June 2013

Mary Mann

An Attempt

Mono no aware: The Female Essayist of Medieval Japan

Mono no aware is the bittersweet feeling that accompanies change. It's the small of burning leaves and the shouts from a nearby football game when one has left high school behind. It's seeing your best childhood friend get married. It's the basis of almost every episode of The Wonder Years. It is, as Sei Shonagon wrote in the tenth century, "when one has stopped loving somebody, [and] one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person."

Shonagon, along with her literary peer Murasaki Shikibu, was one of the first to use writing to convey mono no aware -- a phrase invented in the eighteenth century to describe Murasaki's Tale of Genji, which may be the world's first novel. Shonagon was no slouch either; five hundred years before Michel de Montaigne coined the term essay, Shonagon wrote a whole book of them, The Pillow Book.

These two women stand out in an era of surprisingly well-regarded Japanese female writers -- surprising because women living elsewhere in the tenth century were generally uneducated and illiterate. But Murasaki and Shonagon had geopolitics helping them out: the aesthetics of China ruled in Japan, and Chinese was considered the language of the educated man, while women wrote only in Japanese, which was taken less seriously but which, because it was their spoken language, also allowed for more personal sentiments. Out of women's writing, mono no aware was born, and it caught on. Soon, men were even adopting female pen names in order to write poems and diaries in Japanese.

Like Murasaki, Shonagon's writing is rich in mono no aware, but unlike Murasaki (and the rest of their peers), it's also rich in humor. Both pined for the past and believed they lived in "mannerless times," as Shonagon put it, but Murasaki was serious and studious and disliked court life -- she used fiction to create her own ideal court -- while Shonagon took both the lumps and the smooth with a laugh, and pitied the women who didn't live at court and had "not a single exciting prospect in life." Of the options afforded women at the time, court was the best, affording comfort, conversation, and education, even if it also meant boredom (women could essentially only gossip, have affairs, and write). The lifestyle was actually similar to that of a teenager in summer: flirting, gossiping, sleepovers, and dressing to impress. In this context The Pillow Book often reads like the memoirs of a Mean Girl.

To start with, Shonagon is an unapologetic snob. "All provincial things are vulgar," she announces. It's not an uncommon opinion in a karma-based culture, where one earns ones station through deeds done in the previous life, but Shonagon takes particular delight in voicing her prejudices. As finicky as she is snobby, she is unsparing in her judgments. She dislikes "low-class housewives" who have "a very knowing manner," and she loathes the clothes that commoners wear that make them look "like so many basket-worms." When she goes away, she likes to bring friends, because "one needs a few companions of one's own class with whom one can chat congenially."

Her judgments extend beyond the lower class; her demands for her peers are also great. A list of "Presumptuous Things" includes spoiled children and coughing. "People Who Irritate Others" ranks among many offenders "those who yawn." And of course, in a world rife with love affairs, "especially disagreeable is the man who, when leaving in the middle of the night, takes care to fasten the cord of his headdress." Shonagon had high standards -- she lived during the peak of the elegant Heian era, when aesthetics were practically a religion, poetry was sacrosanct, and dressing for the day included hours of preparation: face-whitening, eyebrow-plucking and redrawing, tooth-blackening, and donning twelve layers of hand-sewn silk robes. But even then, in her opinion, "most people are too casual." At least she's aware she's fickle in choosing who she likes and dislikes: "Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason -- and then that person goes and does something hateful."

Gossip is another feature that the tenth-century Imperial Court shares with a twenty-first-century small-town high school. Shonagon loved gossip, especially as it related to affairs. "If letters did not exist, what dark depressions would come over one!" she exclaims. Flirting was a high art among the otherwise bored courtesans, and she thought is was "a pleasure to watch the women who have received (a letter) discussing them with their companions and showing each other their replies." Not only do Shonagon and her peers gossip about flirting, they even use gossip as an element of flirting. "Who can it be in that splendid carriage?" she wonders while chatting to a man at a festival, followed immediately by: "How can one find out?" Even better than gossip that's out in the open is that which must be discovered via subterfuge. On her list of "Pleasing Things," she includes: "Someone has torn up a letter and thrown it away. Picking up the pieces, one finds that many of them can be fitted together."

