Eating Strawberries in the Dark
Yesterday my friend Chris obliged me with his heart-felt essay on Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. In it, with his usual self-effacing politeness, he more than once humbly suggested that perhaps he does not understand it (and therefore does not like it) while perhaps I do (and therefore the opposite). But understanding is a tricky concept: it presupposes that one of us has a more privileged access to the mind of a person now dead these one thousand years. Is it possible? We will most certainly never know. But we can compare notes and make a pleasant afternoon of it. (After all, this is what blogging is all about). So here is what I have been doing this afternoon.
Reading my friend’s essay on Sei Shonagon I experience yet again the wonder of creation: his and my perceptions could not have been different. (And — Vive la difference! – as the French say, meaning: let us be thankful for the spice of life).
This observation seems to offer me opportunity for some esoteric divagations of the sort you have come to expect from Heaven Tree. How come that Chris and I can both look at the same thing and yet see two different things?
Are our readings of Sei Shonagon different, as Chris suggests, because I have been in Asia all these years while he bided his time in Chicago?
That is perhaps part of the story. Westerners in general, and Anglo-Saxons in particular, often find Asians inscrutable. This is in part on account of the fact that languages are storehouses of expectations about what is sayable (and therefore thinkable) in particular circumstances; and expectations in distant parts of the world which have evolved separately may be expected to be vastly different.
Consider the following example. Western classmates in my Thai class have serious difficulties parsing little dialogs like this one:
Speaker A: Are there perhaps some pens?
Speaker B: Here you go. Would you like paper, too?
Though it may not look like it, speaker A is actually formulating a request. It is as roundabout and indirect as he can make it. Since it is considered rude in Asia to reject a request, or indeed, to state one’s intention, it is important to formulate requests in ways which a) do not state your own intentions clearly (or at least make them plausibly deniable) and b) do not require the interlocutor to state his intentions in the event he does not wish to cooperate: i.e. do not put him on the spot.
(An invitation to dinner has to always carry an “out”: “If you have time on Tuesday and it is not raining, might it perhaps not be a possible for us to have dinner together?”).
In the case above, “Are there perhaps some pens?” does the trick. Speaker B will know what we are after but can always say “No, alas, I don’t have any.” On the other hand, speaker B, not wishing to put speaker A through the rigmarole of having to inquire whether there is any extra paper, too, bends (metaphorically) over backwards by offering what else he guesses may be needed.
In the West we might call this empathy (though more often we might call it “too-much-trouble”). Here it is just the way things are.
Everywhere in Asia, things are left unspoken – and for the listener to divine. Japanese have a phrase for it: iwanakute mo wakaru – “though it is not spoken, it is understood”. When frustrated in their efforts to communicate with verbally adept but empathically retarded westerners, they might say with a hint of exasperation (and you should always pay attention to hints here, matters are near crisis level if an Asian chooses to go all the way for the jugular – and hint): “Surely, though I have not actually said it, you know what I mean, don’t you?”
Things may be unspoken for a variety of reasons: it may be a matter of not wishing to put someone on the spot (as in the example above), or a matter of not wishing to wear one’s heart on the sleeve, or not wishing to make a fool of oneself, or not wishing to speak highly of one’s feelings (since stating our feelings means invariably misrepresenting them in best possible light and thereby puts in doubt our sincerity).
More generally, it is a matter of wishing to preserve that ambiguity which is needed for successful maintenance of several different and conflicting images of oneself. Life casts us in a variety of roles – as family members, professionals, citizens, lovers, friends – and each of those roles is best played with a different persona, a different image. It is therefore sometimes necessary to keep them apart in order to keep them from diluting, and perhaps polluting, each other. (Perhaps it is with good reason that even American parents hide details of their sex life from their children). After all, how does a sensitive poet manage also to play the role of a fearless warrior? Why, by mocking his public poetic displays. How does a woman manage to play her public role of a chaste and aloof court lady and, at the same time, manage to be a passionate lover? By keeping the two roles strictly sequestered, by preserving the public appearances unsoiled by the more bouleversant aspects of her private life.
The Japanese, who perhaps do more than any Asian nation to understand themselves, distinguish clearly between the public version of things – tatemae, or what is “set forth” – set forth to serve a public image – and the private – honne – the truth.
(Personal identity is a far more tricky thing in Asia than it is in America where the concept of “integrity” obliges men to be the same people in all circumstances — and condemns lying and all forms of deception).
Though the words I quote for this are Japanese, and the geographic reference I use is Asia, this last phenomenon is neither exclusively Japanese nor exclusively Asian. It seems common to all complex, traditional societies. No one ever had to explain it to me, nor did I have to learn it “the hard way” upon arriving here (like my Anglo-Saxon friends do), for I sucked it with my mother’s milk back in Mitteleuropa. We, too, live in a world in which a thick veil separates the private from the public.
