Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Pillow Book" - Lecture

[The flower pictured here is the Japanese Iris, sei-shonagon]
An exceptionally good and memorable class today, from where I sit. For the better part of two hours, working with some of the finer details of Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book under a guiding concept, we enjoyed a very strong and what I felt to be a meaningful enagement with the text -- as well as the personality of the author. Certainly I learned a great deal. I am delighted that so many of you respond so favourably to Shonagon: it is marvellous -- if not miraculous -- how the chapbook of a lady-in-waiting at Court in tenth-century Japan speaks so immediately to twenty-first century Canadians.

I suggested that the facts of life for women at the Heian court -- severely limited to physical passivity behind the manifold and ubiquitous screens -- explains much of Shonagon's quirks, attitudes, and observations. Her intense attention to details of clothing; her praise of sympathy; her snobbery; her recognition that men in general are obtuse in observing facial expressions and deaf to nuance of sound of all types; her connoisseurship of scenes of human pathos (connected to her more widely-applied double-coining of the term mono no aware); her weighting under her list of "pleasing things" so heavily toward types of relationships; her neurotic responses to rain in contrast to her deep and aching love of moonlight; and the slightest tincture of sadism in more than one of her accounts of pathetic events: all these become part of a vivid and compelling human portrait when considered in light of the circumstances under which the Pillow Book was -- in its loose and desultory way -- compiled.

My conclusion, from what I took to be the strong consensus of your responses to lecture, was that your insistences that, superficial responses to the contarary, Shonagon was by no means malicious, and (quite surprisingly once you think how far we have come in appreciating Japanese sensibilities since our opening lecture) very much like us in our petty judgementalisms, insecurities, & peculiarities. If I could summarise, you find Shonagon quite like us, only more intensely so in each point.

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