Friday, March 12, 2010

The Footnotes of God

Back in college, I took a course in Japanese history, and among the assigned reading was The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. This was basically a blog written on rice paper by a thirtysomething lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Japanese court around the year 1000. The edition I read was the 1967 translation by Ivan Morris.

Morris' translation included copious endnotes and appendices on life and culture during Sei Shōnagon's lifetime, including information on the calendar, festivals, government, geography, chronology, clothing, musical instruments, and so on. It's a good thing he did, too, because the milieu in which Sei Shōnagon lived was so different from life in our current industrial age that otherwise it would be difficult to understand a lot of the things she wrote about.

Although it's a classic work of literature in Japan, The Pillow Book is pretty obscure in the English-speaking world, which is what you would expect of a cultural artifact from such a distant time and place. And yet, there's another cultural artifact from an even more distant time and place that holds such an influential place in our culture that we refer to it simply as The Book. The reason The Book is so important while The Pillow Book is so obscure is that The Book is at the center of our culture's main religion.

The Book's oldest narratives go back over 3000 years, and even its most recent ones go back nearly 2000, all of them set against a milieu even more alien to us than that of The Pillow Book. However, unlike The Pillow Book, The Book is usually published without any notes explaining the alien culture that produced it. And what's particularly troubling is that a lot of this country's most powerful, influential people think that they can just crack open The Book and start reading, and they'll understand everything it has to say.

Even worse is the fact that these people have adopted an ideology that requires them to believe that there is absolutely no ambiguity to be found in The Book. They insist that The Book contains no metaphors, no similes, no figurative language of any sort. (Well, they actually do admit in an abstract sense that The Book contains figurative language, but they refuse to accept that any particular passage might.) Everything in The Book has to be read literally -- except, of course, for the parts that don't, especially the parts that contradict their ideology.

This is why it might be useful to require that anyone who reads The Book be required to read The Pillow Book first. The experience of trying to understand a product of the culture of Heian Japan would make them less certain that they understand everything they read in The Book.

3 comments:

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

To compound the error, how many of The Book's most ardent supporters think it was originally written in English?

This book, while pricey, is beautiful- it deals with the mathematics that developed in isolation in Japan during the Shogunate- when Perry opened Japan to the West, the calculus that had been developed by Newton put the kibosh on this sort of thing.

Tim said...

Like some other Westerns I'm vaguely familiar with The Pillow Book due to Peter Greenaway's 1996 film of the same name. Just looking it up I found it came out in 1996. 14 years ago already, time sure flies.

James said...

There is - or there certainly has been - an English translation in Penguin Classics.