Sometimes things may be left unstated for another reason – as it may happen between two people who know each other well – in order to bask in that special intimacy of mutual understanding in which a glance is enough to convey what you mean. (Glances are an important part of the vocabulary: Asians, an Asian lady friend once taught me, make passes with their eyes). In English we have a word for “private jokes”, meaning ones shared by two friends in the presence of others, but so well veiled that only the two of them understand what they are really about. But it is not only jokes which can be shared that way, and things can be private – unspoken – even when there are no witnesses.
Many Asians (and Mitteleuropeans) revel in the experience.
Sei Shonagon has a word for it: okashi. Not okashii, which in modern Japanese means “funny”, but okashi, a condition of experiencing something and then exchanging glances with the other and seeing that they too experience the same thing; a sense of togetherness; a special sort of intimacy, often achieved through a shared aesthetic experience.
From empathy it is but a short step to poetic metaphor. When princes Shikishi writes:
Aki kureba Tokiwa no yama ni
toshi o furu matsu shimo fukaku
kawaru iro kana
Is she really wondering whether in a far Tokiwa the leaves are changing color? No, of course not. What she is doing is engaging in a spot of okashi, or — as Paul Celan, a Mitteleuropean — called it: mundvolles Schweigen (“remaining silent yet with our mouths full”). Tokiwa stands for something else. Surely you can figure it out.
This special sensitivity to the feeling of okashi makes Sei Shonagon a past-master in the art of understatement: saying something without saying it.
For, though my friend Chris may think Sei Shonagon does not tell a story, she does.
But it is a story well hidden, a story hermetic, a story for those who can find it and decode it. (“Let him who has ears, hear”). It is told in fragments which are, in the most modern of manners, broken, fragmentary, and arranged in a haphazard order. It takes not only intelligence but also special empathy to piece it together. (With their typical penchant for uglifying prose, Anglo-Saxons call this combination of skills “E.Q.”)
It is a love story.
(Indeed, what other story is ever worth telling?)
Yes, Sei Shonagon has a lover.
But she does not state it in so many words. Perhaps because as a court lady she is supposed to be chaste and wishes to preserve the appearance of propriety. Perhaps because she wishes to preserve her image of being cold, aloof, and mocking – a sense of inaccessible superiority, a precious possession for someone in a servile position and probably without her own means of support. Or perhaps because she wants to tell a story but does not wish to share it with all and sundry, but only those who have the wits to understand her. Or, perhaps because the habit of veiled, hermetic speech has evolved into an art form, a form of riddling enjoyed equally by the teller and the listener of the story? The possible, but unstated, reasons for hinting rather than speaking themselves say volumes about Sei Shonagon.
(And here, I suppose, I could begin another essay, the essay I really would prefer to write but have been and remain unable to, alas).
So, Sei Shonagon hints rather than tells.
Let me show you.
How funny, she says in one of her fragments, when a lover calls secretly, at night, and, coming in through the screens, bumps his tall lacquer hat on the sill and makes a racket.
(Is it my lover? Ah – do ladies kiss and tell?)
Elsewhere she tells a story of a man who, returning from a secret call on a lover at daybreak, sees the screens of the ladies’ quarters wide open (for it was a hot night) and instead of rushing home to compose his morning-after poem as he is supposed to, and for which his lover will be staying up waiting, audaciously sneaks in to steal a glance at the unknown lady sleeping in her room.
Is this perhaps how they met, how her lover first saw her?
(Ladies in waiting, being high status, and treated as household jewels, were supposed to remain cloistered. When receiving gentlemen callers on official functions, they remained hidden behind screens – one such screen Sei Shonagon describes for us – it is not quite true she does not talk about “art”. Some young court ladies, Lady Murasaki tells us, when in love would in a desperate attempt to convey to the man their feelings let their sleeves slip under the screen: an indication that they wanted to be seen. Doing so, Lady Murasaki thought, and I am sure so did Sei Shonagon, was stupid and vulgar. A sign of limited self-respect, shameful eagerness, a helplessness born from insufficient wits and lack of experience. How much better to compose a poem with a thickly veiled classical reference and let the man piece it together for himself. If he has the brains, that is. Cloistering as a spur to evolution of intelligence in women?)
Or perhaps it went differently. A man, she tells us in another fragment, exchanged poems with her but she refused to be seen by him and told him flatly (and perhaps tongue in cheek) that she was too ugly for that sort of thing. (What a cunning way to spur a man to action). One day, he broke the taboo: on a pretext, he went behind the screen and took a good look. And then, several days later, in a master-stroke of Asian illocution, he told her brother as if relating a hilarious exploit of masculine mischief, that it was not true what Sei Shonagon was saying about her homely looks. You see, he was sure the word would get back to her. How much better that worked than if he had simply told her that he found her lovely. (Another case of saying something without quite saying it).
