Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: chris marker, japan, medieval japan, poetry, sei shonagon
This quotation is from the short film Sans Soleil by French filmmaker Chris Marker. The film’s narrator describes receiving letters from someone who is moving from place to place in the world – Iceland, Africa, Japan – and describing cultural difference, thoughts on memory, history and time.
He recounts how in medieval courtly Japan lady in waiting to the princess Shonagon likes making lists, her best being a list of things that quicken the heart. Now that is worth doing; I’d add one of things that freeze it and compare the two.
In Japanese poetry just naming something, like a rock or hail, is enough to quicken the heart in apprehension of it. In the western canon and life we don’t trust the noun alone and modify it with unnecessary adjectives.
Here is the quotation from the screenplay –
He spoke to me of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor’s court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shonagon had a passion for lists: the list of ‘elegant things,’ ‘distressing things,’ or even of ‘things not worth doing.’ One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of ‘things that quicken the heart.’ Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.
He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’
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