists. Frequent repetition provides a rhythm or refrain. The pacing is musical or poetic. It has been anachronistically refereed to as zuihitsu, “to follow the brush,” a later meandering style of Japanese prose that it may have influenced. This is contrasted with the literature of oware which emphasized seriousness and depth of feeling. Shonagon’s contemporary Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) is the primary example with its complex sentence structure and networks of dependent clauses.

The extant manuscripts are all roughly 500 years after the date of composition and maintain four different arrangements. Two of them are bunruiteki and are arranged by topic. The other two are zassanteki and are arranged in a seemingly random or miscellaneous order. I believe the bunruiteki are later redactions from scholars who did not understand the game and tried to impose a more universal, permanent and easily discernable order to the book. One of the two zassanteki traditions must have been the original arrangement and I think there is a chance the book may have had an open or fluid structure that allowed for multiple random arrangements. The confused time sequence of the diary entries as well as the heterogeneous nature of her lists suggest that this is not a chronological or straight forward narrative.

Early Japanese writing used Kanbun and Kanji systems. They were hybrid systems that were heavily reliant on Chinese characters, grammar and vocabulary. As a result, men were often trained in the classical Chinese language and writing. This included poetry, which was written by men in Chinese. Women rarely learned how to write Kanbun or Kanji and hence learned little Chinese. Men, on the other hand, typically spoke a Sino-Japanese hybrid full of Chinese loan words and constructions.

“Cases in which people say the same thing but sound different: The speech of men and women.”

With the advent of man’yōgana, a phonetic script for the Japanese language, the language that women spoke could now be written down. This transformed Japanese culture and many of the era’s best writers were women. The women wrote with a linguistic purity not found in the writings of men. Outside of a few names and quotations there is hardly a Chinese character to be found in the entire Makura no Soshi. Women, whose realm was the house and the court, paid less attention to wars, battles, journeys and adventures, and more attention to the nuance of individual motivation and social relations. This led to the creation of a special kind of prose, written in a purified Japanese language, with great psychological depth. Again Murasaki’s Genji Monogatari is the exemplar of this kind of writing. Shōnagon shared the linguistic purity and psychological depth of Murasaki, but her prose was unique. Unlike most women of the period she had extensive exposure to Chinese poetry. Her father, Kiyohara no Motosuke, had compiled imperial poetry collection Gosenshu and it is likely that she had read and been influenced by this style of writing. Much Chinese poetry works through the juxtaposition of objects and images. Each image is rich with historic or symbolic associations and meaning is compounded through association and contrast with the other images. This style of reading through juxtaposition of images applies to all of the essays and anecdotes of Makura no Soshi but shows up most clearly in her lists

“Things that gain by being painted: Pines, Autumn fields. Mountain villages and paths. Cranes and deer. A very cold winter scene; an unspeakably hot summer scene.”

The most appealing, and challenging parts of Makura no Soshi are her lists. They are clearly different from the lists that you or I usually make. The lists we make are homogeneous. They are collections of similar grouped items. They are related, similar, consistent and exclusive. We make grocery lists (milk, eggs, apples, bread, baking soda…), lists of thing to do (change oil, pick up dry cleaning, cut the grass…) and perhaps occasionally taxonomies (mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish…). Sei Shonagon’s lists are heterogeneous. They contrast, overlap, contradict. They are symbolic or psychological, even paradoxical or impossible:

“I shall say absolutely nothing about the spindle tree.”

They are not catalogs or taxonomies; they are poems or commentaries. I imagine they are the source of inspiration for Borges Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’ from his story “The Analytic Language of John Wilkins” about the impossibility of penetrating the divine pattern of the universe. The items on her lists range from a single word to short paragraph, story or anecdote. They are all very evocative and suggestive. Many of them read like a Wallace Stevens poem, a carefully composed arrangement of object correlatives.

“Things that arouse a fond memory of the past:
Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.
It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.
Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.”

This particular series is full of rich images of nostalgia and longing. The three items in the first line are all associated with the Shinto Kamo Festival, comparable to our Western Christmas holiday in it’s ability to conjure images of the past and recollections of friends and family. To read this list we compare the different objects and images. We look for themes that run through them. We look for parallels and contrasts. How does one image inform another? What are the historical, literary or symbolic associations of each image? How might they inform the associations of other images? It is through this constant comparison of images and their correspondences that we see wider and deeper meaning to the lists.

This same style of reading applies to the book as a whole. Each memory, anecdote, list, description informs and develops the ones next to it. It engages the reader in an act of creation, as they must combine the images to construct the meaning, to improvise in a poetic way. That is why I think the random ordering is the intended arrangement. It also may explain why there is more than one random arrangement, as each different arrangement opens up still more possibilities for the reader. It is easy to imagine someone in a later generation, unfamiliar with this style of poetic interpretation applied to prose, finding it necessary to fix and codify a more rational and chronological order to the book—not realizing that in doing so they undermine its purpose.

Japanese Literature Challenge


~ by severalfourmany on January 31, 2013.

5 Responses to “The Art of Heterogeneous Juxtaposition: Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book)”

  1. I never thought about the lists – that is a fascinating way of looking at Sei Shonagon’s writing. I can feel the call of a few lists of my own coming…

    • I was really excited by the lists and thought they provided one possilbe key to understanding the whole book. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I’ve been re-reading Sei Shonagon recently and I’m always amazed at how entertaining, fresh, and relevant her writing is. I think you’ve described the lists very well, especially how she expects you to fit the pieces together to see the larger whole. She’s really a master at hiding her art, which I only came to appreciate when I tried making lists of my own.

    • Indeed. She hides it so well I completely missed when I first read her many years ago. I could make no sense of this miscellany of odd fragments that lacked plot or structure. It really required a complete change of the way I read and thought about the book before it started to reveal itself.

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