Tadanobu was young and beautiful and destined for a brilliant career. Just how beautiful we know from a scene of an interview Sei Shonagon describes. (In another fragment, well separated from the others). It was a public meeting – others were present, the conversation had to remain veiled and all proprieties be observed. They sat separated by a screen, she in the darkened room, he in the lighter gallery. Through the lattice she could just make him out while he could not see anything of her. She writes: oh, how beautiful and fresh and dashing he looked! And she wonders: would anyone sitting on his side of the screen believe that this young god was talking tenderly to a homely looking middle-aged lady? Would anyone sitting on her side of the screen, able to see her, but unable to see him, believe that this ordinary auntie was receiving such a dashing gentleman?
Is it true, then, was this an affair between a young, beautiful man and an experienced older woman? And if so, what was it like to be in love with a younger man, beautiful, yes, and spirited, but clearly not as well educated as she, and clearly not as smart? Sei Shonagon does not answer the question, and for this I wish to thank her, for the puzzle has given me several afternoons of reverie, afternoons I would not have had had she simply told me. You see, I, a Mitteleuropean, enjoy decoding this stuff.
Tadanobu’s youth and inexperience clearly presented problems. He made mistakes which an older man would have easily sidestepped. And so, once, at an all-male drinking party he lost control and boasted. Yes, that Sei Shonagon, the one who knows Chinese classics by heart and whose mean tongue gives all these cruel lashings to court gentlemen, yes, the inaccessible, the aloof, the merciless Sei Shonagon.
(She took good care to cultivate that image, the story Chris relates illustrates the point).
Other men at the party clearly disbelieved him. You and — her? You are drunk!
Cut to the quick, to prove his claim, he dashed off an urgent message to her asking her to render advice on how to respond to a poem a friend had presented him at the party. Here and now, the messenger will wait for the return message. You will see, in the dead of the night she will rise and serve me.
Now imagine: here is Sei Shonagon, in the company of other ladies as it happens (who, officially at any rate, are not supposed to know anything about Tadanobu) presented with this sort of demand. Naturally they insist on seeing the message. They are too sophisticated to raise eyebrows. Instead, they needle her: a friend of yours? They all understand what is happening over at the men’s party. They watch her to see what she will do. (Sei Shonagon does not say any of this, she only says: “the message arrived when I was in company with other ladies”, but the implications are clear: the glances, the whispers, the innuendo).
In spite, and to preserve her reputation with her colleagues, Sei Shonagon refuses to feed Tadanobu’s pride – and answer. She sends the messenger packing. But he comes back forthwith with another message saying, if you do not answer, we are through. Oh, poor Sei Shonagon! How to keep her silly lover and yet keep up the tatemae appearances all the same?
But Sei Shonagon is nothing if she is not quick. She does not lose her composure: cool as umeboshi, from the brazier she takes a piece of charcoal (no, not a brush) and scribbles a Chinese line: Who o who would want to call on my thatched-roof hut?
It is not the reply to the poem Tadanobu had requested. It is a reply to his message. And it is a brilliant riposte: the other men at the party will see that she responds to him (after all) and in humility (who o who) and yet with pride (forget me proving anything, forget me serving you in public, and, by the way, here is a note written in charcoal, for I can’t be bothered at this time of night to grind ink). Clearly more schooled in the ways of love than young Tadanobu, the men understand. They laugh and needle him: better hold onto a woman like this! (They mean: she is a handful. But they also mean: what a woman!)
In Asia there is no happy ever after. Love is fleeting. Like the falling blossoms, it is most beautiful precisely because it is so brief, here now, gone tomorrow. But how sad when love – instead of being romantically cut short by tragedy – simply withers away.
Tadanobu advances in his career and it takes him to the provinces, there to become a governor. Perhaps there he reaches the level of his incompetence, as men often do in bureaucracies, for what was originally meant to be a brief appointment becomes a lengthy posting. With lengthy separation, things come apart. The lovers become little more than friends, then mere correspondents. In time, even that ends.
How dreadful, Sei Shonagon writes in a fragment seemingly unrelated to anything at all, how dreadful to receive letters from the provinces when they do not even contain a gift. Surely, if one sends a giftless letter to the provinces, the letter is at least witty and carries interesting news of the goings on at court. But this, this is dreadful.
(Surely, you can imagine what those letters were like. There was a flood. The cow calfed. The clerks are lazy. Office politics. In Ang Li’s beautiful Ice Storm, Sigurney Weaver, a woman who cultivates very much the Sei Shonagon exterior – and as well as her model – says to her lover: “Don’t talk to me about work. I already have a husband.”)
