In which he is a Japanese scholar
A kind of dictionary
An ado at Vunex occasions a brain adventure; in which he catches a glimpse of the woman he loves; and reflects on intelligence in women on the example of the divine Sei Shonagon.
How can you not love a friend who in an offhand note asks you to “elaborate the semantic range of koto“? Others might tell you about a football game, or ask for a girl’s number. Not Conrad. His precious head forever mills Great Thoughts and his golden mouth issues nothing but Abstruse But Profound Truths.
Really, if he ever asked me, how could I say anything but “yes”?
But on with the story.
Conrad reports that Mr H (that’s “Mr Martin Heidegger” to you, and not the author of the delightful Giornale Nuovo) — who made it his business practice to support his philosophical claims with fabricated etymologies (very Borges-like), having run out of Greek etymology to subvert, moved late in life into the business of bemystifying Japanese. (This is a kind of industry with western intellectuals, which the Japanese, seeing the clear strategic benefit of appearing inscrutable, have done their best to stoke). Per the self-same Mr Martin, then, the origin of the word koto, meaning more or less, language, or words is:
the appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace
(“Virgin Chicken” anyone?)
Anyway, to please Conrad’s precious head, I rummaged in an old etymological dictionary. And what I found turned out to be an adventure:
1. In the beginning, God made one word: koto. Which the Japanese did not know how to write. Sometimes they wrote it with the Chinese character shi, 事, meaning “things, affairs”; sometimes with the Chinese character yen 言, meaning “language”.
(Is it not a pity that Mr Martin’s informers omitted to tell him this? Do you also not sense here a missed opportunity for some seriously profound BS? May not intellectual history be rightly said to be the history of missed opportunities?)
2. Eventually, the Japanese sorted out the spelling convention, but a new semantic fissure appeared. Now there were two words, one, koto, written as 言, which seemed to mean profound stuff (the Vunex sort) while another, kotoba, initially written as 言端, or “language bits”, referred to “those things coming out of the mouth” (in other words, the Heaventree sort of thing). As stated, this was written 言端, but 端 (ba) is hard to memorize and even harder to write, so the Heian gentlemen who were not pedants (to put it mildly) frequently wrote it instead with characters they knew better: 羽 (wa) (meaning wings or fearhers) or 葉 (ha) (meaning leaves).
3. Then in the 10th century (I think) a famous poet wrote a famous poem:
hito no kokoro wo tanetoshite
yorozu no koto no ha to zo narikeru
in which the central poetic device was the verbal/ideographic conceit of confusing words of love (koto, or kotoba) with the falling leaves of autumn (ha). You can see the dynamite potential of this trope. That fixed it forever: from now on kotoba would be 言葉 (“language-leaves”).
Now, this is as exciting as I can make it (and perhaps not entirely uninteresting).
But then there is a punchline (there always is, is there not). It made me skip a heartbeat.
And this is it.
The same dictionary entry also says that Sei Shonagon, the semi-divine authoress of the Pillow Book, my Sei Shonagon, the truest love of my life (see my post on her here) wrote the word kotoba as — 詞.
Why does this seem important? It is important because it shows Sei Shonagon’s personality, her entire attitude to life in a nutshell, as it were, in one little gesture, in a single Chinese ideogram. (Which is perhaps the only instance of a Chinese ideogram functioning the way they are sometimes said to function: one character containing in it everything, by symbol and reference, the whole truth, the world).
Let me try to explain.
詞 (ci, “works; phrases; classical Chinese poem; word; diction”) is not a particularly obscure Chinese character in China, but it wasn’t one particularly common in Japan. Semantically, it seems to cover nearly everything the word kotoba seems to express, and Sei Shonagon’s use of it is thus certainly an example of matching well a Chinese ideogram to Japanese meaning, a difficult task rarely well accomplished, and only by those with fluent knowledge of Chinese.
This is a profound and lost art. Since Sei Shonagon’s day, Japanese script has been fixed by government fiat. Today there is no more liberty in picking and choosing Chinese ideograms to match one’s meaning: there is only the right way and the wrong way to write. (And the ministry of education fixes which is which).
