The Pillow Book

Photo credit: Jeff Laitila

The excerpt below is from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a collection of journals, lists, poetry and witty musings of a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress Teishi in the last decade of the 10th century AD. Her observations about life and love in the court translates easily to our modern world. Actually, few people in the modern world are able to articulate their thoughts as honestly as she. She made lists broken down into: elegant things/splendid things/Things that arouse a fond memory of the past/Things that make one’s heart beat faster/hateful things/depressing things… I love this passage below on her judgment of a lover’s behavior the morning after…you’ll get a good sense of her wit from the text.

“A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drags himself out of bed, with a look of dismay on his face. The lady urges him on: ‘Come, my friend, it’s getting light. You don’t want anyone to find you here.’ He gives a deep sigh, as if to say that the night has not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave. Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers. Instead he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night. Even when he is dressed, he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash.

Presently he raises the lattice, and the two lovers stand together by the side door while he tells her how he dreads the coming day, which will keep them apart; then he slips away. The lady watches him go, and this moment of parting will remain among her most charming memories.

Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash – one really begins to hate him.”

~”The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

*The book also figures prominently in Peter Greenaway’s 1996 film of the same name w/Ewan McGregor & Vivian Wu.


3 thoughts on “The Pillow Book

  1. I LOVED The Pillow Book. I know I will be back visiting this book again many times in my life–I’ve bookmarked passages…and her lists! Gahd! So sensual, so intimate, so funny! And also, so timeless. Great post!

  2. I haven’t read the entire book, only passages….I really should. She was so modern, insightful and funny, you’re right! I think it would be a great to make up my own lists in the same manner…see what I could come up with.

    Thanks so much for reading & for the nice comment Lisa!

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