On September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland, on the other side of the globe, in far away Tokyo, Nagai Kafu, a scion of a Japanese feudal family and a great man of letters, wrote in his diary: “Glory to the land of Chopin and Sienkiewicz!” On the day Paris fell, he was so depressed, he said, he could not eat nor sit at home. He went out for a walk, wondering aimlessly through the city. He returned home to listen to Debussy’s Oratorio of San Sebastian from an old vinyl record. In the city, public support for the military was visible — “somehow, inexplicably, people like this garbage”, Kafu wrote in his journal. “What nonsense, though! In the name of serving the Japanese spirit, women must not perm their hair; and men are to have just one, government-prescribed style of haircut. Haircuts bother them, but not the piles of garbage in the streets, not the stink of the polluted river! What kind of brains do these people have? It is OK for our streets to be littered with garbage because we beat the Chinese again today?” Like the US government several years earlier, the Japanese government banned private ownership of gold. All gold in public possession was to be reported and would eventually be bought up by the government at officially set rates. Nagai took whatever gold he had — among the items his favorite maki-e pipe holder with a gold mouthpiece; and several tobacco pouches woven from gold-thread — “I used to really get into this silly stuff when I was a kid and had quite a few of them made” — wrapped them in paper and pitched them in the river. “No gold of mine for these bastards”, he wrote. “They tell us there is this thing called The Japanese Spirit which is so incredibly different from everything else that it is totally different and we must not mix it with anything else. So why on earth are we mixing ourselves with the Germans and the Italians?” That night he read in bed Salammbo.
(Today at last I began reading The Pillow Book in the original — above).
The story explaining how The Pillow Book begun is this: the chancellor has gifted two bound sets of exquisite paper to the imperial couple: one to the emperor and one to the empress. Predictably, the emperor has promptly announced that he will use his to write a shiki — a historical chronicle in Chinese, which is precisely what could be expected of such a person at such a time. “What should we use ours for?”, asked the empress of her favorite lady in waiting, whose learning and pen-skills made her the go-to person in matters of literature.
“Why, let us make a pillow of it,” replied Sei Shonagon, probably laughing, and scholars have disagreed ever since about what she may have meant. A play on words, goes a typical theory, shiki being both a) a chronicle and b) a part of the saddle, makura being both a) a pillow and b) a horses head-dress; and the whole utterance thus meaning “let us do one better”; and illustrates the surprising point that scholars — Sei Shonagists, no less! — are no better at understanding Mrs Sei than the rest of the human race.
Why do scholars not understand Sei Shonagon? The claim that times change, and we change with them, and therefore no one can understand history and/ or the men of the past — seems an excuse with which to cover up some kind of severe cognitive shortcoming, a mental handicap, a congenital lack of a Sei Shonagon Decoder: surely, if I can understand Sei Shonagon, anyone should?
Let me parse this one for the scholars: the emperor is a kind, beautiful man, whom Mrs Sei loves dearly (as we know from other passages), but, although his decision to write shiki is certainly commendable, no one will, or ever should, read what he will write, certainly not all of it. Therefore, in order to match him, the court ladies might as well use their notebook for a pillow.
(Or a door stopper).
In short, dear scholars, Mrs Sei is poking fun at his majesty. (As Beatrice is of Benedick when she promises to eat everything he kills).
What makes this utterance — and all of Sei Shonagon’s utterances — so delicious, is what makes it unimpeachable: its double — even triple — entendre, none of it, in this case, sexual: the remark is funny also because as women, and therefore, in the minds of men (i.e. on the emperor’s side of the palace) stupid — and lazy — the empress’s ladies in waiting would be expected to do precisely something like use the notebook for a pillow. At any rate, given what they might produce if they attempted to write something, in Sei Shonagon’s opinion, they really ought to use it for a pillow.
This utterance — shall we make it into a pillow? — is typical of Sei Shonagon diction. It is surprising how few of her readers understand it, and puzzling why this should be the case, but explains why her bitter competitor, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the easy to understand Tale of Genji (with plenty of romance and psychology) has ever outsold Sei Shonagon about 1200:1.
