Friday, 5 October 2007

Blogging the Blog 2: A 10th Century Blog

In August I produced a posting outlining what I saw as the types of blogs that are in existence (in my view - journal, scrapbook and anger management) and also thoughts on why blog for a certain period of time. Meanwhile I came across a book published in 1967 called 'The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon'. Before you jump to any conclusions 'pillow books' have nothing to do with erotic literature. They originated in Japan in the 10th century and in modern times have been termed zuihutsu, i.e. 'random notes' or 'occasional writings'. They are termed pillow books as people generally wrote them when they went to bed. Also, Japanese bedding tends, even now, to be rolled up during the day and people do not have the bedside tables that are common in the West, so things were kept inside the pillow instead. Now Japanese pillows even into modern times have not been textiles and soft, rather they are made of wood and are more like headrests than pillows. See the movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha' (2005) for a good picture of what they look like. They were often hollow and had little drawers that could be pulled out from them to hold personal things like pillow books. Pillow books come from court life as courtiers had the time and (unlike their Western counterparts) the literacy and writing skills to keep them. Poetry as a form of interaction was also highly rated in Japan throughout history and led to such developments.

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Emperor's court from about 989-999 CE (also known as 989-999 AD). She came into regular contact with the highest officials and their families in Japan at the time. The pillow book started off as something that was personal to her, but from about 996 onwards it seems that it became known to the court and she began to write in a more formal and better organised way. It is clear that like the blogger, Sei Shonagon was bringing the personal into a format that she kind of half expected to become public or at least readable by a certain circle of people. In nature the pillow book throughout resembles a blog. There are lists of varying lengths about what she likes and dislikes, gossip from the court, comments (often quite cutting) about people and their behaviour.

The personality which comes through in the book is very believable, with her snobbery, her emphasis on doing things 'properly', her respect for rank and manners, her adoration of the Imperial family, her dismissal of the behaviour of the lower classes, combined with her enjoyment of the seasons and various festivals, plus affairs with men of the court, all strike the modern reader like a typical upper or upper middle class woman working in the UK today. The fact that she discusses things in her life and experience on a non-chronological basis, often reminiscing about the past or speculating on the future and juxtaposes these with general discussions about the world and society seems incredibly like a blog, in a way that historical diaries such as that by Samuel Pepys (writing 1660-1669 CE) do not do. Obviously she lacked the modern technology but this enabled her to include physical things such as cloth from clothes worn during a certain festival or dried flowers in a way that a blogger can only do in visual form.

Having encountered Sei Shonagon's work, I do now wonder if people have been waiting a thousand years for the blog to be invented and that in some people it is a natural tendency that can now be realised. I suppose many people, myself included, feel their views and opinions are of value to more than just themselves and so have this desire to bring to the public view what they think about things. Maybe too we seek, like Sei Shonagon, to point to what we see as good and bad behaviour in the hope that we might shift people to act in what we view as a 'better' way. A thousand years from now, it will be interesting to see how many blogs of today will be accessible to the people of the third millenium and whether the continuities in what at the base interests and annoys us, and that desire in so many humans to draw attention to such things, remains.

No comments: