Tuesday, March 16, 2010
the pillow book
Are you a list maker? I am, and I love the potential lists provide for art journaling. Such freedom! No need to worry about the cadence, flow or order of sentences - just the satisfaction of getting directly to the heart of a topic and churning out concrete, meaningful stuff. The book I keep coming back to for inspiration is an old favorite, and I mean old as in a thousand years old.
The Pillow Book (translated by Meredith McKinney) is the diary of Sei Shōnagon, an 11th century gentlewoman who served the Empress Teishi during the Heian period in Japan. It’s an entirely non-linear, willy-nilly collection of social observations, anecdotes, lists and stories of life unfolding around her while she serves at court. She’s opinionated, funny, sharp-eyed and captures those unspoken emotional nuances of human interaction with breathtaking precision. She changes tone on a dime - one moment she tells a story with such empathy and insight that it brings tears, in the next she whirls around and excoriates someone for his lousy handwriting, then she prattles on about the weather. And she is capable of a cattiness that would take any reality show cast to its knees.
But her lists, her lists! I always seek out the lists first when I read The Pillow Book. They seem almost custom-made as page prods for art journals - you could take any one of her topics and go in any direction with it. Here are a few of my favorites (and her responses, equally priceless) which I have to constantly remind myself were written a thousand years ago. Her observations are so timeless that it is easy to forget.
"Nostalgic things: things children use in doll play. Coming across a torn scrap of lavender or grape-colored fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book. On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it."
"Infuriating things: a guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages...someone who butts in when you're talking and smugly provides the ending herself...some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all... fleas are also infuriating things...a chorus of dogs howling on and on is quite hair-raisingly horrible... I hate people who don't close a door that they've opened to go in and out."
“Things that give you pleasure: piecing back together a letter that someone has torn up and thrown away, and finding that you can read line after line of it...when you’ve had a puzzling dream which fills you with fear at what it might portend, and then you have it interpreted and it turns out to be quite harmless...someone you love is praised by others...finding something you need in a hurry...managing to get the better of someone who’s full of themselves and overconfident.”
"Moving things: dew glinting like multi-colored jewels on the grasses in the garden in late autumn...a mountain in snow... a young couple who love each other but who can't be together because someone is preventing them."
"Things that are smug and cocky: present-day three year olds."
On and on she goes, providing lists of things that no one notices, things that give you confidence, things that make the heart lurch with anxiety, endearingly lovely things, things later regretted, occasions when something inconsequential has its day, situations you have a feeling will turn out badly, people who look as though things are difficult for them, things whose outcome you long to know, things that can't be compared, startling and disconcerting things, dispiriting things, things that a house should have, things now useless that recall a glorious past, things that one must be wary of, elegantly annoying things, and her favorite birds, lakes, mountains, ponds, and trees without flowers (among many other splendid things). Things that are all relevant to anyone in any day or age, yet open to infinite interpretations.
So just imagine what fun prompts these would be for journaling pages - or maybe they’ll spark your own ideas for lists! Even if you are not a journal keeper, The Pillow Book is a spectacular diversion - it has been for me, anyway, ever since my good friend Jo recommended it to me long ago. It is full of intellect, wit, insight, culture, philosophy, intrigue - and proof that human nature has not changed one speck in the last thousand years.
Posted by aimee