And also why, on occasion, as David Stoner reports (in a drawing, below), Mrs Sei is driven to drink.
I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself: every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.
Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does. How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests. But it’s hard to blame Snyder: the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long: mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages. Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they? So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.
Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.
The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside. He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life. In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living: to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable.
Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into. That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life. Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.
Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive. Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution. When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects: “probably not for long”. When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.
I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons: first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before: the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her. I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.
I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his: I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.
This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for. Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago: “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”). Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own. She would not admit to having any part in it.
As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in. They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.
Donald Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as revealed through 1,000 years of diaries
Keene’s admiration for Basho is hard for me to fathom — it seems to depend somehow on Basho’s earthy approachability (e.g. he was a “nice guy”); Keene’s love for Basho’s art form — the haiku — is likewise for me a firmly closed book. What does the art involve but combining a) a trivial thought with one of three i) seasonal reference, ii) weather reference, or iii) literary reference (almost always of the “famous places” sort). I can whack out any number of these on the spot, myself:
breaking the wind
as I climb the nineteenth floor
brown smog over the city
a cup of Milo – burp –
light leaning towards evening
where has my day gone?
The Muromachi section of the book is a bit tiresome, too: to don monk’s robes and travel up and down the country, visiting famous places and composing poetry at each, seems to have been a major career avenue in the age; why did everyone of those lives deserve being recorded in a literary diary, liberally sprinkled with poems and the usual reflections on the impermanence of things baffles the mind. Why they deserve reading or discussing — even more so.
But there are real gems here: I have mentioned the Mother of Jojin already.
Diaries have often survived in sets: for instance, there is one by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241, Chronicle of the Bright Moon) in which the famous poet reports mostly on his quarrel with Emperor Gotoba — a competitor poet and co-editor of the Shin-Kokinshu collection of poetry — over, essentially, who was the greater of the two. It’s all dreadfully petty: I knew men just like the two of them when I worked in a large corporation in Tokyo.
Yawn, skip over and — boom — suddenly you come upon Utatane — Fitful Slumbers — a memoir rather than a diary, in which a young woman (Abutsu) disappointed in love describes her spur-of-the-moment departure, in the middle of a rainy night, from her family home to enter a nunnery; she cuts off her hair, writes a poem — it has some reference to Ono no Komachi’s “floating weeds” — looks at it, shakes her had in amazement, asking herself: “Is this supposed to be about drowning?” and sets out into the night. It’s cold and raining, she loses her way in a forest, at dawn meets some country women who aid her, chattering to her in a language she barely understands — the dialect of the lower classes. Abutsu’s a gutsy girl and we’re not really surprised to find out that she doesn’t last long in the nunnery. We are surprised to learn, however, that she lived on to marry none other but the old windbag Fujiwara-no-Teika, in what was, incredibly, an apparently happy union. (Teika had some hidden virtues, no doubt).
The very next diary discussed in the book is one of Asukai Masaari, a footballer, no less (his high esteem at court was based on his great skill at the game of kemari), a physical type, who apologizes for writing in Japanese (Chinese having been regarded the proper medium for men), and explains why it is OK, or even preferable, though we soon realize it’s probably all an excuse: he probably couldn’t have written in Chinese his way out of a paper bag. I have known Masaari’s type, too, and though it wasn’t my type, I liked it well enough: his diary is basically one long record of this party and that party, this prank and that prank, and, of course, plenty of dancing girls — and then some. And then, in another surprising twist, we learn with surprise that Masaari studied literature with… none other than Abutsu, now Teika’s wife. The study consisted of her reading to him the Genji Monogatari for hours on end. The effort seems touching, somewhat chimeric, but, given Abutsu’s personality, it probably wasn’t much of a chore. (What she saw in Masaari is more puzzling, unless it was — the usual).
