Heian Japan is a fascinating period in world history, not because of its politics (the Fujiwara family had more power than the Emperor), but because it was an age in which aesthetics were paramount. At the Heian Court, around the year 1000 A.D., one could be disgraced for lacking good taste, which seems almost to have been as fatal to one’s career as a courtier as a serious lapse in morals. Indeed, women at the Heian Court could take lovers, though at least attempted secrecy remained de rigueur. The curious thing is that these women were not supposed even to be seen by male visitors; in Heian Japan, the verb “to see” had the same connotation of the Biblical verb “to know.” Women received male guests from behind “screens of state,” which made it very difficult for the randy Heian courtier. He was forced to judge a woman’s beauty by her calligraphy, poetry, or even her clothing sense. (You may ask how, hidden behind screens of state, could women have a reputation for snazzy dressing. Apparently the trick was to let the bottom edges of your clothes show underneath the carriage door when you went out, giving snobs like Sei Shōnagon the chance to animadvert on some poor woman’s inept color combinations.) Furthermore, after the first night the lovers spent together, if the gentleman did not send his lady a charming messenger with a flower and a morning-after poem, the affair was over as soon as it began. (Now there is an idea for increasing chastity amongst the young and lustful – no sex without an accompanying sonnet!)
Two literary rivals at the Heian Court were both ladies-in-waiting to empresses. The more famous, Murisaki Shikibu, wrote what is usually considered the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji. It is a very long book, about Genji, “the shining prince”; the novel’s theme seems to be best summed up by Robert Frost’s line, “Nothing gold can stay.” It is a slow read, but I liked it very much. One of Genji’s more endearing qualities was that he always took care of his many ladies, which would appeal not only to a Japanese lady at court but to lots of people now in an age when “hook-ups” last about as long as a transatlantic telephone call.
While men tended to write in Chinese to show their erudition, women wrote in Japanese, which is one reason why women are such an important part of Japanese literary history. Sei Shōnagon knew some Chinese, but her greatest contribution to Japanese – and world – literature is a collection of short essays known as The Pillow Book. (Nowadays usually a “pillow book” is a collection of shunga, or Japanese erotica. It seems more graphic than erotic to me, but I am not a connoisseur of the genre.) In Sei Shōnagon’s case, the term meant a collection of papers perhaps kept in a wooden pillow. She even collects paper to make a “pillow” of them.
Her book consists mainly of short essays and lists of things she likes or dislikes; most of this is to demonstrate her own excellent taste. Her list of elegant things includes duck eggs, shaved ice with syrup in a silver bowl, and a rock crystal rosary. Hateful things include mice, mosquitoes, creaking cart wheels, barking dogs, and lovers who rummage about as they leave. In the spirit of the Lady Sei Shōnagon, I list a few things in current fashion I find inelegant, if not hateful.
A man sporting a “man bun” cannot even claim the elegance that only a few male fashion models possess with a pony tail, and then rarely. Man buns always look as if someone had to do something with over-long hair and made a bad decision. The only males I have ever seen who could carry off a man bun are the terracotta warriors of the First Emperor, and anyone who would quarrel with a living, well-armed warrior over his hair is both rude and reckless.
Young men who wear their pants drooping to expose their underwear must not know the purported origin of the fashion as an invitation to prison sex. The buttocks may be an erogenous zone, but like most erogenous zones, they do not benefit from overexposure to the public.
Tattoos used to be so declassé that not even the Scandinavian seafaring monarch who had a fox hunt tattooed around his torso, with the fox going to earth up . . . well, going to earth, could make them aristocratic. The young forget that the snazzy tribal armband will in time lose its appeal and will make an old man look even older. As for tattoos on women, well, I will forgive Dame Helen Mirren almost anything.
Cars blasting load music almost never blast the Brandenburg Concerti or the 1812 Overture. Instead the drivers impose their dubious taste on those who have the misfortune to be passing by. Such louts will pay for their lack of volume control with their ears.
Probably a fault I share is using too much cologne. Even if one is wearing Penhaligon’s, Creed, or Hermessence, too much of a good thing is too much. In one of Graham Greene’s short stories, Cuir de Russie is considered “an error of youth.” One wishes to have a subtle presence, not announce oneself with a flourish of strumpets.
Baseball caps look best on outfielders, though I was given one depicting Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe that I was told would protect me even in Los Angeles roughest neighborhoods. It is good to know that even hooligans respect Our Lady.
I could go on with this, but as I do not wish to alienate readers with unfortunate hair (which is usually, though not always, preferable to no hair), loud car radios, or bad scents. Or “sense.” I will stop. In any case, Sei Shōnagon does lists better than I do.