[26] Things that make your heart beat fast – A sparrow with nestlings. Going past a place where tiny children are playing. Lighting some fine incense and then lying down alone to sleep. Looking into a Chinese mirror that’s a little clouded. A fine gentleman pulls up in his carriage and sends in some request. / To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well-scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside. / 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.

The Pillow Book, p. 30

In Chris Marker’s 1983 film Sans Soleil, an unknown narrator reads the letters she has received from a fictitious cameraman, Sandor Krasna, with footage from his travels around the world: Iceland, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, but mainly Japan. ‘He spoke to me’, she says, ‘of Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century in the Heian period’. Shonagon was the author of The Pillow Book, an account of her life at the imperial court which contains, among many diary-like passages and essays, a great number of lists. ‘Shonagon had a passion for lists’, Krasna writes, ‘the list of “elegant things”, “distressing things”, or even of “things not worth doing”. One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of “things that quicken the heart”, not a bad criterion I realise when I’m filming’.

The French novelist Georges Perec realised that it was not a bad criterion for writing either, and he had a similar passion for lists: he even went as far as to write an ‘Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four.’ In his book Penser/Classer he describes Shonagon’s method: ‘[she] does not classify; she enumerates and then starts again. A particular topic prompts a list, of simple statements or anecdotes. Later on, an almost identical topic will produce another list, and so on […] “Things” that move one, for example (things that cause the heart to beat faster, things someone heard with a greater than usual emotion, things that move one deeply’ (p. 197). Perec’s work is full of lists, or what he calls ‘the ineffable joys of enumeration’ (p. 198), and like Shonagon he doesn’t write about extraordinary things, but what he calls the ‘infra-ordinary’; ‘what happens’, he says, ‘when nothing happens’. In his Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris he lists all of the things he sees from his table at a café in the Place Saint-Sulpice over the course of one overcast weekend: the weather, people, cars, clouds. It is an attempt that is of course ultimately doomed to failure, for one can never exhaust even the most ordinary square in Paris, but it nevertheless produces the attempt. ‘I’ve been around the world several times’, Krasna writes, ‘and now only banality still interests me’. Banality becomes the criterion of writing and it allows Perec to found an anthropology of the everyday, ‘not the exotic any more, but the endotic’ (p. 210).

What these writers and filmmakers discover in Shonagon is ultimately a form of writing which is profoundly modern: the lack of chronological order, the rejection of linear narrative in favour of fragmentation, the rejection of what would come to be known as ‘realism’. What they discover, and what French theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes also discovered in Japan, which became for him a utopia – an Empire of Signs – is a liberation from meaning itself. ‘Coming back through the Shiba coast’, Krasna writes, ‘I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name.’ These signs have no meaning, they simply signify the things themselves, and yet they quicken the heart, which is perhaps their meaning, and reading her book we might be tempted to compose our own list of things that quicken the heart, to signify not our meaning but our selves.

[27] Things that make you feel nostalgic – A dried sprig of aoi. Things children use in doll play. Coming across a torn scrap of lavender- or grape-coloured fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book. On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it. Last year’s summer fan.

The Pillow Book, p. 30

What is conspicuously absent from Shonagon’s book is history – or what we think of as history: the ‘extra-ordinary’ – and she almost entirely omits the tragic events of her own life from her account in favour of lists and memories of banal moments at court. As Krasna writes, ‘rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents, the emperor’s court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games, but by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things, this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians’. ‘Heian’ means ‘peace’ or ‘tranquillity’, and indeed it was a period of relative calm in the otherwise turbulent history of Japan, in which there was a flourishing of art and culture, and it was during this period that The Tale of Genji – another classic of Heian literature, often cited as the world’s first novel – was written by another lady-in-waiting – and rival of Shonagon –  Murasaki Shikibu.

It was by no means, however, spared the intrigue of politics. In this period, as it has been throughout the history of Japan, the Emperor held no real power, which instead lay in the hands of the Fujiawara clan, members of which were constantly manoeuvring against each other by marrying their daughters into the imperial family. Shonagon was in the service of Empress Teishi, or Sadako, who was the first consort of the Emperor Ichijo. Teishi was the daughter of Fujiwara Michitaka, the regent to the Emperor, however despite the obvious affection between her and Ichijo, her position was far from secure, and when Michitaka died suddenly during an epidemic, his brother Michinaga took power and Teishi’s brothers were exiled from court. Michinaga’s own daughter Shoshi became second consort to the Emperor – in whose service Lady Murasaki was employed – and after a period of fierce rivalry, resulting in her eventual humiliation, Teishi died in childbirth. Shonagon’s own fortunes rose and fell with the Empress, and little is known about her life after Teishi’s death although it is thought Shonagon probably ended her life in poverty or at least obscurity. The Pillow Book was written primarily during this period of decline after Michitaka’s death, the details of which are almost entirely absent from the text apart from in fleeting and oblique references, and she focuses instead on the memories of Teishi at the height of her power, rather than the events which brought about her downfall.

[156] Things now useless that recall a glorious past – A fine embroidery-edged mat that’s become threadbare. / A screen painted in the Chinese style, that’s now turned dark and discoloured and developed a scarred surface. / A painter with poor eyesight. / A switch of false hair seven or eight feet long, that’s now fading and taking on a reddish tinge. / Grape-coloured fabric when the ash dye has turned. / A man who was a great lover in his day but is now old and decrepit. / A tasteful house whose garden trees have been destroyed by fire. The pond is still there, but it’s now uncared for and thick with pond weed.

