This is an enchanting essay on aesthetics by one of the greatest Japanese novelists. Tanizaki's eye ranges over architecture, jade, food, toilets, and combines an acute sense of the use of space in buildings, as well as perfect descriptions of lacquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure. The result is a classic description of the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors and the dazzling light of the modern age.
The considerations on architecture and decoration can be taken as the oriental counterpart to Bachelard's Poetics of Space, taking the way the lived experience of the space is that which matters for his aesthetics and practical purposes.
Tanizaki is a man who can write beautifully about sensuous experiences like sight or taste never losing from sight his theme.
But what exactly is the theme? It seems to me to be a mourning of a traditional way of life, or should we say of lighting, that was quickly disappearing. The view that glorifies darkness which makes lacquer and gold stand out or that softens the whites as opposed to artificial light which makes everything glitter and brings the unbearable brightness can also be just a romantic vision of a lost Japan that never existed. But that really isn't an issue if you are aiming to enjoy this book for its sheer beauty and bits of witty humor.
"It has been said of japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is food to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark."
This edition is lacking a glossay of unstranslated japanese terms used throughout.
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was published in 1933, an essay length reflection on a Japanese architecture and sensibility destroyed by modern (Western) illumination. Though published 12 years before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tanizaki’s polemic is haunted with a prefiguring of the mass destruction that was to come.
As in most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head. ‘Hot’ is no word for the effect, and the closer to the ceiling the worse it is – your head and neck and spine feel as if they were being roasted.
No clairvoyance was involved in Tanizaki’s elegy. It is a privileged viewpoint. His essay is more ironic in tone, a baggy, rambling piece of writing that ranges from architecture to hygiene to jade to women to heating levels. And I use those terms as a reader that loves to read discursive, seemingly unstructured essays.
Tanizaki writes, ‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty’. To read his essay is to recall a lost world, liminal spaces no longer permitted in a time of of what Pascal Quignard refers to as ‘dazzling, puritanical, imperialist, American neon light.”
Quignard draws a central part of The Roving Shadows from Tanizaki’s essay, about which he writes: ‘I think these pages are among the finest ever written in any of the various societies that have arisen over time …’
Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet is truly a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Sôseki 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 out upon blue skies and green leaves.
Still, the short monograph pulls you in, letting you get into the contents and kind of made me think of stuff at home in an existentialistic way. Further on the toilet:
As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantô region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the leaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. 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 beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste. The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch cold. But as the poet Saitô Ryoku has said, “elegance is frigid.” Better that the place be as chilly as the out-of-doors; the steamy heat of a Western-style toilet in a hotel is the most unpleasant.
The author questions the basic ideas of what "we" dislike:
One reason we hate to go to the dentist is the scream of his drill; but the excessive glitter of glass and metal is equally intimidating.
The praises of materialistic things are quite interesting:
Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware. [...] I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soup bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby. [...] It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.
Also, on the older trend of blackening teeth:
One thinks of the practice of blackening the teeth. Might it not have been an attempt to push everything except the face into the dark?
However, the "we" and "they" devolves into sheer nationalism and racism at times:
Yamamoto Sanehiko, president of the Kaizô publishing house, told me of something that happened when he escorted Dr. Einstein on a trip to Kyoto. As the train neared Ishiyama, Einstein looked out the window and remarked, “Now that is terribly wasteful.” When asked what he meant, Einstein pointed to an electric lamp burning in broad daylight. “Einstein is a Jew, and so he is probably very careful about such things”—this was Yamamoto’s interpretation. But the truth of the matter is that Japan wastes more electric light than any Western country except America.
That's just sad. Even though Junʼichirō Tanizaki quotes another person above, it's not good, rational or anything other than demagogy. Furthermore:
The Japanese quite aside, I cannot believe that Westerners, however much they may prefer light, can be other than appalled at the heat, and I have no doubt they would see immediately the improvement in turning down the lights.
All in all, it's like reading a well-written monograph with bits of "Mein Kampf" in it, which ultimately brings this down. The fact that it's written in 1933 does not excuse anything.
Tanizaki was born July 24, 1886 and he died July 30 1965) was a Japanese author, one of the major writers of modern Japanese literature, and perhaps the most popular Japanese novelist after Natsume Sōseki, who happens to be my favorite Japanese author. Some of Tanizaki’s works present a rather shocking world of sexuality and destructive erotic obsessions, while others, are less sensational and subtly portray the dynamics of family life in the context of the rapid changes in 20th-century Japanese society. His stories frequently narrate a search for cultural identity in which constructions of "the West" and "Japanese tradition" are juxtaposed.
This essay on aesthetics was originally published in 1933, and the English translation was published in 1977 by Leete's Island Books. The translation contains a foreword by architect and educator Charles Moore and an afterword by one of the translators, Thomas J. Harper. Harper was Senior Lecturer in Japanese Literature at the Australian National University in Canberra. The other translator, Edward Seidensticker, was Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University. Much shorter than the author's novels, this book is a small meditative work tells the story of building his dream home, which he freely admits cost more than he could afford.
Tanizaki writes, “What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms – even someone who has never built a house for himself must sense this when he visits a teahouse, a restaurant, or an inn. For the solitary eccentric, it is another matter. He can ignore the blessings od scientific civilization and retreat to some forsaken corner of the countryside, but a man who has a family and lives in the city cannot turn his back on the necessities of modern life – heating, electric lights, sanitary facilities – merely for the sake of doing things the Japanese way. The purist may wrack his brain over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway, wherever he thinks it will least offend the eye” (1).
As a person who lives in a home decorated in the style of post-modern clutter – that is, everything in the place where it fits – I would have the opposite trouble: finding more wall space, more book shelves, and fewer empty spaces.
I now have a window on the character in the novel, whose meticulous attention to order seemed odd to me. In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is a pleasant read with a cup of tea one fine afternoon. 5 stars
Earthy and sublime by turns, this brief study sheds light--and shadow--on the aesthetic principles of a culture that typically mystifies Westerners. Never on my own would I have thought of the still, spare lines of a dim and empty Japanese room as a showcase of shadows. Never would I have realized that the bold glare of black lacquerware was meant to be seen as a muted glow within a darkened space.
The Japanese novelist writes with an awareness of Western sensibilities that enables him to look at his own native tradition as if from the outside, zeroing in on what seems so alien to us, while at the same time honoring the sense of beauty and harmony so prized in that tradition.
Donald Richie's 1977 A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics clearly owes something to this 1933 work, which Richie references in his bibliography, and the two essays make excellent companion pieces. Together they have significantly enlarged my understanding.
This is a five-star work on its own scale, not possible for me to rate appropriately alongside books ten times its size and scope.
It is sparse, and yet not a word is wasted. The concepts he brings forth - the use of light, shadow to illuminate - are brilliant.
He sets Japanese lacquer, No, Kabuki, housing, restaurants and toilets into a context that is almost unimaginable.
When I was in steelmaking, we used to say that you need a good slag to make a good steel. In art and photography, we need shadows. We forget how shadows can bring mystery, and can illuminate in ways that we have sometimes forgotten.
We have forgotten to slow down, in our haste to move. We have forgotten the use of shadows.
A brilliant, deep, relevant book.