Art and Design Society

Read In Praise of Shadows

Read In Praise of Shadows

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.

I’ve seen this essay mentioned several times recently by writers and creative folks I follow, so I figured it was worth trying. There is some weird race stuff and a lot of “get off my lawn!” but there is also some interesting reflection and a glimpse into a very different perspective on the world. It only took a little over an hour to read so not a huge time commitment.

Notes and quotes

“‘The sun never knew how wonderful it was,’ the architect Louis Kahn said, ‘until it fell on the wall of a building.’ … It comes with the thrill of a slap for us then to hear praise of shadows and darkness; so it is when there comes to us the excitement of realizing that musicians everywhere make their sounds to capture silence or that architects develop complex shapes just to envelop empty space.” — Charles Moore (foreward)

He ponders whether technology developed by Japanese first might have been created in a way to better suit Japanese culture.

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…Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless…These machines are the inventions of Westerners, and are, as we might expect, well suited to the Western arts.

He contrasts Western and Asian aesthetics and preferences repeatedly. Apparently this was written during the 1930s, in a time of pro-Imperialism. On the one hand he seems very pro Japan and proud of his culture, but sometimes he doth protest too hard. (The afterword notes that he hired an architect to build a new home, who assured him they’d read this essay and understood what he wanted, and he was like “oh no I couldn’t live like that.” Good lighting may not be as beautiful but it’s a lot easier to live in.)

As a general matter we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter…While we do sometimes indeed use silver for teakettles, decanters, or sake 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.

“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 marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.”

“[O]nly in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed.” … “[I]n the still dimmer light of the candlestand, as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen.”

“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.”

Modern man, in his well-lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold; but those who lived in the dark houses of the past were not merely captivated by its beauty, they also knew its practical value; for old, in these dim rooms, must have served the function of a reflector. Their use of gold leaf and gold dust was not mere extravagance. Its reflective properties were put to use as a source of illumination.

Makes me think of the high cost of light in the past, and what value the power and ability to extend the day has had.

“So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.”

“Remove the lid from a ceramic bowl, and there lies the soup, every nuance of its substance and color revealed. With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. what a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment when soup is served Western style, in a pale, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.”

It hadn’t occurred to me that not being able to see your food when serving it could be seen as a benefit, and have gotten rid of some dark plates I had in favor of white so you could see the food better. High contrast allows for easier sight. It’s interesting how different perspectives can be on the same thing.

Such is our way of thinking–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.

“One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.” … “It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation. Rather they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.” — Thomas J. Harper (afterword, main translator)

I like that.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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