The Pillow Book, p. 162

The book is set in the Imperial palace at Heian-kyo – modern day Kyoto – which was then the capital. The city was modelled on the Chinese capital of Chang’an – modern day Xi’an – and maps show us the grid-like layout of the streets, the inner and outer complexes of the palace buildings, the house itself with its wings and galleries connected by bridgeways and a narrow veranda, all set around a garden. What is striking when we read the book and when we look at illustrations of typical palace architecture of the period – little of which survives – is how unpretentious, almost modest, it is; nothing could seem more remote than the medieval fortifications which would have been erected at the same time all over Europe. The buildings were typically built out of lighter materials such as wood and paper which made them especially susceptible to the fires which frequently raged and forced the occupants to relocate at great personal and political cost, destabilising the capital and the palace as the centre of government which eventually fell into disuse and disrepair. Indeed, it was a conflagration which finally destroyed the palace, long after its political importance had diminished; it was never rebuilt, and today almost no trace of it remains.

The architecture lends itself to the climate – Shonagon frequently describes the stiflingly hot summers – but it also gives us a sense of the intimacy of court life, the close proximity with which they would have lived. It is an incredibly mobile space which allows for multiple arrangements of the furniture which function in many ways like temporary stage sets. As Barthes writes, ‘the room keeps certain written limits, these are the floor mats, the flat windows, the walls papered with bamboo paper […] from which it is impossible to distinguish the sliding doors; here everything is line, as if the room were written with a single stroke of the brush. Yet, by a secondary arrangement, this rigor is in its turn baffled: the partitions are fragile, breakable, the walls slide, the furnishings can be whisked away’ (p. 44). There are few walls or rooms but its complex system of doors, shutters, panels, blinds, screens and curtains provide various ways of dividing and partitioning the space according to the situation, and in many ways dictate the interactions between people, especially women who would have been hidden from view when they received male visitors. These devices serve to restrict the view of the observers, but like any prohibition it invites its inevitable transgression. ‘At this point’, Shonagon writes, ‘they set about folding back the separating standing screen from behind which I’d been peeping. I felt as if I was being stripped of a magic cloak of invisibility. Bereft, and longing to see more, I hastily moved further round, to a new position between the blind and the standing curtain, and continued to peep from behind a pillar […] However, my sleeves and train were now all left trailing outside the blind, and His Excellency soon caught sight of them’ (p. 110). There are always gaps, interstices, and the women carefully arrange their sleeves for display beneath the blinds or out of their carriages in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. There is an emphasis on looking which is at times almost voyeuristic, and almost always privileges the male spectator, but it is Shonagon’s own fixed gaze that gives us access to this world, and the reader who she hides beneath her ‘magic cloak of invisibility’. It is a world, therefore, both curiously opaque and transparent, but for the gentlewomen of the court, it was a world which would have been circumscribed, almost hermetic, were it not for the occasional excursion. Shonagon would only dimly have been able to perceive the events that were taking place through the blinds which separated her from the world, but rather than dulling her senses it seems to have heightened them as it focused her attention on the details of court life, as her awareness of the world beyond, and her role within it, gradually diminished.

[1] In spring, the dawn – when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky. / In summer, the night – moonlit nights, of course, but also at the dark of the moon, it’s beautiful when fireflies are dancing everywhere in a mazy flight. And it’s delightful too to see just one or two fly through the darkness, glowing softly. Rain falling on a summer night is also lovely. / In autumn, the evening – the blazing sun has sunk very close to the mountain rim, and now even the crows, in threes and fours or twos and threes, hurrying to their roost, are a moving sight. Still more enchanting is the sight of a string of wild geese in the distant sky, very tiny. And oh how inexpressible, when the sun has sunk, to hear in the growing darkness the wind, and the song of autumn insects. / In winter, the early morning – if snow is falling, of course, it’s unutterably delightful, but it’s perfect too if there’s a pure white frost, or even just when it’s very cold, and they hasten to build up the fires in the braziers and carry in fresh charcoal. But it’s unpleasant, as the day draws on and the air grows warmer, how the brazier fire dies down to white ash.

The Pillow Book, p. 3

In these famous opening lines, which every Japanese schoolchild would know off by heart from recitation, we are introduced to the idea of okashi, or delightfulness, for which there is no adequate translation in English, or even in modern Japanese – her most recent English translator Meredith McKinney translates it here as ‘delightful’, ‘lovely’ or ‘enchanting’ – but it is the mood which dominates the text. This is contrasted to aware, ‘the pathos of things’, a melancholy awareness of the transience of life which is the spirit that pervades The Tale of Genji and much of Heian literature, and which Shonagon seems to reject in her book. Even ‘the brazier fire’ that ‘dies down to white ash’, is seen as unpleasant, rather than aware. We are thus introduced to her unique aesthetic sensibility in this passage which seems to reject not only melancholy but meaning itself, for what we would be tempted to see in terms of metaphor or allegory is seen here purely in terms of okashi. ‘To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it is radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid’, Krasna writes. ‘Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies, there is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all.’ To modify something is to qualify it and adjectives thus limit their object. Things here simply signify themselves and okashi becomes an empty sign that signifies everything.

