In Praise of Shadows (1933)

In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is a lovely little meditation on traditional Japanese aesthetics and how it differs from Western aesthetics. It was not, as I had hoped, about a mood I’ve been interested in for some time, mono no aware, my favorite translation of which is “beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing”, though I cannot vouch for its accuracy. It is well worth reading, though. Quite possibly the essay is a much better use of your time if you want to understand things like wabi-sabi than encyclopedia articles or scholarly works.

Tanizaki opens by describing the troubles Japanese, including himself, have gone through to blend modern inventions such as electric lighting with traditional architecture, and how, again and again, his and others’ attempts to tastefully combine them have failed to provide either the comforts of modernity or the dignity of the past. He describes how, when he built his house, he wanted to build a shōji with paper for aesthetic reasons, but as this would cause “problems of illumination and security”, he also needed glass, and chose a hybrid with a double frame and both glass and paper. “Yet having gone to all this trouble, the effect was far from pleasing. The outside remained no more than a glass door; while within, the mellow softness of the paper was destroyed by the glass that lay behind it. At that point I was sorry I had not just settled for glass to begin with.”

From there, he jumps to an appreciation of the traditional Japanese toilet; “one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic” (!):

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and a 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 Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at the floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves 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.

A western-style toilet (which, I imagine, is what ninety-nine point nine percent of all Japanese homes have today) is too shiny and well-lit to inspire such tranquility. Whatever its aesthetic virtues, though, Tanizaki admits that modern toilets are much easier to clean. Here he makes explicit one of his themes: in places such as a toilet, which, he notes, are viewed as unclean in the West and are shunned in conversation, “the cleanliness of what can be seen only calls up more clearly thoughts of what cannot be seen. In such places the distinction between the clean and the unclean is best lest obscure, shrouded in dusky haze.” And a little while later: “If indeed ‘elegance is frigid,’ it can as well be described as filthy… I suppose I shall sound terribly 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.”

Tanizaki’s main theme is, as the title suggests, shadows. Shadows are, he argues, integral to the traditional Japanese aesthetic, and in modern times, we cannot appreciate the beauty of a traditional Japanese room or lacquerware decorated with gold and silver, because these were designed to take advantage of the dimmer lighting of times past, and contain a beauty which simply does not exist in a room lit by modern lighting. To summarize his argument isn’t easy, since Tanazaki usually says what he wants to say more elegantly than I can hope to do, and the peculiar beauty of shadows runs through the entire essay, which jumps somewhat unpredictably from one topic to the next.

In the cuisine of any country efforts no doubt are made to have the food harmonize with the tableware and the walls; but with Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half. The dark miso soup that we eat every morning is one dish from the dimly lit houses of the past. I was once invited to a tea ceremony where miso was served; and when I saw the muddy, claylike color, quiet in a black lacquer bowl beneath the faint light of a candle, this soup that I usually take without a second thought seemed somehow to acquire a real depth, and to become infinitely more appetizing as well. Much of the same can be said of soy sauce.

Traditional Japanese aesthetics as Tanazaki presents it is an aesthetic of concealment and revelation: beauty lies in revealing a little, and to reveal a little you need to conceal a lot. He does not necessarily idealize this aesthetic: “The quality that we call beauty, however, 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.” Admirably, it is not the national character or contact with some platonic Beauty ideal that gives rise to the Japanese aesthetic, in Tanazaki’s view, but simply the facts of real life and the need to create beauty out of what is, not what one desires to be.

He applies this theory to all sorts of things: food, architecture, the costumes and fashions of actors, nobles and commoners, the beauty of the jewel that “gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day”:

Such is our way of thinking–we find beauty not in the in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, the one thing against another creates.

It occurs to me that the traditional Japanese aesthetic probably has a lot to teach those of us who fancy ourselves photographers about the use of light and shadow. There are too many good passages in the essay to quote all.

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on the variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows–it has nothing else. 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 at best can but barely reach, we extend the eaves or build 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 the room. We do our walls in neutral colors so that the sad, fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose. The storehouse, kitchen, hallways, and such may have a glossy finish, but the walls of the sitting room will almost always be of clay textured with fine sand. A luster here would destroy the soft fragile beauty of the feeble light. We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. We never tire of the sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament…

We have all had the experience, on a visit to one of the great temples of Kyoto or Nara, of being shown a scroll, one of the temple’s treasures, hanging in a large, deeply recessed alcove. So dark are these alcoves, even in bright daylight, that we can hardly discern the outlines of the work; all we can do is listen to the explanation of the guide, follow as best we can the all-but-invisible brush strokes, and tell ourselves how magnificent a painting it must be. Yet the combination of that blurred old painting and the dark alcove is one of absolute harmony. The lack of clarity, far from disturbing us, seems rather to suit the painting perfectly. For the painting here is nothing more than another delicate surface upon which the faint, frail light can play; 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 sublte pastels, can quite destroy the shadows of an alcove, unless it is selected with the greatest care.

