In Praise Of Shadows Essay Definition

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Japanese novelist Tanizaki’s important essay on aesthetics, one of the great twentieth-century manifestos, though that term suggests a brawling and list-making modernity that Tanizaki is at pains to eschew. In fact, In Praise of Shadows belongs, roughly, to the anti-modern wing of modernism as it mourns those ways of life destroyed by industrialization and electrification. “Shadow” is Tanizaki’s master trope for what cannot survive in the bright world of omnipresent electric light and shiny mass manufactures. Everything from the dim interiors of Japanese houses to the lacquer on their dishware to the cosmetic teeth-blackening of aristocratic women is encompassed by the image of the shadow: a lack of visibility that sets off all the more beautifully that which is revealed. At Brainpickings, Maria Popova has gathered a number of beautiful quotations from the essay; I will borrow only one, a very famous passage on differences between Japanese and Western toilets, which suggests the (I want to say “brilliant”!) thoroughness of Tanizaki’s aesthetic assessment of life:

The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves… There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beautifies of nature.

Popova, though, likes to keep things upbeat at her site, so she understandably avoids the less salubrious aspects of In Praise of Shadows. For Tanizaki is not “one of us,” a good postmodernist talking about culture; he makes it clear that he is talking, in fact, about race. The basis of his argument is an acceptance of the racial aesthetic hierarchy that places whiteness at the top; but he finds the whiteness of white people, the norm itself, to be excessively bright and beautiful, which, he implies, has led the whites into the vulgarity of their gadgets and neon; on the other hand, the “Orientals” (the term is Tanizaki’s—or his translators’) have had to evolve the art of shadow precisely to draw out their own more latent whiteness. Another quotation, much less cheering than the rest:

If whiteness was to be indispensable to supreme beauty, then for us there was no other way, nor do I find this objectionable. The white races are fair-haired, but our hair is dark; so nature taught us the laws of darkness, which we instinctively used to turn a yellow skin white. I have spoken of the practice of blackening the teeth, but was not the shaving of the eyebrows also a device to make the white face stand out? What fascinates me most of all, however, is that green, iridescent lipstick, so rarely used today even by Kyoto geisha. One can guess nothing of its power unless one imagines it in the low, unsteady light of a candle. The woman of old was made to hide the red of her mouth under green-black lipstick, to put shimmering ornaments in her hair; and so the last trace of color was taken from her rich skin. I know of nothing whiter than the face of a young girl in the wavering shadow of a lantern, her teeth now and then as she smiles shining a lacquered black through lips like elfin fires. It is whiter than the whitest white woman I can imagine. The whiteness of the white woman is clear, tangible, familiar, it is not this other-worldly whiteness. Perhaps the latter does not even exist. Perhaps it is only a mischievous trick of light and shadow, a thing of a moment only. But even so it is enough. We can ask for nothing more.

I saw someone in a comment suggest that this is a satire of nationalist discourse, and Tanizaki’s tone throughout is indeed diffident and mischievous and provisional, a kind of literary darkness. (The only one of Tanizaki’s novels I’ve read, Naomi, playfully allegorizes the East/West conflict through the story of an engineer’s sexual obsession with a westernized teenager in a narrative that strongly anticipates Lolita, whose themes are, of course, similar, but with Europe as the superannuated “east” and America as the progressive “west.”) The afterword by co-translator Thomas J. Harper explains that Tanizaki’s literary mode belongs to a longstanding Japanese tradition:

One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.” Indeed it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.

This observation implies the problem with too sharply (much less racially) differentiating East from West in artistic matters: Westerners too have long been dissatisfied with the techno-modernity that, for whatever complex of reasons, launched itself from Europe. The problem with techno-modernity, as Tanizaki well knows, is that you can neither live with it nor live without it; again from the translator’s afterword:

Mrs. Tanizaki tells a story of when her late husband decided, as he frequently did, to build a new house. The architect arrived and announced with pride, “I’ve read your In Praise of Shadows, Mr. Tanizaki, and know exactly what you want.” To which Tanizaki replied, “But no, I could never live in a house like that.”

One of the main elements of aesthetic modernity in the West has been an attempt to sing our own praises of shadow, from the Gothic and the Romantic to stream-of-consciousness and beyond. Insofar as techno-modernity is committed to a rationality that is hostile to the aesthetic itself, all artists are in the same position, and art itself (even if it must accept its segregation from everyday life) may be the only available repository for those images and affects that progress casually destroys. Tanizaki puts this well on the final page:

I am aware of am most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind. But we must be resigned to the fact that as long as our skin is the color it is the loss we have suffered cannot be remedied. I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allows at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.

