Essays in Idleness

I’m sorry to say I was disappointed by Kenko’s Essays in Idleness. I loved the book’s prologue, which I’ve quoted on my sidebar, and I had high hopes that I would enjoy reading Kenko’s “nonsensical thoughts,” but too often I found them inscrutable, dull, or annoying.

I couldn’t help but compare Kenko’s work (from the 14th century) to Sei Shonagon’s earlier (10th century) Pillow Book, and find it lacking.  Everyone else makes this comparison too, or at least the writer of the introduction to my edition did, and Kenko himself had Shonagon in mind when he wrote his work.  The writers are doing something similar — they both record their observations of society, their thoughts about political and religious figures, the interesting gossip they have heard.  But Shonagon is witty in a way that Kenko is not, and her occasional mean spiritedness is highly entertaining, while Kenko is more inclined to be serious and a little stuffy.  Shonagon has her odd moments too, but the rest of the work more than made up for those.

I am glad I read Kenko, however, if only for a glimpse into a society radically different from ours.  Kenko was a Buddhist priest, and many of his essays touch on Buddhist beliefs such as the impermanence of all things and the pain caused by attachment to the material world.  Some of the better essays describe the beauty to be found in impermanence and imperfection:

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless?  To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving.  Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.  Are poems written on such themes as “Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered” or “On being prevented from visiting the blossoms” inferior to those on “Seeing the blossoms”?  People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms.  There is nothing worth seeing now.”

I would have liked the book more had there been more passages like the above, and fewer about, say, the uselessness of women.  But even harder to deal with than the misogyny, which is part of the culture, after all, is that so many of the essays simply don’t make sense to me.  They too often tell stories the significance of which I don’t grasp, and I’m left shrugging my shoulders and thinking that it must have meant something to people at the time.  Perhaps I could have found an edition with better notes that would fill in some of the information I’m missing, so this could simply be an editorial problem, but I fared better in this respect with The Pillow Book, which also didn’t have extensive notes.

But then there are essays like this one (“essay” isn’t the right word, since the passage is so short, but it will have to do), quoted in full:

A certain hermit once said, “There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.”  I can understand why he should have felt that way.

And I can understand this too.  Reading a book that is so far removed from our day and time as to be completely incomprehensible would make no sense, but there is surely a value in reading a book that has its beautiful moments but its bizarre and disorienting ones too.  Even if I sometimes got frustrated at what I wasn’t following, I was aware at getting a glimpse into a world far from mine, and I’m glad I could experience that.  There has to be a reason, after all, that this book remains in print and that people still read it.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Essays in Idleness

  1. You know, I recently read excerpts of both Shonagan and Kenko in Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature and had a similar reaction. I came away thinking that The Pillow Book was a Must Read, while The Essays in Idleness was a Maybe Someday.


  2. Sorry this was a disappointing read. When you wrote about Sei Shonagon’s book I added it to my wishlist, but I think I would prefer to start with her than with Kenko’s essays–particularly those on the “uslessness of women”. The quotes you shared are quite nice, though.


  3. I’m always impressed that you persevere to the end of whatever you’re reading, Dorothy. And I agree – sometimes books that just aren’t working can nevertheless be full of curious insight into a lost culture. Thanks for the review – all the insight without the trouble of having to read this myself!


  4. The passages you quote are quite beautiful. Too bad there weren’t more in the book. I wonder if Kenko’s stuffiness had to do with his being a Buddhist priest? It would make sense as to why he was so much more serious than Shonagan.


  5. verbivore

    I’ve heard such mixed reactions about Kenko and never had the motivation to try him myself. I’ll need to reread Shonagon first and then perhaps I would find it interesting to compare the two.


  6. P.T. Smith

    Except for maybe Nichiren, Buddhist priest have often been fricken hysterical. Huge jerks? Maybe, buy hysterical nontheless.


  7. I think for now I’ll keep Pillow Book on the list and skip this one.


  8. Amateur Reader — I’m glad we agree. The Kenko is short, barely 200 pages, with some illustrations, so it wouldn’t take you long, but there are other things to get to first.

    Danielle — Shonagon definitely comes first! She’s got a wonderfully snarky attitude — in fact, she would make a good blogger 🙂 (Not that all bloggers have to be snarky, of course.)

    Litlove — well, this one was short, around 200 pages, so it wasn’t too long of an endeavor, and I did get some good sections now and then. But yeah, it did require some perseverance!

    Stefanie — the book did have a much more serious tone overall than Shonagon’s did, and I’m sure that had something to do with his status as a priest, although I’m not sure he was entirely traditional.

    Verbivore — I’m glad to know others have had mixed reactions, and that not everyone thinks he’s a genius! I’m confirmed in my own opinion, which is nice.

    P.T. Smith — hmmm … interesting!

    Emily — good plan. I love Kenko’s title — maybe somebody should write a better book using that concept?


    • Poor Wandering One

      Well there is the fact that you are reading him 700 years after his death, in a language he had never heard of. in a country that did not exist in his lifetime on a continent that he was not even dimly aware of. The culture and contex of his writings are lost forever. This book is a time capsule. Of course we don’t understand everything he wrote.
      Frankly I am amazed that we can understand anything that he wrote. This was a very in the moment book. He was partly at least, writing about the pop culture of is day. His focus on name dropping and celebrity actually seem quite modern. Imagine someone from 2810 trying to understand us by reading a popular modern work full of gossip about the great and good mixed with a few bits of personal essay. Would we fare as well?
      Reading works like Kenko’s are important. Even if we cannot understand the details we can grasp the vague outlines. It is like listening to a conversation in an unknown language, detailes become meaningless, the flow and feel come to the forefront.
      Finally another reason to read Kenko. He is teaching us. All the stupid crap about women, all the opaque courtly/church gossip. It all feeds into his major theme of impermanence. Nothing lasts he is telling us, not me, not you, not even this book. Stupid things said about women, profund things said about the sky and cherry blossoms, obsessive things said about following the way, all of this fades away.

      Well that’s what I got out of him anyway.


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