In Praise of Shadows – Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

In Praise of Shadows

 

“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.”

** [Kage-e illustrations – Japanese shadow art from the Edo period (woodblock print)]

Have you ever stomped on your shadow, trying to hold its torso with your feet? The subtle chase between you and the devious shadow; toughening with every stomp on the dried grey asphalt while queries of whether you have lost your marbles looming in the humid air. Deer prancing, jumping rabbits, sluggish turtles and eagles soaring to the sky on a sunlit wall; an ecstatic scuffle of shadow -animals cheers up the dull wall. Emulate the avian hand creation in front of a mirror and observe the beauty of an eagle being dissected into shreds by an illuminated reality, the nimble fingers crumbling in a preposterous sway that had earlier been proudly celebrating the mystified flight of an eagle. The beauty of the shadow crumbles into the clarity of a luminous mirror, leaving the tangible fantasy of the hand-made animals to die away in sharpness of the vision. The softness of an object is highlighted through the shades of darkness; its beauty enhanced through an array of radiated nuances, the shadows cultivating a life of their own. For as long as my grandfather was alive, one of the bathrooms in our house had an Indian toilet installation that remained intact through several rounds of renovations. As much as I despised the functioning of an Indian toilet, my grandfather loathed its English counterpart. A man who strictly emphasized on my cursive calligraphy, my domestic and public etiquette, the immaculate English pronunciations and everything that spelled the norms of a Western cultural demeanor, was never able to let go his toilet preferences. That was the ultimate defining line that demarcated me and my grandfather standing apart in two different worlds. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.Through the words of Soseki, similar quandary when expressed by Tanizaki in his artistic essay brought a flurry of nostalgic shards piercing my psyche comprehending my grandfather’s quirks as the establishment of an Indian toilet was the only piece of Indian aesthetic remaining in the Western architectural jungle that adorned the house making it the sole rescue to his “old” world from the chaos of modernization. The solitude of a bathroom/toilet is where great literary ideas are born, culturally significant haikus are written, so says Tanizaki and I couldn’t agree more. A toilet is indeed the most important element of an architectural mores. The shadows of the past intensify as we age, the dormant beauty exploding actively, flooding the superciliousness of time with melancholic meekness.

 

“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. And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else…”

It becomes evident from titular embellishments the thematic conception of this book revolving around the significance of ‘shadows’ and ‘shades of darkness’ in Japanese cultural aesthetics. For nearly 250 years, although not entirely secluded under the Sakoku policy, Japan still remained culturally aloof from the world until the late 1868. The entry of strange foreign world bringing in their aspect of cultural modernization further propelled the Japanese cultural to staunchly hold on to its ethnicity, culturally and philosophy. Even though honoured Japanese authors like Natsume Soseki , Junichiro Tanizaki, et.al were born decades later in a more liberated Japanese environment, their literature prospered through the teachings of Zen and conventional Japanese literary and spiritual philosophies. Moreover , with the burgeoning aspects of westernization in the early 20th century , Japanese literature orated the quandary of many the Japanese population that were stuck between the modern and orthodox civilization , searching a stable ground for co-habitation with the changing times and clutching on to the “allies of inhabitation” exhibiting a sense of belonging , however temporary. Tanizaki dilemma of surviving the bane of modernization while hanging onto the boons of the old Japanese edifying era is articulated through his annoyance of the necessitated usage of heavy electric lightings. The peculiarity of shadows through which the beauty of an object excels seems to be diminishing with the onset of modern times. Shadows form an integral part of Japanese traditional aesthetic and in the subsequent cyclic philosophy of concealment and revelation through a game of shadows the crucial beauty becomes highly seductive. Tanizaki applies this theoretical perception while arguing the essence of shadow through exemplary significance of electric heaters, architecture, theater, food, ceramics and lacquerware, literature, radio, music systems, the intricacies of Japanese way of life in accordance to its populace and even to the extent of comparing a fountain pen to the elegance of a Japanese calligraphy brush swaying gracefully on a boisterous, coarse paper.

The minimalist architectural layout of a Japanese room prevailing in the mysterious game of shadows; competing with the delicately illuminated rooms and alcove with the sober patterned colours adorning the ashen walls; the curious sun peeking through the raw texture of the shōji  filling the old floor lamps with reminiscent shadows. The Japanese architectural aesthetic is greatly based on the  wabi-sabi  philosophical foundation of impermanence and imperfection. The simultaneous cyclic ‘light and shadow’ spirituality of ‘wabi-sabi’ conveys the universal truth of the cyclical phenomenon of ‘day and night’, asserting the transient nature of the universe. The wooden pillar withered through the tantrums of changing seasons, ageing into oblivion equates to a wrinkled face, the shadows dwelling the wrinkly creases, augmenting the beauty of the face that has weathered the rambunctious life exemplifying that nothing is permanent, not even the tautness of a youthful skin and yet in those imperfect shadows of ugly deep wrinkles lay an unconventional beauty of perfection. The philosophical notion of the universe being created from nothingness and in due course all living organism will disintegrate into the darkness of oblivion, bestows the world of shadows with a spirituality of aesthetic ideals where the humility of imperfection and reticence of impermanence expunge the haughtiness of illuminated perfection. The impassive ceramic tiles that adorn the Western components of interior designs will never be able to contest with the mystifying magnificence of the withered wooden interiors

Tanizaki reveals his predicament over the use glass doors instead of the traditional shōji while constructing a house, the eventual costs for the interior designing rising above the limits of monetary assumption because of Tanizaki’s stubbornness of installing both the shōji and the glass door for valid reasons of illumination and security. The need for modern element surged from the dire circumstances of an evolving world. Tanizaki makes a valid case when he asserts how in order to survive in this transforming cultural avenues, the conventional cultural norms could be well followed if one lived in solitude away from the nitty-gritty of the city life. This adherence was certainly not possible to those residing and working in the cities.

Tanizaki elaborates an interesting debating subject dissecting the fundamentals of Japanese theater, distinguishing the reputable model and modus operandi of Noh and Kabuki revolving around the world of shadows depicting the mysterious aura that surrounds the theatrical performances. The silhouette of the Noh mask resting on the curious neck of the stage actor performing the play brings an outwardly mystery to the person behind the mask. It is as if you desire to remove the mask off the face exposing the vulnerabilities and apprehension of the actor contrasting that of its stage character. And, yet you fear that the rigid revelation would destroy the beauty that lingers for hours after the end of the final act. So you decide to sit back and take utter delight in the immaculate performance , the beauty of the Noh enhanced amid the shadows of the mask, its mystery deepening in the crimson flush swept across the underneath skin. Tanizaki’s affinity toward Noh, becomes evident with his exasperation for the heavily powered Kabuki faces which thrive in a world of sham shrouded with perverted beauty, an art which Tanizaki proclaims to have walked the path from subtle eroticism to overt vulgarity with its distinct charm misplaced in the array of gaudy floodlights. The apprehensions of the Noh theatre installing high voltage lightings for the viewing comfort in large auditorium , brings dismay to Tanizaki about the worrisome future of Noh losing its true beauty in such extravagant set up. The possibility of the diminishing aesthetical darkness that had once augmented the veiled beauty of Noh into a mystical world of realistic fantasy is feared with raging odds of the regal art being another commonplace theatrical facade. The spirit of nationalism takes centre stage as this promising composition connotes the significance of shadows deeply embedded in the Japanese cultural heritage. Tanizaki has his comical moments when he equates the affinity of the Japanese philosophies towards darkness to the inheritances of dark black hair of the populace. Another humorous anecdote comes up in the afterword penned by Thomas J. Harper. (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. Tanizaki, 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 humour in that answer ) Conversely, the detailed description of the fair skin-tone becomes ambiguous when looked through a two-sided mirror reflecting images of pure aesthetics and subtle racism, each muddling within the shadows of the reader’s sanity. Yet, analogous to the age-old Japanese beautification symbol of ‘blackening the teeth’, the dialogue of translucent skin-tone varying underneath the perfect amalgamation of shadows and illumination to achieve an unadulterated fairness could be perceived under the lens of a purist aesthetic. But, still this aspect goes through scrutiny of a civilized lens of judgments.

Eloquently, Tanizaki elucidates the tantalizing aura of Japanese cuisine asserting the glorious food to be a form of meditation. He refers to Soseki’s literary marvel Kusamakura  to elaborate on the splendour of Soseki’s favourite tea sweet – Yōkan. The sweetened jelly concocted from red bean paste is rather splendid with its semi-translucent structure; the opaque tinted shadows that hover on this confectionery bring a pleasurable aura to its velvety consistency. Similar to Soseki’s attraction to the gem-like Yōkan , Tanizaki dismisses the cream filled chocolates (Western product) preferring the shadowy weightiness of the yokan. The pondering Japanese palate finds luxuries in the delicate flavours of the regional cuisine. The perfectly moulded sake soaked vinegar laced rice with a subtle hint of salt beneath a thinly sliced salmon , its aromatic oil spreading in the shadows of a wrapped persimmon leaf. Once again, through the enticing bite-sized sushi embraced in the green blanket of the persimmon leaf, Tanizaki elaborates the quintessence of minimalism and simplicity rooted in Japanese traditions seeping through its culinary arts. Similar to the simplistic country life, the taste of the food is amplified by minimalist arrangement of ingredient deriving the maximum pleasure through its consumption and not being ruined by overcrowding of flavours, like the boisterous crowded city life.

 

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”

The lost radiance of the moon in a heavily lit ambiance now shines fiercely through the dimness of the clouds on a silent night. The beauty of the moon is at its best at the darkest of the night.

Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware. The golden tint engraved into the creative depths of the lacquerware radiation its regal opulence through the maze of shadows.

The calligraphy brush elegantly amusing in the black shadows of India Ink disciplines the noisy paper as the fountain pen eagerly look to the embryonic stroke of the character kage(shadows), its gray shades discovering the concealed beauty on the dim walls of Japanese literature , arts and legacy.

4/5****

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