Indeed, when the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji in Kyoto – an exact replica of the older pavilion that was burned down by a crazy monk in 1950 – in 1987 was covered with gold leaf, as had always been intended, “Old-time residents of Kyoto famously complained that it would take a long time for the building to acquire sufficient sabi to be worth looking at again. At the rate the patina seems to be progressing, probably several centuries.”

Tanazaki finds the beauty of carefully revealing a little in the Nō theatre:

In the Nō only the merest fraction of the actor’s flesh is visible–the neck, the face, the hands–and when a mask is worn, as for the role of Yang Kuei-fei, even the face is hidden; and so what little flesh can be seen creates a singularly strong impression.

And he finds it again the traditional Japanese fashion of covering up the body except for the hands and face, which are painted ghostly white; the eyebrows are shaved off and drawn in black, and the teeth are blackened, so as to reinforce the whiteness of what little flesh can be seen. This kind of beauty is all but lost under “western floodlights”.

In countries that enforce strong Sharia law, like some places in the Middle East today, women cover themselves up so only the face and the hands are visible, and in these countries (so I’ve heard), a glimpse of a woman’s hair or ankle can be more erotic than a nipple could ever be in the West. Whatever beauty lies in this, of course, does not defend the despicable idea that women need to cover themselves up because men cannot control themselves otherwise, and further than women who refuse to do so are responsible for whatever a man then does to them.

It’s hard to read a discussion of a nation or people’s characteristics and not find traces of nationalism or even racism. These traces are for the most part nonexistent in Praise of Shadows, but something like it surfaces in the discussion of skin color. The discussion begins innocently enough by suggesting that perhaps the beauty ideals of the Japanese ultimately stem from the color of their skin, since it is a fact that a given skin color will look great under certain conditions and worse in others. (At least, Tanazaki thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree that the purely aesthetic aspects of skin color have different properties, so some types of lighting, say, might suit white or dark or yellow skin better than others – I hope this purely aesthetic preference is not seen as racism.) But then it goes off the deep end:

These [Japanese] women were in no way reticent about powdering themselves. Every bit of exposed flesh–even their backs and arms–they covered in a thick coat of white. Still they could not efface the darkness that lay below their skin. It was as plainly visible as dirt at the bottom of a pool of pure water. Between the fingers, around the nostrils, along the spine–about these places especially, dark, almost dirty, shadows gathered. But the skin of Westerners, even those of darker complexion, had a limpid glow. Nowhere were they tainted by this gray shadow. From the tops of their heads to the tips of their fingers the whiteness was pure and unadulterated. Thus it is that when one of us goes among a group of Westerners it is like a grimy stain on a sheet of white paper. The sight offends even our own eyes and leaves none too pleasant a feeling.

We can appreciate, then, the psychology that in the past caused the white races to reject the colored ones. A sensitive white person could not but be upset by the shadow that even one or two colored persons cast over a social gathering.

Even knowing that in context, Tanazaki is talking about aesthetics, it’s hard to read the passage above and not think it reveals some kind of racism. The rest of the essay is mercifully free of judgment. Tanazaki doesn’t proclaim the Japanese way superior to the Western way, he only says that they are suited to their unique environments, and he laments the loss of the environment that allows the peculiarly Japanese form of beauty to shine. Early on he wonders: what if Japan had created its own science, its own industry? While it has, to an extent, the basics of these disciplines were modeled after the West, and if Japan had instead created a science in isolation from the West, would it not produce “no borrowed gadgets, they would have been the tools of our own culture, suited to us”?

Although Tanazaki praises the traditional aesthetics of shadows, he understands both that progress is inevitable and that the benefits of modern civilization in the end outweigh the negatives. This is perhaps best expressed with the following anecdote, from the afterword by Thomas J. Harper, one of the translators:

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. Tanazaki, and know exactly what you want.” To which Tanizaki replied, “But no, I could never live in a house like that.” There is perhaps as much resignation as humor in that answer.

To modern sensibilities, a traditional Japanese house (really traditional, instead of what I imagine is being served to tourists) has probably become even less livable in the last 76 years. But I now want to visit and old desolate Japanese temple’s toilet and sit there, listening to the wind and the rain and the buzzing of insects. Tanazaki quotes another novelist, Natsume Sōseki, as calling his morning trips to the toilet “a physiological delight.”

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