And then there is The Journey Along the Seacoast Road, a record of a long trip from Kyoto to Tokyo, of an older man who sets out in order to see the Eastern capital for himself as much as to get away from his tiresome mother; he writes poetically, in a difficult language, a mixture of Japanese and classical Chinese, and it all seems rather literary until we come upon a strange tale: on a pillar of an inn in “Kikugawa” (“Chrysanthemum River”), the author discovers a poem inscribed several years earlier by Middle Counselor Muneyuki who’d been captured in the wake of the Jokyu rebellion and passed through here led on his way to the place of his execution. Kikusui — “chrysanthemum water” — said the Chinese, was supposed to prolong life; but his own was here about to end, his cut off head falling to the ground like a chrysanthemum blossom. It all seems about one thing and then comes a sudden switch and it turns out to be about something altogether different.
The Jokyu rebellion, by the way, was raised in an effort to return Emperor Gotoba back to power, a stuffy, unlikeable man, as we have already learned from Teika. Muneyuki should have kept his head. Stuck to the game of kemari, like his footballer friend.
Jojin Ajari Haha no Shu is an eleventh century diary written by an eighty-four year old woman. It was written for a single purpose: that of venting the author’s grievance – indeed, incrimination – against her sixty-some year old son, a highly regarded abbot, for having left Japan on a religious mission to China, an act which the author interprets as his willful abandonment of her.
She is economically comfortable and well taken care of, so the abandonment isn’t economic but emotional: “My whole life depends on seeing him every morning and every night”, she says, “and he, knowing this, has deserted me. Words fail me.”
The writing is filled with bitter indignation, and the author seems not to care what weapon she uses to prove that her son’s behavior is unspeakably cruel. Her suffering appears to verge on the hysterical and she thrashes helplessly between the desire for imminent death and staying alive until her son’s return from China (which, in the end, never transpires: Jojin the Ajari will die abroad). One has the feeling that the author’s chief hope is that her son will read the diary upon his return and be struck with crippling remorse as a result; and that she’s only unsure whether she prefers to stay alive until that moment, so as to gather the fruit of the remorse, or to die beforehand so as to leave her son with unatonable guilt.
The extenuating circumstance – that the author was widowed early and left alone to care for two infant sons – seems to extenuate but little: can her son really be expected to serve as her sole source of joy and happiness sixty years after her tragic widowhood? Does the fact that he is the sole source of joy for her place a moral responsibility on him? And what of her other son, who, apparently, not only remained in Japan, but was caring and loving and visited her frequently? Why is his solicitude not enough?
If there is something good to be said about the mother, it is that she doesn’t seem to have turned her bitterness into acts of blind cruelty: she did not conspire to turn the whole family against her son, for instance, as disappointed mothers often do; but then, she’s eighty four, which probably means that her ability to manipulate others is curtailed; and the family itself is perhaps too small to orchestrate much of an ostracism of Jojin — besides herself, there’s only the other priest-son. We can’t be sure that she wouldn’t have done it, if she could. Often, virtue is a matter of insufficient opportunity.
Jojin seems to have avoided his mother for some time before his departure: we hear his excuse that “meetings in this world are of little importance when compared with the true joy of long, uninterrupted meetings in eternity.” Incessant labor aimed at gaining admission to paradise for her and himself (as well as many other people) is his excuse for not proffering the usual manifestations of solicitude, but, one guesses that his mother’s solicitude for him tired and embarrassed him and that he paid such manifestations as he did reluctantly and with dread; and that if he did pray for her admission to paradise it was for her admission to a part of it well insulated from that to which he himself hoped to be admitted.
Indeed, as much as it is a record of the tragedy of a mother who loves her son too much, Haha no Shu is also a record of the misery of a son who is loved too much.
Much literature, perhaps most, is written to express the misery of unrequited love from the point of view of the person whose emotions are not requited. The situation is full of pathos and justly deserves compassion. But unrequited love can be a misery for the loved ones, too. After all, what have they done to deserve the solicitude, the anger and the incrimination of those who love them?