A word on one of the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. And it’s not even about food. It’s called The Pillow Book. It is written by Sei Shōnagon (966-1025), a Japanese female writer and court lady. Her musings on love, art and beauty have been the inspiration for this blog. A pillow book is not a diary, because it covers a huge variety of subjects and even literary styles. The German version comes wrapped in silk, a real gem.
Aesthetics and Irony
Sei Shōnagon surely was an exceptional lady in her time, because she lived quite independently as a divorced woman at the Japanese Court. It appears that divorce in those times was easier than later on. Hence, history doesn’t always mean progress. In an astonishing self-confident style, she jots down comments on affairs, beautiful and ugly men, does and don’ts in affairs of love and courtship and last but not least: aesthetics.
The aesthetics of nature, art, dress, food and people is the core topic. That means she does not only talk of beauty but of all aesthetic aspects of life. Such a way to observe and describe things takes a certain distance. It is not about things being means to an end, it is more about an uninvolved gaze. This what Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher said about the perception of artworks.
One can look at a cup of tea as a simple drink, but one can also appreciate its beauty. Such a way to look at everyday things, at their aesthetic properties, is closely connected to irony. If you can abstract from the purpose of a thing and in that sense, take some distance, then you are not involved. This distance is what philosophers in German Romanticism (around 1800) called theoretical irony. The American philosopher Richard Rorty also used this kind of irony as a tool to critique totalitarianism and conservatism in the 1980’s.
To find such an aesthetical and ironical view of the world in a piece of literature from 1000 AD, written by a female writer, is absolutely amazing. It radiates such a cool vibe of self-confidence that it should be made a must read in our days.
I came across this book through a movie from the legendary Peter Greenaway. His 1996 film The Pillow Book (starring the young Ewan McGregor) is one of the most fascinating movies of all times. It’s about the sensuality of writing and erotic obsession.
The link between the movie and its subject matter, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book is the formal style. Both are types of mixed media. The book uses poems, lists and stories, while the movie combines moving images, photographs and writing in one frame. And both works are very sensual. Japanese literature is usually not very outspoken about feelings and the inner life of its protagonists and neither is the Pillow Book. Nevertheless, it is full with lively images and an erotic of the observing eye. The movie on the other side uses this content to develop and erotic of writing in its own right.
The Pillow Book offers these marvelous insights in Japanese court life with all the amorous entanglements, poetic gatherings and the aesthetic qualities of shiny kimonos, delicate handwriting and life behind painted folding-screens. Between palaces, temples in the enchanted landscape of Japan we hear about late night love making, nicely written love letters and the composition of seasonal poems. Most entertaining are the lists of things: beautiful things, things that make one laugh, annoying things, good scents or bad habits. All of it written with an utmost sensuality.
My Own Pillow Book
This blog is a pillow book in its own right. Food might be the central topic, but it’s so much more than that. Ultimately, food is an expression of much larger traditions, cultures and ultimately Zeitgeist. Following strictly the idea of a pillow book, my topics aren’t strictly limited to one topic. Over time I intend to develop a living net of interrelated stories, sometimes personal, sometimes informative and I hope to give my readers a few inspirations on how to enjoy life to the fullest.