Many will mock this position or call it by insulting names; for instance, if I remember Habermas’s political typology from The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity correctly, this acceptance of modernity on the condition that it is supplemented by the aesthetic might be called “right Hegelianism” (if you’ve had the good fortune to avoid grad school, let me assure you that this is not a compliment). But the various attempts to re-aestheticize the everyday via the force of the state (nationalism, fascism, communism) usually proved worse than the alienation they attempted to remedy. The autonomy of art is admittedly a compromise, but remains, even now, the only viable solution I can see: art and literature as containers for the darkness that progress otherwise dispels. A novel may be not only a darkened mansion, but also a lacquerware soup bowl or a toilet in a garden.

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In Praise of Shadows
Junichiro Tanizaki
First published in Japanese 1933. English translation, Leete's Island Books 1977

In his delightful essay on Japanese taste Junichiro Tanizaki selects for praise all things delicate and nuanced, everything softened by shadows and the patina of age, anything understated and natural - as for example the patterns of grain in old wood, the sound of rain dripping from eaves and leaves, or washing over the footing of a stone lantern in a garden, and refreshing the moss that grows about it - and by doing so he suggests an attitude of appreciation and mindfulness, especially mindfulness of beauty, as central to life lived well.

He writes of drinking soup from a lacquerware dish as a form of meditation. "Whenever I sit with a bowl of soup before me, listening to the murmur that penetrates like the distant song of an insect, lost in contemplation of the flavours to come, I feel as if I were being drawn into a trance" - an experience he likens to that of the tea master who, when he hears the water stirring in the kettle, "is taken from himself as if upon the sigh of the wind in the legendary pines of Onoe". Tanizaki was inspired by the play of candlelight on lacquerware, and it made him think of the sweetmeat called "yokan", whose "cloudy translucence, like that of jade; the faint, dreamlike glow that suffuses it, as if it had drunk into its very depths the light of the sun," invites careful attention. Tanizaki said that when yokan is served in a lacquer dish, inside the dark recesses of which its colour is scarcely distinguishable, it assumes the status of a votary object. "You take its cool, smooth substance into your mouth," he wrote, "and it is as if the very darkness of the room were melting on your tongue."

Tanizaki's relish in the world and its ordinary pleasures offers a sharp contrast to the functional, plastic, disposable aesthetic of modern western life. Although his aesthetic is associated with a cultural perspective markedly different from western varieties, there is nevertheless something essentially familiar about it. It addresses the felt quality of experience in the lived moment, not just as an end in itself but because each such moment belongs to a lifelong series (in the ideal) in which beauty and richness of experience are important components of the good life.

It does not take much to show that this idea has many expressions in the western tradition; for example, an analogy exists in Walter Pater's final Renaissance essay, where he says, "The service of speculative culture towards the human spirit is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us," and therefore we must be vitally aware, in order to be present at the focus of the intensest perception. And then he adds the famous - to some, the infamous - words that inspired the "Decadent" movement of the late 19th century: "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."

The difference between Tanizaki and Pater lies in the tranquillity of the former as against the intensity of the latter. But both share an interesting assumption, which is that the richest experience is wide awake, unclouded by drink or drugs, the senses fresh and lucid in their transparency to the world as it is - and finding in its colours and savours, its textures and transitions, the deepest resource of the value it affords.

Readers of Tanizaki are variously startled or entertained to find that his essay on the delights of what is muted, enclosed and refined by shadows, begins with a paean to the lavatories found in Japanese monasteries. These places of "spiritual repose", as he calls them, are situated away from the main buildings in a fragrant grove of moss and leaves, and from their privacy of finely grained wood one can look out at blue sky and greenery. Their prerequisites are "a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito." So moved was Tanizaki by the charms of the lavatories in the Kanto region of Japan, with their long windows at ground level making it possible to listen "with a sense of intimacy" to the raindrops falling on the moss outside, that he came to the conclusion that the greatest haiku poets must have come by their best ideas while thus closeted.

Probably Tanizaki's own inspiration for his hymn to nuance came during just such a quiet moment in Kanto, as the rain dripped outside and the peaceful enclosing shadows of the monastery privy gave him infinite space for thought.

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