But even in her time, few had the learning to practice it — or even follow it as a spectator. Because the use of ci, in departing from the standard writing practice of the time, requires the reader to be a good sinologist, a person of considerable erudition and learning. And since Sei Shonagon does not explain anywhere how to read the character — she forces her reader to guess what she means from the context — it is also a kind of riddle; or perhaps a kind of inside joke.
Now, in Sei Shonagon’s time women often wrote in hiragana, a syllabary, which was then sometimes referred to as “women’s script”. It is entirely phonetic and consist of 40-some characters, all told. The entire Tale of Genji was written in it. Not only did women write in it, but men, when writing to women, also wrote in it. Hiragana thus became the script of love poetry, and, more generally, all poetry in general. The flowing roundness of the script, and its ease, were thought to be feminine and poetic.
Men — unless they were composing Japanese poetry — wrote in Chinese script, often in what was presumed to be Chinese; and which was — as one of my guests once observed — really, really bad Chinese, too. (To save them face, one sometimes refers to it as Sino-Japanese).
Against this background, Sei Shonagon wrote not only beautiful Japanese (as many of her contemporaries did), but she wrote it in a mixed script, which was relatively new exercise in her time (and the way Japanese is written today). This means that she used Chinese characters for nouns and roots of verbs and adjectives; and hiragana for inflection particles, and interjections.
Now, by using Chinese script, she was refusing to be confined to the female ghetto. But when using Chinese characters, she did not merely follow the established practices of the (men) of the day, but used whatever Chinese characters she thought did the job best, in the light of her own erudition and taste. And thereby she signaled her refusal to just copy the guys. She was saying, in fact, I am not a guy in drag. I am something better.
Which certainly she was.
In her time, Sei Shonagon was admired (even feared for her tongue) but not liked. And still is: admired but not liked. This does not surprise: people do not like supremely intelligent women. And it is not just men: women do not like them any more. Everyone, it seems, fears the intelligent woman. (I wonder why that is).
Conceited, people say about such a woman. It is meant as a value judgment, a smear of character. But is being proud of one’s own intellectual attainment — conceited? Or is it just being — true to oneself? And what is an intelligent woman to do? Play dumb? And why? The issue is not truth: surely, to say “Conrad is very erudite” is as true in my lips as it is in his. Nor can it be immoral, for since when it telling the truth a sin?
No, it isn’t politic for a woman to be seen as supremely intelligent.
But you, my women readers, modern day Sei Shonagons all of you, you can rest in knowing that here at least it is OK for you to be supremely intelligent. We would not have you any other way.
Fact-checking, the other Sei Shonagon, the real-time one, commented: “Generally speaking, people do not like intelligent women because they are afraid of being fooled or manipulated by them. (It is a typical reaction of the not-so-bright to treat with suspicion anything they do not understand). But Sei Shonagon did not hide her intelligence precisely because she did not think it was dangerous to anyone; and she did not think it was dangerous to anyone because she had no intention of using it for nefarious purposes. (Indeed, that her intelligence could be put to such a use did not even occur to her). Like about half of all very intelligent people, she was also decent. (The root-cause of her pride is her honesty: I am superbly intelligent, she says with an engaging smile). There is no indication anywhere that she manipulated or took advantage of anyone. And her biography is — from the conventional point of view — one of failure. She did not become the emperor’s mistress, or a wife of a leading aristocrat, nor an abbess of an important nunnery — probably because she did not try to go about it in the sort of manipulative way which, for someone with her intelligence, should have been a piece of cake if she only deigned to manipulate. The supremely intelligent people who do make it to the top are the sort who manage to hide their intelligence and come across like folksy simpletons. Some major political figures come to mind. Therefore one could suggest that there is no need to brand the conceited as somehow bad. It is the apparently humble who pose real danger.”
She says it so much better than me. Perhaps because she is so supremely intelligent.