26 January 2005

On Blogging (rework of old post)

Perhaps you are eager to start a blog. But perhaps, like most people, you are uncomfortable with writing a diary that can be read by anyone online: Where is the privacy? Aren't journals meant to be sacred communications with oneself? I'm not really a natural exhibitionist, you think. And yet finally, with mind steeled and fingers poised on the keyboard, you are at a loss on what to write.

Long before Samuel Pepys begins his candid – but still private – diary in 1660, long before the modern phenomenon of online blogging, Asian writers had already mastered the public diary.

Murasaki Shikibu is better known as the author of the Genji Monogatari. Murasaki began writing what is now regarded as the world's first 'true novel' around 1007 on the escapades of the eponymous character, covering (and anticipating the Modern) themes of ennui, sense of self, fashion and fashionability, love and commitment, romance and satire.

More importantly, Murasaki Shikibu wrote a diary of her service in the Japanese court as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress from 1008-10. Diaries written by noblewomen in the Heian period were simply not meant to be private writings: they were shown to fellow writers, friends and colleagues; copies were made and distributed, due to the ready availability of paper.

Murasaki's diary is predominantly interested in high culture, fashion and art. She also pokes gentle fun of her patron, the Empress, and her immediate circle of ladies-in-waiting, as well as court bureaucracy in general – and was loved all the more for it, as readers waited for each new installment of the diary. Picture, if you will, a medieval Dilbert!

Her detail and sharpness of observation, of penetrating human nature, is surprising. This caustic yet mature view of the world continues to inspire bloggers and diarists even today. Murasaki even ponders on the subject of self-improvement: “What is good character for a lady-in-waiting?”, “What talents would be good to have?”, and muses on the gap between public persona and private self – questions that still plague modern-day writers and thinkers.

Or you could consider Sei Shonagon, writing her Pillow Book a few years before her rival's masterpieces. Shonagon's entries are witty, even gossipy conversations that run from a plethora of lists of items (“Nice things that inspire on a spring day”, “Things I hate in people”); entries describing daily life; musings on the beauty of nature, the meaning of life, the pettiness of rivals in the workplace...

The intensely personal or narcissistic “me-blog”, on the trials and tribulations of the author, may chronicle a fight against cancer, an epic search for the ideal job, the journey towards that academic degree. Yet all this pales in comparison to the Gossamer Diary by a lady known only as “Mitchitsuna's Mother”, detailing the breakdown of her marriage over the years. We do not know what her husband, the regent Fujiwara Kaneie, thought of the disclosure of his philandering ways, although the public (and popular) diary might have bolstered his reputation as a ladies' man. It is not unlikely that he even appreciated his wife's efforts.

You could even invent an entertaining or controversial persona your blog. In Ki no Tsurayuki's Tosa Diary of 935, the court poet and governor of Tosa province in Kyoto writes as a fictitious lady in his entourage, describing the voyage back to the capitol from Shikoku island. Singlehandedly, Tsurayuki invented the genre of public diary writing for Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon, Mitchitsuna's mother, and many others, centuries later.

And the modern blogger? Blogging is in our blood. You could even say it's part of the Asian heritage.

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