Is it the indefinite article which throws off my Anglo-Saxon friends? “A letter from the provinces”, meaning an unspecified letter, any letter, sounds like a collective noun, meaning all letters from provinces. Reading it this way, Anglo-Saxons think, what a stuck up city girl Sei Shonagon is!
But in an article-less language without plurals, like Japanese (or Thai, or Chinese), words which sound like general collectives often – usually, almost always – mean specific instances.
And so, when Sei Shonagon observes that letters from the provinces are dull, she is not formulating a general principle. This is not science (at which Anglo-Saxons excel); it is not like saying that
Bodies attract each other with a force counter-proportional to the square of their distance.
No, it is referring to certain, specific letters instead, specific person, specific occasion. Whenever you hear such a general word — “letters” — you must try to guess – which ones?
But a person not used to listening to Asians may not have that habit of mind.
Polish – without articles but with plurals – is a sort of half-way house between English and Japanese; being a Polish speaker is not entirely useless in Asia. Perhaps it is my Polish habits of mind which alert me to this passage: letters from provinces? Wait, whose letters?
This is true about a lot of her little fragments: many, perhaps all, of Sei Shonagon’s general observations are really veiled references to specific instances.
In one of my favorite, for example, no more than a short sentence imbedded in a list of “disconcerting things”, she observes: how disconcerting it is to eat strawberries in the dark.
When I read it, I know she does not mean a general principle that all instances of eating strawberries in the dark are disconcerting. I know she means a specific instance. And what instance would that be? How do we go about solving that puzzle?
Close your eyes and imagine.
The darkness is your hint.
Surely, in the ordinary course of life it never happens that we eat anything in the dark: there is always a lamp, a brazier, a candle. Why the dark then? Would it be two lovers, separated only by a paper-screen door from strangers from whom they wish to keep their affair secret, famished after love making, eating strawberries in the dark because it is the only food which is to hand and because they do not dare light up a lamp?
And why would it be disconcerting?
The word confirms my guess.
What is it like to be hand-fed by your lover a strawberry in the dark, not seeing it, not knowing what it is until you feel its texture on your tongue and its taste in your mouth? And what is it like – feeling at the same time the lover’s fingers brush your lips? Your mind wonders and swoons. Do you kiss the fingers? Or do you bite the strawberry? Or do you bite the finger and kiss the strawberry? Oh.
But these are little things.
Only yesterday I learned the Thai word for them: khwam khit la?iat aun: things small and soft. This phrase is used in Thai to describe the sort of things many women like to dwell on: things soft, small, shiny, pretty, neat. Like the texture of a strawberry which you cannot see, only feel with your tongue. Or the way the blooming cherry tree in the courtyard seems to be a man curiously looking in.
Men, Thais think (and how liberating it is sometimes to forget the duty to think correctly and to allow oneself to think in traditional terms instead) that men think differently, that they tend to occupy themselves with things big, hard, and loud: elephants, guns, monuments, beer bottles. So, when a woman says to a man: how disconcerting to eat strawberries in the dark, odds are perhaps 10:1 that he will ignore the thought altogether – and that it will never cross his mind to look for a secret meaning of the phrase.
Which brings me to a thought I have been revolving in my mind for some time: that all male writers of the world can be divided into those who understand and like women – I do not mean like to sleep with them, for surely we all do, most of us by and large, but like them for their feminine qualities, their company, their conversation, who like to talk to women and hear what they think and how they see the world – the disconcerting strawberries, the peering cherry trees – and men who do not. Hemingways and Thomas Manns and Mishimas over there and Shakespeares and Flauberts and Tanizakis over here. (A curious thought: which of the two would deserve more to be called “ladies’ men”?) And if all writers can be so divided, then so perhaps can all readers?
Whatever the answer, Gawain is not much of a man’s man: he does not hunt, or fish, or bowl, or sculpt. (He does not even like driving). And given a choice, like Dr Johnson, he would love nothing better than to sit in long distance carriages in the company of lovely ladies listening to their impressions of the world, listening attentively and puzzling things out. The Pillow Book offers me such a chance.
It ended up being an essay on the ways – and wherefores – of reading Sei Shonagon… between the lines. As I reread it, I realize that I have managed to say nothing about what Sei Shonagon has meant to me: her character (tough as nails), her intellect (sharp as a razor), her sensitivity (a very fine seismograph) and her language (beautiful as well as complex). And so my dream essay about Sei Shonagon remains unwritten. Perhaps it will yet come. (I will certainly continue to blackmail you with it). Though I am beginning to suspect that when it does, and if it is as satisfactory as I would like it to be, it will end Heaven Tree. You see, once I have written out all that I think and feel about Sei Shonagon, and all that she has meant to me, there will be nothing left to write.