I would love to have shared a cup of tea with Sei Shonagon, a 11th century Japanese court lady and author of The Pillow Book. What a character she must have been! It is rare that a personage removed by so many centuries feels so modern, but I can just imagine her doling out choice comments and sharing some court gossip. Of course, I would be worried that this aesthete might find either my conversation too dull or my attire too plain, since her diary is evidence enough of her strong opinions.
Besides anecdotes about court life, The Pillow Book is full of poetic vignettes and observations. It’s a world where the first snowfall can be cause for celebration and where lovers send each other incense perfumed letters. Sei Shonagon’s rapier-sharp wit and appetite for life shine through her compilation of stories. That she is not all charm and sweet manners makes her even more fascinating.
The Pillow Book was written during a particularly trying period of Sei Shonagon’s life. Emperor Ichijo had recently taken on another consort, sidelining the writer’s patron, Empress Teishi, to a secondary role. Incidentally, the biggest rival to Sei Shonagon’s literary skill served the new Empress Shoshi. It was Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the first modern novel, The Tale of Genji. With the declining fortunes of Empress Teishi, Sei Shonagon’s future was likewise troubling, and she probably found solace in writing.
When I need an escape myself, I turn to The Pillow Book. It would be impossible for me to name my favorite passage. “A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks,”* she says matter-of-factly in one chapter (p.55). In another, she’s exquisitely lyrical, “On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls” (p. 148).
I also love her lists of whatever makes her feel happy, nervous, anxious, or annoyed. They range from philosophical ruminations to compilations of her favorite things. One such list is titled Things That Makes One’s Heart Beat Faster:
- Sparrows feeding their young
- To pass a place where babies are playing
- To sleep in a room where fine incense has been burnt
- To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy
- To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival
- To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure
- It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters (p.51)
When I recently re-read the list over my breakfast–the only way in which I satisfy my fantasy of sharing tea with Sei Shonagon, I thought of things that make my heart beat faster: letters from friends, anticipating a new journey, or hearing a favorite piece of music. If my heart beats faster when I smell a new perfume, I know immediately that it’s going to be a lasting love affair. In the end, I jotted down a few scent related pleasures to share with you.
- Guerlain Après l’Ondée : so many fragrance have come and gone, but Après l’Ondée, a delicate etude of iris and carnation never loses its luster. It makes me sigh just as happily today as it did when I first tried it more than 15 years ago.
- Cardamom : its effervescent, silvery scent makes me dream of carved marble temples, embroidered silks and bitter spiced coffee served with sticky dates.
- Peaches : a creamy, musky perfume of ripe peaches reminds me of long, indolent summer days. Between work and other commitments, such days are few and far between, but I only need to smell a peach to fantasize about them.
- Old Books : the anticipation of the endless pleasure that reading entails. While I love the scent of any book, the vanilla and iris root aroma of old yellowing pages is irresistible.
- Sandalwood : as I described in my review of Serge Lutens Santal Blanc, sandalwood is associated with my Indian wedding. My groom, statues of gods and I were thoroughly being rubbed with rose water and sandalwood paste, and this lush scent permeated everything. Even as I look at the wedding photos, I can smell it, and just remembering all of that mad chaos makes my heart skip a beat.
What about you? What makes your heart beat faster (and this doesn’t have to be perfume themed)?
*This and other quotes are from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated by Ivan Morris. Second hand copies are available at Amazon starting at 1 penny.
Update: I recently read a translation of The Pillow Book by Meredith McKinney, and I loved how McKinney rendered the delight and flamboyance of Sei Shonagon’s writing. In contrast to the formal and more restrained Morris’s translation, McKinney’s sparkles. Much recommended.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, Early Cherry Blossoms at Senso-Ji Temple.