[124] It’s beautiful the way the water drops hang so thick and dripping on the garden plants after a night of rain in the ninth month, when the morning sun shines fresh and dazzling on them. Where the rain clings in the spider webs that hang in the open weave of a screening fence or draped on the eaves, it forms the most moving and beautiful strings of white pearly drops. / I also love the way, when the sun has risen higher, the bush clover, all bowed down beneath the weight of the drops, will shed its dew, and a branch will suddenly spring up though no hand has touched it. And I also find it fascinating that things like this can utterly fail to delight others.

The Pillow Book, pp. 129-130

It is this aesthetic attitude which appealed to Barthes; as Susan Sontag writes, ‘[he] found a world of such liberating absences of meaning, both modernist and simply non-Western, in Japan; Japan, he noted was full of empty signs’ (p. xxiv). Sontag calls this aesthetic sensibility the ‘dandy attitude’ (p. xxvi), although in The Pillow Book this rarely has to do with decadence, indeed it is almost austere at times. For Sontag it amounts to a refusal of depth: ‘the idea that depths are obfuscating, demagogic, that no human essence stirs at the bottom of things, and the freedom lies in staying on the surface, the large glass on which desire circulates – this is the central argument of the modern aesthete position’, she says (xxviii). It is a superficial quality that we recognise in Wilde; as Lord Henry says in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘[i]t is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’.

Sontag refers to Shonagon’s Pillow Book as a ‘breviary of consummate dandy attitudes, written in what is for us an astonishingly modern, disjunctive form – notes, anecdotes, and lists’ (p. xxvi). The closest equivalent to this form is the haiku for, like the list, it is not only meaningless but a suspension or even an exemption from meaning. Barthes quotes a haiku from Basho: ‘How admirable he is / Who does not think “Life is ephemeral” / when he sees a flash of lightning!’ (p. 72). It resists commentary for there is nothing to be said about the haiku that it does not say itself, and it therefore baffles many (especially Western) critics. ‘Neither describing nor defining’, Barthes says, ‘the haiku diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation. It’s that, it’s thus, says the haiku, it’s so. Or better still: so!’ It is like photography, like the flash of the camera, but as he says, ‘the haiku’s flash illumines, reveals nothing’. Like the photograph, the haiku has an indexical relationship to reality which he compares it to the gesture of a child pointing, for once again the sign cannot be distinguished from its referent, from the thing itself: ‘that, there it is, lo!’ (p. 5).

For Marker, Perec and Barthes the writer of the haiku in modernity becomes like the flâneur of the 19th century city: a painter of modern life. Indeed, as Barthes points out, we are all tempted to write our own haiku, to compose, as Marker says, our own ‘list of things that quickens the heart’. Like Perec in Place Saint-Sulpice, Marker in Tokyo, or Shonagon at the Heian court, everything exists to end in a photograph, film, text, haiku, list. Something which happens (for something always happens, Barthes says) in the street, ‘the young bicyclist carrying a tray of bowls high on one arm; or the young saleswoman who bows with a gesture so deep, so ritualized that it loses all servility, before the customers of a department store leaving to take an escalator; or the Pachinko player inserting, propelling, and receiving his marbles, with three gestures whose very coordination is a design; or the dandy in the café who with a ritual gesture (abrupt and male) pops open the plastic envelope of his hot napkin with which he will wipe his hands before drinking his Coca-Cola: all these incidents are the very substance of the haiku’ (pp. 79-80).

[39] Refined and elegant things – A girl’s over-robe of white on white over pale violet-grey. The eggs of the spot-billed duck. Shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl. A crystal rosary. Wisteria flowers. Snow on plum blossoms. An adorable little child eating strawberries.

The Pillow Book, p. 46

The criterion for Barthes, like Shonagon’s okashi, is pleasure, and it is pleasure which becomes the organising principle of the work, or rather it is the writer who becomes the organising principle, as these things are classified and enumerated according to their pleasure. ‘The aesthete’, Sontag says, ‘sustains standards that make it possible to be pleased with the largest number of things; annexing new, unconventional, even illicit sources of pleasure’, and again, ‘[t]he literary device that best projects this attitude is the list’ (p. xxvi): ‘the whimsical aesthete polyphony that juxtaposes things and experiences of a starkly different, often incongruous nature, turning them all, by this technique, into artifacts, aesthetic objects. Here elegance equals the wittiest acceptances. The aesthete’s posture alternates between never being satisfied and always finding a way of being satisfied, being pleased with virtually everything’ (p. xxvi). The list becomes a democratic form as there is no hierarchy to these things, or rather they are all equal according to the arbitrary criteria, which often produce startling juxtapositions similar to the effect of montage in film which the Surrealists would later exploit.  Aware, the pathos of things is replaced by the bathos of things, okashi, and, as with photography, as Barthes says, ‘“anything whatever” then becomes the sophisticated acme of value’ (p. 34).

In Barthes’s ‘autobiography’ of sorts he writes a list of ‘likes and dislikes’ under the heading, ‘j’aime, je n’aime pas’: ‘I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay […], roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks, pears, white peaches, cherries, colors, watches, all kinds of writing pens, desserts, unrefined salt, realistic novels, the piano, coffee, Pollock, Twombly, all romantic music, Sartre, Brecht, Verne, Fourier, Eisenstein, trains, Médoc wine, having change, Bouvard and Pécuchet, walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France, the bend of the Adour seen from Doctor L.’s house, the Marx Brothers, the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, etc.’ (pp. 116). ‘This is of no importance to anyone’, he says, ‘this, apparently, has no meaning. And yet all this means: my body is not the same as yours’ (p. 117). The Pillow Book is full of such lists, which are of no importance, which mean nothing – are insignificant – and yet what they do mean is that Shonagon is different from us, her body is different from ours. Like Shonagon, he looks for things which delight him, which ‘prick’ him – what he calls the ‘punctum’ in Camera Lucida – which are always, as he says, details. ‘I like certain biographical features which, in a writer’s life, delight me as much as certain photographs’ (p. 30). They are what in Sade/Fourier/Loyala he calls ‘biographemes’: ‘Sade’s white muff, Fourier’s flowerpots, Ignatius’s Spanish eyes’ (p. 9). ‘Were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to “biographemes” whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate and come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, some future body, destined to the same dispersion’ (p. 9).

