Yesterday evening, wanting to read something different, I grabbed a book at random from my shelf. I soon found myself lost in a translation of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, that sometimes rambling but always entertaining diary written by a Japanese court woman from the 11th century. There is nothing quite like it in English literature. The work is an eclectic mixture of court gossip, 31-syllable waka poems, commonplace book, and reports of day trips and love affairs from roughly a thousand years ago. The most intriguing sections were the lists that Sei Shonagon scattered throughout the work, composed on subjects like “Things People Look Down On” (“a person with a reputation for excessive good nature,” for example) or “Things That Violate Our Expectations” (“a birth chamber when the baby has died”). I found each one to be a revelation, a glimpse at a sensibility that seemed wholly genuine, wholly human.
Charmed by her examples of “Elegant Things” (“shaved ice . . . snow on plum blossoms . . . a duck egg, broken”), I decided to compose my own list on that topic. I agonized for an hour and a half to come up with the following:
– Waltzes by Chopin
– White butterflies in midsummer.
– The scent of Merlot in an empty glass.
– A blackbird’s song by the water.
– Lacquered eggshells.
I soon gave up, laughing. What trash! Every word I’d written sounded pretentious and false. I pushed myself away from my desk, blushed, and wondered how a court woman from a thousand years ago could have written lists that were so much better than mine.
My life in books, I decided, has been one long plumbing of the depths, like a submarine sounding darknesses it cannot comprehend.
golden sunset –
a mole stumbles about
blinded by light
Editor's Note: Excerpts from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book in The Kyoto Journal.