Shonagon doesn't just like to gossip, she also likes to be gossiped about, as long as it's good. Once she dressed up for an outing with a group of equally well-dressed courtesans. The roads were empty, and since they "could not let the outing come to an end without making sure that someone would see us and spread the news about our carriage," they end up stopping in to visit another aristocrat, unannounced. It may have been rude, but Shonagon is willing to put aside manners in order to cause a spectacle. The popular kids aren't popular unless someone else is talking about them.

In such an enclosed world, popularity was akin to celebrity, so Shonagon reveled in, and dutifully recorded, the compliments she received. She was known among the various courtesans as a gifted poet and wit. We know of her skills not just from the deceptively simple beauty of her prose (lists seamlessly become fully formed essays, and she excels at both lyrical sentences and witty banter), but also because she flat-out tells us, several times. "She was born to serve an Empress like ours," she quotes people saying of her after a particularly witty exchange of poems. After yet another triumph, she admits, "it is most unattractive to blow my own trumpet like this."

Yet Shonagon is not blind to her faults. She is frequently, and charmingly, embarrassed. The list of "Embarrassing Things" is timeless, including: "A man whom one loves gets drunk and keeps repeating himself." She is most frequently embarrassed when it comes to her looks, which she maligns often. On one occasion a male visitor arrives and she quickly makes moves to hide herself, fearing that "he would find my disheveled 'morning face' extremely unseasonal." At her favorite festivals, she is "so overcome that I felt myself perspiring." Her hair is frizzy, she tells us, and half of it is fake anyway.

Her looks are a very real concern. She was, by various accounts, either in her late twenties or early thirties when she wrote The Pillow Book. In a culture where women married as soon as they hit puberty and usually died in their thirties, she was considered an older woman. Since a Heian woman's value was charm and beauty, getting old put her in a precarious position -- especially as an unmarried court lady who was expected to be both entertaining and beautiful. When a handsome young man came to speak with her at the palace, Shonagon felt sad that she couldn't add as much beauty as he did to the scene. "There was not one good thing about me," she states, discounting both her revolutionary writing style and her quick wit. Neither matters as much as long glossy hair, unlined skin, and an elegant figure.

Murasaki, who was younger than Shonagon by about a decade and who lived in court after Shonagon had left, was of the opinion that Shonagon had grown too old for her own good: "She was once a person of great taste and refinement," wrote Murasaki in her diary, "but now she can no longer restrain herself from indulging, even under the most inappropriate circumstances." This may be true -- nobody knows what happened to Shonagon after she left court -- or it may simply be the voice of a literary rival. Whatever the case, Shonagon knew the score. She creates a cautionary tale in her story of the vulgar old nun, Hitachi no Suke, whose songs and jokes only earn her scorn from the court ladies.

The cultural focus on youth and beauty helps explain Shonagon's Mean Girl act. Her place in court, as one of the empress' closest confidants, was enviable but tenuous. As a single woman whose looks were fading, she must have had to call on all her reserves of wit, charm and literary skill in order to keep above the fray. Though her cohort behaved like teenagers, and some of them were, Shonagon was an aging woman, and so on occasion she had to be a Mean Girl. Her position was too insecure for her to be anything else.

This is one of the many elements (along with gossip, flirting, and judging) of Shonagon's work that feel startlingly current. Our culture also celebrates youthful women. Older men are known as desirable silver foxes, whereas older women are predatory cougars. Tina Fey -- who wrote Mean Girls but also often behaves like one as Liz Lemon on 30 Rock -- opines in her autobiography, Bossypants, that "the definition of 'crazy' in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore." This was true in Shonagon's day as well: older women were either obnoxious, like Hitachi no Suke, or invisible.

Because of the brevity of women's value in society, it makes sense that mono no aware would be a concept inspired by the writing of women. The ache that accompanies the shriveling of a flower, and the passing of the season that it represents, is a foreshadowing of one's own eminent shrinking -- both physically, with age, and socially.

As light and playful as Shonagon can be, it's mono no aware that gives her writing its lasting value. But whether she's using humor to work her way through her sadness or as an avoidance tactic is not always clear. Is she like the pitiful flower, "as it stands there so gracefully, not realizing that it has entered its dotage, and bending its head as if in memory of past glories," or is she something else -- beautiful in her imperfection and aware of it, even if no one else is? Something had to give her the confidence to write about herself.

The beauty of imperfection is another Japanese concept, wabi-sabi -- a word that wouldn't have positive connotations until the fourteenth century. This was long after Shonagon's death. But then, she was always ahead of her time.