The past is largely anonymous. Very few members of the human race have managed to stand tall among the remaining dust of their contemporaries; for every Julius Caesar or George Washington or Alexander the Great are great swirls of ash: the formless remains of forgotten artisans, poets, city planners, tradesmen, ship builders, tree fellers, stone haulers, city officials, soldiers, weavers, wanderers, brawlers, milliners, farmers, and commoners. Modern estimates calculate that over 108 billion humans have been born in the last 50,000 years. A glance at history reveals that we have only managed to preserve the names, appearances, and memories of a select few – and even then, the facts are contentious.
The inclusion of a Caesar or Alexander into this ‘pantheon of history’ needs little explanation or justification. Even non-conquerors, like the diarist Anne Frank, find themselves providing Posterity with a window into one particular period of time. What a loss we would suffer had we been denied The Diary of a Young Girl. But what about other sparse, surviving accounts from history? What do we gain from the anonymous Japanese author (dubbed ‘Lady Sarashina’ in the centuries since her death) of As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams?
Lady Sarashina (1008 C.E. – 10??) was disadvantageously shy, meek, elegiac and passive. She was also a constant daydreamer and a lover of fancies; whether they were notions, imaginings, or came in the form of ‘Tales’, her favourite being the famous Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. She found herself unsuited for court life, and for socialising in general: “I tried to make myself inconspicuous by staying behind the lady who had first introduced me at court, and in that great throng of people no one got a clear view of me.” She is so anxious when surrounded by strangers during her time there that she “could not sleep a wink” and “wept secretly until dawn”. Sarashina’s life is one constantly interrupted by tears, doubts, and inaction. She has dreams that she considers prophetic, but constantly fails to act on them. When a would-be suitor appears, she routinely (though not deliberately) avoids him. When a festival comes to town, she ups and leaves to avoid the bustle.
Sarashina ends her account by bemoaning the absence of her remaining family. Her final days and destiny go unrecorded. “I had wandered through my life without realising any of my hopes or accumulating any merit,” she says in her elder years. “Many years have passed, but when I think about that sad, dreamlike time my heart is thrown into turmoil and my eyes darken, so that even now I cannot clearly remember all that happened”. Sarashina is, as her final recorded correspondence with a friend notes, “one who finally renounced the world”.
On the whole, we glean seemingly nothing from the account of her life but a picturesque travelogue of the many shrines she has pilgrimaged to. She makes no record of historical events, fails to inform us of the customs of her time, and even neglects to inform the reader of what we would consider to be important details of her own life: a husband crops up from nowhere, as do children. Other family members spring in and out of existence, only mentioned when they have seen fit to cross paths with her. Her father (over whom she seems to dote) apparently dies off-page and without comment. Sometimes her sparse writing has a surprising effect. On one page Sarashina’s sister muses, “If I flew away now all of a sudden and disappeared without a trace, what would you think?” The question goes unanswered, but a page -and apparently, years- later, Sarashina writes, “On the First Day of the Fifth Month my sister died while giving birth to her baby.”
There are also moments of comedy and poignancy, such as Sarashina’s adoption of a cat that she and her sister fancy to be the reincarnation of a city official’s daughter (very few people have names, here).
Once when I was alone she came and sat beside me. I stroked her for a long time. ‘So you are the Major Counsellor’s daughter!’ I said. ‘If only I could let His Excellency know that you are here!’ Hearing this, she gazed at me intently and gave a long miaow. It may have been my imagination but that moment her eyes were not those of an ordinary cat; they seemed to understand exactly what I was saying.
This is as introspective as the Lady gets when dealing with creatures beyond herself; tellingly, the awkward girl shares this brief moment of understanding with an animal, rather than a person. Such scenes are not recorded later in her book. Sadly, the Counsellor’s Daughter soon moves on to another incarnation of life after the cat dies in a house fire.
Such anecdotes reveal nothing about the world outside of Sarashina, and it may be asked why we should bother to preserve such things when there are surely greater mysteries about the world and its history to be discovered? Perhaps the mere fact that the remembrances of an 11th century Japanese girl are so rare will adequately answer the question. Perhaps by even asking such a thing we are mistakenly and loftily assuming that the present time we inhabit is all-important – but history, as we’ve said, is littered with forgotten statesmen, historians, scribes, generals, and artists. Who’s to say that anyone currently alive will be worth a moment of thought in the far-flung future? In a thousand years to come, when our distant descendants look back to the early internet, they will find no shortage of material to pore over; but what will they find worth remembering?
Ultimately, like the Lady’s life, the book feels sadly incomplete. In one regard this only adds to, rather than detracts from, the overall effect. You get the impression that Time only preserved Sarashina so that she may serve as a warning against the idle and those who fail to seize opportunity.