Book of da Week: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

In Praise of Shadows - Tanizaki
Like shadows? It’s time to praise them!

In Praise of Shadows is, indeed, about praising shadows. Tanizaki’s 1933 essay is in keeping with his novels (such as Some Prefer Nettles) in discussing the loss of traditional Japanese values in favour of Western influences. As such, the essay is, in part, a man doing a classic “back in my day” rant, and other part wonderful insight into tradition, architecture, and how lighting can illuminate objects and cast shadows around your home.

As such, you’ve got a healthy dose of Japanese mysticism here, which Tanizaki was clearly in love with – if not infatuated. As he saw it, the Western way of slamming a light on at full brightness and having done with it was denying individuals of the full range of psychological benefits of dimmed lights and well-placed décor. Thusly, he spun out an essay which hailed the arrival of darkness.

In Praise of Shadows

In what is essentially an essay about architecture and dimmed lighting, Tanizaki lays bare his belief the modern way of things (although he wrote this in the early 1930s) was having a negative effect on the human spirit. In short, those bloody light switches from the West which one flicks on in an instant take away many of the values inherent in the natural progression of day into night.

Tanizaki has a point – in the West, we slam a light on and a room is illuminated as if it’s day time. In the East, candles or careful lighting ensure the passage of the day is more noticeable. Shadows burst forth from objects placed around your property and a person, heightened by these happenings, is able to relax with well-positioned décor, such as how shadows can leap from a tea cup onto a table. It’s all very relaxing, in short.

Being highly intelligent, Tanizaki does recognise he’s doing the old “back in my day” act, but this isn’t to state he’s not making a good point. He’d likely be interested to see many Westerners taking on Eastern values – whether it’s sushi, Studio Ghibli films, martial arts, or Buddhist philosophy, we in the West have more than got to grips with the benefits of this ancient way of life. But our understanding is clumsy and half-hearted:

"Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows. Out beyond the sitting room, which the rays of the sun can at best but barely reach, we extend the eaves or build on a veranda, putting the sunlight at still greater a remove. The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room."

He goes on to contemplate:

"Why should this propensity to seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals? The West too has known a time when there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum ... If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty."

Ultimately, amongst his whimsical, lovely rambling, he is left to muse:

"I am aware of and 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 colour 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."

In Contempt of Tinted Screens!

Of course, this all means Mr. Tanizaki would be right royally miffed about the arrival of devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. What is all this blue screen tinted guff we’re casting into our nearby vicinity? How terribly ghastly!

As with Tanizaki, we must take advantage of the benefits of our age, but these magical devices also come packing with negative elements – blue light which messes with your eyes and makes your sleeping pattern worse than it already would be. Whilst the West has embraced Eastern values to a greater extent than ever before, we’ve also trodden in dog poo in the process and grabbed at beneficial Eastern delights like a drunken man with his hands full of kebab and a half consumed pint of lager.

Thusly, instead of gazing at your Facebook account seconds before attempting to hit the hay, why not have a ponder through In Praise of Shadows? It will cast some serious ponfication and postulation into your life – you may even join the dark side!

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