I don’t think I have the words available to share with you my intense delight regarding the arrival of the newest member of my ghoulish menagerie, brought to uncanny life by the wonderfully talented hands of Han of Handsome Devils Puppets. But I am going to give it a try….
I have long loved the writings of Sei Shōnagon: her elegant lists, her acerbic observations, her beautifully intimate and wonderfully catty diaries–all of her anecdotes and opinions and inner dialogue, from the excruciating minutiae of everyday life, to the exquisite poetry she composed connecting and expanding these trifling, fragmented instances to the broader aspects of lived human experience; these strangely random and tangential stories have informed and inspired my own writings for many, many years now.
Translator Meredith McKinney writes in her intro notes to her translation of Shōnagon’s infamous Pillow Book, “she so engages us because she engages *with* us, we meet her eyes across 1000 years,” and I think that assessment of her ability to connect with us, now, today, through vast stretches of time–a totally different time than that in which she lived– is so eerily and excellently spot-on.
Sometimes, though, I can’t meet my own eyes in the mirror after reading a selection from The Pillow Book. McKinney further writes of the “spontaneity and intimacy” of Shōnagon’s writing, that “…draws the reader into a warm complicity, even when we find ourselves appalled at her frequent snobbery and occasional cruelty.” Shōnagon is basically a Heian era Mean Girl blogger, you know? And as someone who considers themselves to be “a very super nice person”–probably too nice for their own good– it is this mean streak that appears throughout her beautiful, clever writings that fascinates me endlessly.
Is that weird? I don’t understand the mindset of the mean. Except…I suppose…when I do. I can be rather scathing in my own thoughts about something I didn’t enjoy, or someone I don’t care for, and I must often remind myself that while cleverness is an admirable trait, cleverness can often come at the expense of kindness…and even if I didn’t say whatever means-spirited thing aloud, I still thought it. Or wrote it. Even if no one saw it.
And perhaps Shonagon thought that her writings, her pillow book, would never see the light of day? I don’t know. So while I started this rumination up on my high horse, with the statement that I find such cruelty and unkind thoughts alien to my personality…perhaps in exploring it a little, Sei Shōnagon and I are more alike than I would care to admit, and it is less a fascination with behavior foreign to me, and more that I am recognizing a kinship.
There’s not a great deal of imagery to be found with regard to Sei Shōnagon, and so we took some liberty with her appearance, adding some subtle, gothy touches to her sweeping robes, instead of what otherwise might have been a more brightly colored ensemble. I think she is utterly, gloriously perfect, from her lips and brows and inky cascade of hair, to the tips of her tabi-socked, be-sandaled feet, I am awestruck at the thought and research and inventiveness that went into her creation.
Shōnagon wrote of “Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster”, and the rare beauty of this marvelous, hand-sculpted, one-of-a-kind piece of art is most certainly at the top of my list of such things. Thank you, Han. She is amazing, in the truest sense of the word.