Pillow Book, The

Pillow Book, The
(Makura no Sōshi)
   by Sei Shōnagon
(ca. 1002)
   The Pillow Book is considered by contemporary scholars to be one of the two great literary monuments of the Japanese HEIAN PERIOD (the other being MURASAKI SHIKIBU’s TALE OF GENJI). SEI SHōNAGON, author of The Pillow Book, was a lady in waiting at the court of Teishi, royal consort of the emperor Ichijō from about 990 until her death in childbirth in 1000. In The Pillow Book, Sei presents a curious and idiosyncratic picture of life in Teishi’s court, focusing on the years 993–994. The work’s title derives from Sei’s description of how she came to write the book. Tradition holds that Teishi, having received a surplus of paper (a scarce commodity at the time), asked her ladies how they should make use of the surplus, and Sei responded that it would make a perfect pillow.Apparently she intended to keep scraps of paper close to where she slept in order to jot down observations, impressions, or random thoughts in the evening before she drifted off in slumber. This mode of composition gives The Pillow Book its highly unusual form, unlike any genre of Western literature. It is autobiographical and owes something to the nikki, or diary, genre of Heian literature. But it is much more than a diary. The text is made up of some 300 short occasional pieces, mostly prose, but with 16 waka (or poems in Japanese) intermixed. The randomly arranged pieces give the impression of being spontaneously created, and Sei’s text give birth to a new literary genre that became known as zuihitsu, a term meaning “following the writing brush,” and thus implying casual, random observation. Sei’s most important medieval successor in this genre was KENKō, but the form remains an important influence in Japanese literature to the present time. The prose passages of The Pillow Book fall roughly into three categories. There are the diarylike entries, consisting of anecdotes of the court, including stories of Teishi’s cat and dog. There are essaylike entries, in which Sei expresses her personal observations and opinions in a highly outspoken manner. And perhaps most famously, there are 164 lists of various matters, such as “Depressing things” (which include having to take a hot bath upon waking up in the morning).“Hateful things” (which include a man who snores after a woman has invited him to spend the night with her), and “Pretentious things” (which include the title “doctor of literature”).
   But a simple categorization of entries cannot do justice to this varied and enigmatic work. Chiefly it is admired for its tone and style, and for the strong personality of its author (or at least her persona) that shines through on every page. Sei uses a lively and varied sentence structure that is atypical of medieval Japanese prose, contrasting sharply with the more verbose and romantic style of Genji. The witty and humorous tone of most of The Pillow Book also contrasts with the somber Genji and other Heian pieces that tend to focus on the Buddhist notion of the transience of life. Sei herself comes across as a rather haughty aristocratic and highly opinionated satirist who sees herself as the arbiter of all things proper; she lampoons anyone or anything that does not meet her standards of refinement, beauty, intelligence, or behavior. In that vein, she is occasionally a vivid realist (again in contrast to the romantic Genji), focusing at one point on fleas under ladies’ skirts. But it should be noted that Sei is just as hard on herself as anyone else, depicting herself as unattractive and abrasive, and a poor poet.
   Admired for her subjectivity and her individualism, Sei is sometimes criticized for her work’s lack of structure. In part this may be due to a confused textual tradition, in which two distinct versions of the text have survived, differing from each other in their ordering of the material. In part, however, this apparent lack of organization reflects precisely the randomness Sei sought to convey in her text.
   ■ Bowring, Richard, trans.Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
   ■ Miner, Earl, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
   ■ Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Translated by Ivan Morris. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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