There are a handful of excerpts from “The Pillow Book” by Sei Shônagon that are descriptions and experiences of seasons– specifically summer, autumn, and winter. I thought the imagery in these excerpts were beautiful and wanted to put together some immersive visuals to go along with some of the concepts from them. And so this project was born! For each of the three seasons listed, there are a couple of the quotes from “The Pillow Book”, alongside collages of collected photography as well as a YouTube video that I thought captured the feelings well too. Enjoy!
It’s the middle of a fiercely hot day, and you’re finding it impossible to stay cool — your fan only moves the warm air about, and you keep dipping your hands in ice water and moaning about the heat. (Page 182)
In summer, the night — moonlit nights, of course, but also at the dark of the moon, it’s beautiful when fireflies are dancing everywhere in a mazy flight. And it’s delightful too to see just one or two fly through the darkness, glowing softly. Rain falling on a summer night is also lovely. (Page 1)
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In autumn, the evening — the blazing sun has sunk very close to the mountain rim, and now even the crows, in threes and fours or twos and threes, hurrying to their roost, are a moving sight. Still more enchanting is the sight of a string of wild geese in the distant sky, very tiny. And oh how inexpressible, when the sun has sunk, to hear in the growing darkness the wind, and the song of autumn insects. (Page 1)
It’s beautiful the way the water drops hang so thick and dripping on the garden plants after a night of rain in the ninth month, when the morning sun shines fresh and dazzling on them. Where the rain clings in the spider webs that hang in the open weave of a screening fence or draped on the eaves, it forms most moving and beautiful strings of white pearly drops. (Page 124)
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In winter, the early morning — if snow is falling, of course, it’s unutterably delightful, but it’s perfect too if there’s a pure white frost, or even just when it’s very cold, and they hasten to build up the fires in the braziers and carry in fresh charcoal. But it’s unpleasant, as the day draws on and the air grows warmer, how the brazier fire dies down to white ash. (Page 1)
Another delightful moment is in winter, on a fiercely cold night when you’re lying there listening, snuggled far down under the bedclothes, and the sound of a temple bell comes to you, with such a deep and distant reverberation that it seems to be emerging from somewhere buried. And the way a cock will crow first with its beak still hidden under its wing, in a muffled cry that sounds deep in the far distance, but with the growing light its cry will seem to move closer — that’s also lovely. (Page 69)
The Article “Translating a Classic: The Pillow Book, by Sei Shônagon.” was really intriguing to me. As someone who had never heard of “The Pillow Book” let alone read anything from it before, I learned a lot. I have no experience with translating, but as an English major and someone who consumes a lot of different text and media from other languages, I have always thought a lot about how it works. Dead languages too are a whole other level. I am more familiar with Latin and that is completely different. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it is to translate from a dead language like this one, one that you have never experienced as a speaker and that has so much formality around it. And then to think about the tone and context of the time, it’s even more difficult. McKinney talked about how she wanted Sei’s voice to really be heard and that “an elegant literary classic was not what Sei intended her work to be, and it must be Sei herself, that voice, that I translated, not her classic status. If at times she descends to the downright colloquial, so be it.” I’m glad that she captured it that way because I think it makes the text much more genuine and beautiful, something that can cut across time and can still be related to and understood now.
That is what stood out to me about these excerpts from “The Pillow Book”, the beautiful simplicity of it all. It seems like something that could be written now, something that anybody could write, journal entries and thoughts that a lot of people can connect with. I adore the way Sei wrote about summer, autumn, and winter– so simple yet effective in painting specific pictures, feelings and atmospheres. So with this project, I wanted to put together immersive visuals to capture some of that. There was no way I was going to be able to take pictures of all of these things, especially because of where I’m living and how it’s November and everything is dead and grey up here. So this time I searched for other images from photographers, ones that were actually professionals and knew what they were doing and sharing their work with the world. I ended up going down a god-knows-how-many-hours-long rabbit hole of photography, with so many good ones that I had to cut them down before making the digital collages.
While I was looking at fireflies for the first section, I ended up stumbling upon the video that is linked in here and was in complete awe. In awe of the sounds of the owls, frogs, crickets, and thunder and lightning with the soft piano all in harmony. All the deep colors of the summer night and the lights of the fireflies and the stars. It was so cool, I knew I had to put it in. When I was looking at pictures of snow for the last section, I realized that snow is something that I have some of my own photographs for too. Winter is my favorite season and I always get excited whenever there is snow on the ground, so those five images on the bottom left were mine that I decided to put in too. Overall, I enjoyed the process of deep diving to find everything and putting it all together. It was a long and kind of tedious process but it was fun and by the end, I had an even greater appreciation for both photography and nature in general.
I liked working with “The Pillow Book” for this project, I even ordered myself a copy of it and am planning to read it in its entirety once it gets here. I think “The Pillow Book” is a really good example of how literature can transcend language, culture, time, and place. How so many aspects of nature and human life can be captured through literature, that many can feel and imagine, like certain aspects of a season. I loved the way these excerpts highlighted some of those lovely “little things”. Things in nature that I’ve witnessed many times over in my life too, whether in my childhood in Hawai’i or here in New England. Things like hot summer days and cool summer nights, rainfalls and fireflies and the moon. The way the sun sets during autumn, the sounds and flying of geese and crows, the way dewy water drops hang off plants and spiderwebs. And winter! The delight of coldness and frost, the wonder of snow falling, of being warm indoors under blankets and by a fire. I think it’s so crazy how this was written over ten centuries ago, and by an Empress no less, yet all of these things are still relevant to someone like me today. That’s just another one of the many powers and wonders of literature that never fails to fascinate me.
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All Sources Cited:
McKinney, Meredith. “Translating a Classic: The Pillow Book, by Sei Shônagon.” Kyoto Journal, 2 Sept. 2019, https://kyotojournal.org/in-translation/on-translating-a-classic/