“Hateful Things” by Sei Shonagon

24Feb05

In this early example of the Japanese essay, Shonagon lists characteristics, habits, etc. that she finds hateful. Most of these annoyances are articulated in a sentence, maybe two, thus the essay tends to have a bit of an abrupt feeling as Shonagon jumps from one annoyance to the next. The brief paragraphs are tied together with a common theme, but Shonagon neglected, indeed didn’t feel the need, to create a flow to the piece. This list feels very much like a list.

According to the nice little introduction to Shonagon and this work provided in my mighty book of essays, “Hateful Things” is one of many lists that Shonagon made in her journal. The editor praises Shonagon in his introduction as “an unapologetic maverick—an outspoken, truly independent woman.” While I’m not inclined to disagree, one must remain aware that these pieces were written in a personal journal, presumably not intended for public consumption. Therefore, Shonagon might have felt more comfortable discussing her views on the etiquette of her lovers than she would in a more public arena.

“Hateful Things” does provide a portrait of a fiercely opinionated individual, unafraid of revealing her quirks and her snobberies. She also demonstrates something of an obsession with the pretenses of societal expectations. It would be nice if the earliest female writer included in this collection ruminated on, I don’t know, deeply philosophical things, like the plight of women or hermit crabs in her respective society, but I suppose I shouldn’t expect every woman to be a premodern example of a feminist.

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