It is a form of biography which Georges Perec attempts himself in Je me souviens or ‘I remember’, after Joe Brainard, a list of 479 things he remembers from his life all beginning ‘Je me souviens…’: ‘I remember Reda Caire performing live at the Porte de Saint-Cloud cinema […] I remember that my uncle had an 11CV with the registration number 7070 RL2 […] I remember the cinema Les Agriculterus, and the leather armchairs at the Camera, and the twins seats at the Pantheon’ (p. 25). Many of his cultural references mean little or nothing to us now unless you were of Perec’s generation or perhaps unless you were Perec himself, but like Barthes’s ‘biographemes’ – or his exercise in ‘anamnesis’ in Roland Barthes – Perec is ‘dispersed’ in his text to become somehow the aggregate of these memories. ‘Whether it be plants, trees, birds or insects’, Shonagon writes, ‘I can never be insensible to anything that on some occasion or other I have heard about and remembered because it moved or fascinated me’ (p. 44). Shonagons’s lists evoke memories of things, people and places that have touched her or that she has touched; lists of things which are therefore unique to her and thus begin to approach what Barthes calls ‘the impossible science of the unique being’ (p. 71). It is autobiography by accumulation rather than development or progression, for it takes place in space rather than time, and we begin to see her take shape as we would a constellation of stars, for unlike narrative where we have to follow the narrow thread of the text in one direction to the end, these memories are woven into a kind of tapestry. ‘I cast over the written work’, Barthes says, ‘over the past body and the past corpus, barely brushing against it, a kind of patchwork, a rhapsodic quilt consisting of stitched squares. Far from reaching the core of the matter, I remain on the surface, for this time it is a matter of “myself” (of the Ego); reaching the core, depth, profundity, belongs to others’ (p. 142).

[215] On a bright moonlit night, when your carriage is crossing a stream, it’s lovely the way the water will spray up in shining drops at the ox’s tread, like shattered crystal.

The Pillow Book, p. 193

The image of the author, or its unity, is shattered, multiplying the possibilities of refraction infinitely. Dispersion, in this sense, becomes expansion for to be pleased (or displeased) with the largest number of things is to spread oneself as widely as possible across the world. As Barthes says of the haiku: ‘The number and the dispersion of haikus on the one hand, the brevity and closure of each one on the other, seem to divide, to classify the world to infinity, to constitute a space of pure fragments, a dust of events which nothing […] can or should coagulate, construct, direct, terminate’ (p. 78). The haiku has no subject; ‘reading has no other self than all the haikus of which this self, by infinite refraction, is never anything but the site of reading […] one might say that the collective body of all haikus is a network of jewels in which each jewel reflects all the others and so on, to infinity, without there ever being a center to grasp, a primary core of irradiation’ (p. 78). Shonagon, her self, is fragmented in the text, but she is more than the sum of these parts, for like this ‘network of jewels’ that Barthes proposes, it can produce an infinite number of readings and thus we are always seeing her differently. ‘Sir’, she replies to a courtier in one scene, ‘what I look like depends […] on when you look’ (p. 106). ‘The author’, Barthes writes, ‘is a mere plural of “charms,” the site of a few tenuous details, yet the source of vivid novelistic glimmerings, a discontinuous chant of amiabilities’, ‘he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body’ that is ‘dispersed, somewhat like the ashes we strew into the wind after death’ (pp. 8-9). Writing is like the process of entropy, almost as if it obeyed the very laws of thermodynamics, but by a strange paradox it also resists this process, it both collects and disperses – it collects in form what it disperses in writing – and like the brazier fire that dies down to white ash, the body that dies returns to us in the dust of words.

[114] Moving things – […] It’s very moving to see a good-looking young man or woman dressed in deep black. / The voice of the autumn cricket, around the end of the ninth month or the beginning of the tenth, so frail and tentative that you scarcely know whether you hear it or not. A mother hen crouched low over her chicks. Dew glinting like multi-coloured jewels on the grasses in the garden in late autumn. Waking at dusk or dawn and hearing the wind rustling the bamboo. Anything you hear when you wake at night. / A mountain village in snow. / A young couple who love each other but who can’t be together as they long to be because someone is preventing it.

The Pillow Book, pp. 120-121

Shonagon’s text rejects unity but also finality, totality, and is thus contrasted to desire: our desire for meaning, our desire for the end, which is ultimately our desire for death, the telos of all narrative, for there is no centre, no beginning and no end; it is aimless, directionless, drifting. Barthes’s ‘evangelism of pleasure’, Sontag says, ‘is a way of proselytizing for the attenuating, lightening, baffling of the Logos, of meaning itself […] the promulgation of the ludic, the refusal of the tragic. All of Barthes’s intellectual moves have the effect of voiding work of its “content,” the tragic of its finality’ (p. xxx). Shonagon proceeds by digression and therefore we never arrive at the end, instead remaining in the dilatory space of the text. ‘He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time’, says the narrator of Sans Soleil, ‘those memories whose only function it being to leave behind nothing but memories.’ Shonagon writes, she insists, for her own pleasure, memories for the sake of memories, and her entire narrative strategy is a way of lightening what could become heavy, melancholic, meaningful. The text is presented in no particular order and each moment is given to us in isolation with little or no continuity between passages, but it is precisely this which gives us the sense of immediacy, the feeling that we are always in the moment she describes. In Japanese it is often written in a neutral form in the present tense although she is describing past events, and we thus experience these moments in the eternal present of remembering. The effect of this is to create a kind of floating world, of these moments suspended in time, like the clouds with drift aimlessly across the paintings of the period, shrouded in a golden mist.

[68] Things that can’t be compared – Summer and winter. Night and day. Rainy days and sunny days. Laughter and anger. Old age and youth. White and black. People you love and those you hate. The man you love and the same man once you’ve lost all feeling for him seem like two completely different people. Fire and water. Fat people and thin people. People with long hair and those with short hair.

The Pillow Book, p. 59

Shonagon’s is a ‘society of the spectacle’, which is not to say that it is spectacular for again the spectacle is in the detail – ‘le bon Dieu est dans le détail’, as Flaubert says – and everything is seen in terms of spectacle. Memories for her become ‘scenes’, images, a series of tableaux vivants, in which the characters arrange themselves as they would, say, a piece of furniture. In one scene she describes a ‘large green porcelain vase’ that ‘had been placed at the foot of the nearby veranda railing, with a mass of absolutely gorgeous branches of flowering cherry, five feet long or more, arranged in it with the flowers spilling out over the railing’ (p. 17). Her description is almost identical to that of one of her characters: ‘His Excellency Korechika’, was wearing ‘a rather soft sand supple cloak in the cherry-blossom combination, over deep violet gathered trousers of heavy brocade and white under-robes’, and ‘he had arranged the sleeves of his wonderfully glowing deep scarlet-purple damask cloak for display’. ‘The Emperor was present’, she says ‘so His Excellency placed himself on the narrow veranda outside the doors to converse’ (p. 17). The characters not only compose the scene but are included in the composition of the scene itself, and there is again an equivalency between things and people as the characters become like props in the set design. ‘I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being’, Krasna writes. Action is not privileged over description, nor being over non-being, and reading Shonagon we are reminded of Ozu and what critics have appropriately called ‘pillow shots’ in his films of landscapes or objects, a vase of flowers in Late Spring, his similar, almost obsessive attention to composition.

Experience, even as it is lived, is seen from the outside, and the characters are thus distanced not only from the action but from themselves. It produces a form of consciousness similar to the alienation effect recommended by Brecht, the fulfilment of Baudelaire’s phrase, ‘the grandiloquent truth of gestures on life’s great occasions’. ‘Another very lovely picture’, Shonagon says, ‘seen from outside, a man dressed in richly-coloured gathered trousers and bright cloak, with multi-coloured layers of under-robes beautifully displayed, sits leaning half into the room, pressing in against the dividing blind. He draws towards him a beautiful inkstone and writes something, or borrows a mirror and adjusts his appearance. All of this is delightful to observe. Or again, a three-foot standing curtain has been set up inside the blind, but there’s a small gap below the blind’s lintel cloth and the top of the curtain, and it’s pleasing to see how well their two faces are aligned as they talk to each other from their opposite sides, she sitting inside and he standing without. If one of them were shorter or taller, there would no be doubt be problems, but in most cases it seems to work out well’ (p. 63). This description is not unlike a passage from Perec or the noveau roman: the almost obsessive attention to detail, to composition, the alignment of their faces. Everything becomes gesture or, for Barthes, even better, writing, a graphic art, like calligraphy; it is scriptural, not expressive; surfaces, again, not depths. Like Barthes’s description of Bunraku puppet theatre in Empire of the Signs this calls into question any notion of authenticity, of spontaneity, or rather it points again to the aesthete’s position, the truth of masks, the motto Barthes took for himself from Descartes, Larvatus proteo, ‘I advance pointing to my mask’. Shonagon points to her mask, her artifice, for it is that which allows her to speak the truth.

[144] Endearingly lovely things […] Things children use in doll play. A tiny lotus leaf that’s been picked from a pond. A tiny aoi leaf. In fact, absolutely anything that’s tiny is endearing.

The Pillow Book, p. 149

‘If the bouquets, the objects, the trees, the faces, the gardens, and the texts’, Barthes writes, ‘if the things and manners of Japan seem diminutive to us (our mythology exalts the big, the vast, the broad, the open), this is not by reason of their size, it is because every object, every gesture, even the most free, the most mobile, seems framed’ (p. 43). Shonagon exalts in the tiny but again if these things seem small it is often, as Barthes says, because they are framed, like a shot in an Ozu film. In the ‘picture’ Shonagon describes, the characters are already framed by a standing curtain and the lintel cloth of the blind. Her position allows her to see both parties and like the illustrations of the text, we are invited, as it were, to look into these scenes like a doll’s house with the roof removed, from a slightly raised perspective, unlike the position of Ozu’s camera. The content of the conversation, however, or the man’s letter is less important than the scene of its composition, its form. ‘On your way somewhere, if you come across a slender, fine-looking fellow hurrying along the road with an official straight-folded letter, you do wonder where he can be off to. / Or you come across a good-looking young girl, her akome gown subdued in colour and hanging rather limp, lacquered high clogs nice and shiny but their base all smeared with mud, carrying some large parcel wrapped in white paper, or volumes of bound books piled in a lid, and you long to call her over and see what she has there’ (p. 193). What is memorable about these scenes is less the occasion, which is often forgotten or unimportant, but the spectacle of sending and receiving a gift, which becomes in fact a way of delaying the receipt of the message indefinitely and thus extending the duration of pleasure by denying the fulfilment of desire. The letter never arrives at its destination because it is yet another empty sign.

Gathered trousers – Dark violet. Spring-shoot green. / In summer, lavender. On very hot days, trousers in the lapis lazuli blue of summer insects give a sense of coolness. / Hunting costumes – Clove-tan. Soft white silk. Red-purple weave. Pine-leaf green. Leaf green. Cherry blossom. Willow. Also, green wisteria. / Men wear all manner of colours. / Shifts – White. For daytime formal wear, one should wear a more relaxed, scarlet unlined version of the akome gown. Still, white is always particularly good. / I cannot bear people who wear a white shift that’s slightly yellowed. Some people wear gloss-yellow robes, but I nevertheless much prefer white. / Formal train-robes – In winter, azalea. Cherry blossom. Softened silk. In summer, lavender. Also, white on white. / Fan ribs – Those made from the wood of the ho tree. The colour should be red, violet or green. / Cypress fans – Undecorated or painted in the Chinese Style.

The Pillow Book, pp. 230-231

Much, if not most, of Shonagon’s attention in the book is given to clothes which is often more important than physical appearance which she rarely, if ever, describes, and thus form is once again privileged over content. Like the beautifully wrapped letters and gifts that are constantly circulating, the characters almost seem to deliver themselves in the text, as one of Calvino’s characters remarks: ‘I can no longer accept any situation other than this transformation of ourselves into the message of ourselves’. The clothes they wear are codified according to rank and season, and she gives us vivid descriptions of the vibrant colours and patterns, and specific combinations of both, which are almost always derived from nature, and which create their own imperatives with the benign tyranny of fashion. ‘Along he duly came, looking magnificent. He wore a gorgeous damask cloak in the cherry-blossom combination with an immaculate lustre to its inner lining, and his gathered trousers of rich, dark grape colour were woven through with a dazzling pattern of tangled wisteria wine. The scarlet colour and glossed silk effect of the inner robe positively shone, and layer upon layer of very pale violet-grey and other colours were visible beneath the cloak. The way he seated himself on the narrow veranda, with one foot hanging from its edge as he leaned in slightly towards the blind, made him look the absolute epitome of some splendid figure in a picture, or in the sort of marvellous scene you find described in a romance’ (p. 70). Her ability to recall what individual characters were wearing at any given moment in time in scenes such as these is extraordinary, almost microscopic. ‘You certainly have a long memory, don’t you?’ (p. 16) a character remarks in one scene. ‘Well, we all saw him […] but who else took in such detail, down to the very threads and stitches?’ (p. 72).

[111] Things that lose by being painted – Pinks. Sweet flag. Cherry blossom. Men and women described in tales as looking splendid.

[112] Things that gain by being painted – Pine trees. Autumn fields. Mountain villages. Mountain paths.

The Pillow Book, p. 119

Art cannot be said to imitate life or vice versa for they are barely distinguishable. Shonagon describes her incredulity upon her first arrival at court as if she were walking into a dream or a picture, and there is a constant blurring of fantasy and reality as her descriptions of actual events blur into imaginary scenes in the style of popular romantic tales. Reality is judged in terms of its fidelity to romance, as are her lovers who are held up to scrutiny or ridicule if they fail to live up to her expectations, as they often do, or match her talents for poetic composition. The relations between men and women seem fluid despite the physical constraints – she describes breaking off her marriage to Norimitsu, her husband from before she took up her position – and court life allows for a certain degree of intimacy in which these sort of romantic trysts seem to be not only permitted but actively encouraged, as if it were the fulfilment of their duty and an exercise of their otherwise useless refinement, like the salons of Paris. She makes frequent casual remarks about secret assignations with lovers, rendezvous which are brought to a close only by the dawn, and which can often seem like a test of endurance. As one character intones, ‘[w]hy do you hasten thus to relinquish this night?’ (p. 63) In one dream-like scene, Shonagon imagines a lover on his way home from one such assignation, his cloak drenched in mist, who happens upon the open blinds of a woman whose lover has also just departed, and he wonders to himself whether someone else has similarly visited the bed of the woman whose side he had left earlier, as he hurries back to compose his letter. Life imitates art as the characters seem to imitate each other and, as in this this case of mistaken identities, fade into indistinction.   

[69] Summer provides the most delightful setting for a secret assignation. The nights are so very short that dawn breaks before you’ve slept. Everything has been left open all night, and there’s a lovely cool feel to the expansive view. The lovers still have a little more they must say to each other. As they sit there murmuring endearments, they’re startled into a sudden panicky sensation of exposure by the loud caw of a passing crow – a delightful moment. / Another delightful moment is in winter, on a fiercely cold night when you’re lying there listening, snuggled far down under the bedclothes, and the sound of a temple bell comes to you, with such deep and distant reverberation that it seems to be emerging from somewhere buried. And the way a cock will crow first with its beak still hidden under its wing, in a muffled cry that sounds deep in the far distance, but with the growing light its cry will seem to move closer – that’s also lovely.

