When we read a piece of literature, the words strung together on the page stimulate our imaginations as pictures begin to take shape in our minds. How we read a given story and how we imagine it unfolding is entirely up to us. That is the joy of literature.
However, when we read the collection of “essays” contained in Makura-no-Soshi (The Pillow Book), most of them do not allow us to exercise such imagination. You won’t find a textbook on Japanese classics, for example, without the famous lines starting with “haru wa akebono” (literally, “spring is dawn”). But they are a series of scattered fragments about the seasons; no matter how much we call upon our imaginations, they do not give us any sense of a coherent storyline. This results in abandoning interpretation as “experiencing a keen sensibility” and assuming that the phrase is an incomplete one—an abbreviation of the predicate okashi (a word meaning feeling and beauty)—, as most Japanese students have been taught.
What this means is that the text cannot be approached as one that diffuses images in the mind. On the other hand, if we read it with the intention of converging images together, it becomes a logical work that follows the four-part kishotenketsu structure of a classic Japanese narrative (introduction, development, turn, and conclusion)※ A concept is formed through the use of specific words that, in combination, become a series of propositions linked together through logic. Is that how we define a work of literature?
If we look at The Pillow Book on the vocabulary level, it is an incredibly simple work. Section 75 (ajikinaki-mono), for example, has the following structure. The topic of the paragraph, ajikinashi, is a word that describes things that are disagreeable due to being at odds with what one had imagined or expected. Without further explanation, we would think that this section would feature a list of things that people experience as disappointing.
We can find the meaning of all this by consulting a dictionary of archaic language. If we supplement the text and translate it into casual speech, we get the following.
These three examples certainly fit the pattern of “disappointing” things. These events were part of life for the noblewomen in the society to which the author, Sei Shonagon, belonged—as did the people we presume would have read The Pillow Book. But if that is the case, it is not as if readers wouldn’t know what kinds of things were ajikinashi (disappointing) had Sei Shonagon not pointed them out. Nor would they be unfamiliar with the specific regrettable examples she cites. Furthermore, experiences like these (such as eagerly taking a job and then despising it, or being disappointed when things don’t turn out as expected) are as common today as they were back then. Situations like voluntarily going into court service or adopting a son-in-law to carry on the family name would be painfully obvious to a Japanese noblewoman of the time. These readers may nod their heads in agreement, but would likely also fail to experience any sympathy or pity for the people involved. If anything, they will more likely question their personal responsibility. Although readers would understand the examples that the author gives, these examples would also raise further questions.
Once questions are raised, people inevitably begin to think about them. Let’s take a closer look at these three examples. Whether it’s going into court service, the face of the adopted daughter, or the attitude of the adopted son-in-law, the situation itself is something disappointing for the person involved as it is at odds with what they had imagined. But if we look at them from the outside, it’s easy to see that the problem actually lies in what the person was expecting in the first place. The idea of court life for a person who has never served in court or the image of a distant child that one has never lived with are clearly based on preconceptions—say nothing of fact that ignoring someone’s feelings and forcing them into a marriage based on one’s own ideas is a recipe for disaster.
The people who experience these kinds of social disappointments may place the blame outside of themselves (on the court, on the adopted child, or on the adopted son-in-law), but an objective observer can clearly see that the problem really lies with the person themselves. In other words, it is our false hopes that actually give rise to social disappointments. To paraphrase, we conclude with the proposition that the results of an evaluation are dependent on the criteria on which it is based. If we analyze the specific examples listed and read them as a single collective concept, the meaning in The Pillow Bookbecomes crystal clear.
The ajikinaki-mono title labels a list of items, but it is not the topic of the section. The specific examples given actually present the reader with an exercise, and it doesn’t matter if they are based on fact or not. They are a command to “consider the following items and come up with a formula.” If we accept, we will doubtless come up with a single solution. If both author and the reader are learning and thinking in a same way, then the same images will be formulated in readers’ minds.
The Pillow Book was designed to rely on the reader’s knowledge and intelligence. As a result, it creates a situation where some people get it and some people don't. There is a section in Murasaki Shikibu Nikki (The Diary of Lady Murasaki) where Lady Murasaki comments on Sei Shonagon.
These words have been understood as criticism both of Sei Shonagon’s character and of her scholarship. But if we study them in light of the literary style presented in The Pillow Book above, we can certainly see how Sei Shonagon might be aptly criticized for taking an approach that sees through to the heart of things; for putting forth loose, fragmentary accounts; or for frequently offering incomplete descriptions. We can also predict that this heretical style would elicit misunderstandings or future misreadings of the work. From a historical perspective, Lady Murasaki hits the nail on the head. That said, the only way she was able to accurately criticize her contemporary was because she actually understood the intent of Sei Shonagon’s work.
Meanwhile, Sei Shonagon makes the following declaration.
The words “I’ve written whatever came into my mind, without worrying about whether people would find it strange or unpleasant” indicates the author’s own evaluation that some readers will inevitably misunderstand or misread her, but that those who understand her will get it. In this way, the assessments of both women are in alignment. The discrepancy only comes in whether they take a positive or negative view of the same situation.
Lady Murasaki probably would think that it is meaningless if readers don’t understand her book. But Sei Shonagon already assumed that readers wouldn’t get her. From this arises the stark comparison between the elaborately penned Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) and The Pillow Book, in which we have difficulty even understanding the context of things. When it comes to the literary structure of the two works, The Tale of Genji gives rise to abundant and varied imagery, while The Pillow Book converges on a single concept.
A close reading of The Pillow Book demands that we think carefully and requires the techniques of analysis and synthesis. The goal is for us to reconstruct the author’s ideas. Looking at this text from a modern perspective, it belongs more in the realm of philosophy or science than in literature. It may appear to be literature for its use of the expressive techniques found in waka poems or classic Chinese poetry, but it really serves as a textbook designed to get us to think carefully about the relationship between people and society.