People Who Sit Next to Me on Park Benches is a biweekly column, sometimes in a disjointed letter format, about being alone literally or metaphorically
The Pillow Book
I am superstitious. In November of my freshman year I published a review of a sculpture by Catalina Ouyang in Asterisk, Yale’s student-run journal of art and art history. One facet of Ouyang’s practice is their “loss of language,” because words reveal themselves as limiting, too attached to connotations, and fall away over time. In order to tie my story together, I closed with the line: “Under Ouyang’s influence, I too am losing language.” I think I cursed my writing abilities on account of the closing line of this first thing I ever published.
I can’t write anything longer than three pages. I commit to this column of short form pieces, and I feed the curse! I hope to write longer one day, so I am enlisting Sei Shōnagon—a tenth-century Japanese lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako—for help.
Context: this semester I’m taking a course taught by Fabian Drixler called “The Making of Japan’s Great Peace.” Last week, Professor Drixler mentioned Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book), describing it as “filled with wonderful lists,” and I have been thinking about it ever since. The book is a miscellany of poems, short stories, unrelated descriptions, all Sei Shōnagon’s personal “ramblings,” and the most wonderful part: 164 lists. She wrote 164 lists of things, on 1,098 sheets of paper. 1,098 sheets of ramblings and lists! These lists often bleed into anecdotes and then continue on as lists; “Splendid Things,” a long tangent about the Chamberlain of the Sixth Rank, is followed by the stand-alone phrase: “Grape-colored material.” Structurally confusing, full of repetition, and an utterly scathing indictment of Japanese society, The Pillow Book is one of the best things I have ever read.
Sei Shōnagon is prolific, and I am not. In hopes of breaking my curse, I am manifesting the ability to go from 3 to 1,098 pages of anecdotes by imitating some of her wonderful lists. The titles are hers and the items are mine.
Things that look worse in paintings.
Dogs. Eyes. Baby Jesus.
Things that look better in paintings.
Articles of clothing. Skin. Roses. Shadows. Rays of light. Womens’ backs.
People who can run over five miles. Girls with long dark hair with lots of layers in it. People who don’t get hungover. People who can take walks alone at night. People who don’t get sweaty. All the people already sitting in business class when you board a plane. Second-semester high school seniors. People who like math.
Things that cannot be compared.
Hair colors. Colors in general.
Joan Didion and Eve Babitz. Every time I read Eve Babitz I can write again. It’s something about her descriptions: her luxurious, groupie, LA, pharmaceutically powered persona infects everyone she writes about. Her heroin addict neighbor at the Chateau Marmont becomes the most fabulous person in the world. She makes herself omnipresent in her descriptions of other people—she makes it all about her. She died a week before Joan Didion in December of 2021 and nobody on the internet cared. Joan Didion’s descriptions of my hometown and Southern California sometimes strike me as explanations that fit perfectly in boxes for East Coasters to understand. (I can say this now that I live on the East Coast sometimes.)
Eve Babitz writes a mess, honestly. She’s always sounded like people I know. She writes the way we talk—run-on sentences, filler words that make no sense, descriptions that are longer than the story itself. We will never get to the point, ever. Eve probably loved The Pillow Book with its structural confusion and lack of chronology. She was the first writer to make me want to write. Mostly because I could read her writing and think: ooh, that sounds fun. But ultimately, being a writer is not fun and I can’t write more than three pages of anything and I sat down to write a list of things that cannot be compared and have gone on and on comparing Eve Babitz to Joan Didion. Even though I did nothing to support this claim, it is true that they should not be compared.
Light and dark. Hand sizes without being flirty. Shoe sizes without making a dick joke. Painting and sculpture. Painting and performance.
People who look pleased with themselves.
Someone who has just said “bless you” after hearing another person sneeze. A person who has done all the readings. Two people after a successful high-five. Middle school boys after cursing. A person after singing the harmony during the “Happy Birthday” song. A first-year finding their friends again after a DFMO at Woads.
Hot, dry wind. Cool morning wind on an otherwise hot day. Sharp, cold wind on the Prospect Street wind tunnel that just about makes you want to die. Wind that blows your skirt up. Wind coming through an open window. Wind that whistles through windows. Ominous and intense wind before a thunderstorm. Loud wind from sticking your head outside a car window. Wind from the top of a mountain or the roof of a building.
Things that give a clean feeling.
Taking a shower after a long day in the sun, putting on a flowy dress, and going to dinner. Getting your hair washed at the hair salon. Watching other people do skincare routines on YouTube. Drinking juice or a smoothie when recovering from a fever. A tight ponytail or bun in the right context.
The Pillow Book was meant for Sei Shōnagon’s eyes only, a solitary endeavor for her own enjoyment. Sources say she left it out in her chambers one day and someone stole it and published it. It ends with these lines, supposedly added after the book’s initial, successful release: “I am the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like. Whatever people may think of my book, I still regret that it ever came to light.”
If I double-space it, this article is four pages long. Let’s all consider these lists the spells or mantras that break my curse. From 4—to 1,098—to infinity!