(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)
In a stroke of good timing, I had just been reading about the work of Junichiro Tanizaki over at The Reading Life, and thinking that I should really check out this early- to mid-twentieth-century Japanese novelist, when along came Phillip Lopate to give me a taste of Tanizaki's style in the form of his long essay "In Praise of Shadows." And if I was anxious to dive into Tanizaki's novels before, I'm doubly looking forward to it now.
"In Praise of Shadows" is immediately notable for its unusual structure: it consists of sixteen sections, separated by white space, each one of which is linked to that before and after it by some passing idea or comment, and all of which relate to the broad topic of Japanese versus Western aesthetics. He begins, for example, by discussing the difficulties of incorporating modern, Western-style amenities into a traditional Japanese house. This section features discussions of heaters and electric fans, and ends with a brief mention of choosing a toilet. The following section is a paean to the beauty and organic qualities of the traditional Japanese toilet, which is so ardent that it almost convinces me to seek one out in my next home. As you can tell, his writing style is clean yet evocative, never dry despite my native lack of interest in comparative architecture:
As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and 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 floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones.
Tanizaki writes that, although he ends up installing a modern flush toilet in his house, he wishes that they could be designed with the Japanese aesthetic in mind. From here, he segues into another section, in which he speculates about how technology developed by Westerners would have been different if Japan had remained isolated long enough to develop analogous technology on its own. Specifically, he discusses a more Japanese approach to the fountain pen, and how it might have effected modern Japanese writing and literature. From here he transitions into the next section, which has to do with Japanese paper. And so on. The sections leapfrog into one another, each one giving the reader a glimpse into the next, like an unexpected view through a small garden window. Lopate suggests in the introduction that Tanizaki borrowed this structure from the traditional renga or poem-chains, in which each haiku or tanka is a response to the one before it. In any case, it's very effective, both for its own sake and as a formal reflection of Tanizaki's main point: that in Japanese aesthetics, objects are valued for their interactions with the shadows of space and time. Just as the relation of objects creates an atmosphere deeper than the sum of its parts, the relationship among the different sections of Tanizaki's essay creates a larger whole.
...we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.
A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
Whereas Westerners attempt to subject everything to the brightest possible light, and prize the qualities of newness and shininess, Tanizaki argues, the traditional Asian (he uses the word "Oriental") philosophy finds most beauty in shadowed rooms, in objects allowed to mellow and change over time, developing a rich patina. Objects that look merely gaudy or unremarkable when new, or when subjected to full electric light, take on a mesmerizing beauty in a surrounding of shadowed half-light:
Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken 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 up 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.
This idea, that many objects we would now call "artifacts" are almost completely different, even irrelevant, if not imagined within their original context, is not a new one to me, but Tanizaki makes me feel it in a more visceral way than I have before. I strongly agree with his claim that many things ornamented with gold, for example—priests' surplices, lacquerware, gilt statues—look fairly tacky in broad daylight, and he reminds me to think back, as I look at them, to an era when that gold would just catch faint rays of light, and add a luminescence to the prevailing shadow. I love the precision of his language, and his ability to evoke the sensual reality of tiny details of life. His appreciation of subtlety and stillness is lovely, and his sense of humor disarming. Some of his racial and gender assertions are slightly alarming, but overall I can't wait to explore Tanizaki's work more thoroughly. I'm thinking of starting, as Mel U suggests, with The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, although with so much intriguing work to choose from, it's difficult to pick.
Next week: Walter Benjamin vs. Jorge Luis Borges!
Badge photo courtesy of Liz West: