Blog All Dog-Eared Pages: In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki

16 February 2011

Matt Jones lent me this essay by Junichiro Tanizaki after I wrote about the soft, shadow displays of the Kindle over at the Berg website (and also, earlier, about patina).

In Praise Of Shadows is about several things: architecture, culture, and light. Tanizaki meanders around the topic of “shadows”, and the way soft, subtle, darkness is such an important part of Japanese culture. He ruminates on toilets, and lacquerware, on Noh, and on tradition.

It’s a rambling tour, but one with much to recommend it. Tanizaki was writing in 1933; he describes himself as “old”, but was 47 when he wrote the essay. Perhaps his affection for tradition made him feel older than he was. It’s also an interesting piece of writing, given its focus on the gap between West and East, and the Westernisation of Japanese society that was perceived as progress. It takes on an interesting resonance when you consider its place between two world wars.

Very much recommended – it’s a very brief read, and nice to read someone very comfortable with meandering in such a loosely structured manner. Thanks, Matt.

And now: some quotations that stood out.

p.14 – on how simple cultural artefacts reflect and influence so much of a culture:

To take a trivial example near at hand: I wrote a magazine article recently comparing the writing brush with the fountain pen, and in the course of it I remarked that if the device had been invented by the ancient Chinese or Japanese it would surely have a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to seep down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have then found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper – even under mass production, if you will – would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless influence on our culture.

p.17 – on recording, and how the arts change to accommodate media:

Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines.

p.20 – on darkness and dirt:

I suppose I shall sound terrible defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or for worse we do love things that bear the mars of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.

p.32 – on old paintings, found in the dark alcoves of temples:

The lack of clarity, far from disturbing us, seems to rather suit the painting perfectly. For the painting here is nothing more than another delicate surface upon which the faint, frail light can ply; it performs precisely the same function as the sand-textured wall. This is why we attach such importance to age and patina. A new painting, even one done in ink monochrome or subtle pastels, can quite destroy the shadows of an alcove, unless it is selected with the greatest care.

p.58 – on the Miyako hotel, furnished in a Western style:

Light is not used for reading or writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs against the basic idea of the Japanese room. Something is salvaged when a person turns off the lights at home to save money, but at inns and restaurants there is inevitably too much light in the halls, on the stairs, in the doorway, the gate, the garden. The rooms and the water and stones outside become flat and shallow.

p.62 – on age:

There are those who say that when civilization progresses a bit further transportation facilities will move into the skies and under the ground, and that our streets will again be quiet, but I know perfectly well that when that day comes some new device for torturing the old will be invented.