In Praise of Shadows
by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
陰翳礼讃 in 1933
Edward G. Seidensticker
and Thomas J. Harper
Leete’s Island Books
Last week, I explained how I got lead to wabi sabi and to In Praise of Shadows. This is indeed the main classic book at the root of this Japanese concept highlighting the “wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life” as called by Beth Kempton.
Tanizaki’s essay is a reflection on Japanese aesthetics, its characteristics and how different it is from Western aesthetics.
Edwin O. Reischauer presents this text thus:
“He makes clear his love of the softer, quieter, more shadowy, older aesthetic [Japanese] tradition and his pain as it is challenged by the brighter, more garish products of Western technology”.
Tanizaki laments the fact that modern Japanese science is too influenced by the West, that they didn’t have the chance to develop their science in keeping with their traditional aesthetics values, for instance for modern daily life elements such as light, heating, and bathrooms! – with funny passages on that!
The essential idea is nicely conveyed here:
As a general matter we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for tea kettles, decanters, or saké cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina.
They prefer “muddy light”, “shadowy surface”, “a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.” Tanizaki even praises “the glow of grime”.
He talks at length about lacquerware, and shares his discovery that “only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed”. He even goes further, “Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware”.
He has really powerful lines such as this passage,
Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie. If the lacquer is taken away, much of the spell disappears from the dream world built by that strange light of candle and lamp, that wavering light beating the pulse of the night. Indeed the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as though little rivers were running through the room, collecting little pools here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night itself.
This way of relating to the world is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition:
The quality that we call beauty must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.
I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light.
He also mentions “the magic of shadows”.
Now, why this difference between East and West? Tanizaki’s explanation highlights the basics of wabi sabi, and in that sense his essay is seminal:
But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.
Here is some more input on wabi sabi, found in the article Japanese Aesthetics, by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The word wabi means subdued, austere beauty, and sabi, rustic patina.
They highlight another passage from In Praise of Shadows:
An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.
“This is a significant existential consideration: the sheen of older things connects us with the past in ways that shiny products of modern technology simply cannot. And since older things tend to be made from natural materials, to deal with them helps us to realize our closest connections with the natural environment.” (SEP)
I found Tanizaki’s essay really profound and it totally resonated with my own spiritually rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy, and how we perceive humility and acceptance of reality – though we do highlight the theme of light, as connected to God’s Glory.
Understanding better the roots of wabi sabi, I’m ready to read this book I found at my public library: Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, by Beth Kempton.
VERDICT: Powerful essay on how traditional Japanese aesthetics can influence the way we perceive the world.