Laughing my head off at Mme Sei's wit

The fact that there is nothing known about the life of Sei Shonagon after she'd left court has left an opening for the nasty rumor to arise that she'd fared badly: died alone in poverty and so forth. But, observed Ian Morris, who could take a difficult woman, "this is probably the invention of moralists who were shocked by her promiscuity and thought she deserved retribution."

The problem with Morris's theory is that today's sexually revolutioned Americans also find Mme Sei deeply immoral. It is not her bedly doings -- it follows -- certainly nothing especially bad in any case -- which are the cause of the moral opprobrium. Rather, divine the root of the moral outrage from this, No. 5 (as Morris counts them):

Different Ways of Speaking
A priest's language.
The speech of men and women.
The common people always seem to add extra syllables to their words.

The essay starts ambitiously enough: priests do speak an odd language (meaning it to be otherwordly and mysterious); and it continues interestingly, too: in Japan, as in many countries, men and women speak differently. Both facts could have made a good point of departure for an intelligent essay, which is probably what she had intended, and one of which her superior wits would have been perfectly capable (even if her readers' were not)... had she not been diverted by her last comment -- and disarmed by her own guffaws in its wake, bringing the whole thing to a sudden crash.

It's a joke, no more; and old jester's trick: to start high and suddenly drop low. It never fails to amuse.

And she's right, of course: commoners do speak an odd language; and often they are just plain funny, too, seeming -- with their unhealthy teeth, their ungainly laughter, their colorful patois -- no more than a caricature of better men. The problem is -- one is not allowed to say it. We can all see it, of course; but to admit as much is -- somehow damnable: the emperor's new clothes and all.

Which is why I love Mme Sei more with every passing day: a smart, cultured, sensitive woman, she was too intelligent, too honest, and too confident of herself to pay stinking lipservice to politically correct "respect" for instances of bad manners, lack of culture, phariseeism and cabotinism. Surrounded as she was by insecure empty suits whom she delighted rubbing the wrong way, she was envied and hated, and... if she'd not been a woman of independent means, I should not be surprised if she did not end up poor and lonely in her old age: there would have been too many all too ready to delight in her downfall.


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