The Pillow Book, p. 60

The Pillow Book is a realm of the senses, and although there is an emphasis on the visual it is by no means the only sense that is aroused by the text. There is a state of heightened perception; what Baudelaire and Benjamin have attributed to the effect of certain drugs; like Barthes, half-asleep on a banquette in a bar in Tangiers, as he listens to the stereophony of a square, ‘music, conversations, the sounds of chairs, glasses’ (p. 49). In Japan this is achieved for him by the simple fact of not speaking the language, so that speech, no longer communicative, becomes a ‘murmuring mass’ that envelops him in an ‘auditory film’ (p. 9). Barthes often speaks of the ‘grain’ of the voice, and the ‘rustle’ of language, and in The Pillow Book there is a general mood of sussurance, of quietly whispered conversations, the rustle of clothes and paper blinds, which adds to the overall atmosphere of intrigue, and which is set against the backdrop of its Other: silence, darkness, nothingness. An effect of chiaroscuro: ‘The sight of a dancer’s face lit by the glow of a nearby lamp as she dozes’. In her list of ‘elegantly intriguing things’, she says ‘it’s delightful to hear, through a wall or partition of some sort, the sound of someone, no mere gentlewoman, softly and elegantly clap her hands for service. Then, still separated from view behind, perhaps, a sliding door, you hear a youthful voice respond, and the swish of silk as someone arrives. It must be time for a meal to be served, for now come the jumbled sounds of chopsticks and spoons, and then the ear is arrested by the sudden metallic clink of a pouring-pot’s handle falling sideways and knocking against the pot’ (p. 181).  She describes the sound of go stones dropping into a box; ‘the soft sound of fire tongs being gently pushed into the ash of the brazier’ (p. 182), the sound of a man’s soft laugh late at night. ‘There’s something attractively intimate in the sound of her silk robes as she enters and approaches […] the silk rustle of people as they leave or enter and, though it’s only a soft sound, you can guess who each one would be’ (p. 182).

There is a state of indeterminacy achieved by a confusion of the senses. ‘The scent of incense is a most elegantly intriguing thing’ (p. 183), she says. ‘I well remember the truly wonderful scent that wafted from Captain Tadanobu as he sat leaning by the blind of the Little Door of Her Majesty’s room one day during the long rains of the fifth month. The blend was so subtle there was no distinguishing its ingredients. Of course it’s natural that scent is enhanced by the moisture of a rainy day, but one couldn’t help remarking on it even so. It was no wonder that the younger ladies were so deeply impressed at the way it lingered until the following day in the blind he’d been leaning against’ (p. 183). The subtlety of the scent comes once again from its indeterminacy, its blending of ingredients in such a way that makes it impossible to distinguish them, like the faces she sees or the voices she hears at night. Things are never experienced directly but are always diffused; light is always refracted by the dew or filtered through mist or blinds. Like the letters and gifts which never arrive, everything works to delay the receipt of the message. A ‘compelling idea of beauty’, one critic says, ‘is that something is beautiful to the extent that it sets off in the mind of the looker (or reader) a series of attempts to categorise the beautiful thing – at which point, once the correct category is found, the beautiful object can settle into ordinariness. The longer it takes before the beautiful thing or person or experience can be satisfactorily categorised, the more beautiful the thing or person or experience – or maybe book – is.’ Shonagon’s book is impossible to classify although, like Perec, it is full of attempts at classification, for as soon as it seems to settle into ordinariness, she simply moves on and starts again, and returns to the ineffable joys of enumeration.

I was talking with some people in Her Majesty’s presence – or it may have been something I said as a result of her own words – and I remarked, “At times when I’m 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. And when I unroll a section of fresh green Korai matting, thick and finely woven and with the edging design in vivid black and white, I’m overcome with the feeling that life itself is just too wonderful, and I really couldn’t bear to relinquish it just yet.” / “The simplest trifles console you, don’t they,” remarked Her Majesty with a smile […] Not long after this, when I’d gone back home and was in great distress, Her Majesty sent me a wrapped gift of twenty bundles of magnificent paper […] Yes indeed, I thought to myself with pleasure, it will be fun to be distracted from my worries by throwing myself into the business of creating a bound book from this paper.

The Pillow Book, pp. 212-213

There is an awareness of the events that are to bring Teishi’s life – and Shonagon’s life at court – to an end, but she only ever alludes to them, as if obeying Emily Dickinson’s dictum to tell the truth ‘but tell it slant’. Her fall is anticipated in certain episodes, in her dislike of children as it is in her contempt for the lower classes which seems to be at odds with her sensibility, but which reflects her own fear, having come from relatively humble origins, of being plunged once again into obscurity: her pity for the outcast state of a dog, her scorn for a beggar nun and a man whose house has burned down looking for charity. The mutual affection that is felt between Shonagon and Teishi is revealed only in the poems they exchange, and they both seem to suffer when they are separated by one of their forced absences, because of fire, periods of abstinence, during menstruation in which they are forced to leave the court, the deteriorating political situation. ‘While all about me / is filled with busy fluttering – / flowers and butterflies – / the only one who truly knows / my heart today is you, my friend.’ Her Majesty writes. ‘Yet still you stay away!’ Shonagon’s sorrow after Teishi’s death is revealed only in her increased efforts to relate their happy memories together, and in one of the longest and most detailed passages, in which she describes a ceremony she attended after she had first arrived at the court, it is hard not to detect a certain melancholy in her tone, in the sheer splendour of the scene, and the shift in mood from okashi to aware in the sudden inflection at the end, the change in tense. ‘But these events’, she says, ‘which seemed to us so splendid and auspicious at the time, all look very different when compared with the present, and this is why I’ve set it all down in detail, with a heavy heart’ (p. 230). ‘Literature is like phosphorous’, Barthes writes, ‘it shines with its maximum brilliance at the moment when it attempts to die’ (p. viii). These moments burn brighter for Shonagon after Teishi’s death, as do her efforts to preserve them, her desire that someone else should witness them, and her writing, like the Empress’s gowns, shines with its maximum brilliance.  

