"In Praise of Shadows", Junichiro Tanizaki
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Tanizaki goes into great detail to describe the eastern aesthetic for the home. While he struggles over the presence of the necessities of the home (heat, sanitation, etc.), the broader theme of this writing is ultimately in regards to light. More specifically, he touches on how differently varying cultures view, utilize and design around this basic element. As a westerner reading these thoughts, Tanizaki gives a new perspective to something so seemingly obvious; how the softness, dimness and discreet use of light on an everyday basis can become so highly transformative.
From the way we eat and the clothes we wear to the rooms we inhabit, there is no daily task that light does not effect. Yet just as one cannot see the good without the bad, Tanizaki reminds us that the beauty of light is made possible by the variation of shadows that accompany it. “…Though we know perfectly well it is a mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns a complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.” He consistently re-emphasizes the simplicity of light’s beauty, something that is probably difficult for most westerners to ever appreciate in quite the same magnitude. Tanizaki tells us that the only place in the western world where this distinct beauty can be found is on the stage. He links this to not only a cultural difference in temperament, but to something much more poltical; the difference in our skin tone.
Tanizaki ends on a more somber note, remarking how “the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to the youth.” Ultimately, his fear that the importance of the world of shadows will be lost forever in today’s fast paced society prompts this essay, a hope of saving it.
Tanizaki's essay begins with an emphasis on Eastern ways of living and Western innovations and the differences each culture may view a certain aspect of living. Where the Western world may view something purely out of utility, the Eastern world has a heightened amount of repose for these objects. Where the essay begins with household items, Tanizaki moves to treasured items such as food, living space and the Temple. Other items may have shifted in the direction of the West, however these items are sacred. He explains that light and shadow (specifically shadow and dim light) play a significant role in the way in which these items are displayed and viewed in the Eastern culture. He uses the term "uncanny silence of the mysterious Orient" while referring to something a Westerner might say. One might interpret this as the repose felt and shown for these sacred objects.
Tanizaki goes on to speak of skin tone and the difference between Western races and the Japanese. Since the Japanese live in a world of shadows, evening out the skin tone was encouraged, including eliminating the redness of the mouth. Standards of beauty, in darkness, and eliminating skin tone, were upheld by the geisha of Kyoto. Tanizaki even states that having white skin with dark hair, "it is natural that we should have chosen cloudy colors for our food and clothing and houses, and sunk ourselves back into the shadows."
He finishes, stating that the larger cities, such as Osaka and Tokyo, are going the way of Western culture and youth culture.
Tanizaki's 'Praise of Shadows' (1933), is an aesthetic lament, mourning the loss of a natural road of development upon encounter with the West.
Tanizaki begins his lament with objects in a Japanese home, and the way in which the West appears, primarily through technological comforts like electric light, electric fans and heaters. He mourns the loss of imperfections which in dim light and active shadows, were not so imperfect. With electric light and such devices he began to lose how he knew to find beauty in women, beauty in theater, and even the objects in his home. Somehow these western elements make him somewhat foreign to his own home. In his lament, he escapes into a dream where if the orient were left to its own devices that somehow, it could have opened up a world of technology on its own. He feels that technological conveniences from the west has forced the Japanese 'to leave a road followed for thousands of years' instead of a direction that was more suitable, as long as that road may have been.
It is interesting to me that this piece was written in 1933, as I feel this lament in my heart today. In the last few years, Chennai, India has transformed tremendously into a city where I can no longer see beyond the compound walls from the main roads and enjoy the architecture of various buildings. While I am excited to see a mobilization of the middle class, I see warnings of escapism into an identity that is not their own. On the streets, I see billboard after billboard of advertisements for jewelry and clothing with caucasian looking models, except more filled out (they would not want to resemble or mimic starvation or poverty on the streets in any way). Below these billboards live mostly short, dark skinned, rice eating dravidian people for whom these ads are made for - and who will never look like the people on the billboards. Somehow the white veshtis (dhotis - long white cloth draped around the waists of men), which beautifully contrast the skin tone are no longer acceptable in younger generations. Somehow the western, seemingly universal, and convenient 'pant' solution is far preferable to any modification or development of that white cloth.
Aesthetic is reflective of how communities choose to progress, and in an increasingly shrinking world, the choices are fewer.
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A shadow occurs when something obstructs light.
This principle is handy when investigating the realms of aestheticism, psychology, or mythology that have a say on the phenomenon of darkness. If I want to learn more about shadows, and look into one these fields without this principle in mind—call this principle (in celebration of cheap metaphors) a pair of sunglasses—the polished conventions and science of the field outshine that which I’m trying to see and understand: the shadow. Which is all to simply say I know little about aestheticism, psychology, and mythology.
Tanizaki praises shadows while venturing directly and indirectly into aestheticism, psychology, and mythology: The aesthetics of his lifestyle; his associations between light and cultural attitudes—Eastern shadows versus Western artificial lights; and his nostalgia for the past—including tradition (gender roles and appearance), ritual (Buddhist temple architecture and priestly attire), and superstition (specters inhabiting the household’s “visible darkness”), all account for his understanding of shadows.
But without exploring shadows where Tanizaki already has, I’ll return to the principle: A shadow occurs when something obstructs light.
Perhaps the most profound demonstration of this principle at work is a solar eclipse, when the moon obstructs the light of the sun. Unlike the regular occurrence of night as the earth turns away from the sun, the solar eclipse happens occasionally. And before the phenomenon was understood, it happened sporadically, for many devised reasons. The moon’s shadow was an omen, an evil event. The sudden absence of sunlight was a divine intervention and its brief absence an apocalyptic tease.
Although nighttime owns a history of terror, too, it lacks the same effect; even if it was once not understood it was still anticipated. Nevertheless, nighttime provides another demonstration of the principle: When things, in the darkness of night, obstruct light from an indirect source—like the moon—or organic sources—like fire, phosphorescence, or bioluminescence. These light sources foster the supernatural and their shadows are the stuff for paranormal invention.
Then there is artificial light, ubiquitous, present during night and day, used to combat darkness or in Tanizaki’s words, used “for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners.” And like he mentions there are shadows that artificial light repels, and creates respectively.
Unlike any other light source, artificial light (including man-made fire, filtered light, and reflected light) owns utility. The power and reach of its illumination reveals, suggests, and hides. This means we have a level of control over what we see, the importance of which Tanizaki also noted: “…our thoughts do not travel to what we cannot see. The unseen for us does not exist.” And to return to the basic principle while brushing up against a little aestheticism, psychology, and mythology, artificial light is a human endeavor to fight the darkness that embodies the unknown, and manmade shadow is a concession, a way we yield what we already know to the dark.