The Good News, 3.8.2017

by Mark Chmiel

I once asked Mayuko and Minami (both in my fall 8 a.m. MWF Humanities class) if they had heard of Sei Shōnagon (清少納言). Of course they had!  They had read her years ago in school.  I only recently made acquaintance with SS through Meredith  McKinney’s translation for Penguin.

Reading her renowned Pillow Book, I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s maxim, “If we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything”:  

At times I am beside myself with exasperation at everything, and temporarily inclined to feel I’d simply be better off dead, or am longing to just go away somewhere, anywhere, then if I happen to come by some lovely white paper for everyday use and a good writing brush, or white decorated paper or Michinoku paper, I’m immensely cheered, and find myself thinking I might perhaps be able to go on living for a while longer after all.  212

I have written in this book  things I have seen and thought, in the long idle hours spent at home, without even dreaming that others would see it. Fearing that some of my foolish remarks could well strike others as excessive and objectionable, I did my best to keep it secret, but despite all my intentions I’m afraid it has come to light.  255

Overall, I have chosen to write about the things that delight, or that people find impressive, including poems as well as things such as trees, plants, birds, insects and so forth, and for this reason people may criticize it for not living up to expectations and only going to prove the limits of my own sensibility. But after all, I merely wrote for my personal amusement things that I myself have thought and felt, and I never intended that it should be placed alongside other books and judged on a par with them. I’m utterly perplexed to hear that people who’ve read my work have said it makes them feel humble in the face of it. Well, there you are, you can judge just how unimpressive someone is if they dislike things that most people like, and praise things that others condemn. Anyway, it does upset me the people have seen these pages. 255-56

I mentioned to Mayuko and Minami that, since they are writing  in notebooks à la Natalie Goldberg, they  might use some of Sei Shōnagon’s own topics or let her preoccupations spark some of their own. Here are some I found promising:

  1. Mountains
  2. Markets
  3. Residences
  4. Dispiriting things
  5. Occasions that induce half-heartedness
  6. Things people despise
  7. Infuriating things
  8. Things that make you feel cheerful
  9. Birds
  10. Things that are distressing to see
  11. Things that are hard to say
  12. Moving things
  13. Deeply irritating things
  14. Miserable looking things
  15. Embracing things
  16. Awkward and pointless things
  17. Prayers and incantations
  18. Occasions when the time drags by
  19. Worthless things
  20. Things that are truly splendid
  21. Alarming-looking things
  22. Things that look fresh and pure
  23. Distasteful-looking things
  24. Endearingly lovely things
  25. Repulsive things
  26. People who look as though things are difficult for them
  27. People who seem enviable
  28. Things whose outcome you long to know
  29. Occasions for anxious waiting
  30. Things now useless that recall a glorious past
  31. Situations you have a feeling will turn out badly
  32. Sutra readings
  33. Awe-inspiring things
  34. Illnesses
  35. Things that prove disillusioning
  36. Elegantly intriguing things
  37. Beaches
  38. Woods
  39. Temples
  40. Sutras
  41. Chinese writings
  42. Games
  43. Spectacles
  44. Shrines
  45. Hills
  46. Things that fall
  47. Things that no one notices
  48. Horrid filthy things
  49. Terrifying things
  50. Things that give you confidence
  51. Being disliked by others
  52. Things that give you pleasure
  53. Venerable things
  54. Things of splendor and spectacle
  55. Things one must be wary of
  56. Things that are hard on the ear
  57. Insects
  58. Unsuitable things
  59. Villages
  60. Disturbing things
  61. Things that can’t be compared
  62. Rare things
  63. Things later regretted
  64. Things that create the appearance of deep emotion
  65. Things of elegant beauty
  66. Infuriating things
  67. Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness
  68. Startling and disconcerting things
  69. Regrettable things

Let McKinney have the last word here and may you be intrigued enough by Sei Shōnagon to go and get your hands on this English translation:  “She so engages us because she engages with us, we meet her eye across a thousand years. Perhaps it is the letter form that Sei Shōnagon’s overall style comes closest to—the random flow of anecdotes and opinions and thoughts, apparently dashed off extempore, veering impulsively from one comment to another, each new turn touched off by some random association or tangential connection, or perhaps by nothing at all. The bewildering shifts  of tone and comment, the rich mix of the elegant and refined with the down-to-earth and acerbic, produce an effect of spontaneity and intimacy that draws the reader into a warm complicity, even when we find ourselves appalled at her frequent snobbery and occasional cruelty.”

sei-shonagon

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