[159] Things that are near yet far – The Miyanobe Festival. / Relationships between siblings or relatives who don’t like each other. / The winding path up to Kurama Temple. / The first day of the new year, seen from the last day of the old.

[160] Things that are far yet near – Paradise. / The course of a boat. / Relations between men and women.

The Pillow Book, p. 163

What is it about Shonagon’s book that ‘quickens the heart’? Perhaps it is what Barthes calls the noeme of photography, the ‘that-has-been’ (p. 77), the intractability of her world that has vanished almost without a trace. It is a world very distant from ours and yet one that feels very close; her voice is familiar, we recognise her moods, even her flaws which she is herself quick to acknowledge. Lady Murasaki thought little of her, and indeed wrote: ‘Sei Shonagon … was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial. How can the future turn out well for them?’ (p. xxvii). The Pillow Book is often dismissed as a serious work of literature, especially when considered alongside Murasaki’s epic Tale of Genji, and yet it still speaks to us, if only to say that Sei Shonagon once existed. ‘Why do some people, including myself’, Barthes writes, ‘enjoy in certain novels, biographies, and historical works, the representation of the “daily life” of an epoch, of a character? What is this curiosity about petty details: schedules, habits, means, lodging, clothing, etc.? Is it the hallucinatory relish of “reality” (the very materiality of “that once existed”)? And is it not the fantasy itself which invokes the “detail,” the tiny private scene, in which I can easily take my place’ (p. 53). He expresses his irritation when reading a book by Amiel that an editor ‘had seen fit to omit from this Journal the everyday details, what the weather was like on the shores of Lake Geneva, and retain only insipid moral musing: yet it is this weather that has not aged, not Amiel’s philosophy’ (pp. 53-54). Likewise, it is the details of The Pillow Book which have not aged, not the politics. The book is interesting as a historical record and indeed there is much we might learn from it about the Heian period, about its dress, its customs – what Barthes calls the studium – but it is not that which touches us, which pricks us. ‘In an old text I have just read’, Barthes writes, ‘occurs a naming of foods: milk, buttered bread, cream cheese, preserves, Maltese oranges, sugared strawberries. Is this another pleasure of pure representation (experienced therefore solely by the greedy reader)? […] [P]erhaps, the novelist, by citing, naming, noticing food (by treating it as notable), imposes on the reader the final state of matter, what cannot be transcended, withdrawn […] That’s it! This cry is not to be understood as an illumination of the intelligence, but as the very limit of nomination, of the imagination’, the ‘astonishment that in 1791 one could eat a “salad of oranges and rum,” as one does in restaurants today: the onset of historical intelligibility and the persistence of the thing (orange, rum) in being there’ (pp. 45-46). There is a vertiginous feeling when reading Shonagon’s book, the feeling of both nearness and farness: the astonishment that at the turn of the 11th century Shonagon could eat ‘shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl’. It is this which brings the book to life for us for it is that which has to do with life: the everyday. ‘Do we ever know where history is really made?’ Krasna asks. Shonagon’s book is no less history for being uneventful, perhaps it is even more so, for it is this dust of events which is the ultimate substance of history, and which is so often swept aside in historical narratives; and it is this dust which will persist, long after the brazier has died down to ash.  

[S29] I have written in this book things I have seen and thought, in the long idle hours spent at home, without ever 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. / Palace Minister Korechika one day presented to the Empress a bundle of paper. “What do you think we could write on this?” Her Majesty inquired. “They are copying Records of the Historian over at His Majesty’s court.” / “This should be a ‘pillow’, then,” I suggested. / “Very well, it’s yours,” declared Her Majesty, and she handed it over to me. / I set to work with this boundless pile of paper to fill it to the last sheet with all manner of odd things, so no doubt there’s much in these pages that makes no sense. / 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 that people have seen these pages. / When Capitain of the Left Tsunefusa was still Governor of Ise, he came to visit me while I was back at home, and my book disconcertingly happened to be on the mat from the nearby corner that was put out for him. I scrambled to try and retrieve it, but he carried off with him, and kept it for a very long time before returning it. / That seems to have been the moment when this book first became known – or so it is written.

The Pillow Book, pp. 255-256

Barthes, Roland, Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (London: Macmillan, 1977).

Sade/Fourier/Loyola, trans. Richard Miller (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977).

Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).

Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000).

A Roland Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (London: Vintage, 2000).

Marker, Chris, La Jetée/Sans Soliel (Optimum Releasing, 2011).

Perec, Georges, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 2008).

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, trans. Marc Lowenthal (Cambridge: Wakefield Press, 2010).

I Remember, ed. and trans. Philip Terry and David Bellos (Boston: David R. Godine, 2014).

Shonagon, Sei, The Pillow Book, trans. Meredith McKinney (London: Penguin, 2006).

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