In Praise of “In Praise of Shadows”
I am a creator of shadows. I yearn for darkness, for the merciful obscurity that lurks between pools of brightness. When traveling, I pack candles because I suffer in the strident blare of hotel room lamps; in restaurants I beg servers to turn down the lights. At social gatherings I’ve been known to walk around testing switches in the homes of people I’ve just met. Often, I helpfully adjust their lighting for them. Surely, I think, they will be grateful. My own house is filled with 15- and 25-watt incandescent bulbs, and the switches all have dimmers. On one rare occasion when we had invited guests who might actually expect to the see the floor, I turned on every light full blast and still ended with a patchwork of murky gloom.
Though I had to laugh, I felt a twinge of discomfort: Not being physically able to light up one’s house like an interrogation room seemed borderline disreputable, a little seedy, even. This brings me quite naturally to Junichiro Tanizaki, Japanese novelist and the author of “In Praise of Shadows,” or what I have thought of for years as “The Toilet Essay.” “You simply must read the toilet essay,” I’ve advised many a friend. “It’s all about these amazing old Japanese toilets.” And indeed, in the midst of this lengthy piece which first appeared in 1933, Tanizaki does hold forth on the subject of commodes with marked enthusiasm: “The parlor may have its charms,” he writes, “but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. […] No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden.” But the “ultimate” toilet experience, he says, “of course,” involves something called “the wooden ‘morning glory’ urinal filled with boughs of cedar,” a urinal which is both “a delight to look upon” and “allows not the slightest sound.” This last comes as a way of contrasting traditional, wooden bathroom implements with the new, porcelain ones that were then just making their way into Japan. Tanizaki found their shiny white surfaces and bright metal handles an unspeakable horror.
Despite my fond recollections, however, Tanizaki’s examination of toilets lasts only a few pages. As the title suggests, shadows are his main preoccupation: how we perceive them, how they shape our daily lives and the spaces and objects in them. For Tanizaki, darkness reveals beauty (his opening sally against electric lights sets my heart aflutter), and it’s a truth that can be found everywhere. Dishes are rendered more lovely by candlelight: “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;” the Japanese cooking which fills them “depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness;” gold struck by faint light in an “innermost” room “send[s] forth an ethereal glow;” traditional Nō theater is all the more lovely and subtle for being performed by lantern light; the green lipstick of geisha captivates only in dimness “[o]ne can guess nothing of its power unless one imagines it in the low, unsteady light of a candle;” and even soy sauce becomes mystical: “how rich in shadows is the viscous sheen of the liquid, how beautifully it blends with the darkness.”
Tanizaki contrasts this “Oriental” (as it is so charmingly phrased in the translation) love of shadow with the Western love of light. While part of me wants to reject the easy dichotomy (I am, after all, a Westerner), and part wants to point to the blaze of light that is now Toyko, part of me thinks he may have point. Lately I’ve begun studying architecture, and architects—particularly Western ones—pay inordinate amounts of attention to light. Their main concern, naturally, is how to best brighten up a space with daylight. One common exercise is a “light study,” a project which involves making a cardboard box “room” and experimenting with different ways to illuminate the empty volume. Light is sought and manipulated, and though shadow is light’s necessary twin, light—and only light—is the thing.
For Tanizaki the opposite is true. “[T]he beauty of a Japanese room,” he writes, “depends on a 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.” Tanizaki would have us banish light to the background and bring shadows to the front; he would recreate the world as photographic negative.
It’s an idea I’ve long found fascinating—that and Tanizaki’s unabashed call for a return to an older, purer aesthetic. As it turns out, lots of Western architects are also interested, even if, as Charles Moore of the UCLA School of Architecture writes in his introduction to a 1977 re-issue of the essay in book form, Tanizaki’s “praise of shadows and darkness” comes with “the thrill of a slap” to those for whom “the act of inhabitation is mostly performed in cahoots with the sun.” I found the slim tome which contains the re-issue on offer recently in Los Angeles as part of an exhibit on modern architecture, and shortly thereafter Tanzaki’s essay (or at least a small part of it) was pressed upon me in an architectural design communication class. Both times I greeted its appearance with the delight of meeting an old friend.
As drawn as architects might be to Tanizaki’s work, it still remains difficult not to sense a hesitation over the deliberate creation of shadows. Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza is one exception: In the church of Santa Maria de Canaveses, he intentionally left a corner of the nave in darkness. A large cross occupies the space, and he has said that the shadows surrounding it are meant to symbolize the mystery of the divine. When I recently built a 3-dimensional computer model of this church, then lit it with computer-generated light, some glitch transformed Siza’s dusky corner into a radiant patch of transcendental glory. It was hard not to agree with my instructors that this might be an improvement. “Call him up,” one joked.
We Westerners, it seems, cannot shake our love of light. As I re-read Tanizaki, I wonder if this perhaps doesn’t have something to do with his affinity not only for darkness, but also for its near-cousin, decay. Decay is dark made visible, dark that creeps onto the very surface of things themselves. Silver, he writes, becomes beautiful “only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina,” or what he terms “the glow of grime.” This is flawed beauty, and though he doesn’t name it as such, has much to do with the classical Japanese concept of wabi sabi, wherein imperfection is far more perfect than perfection could ever be. More and more, it is a philosophy that pulls me like gravity. I find myself drawn to the cracked, the torn, the pitted. Newness is boring, even inhuman. Tanizaki explains that in Chinese and Japanese both the words for the “glow” of tarnish, “describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again…” Decay is the natural corollary to contact. And as Tanizaki goes on and on, his paeans to dark and dirt verge on the metaphysical, or something very like it.
That is what frightens us. For Tanizaki’s real subject is death. It is a subject I am far more familiar with than I could wish—starting with my mother, who died when I was fifteen, the litany of my dead relatives and friends now stretches long. And I can tell you that we in the West have a particular horror of death. A few years ago a friend was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, the sort of terrible cancer which virtually no one survives. A group of well-meaning people decided to put together a set of letters to cheer him up; I was asked to write one. When they got my letter, however, I was told that they could not include it in their packet of well wishes. Unlike the others, apparently I was the only one who dared to point out that he was likely dying, and to suggest ways in which he might die the best possible death, one surrounded by those he loved.
For Tanizaki the writer, the concrete world of shadows in which such thoughts might find their place in the affairs of humans was well on its way to being lost in the glare of modernity. Words were the sole refuge. He ends with the this plea: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”
For myself, I would like to turn off more lights everywhere, would like to become comfortable with my own disreputable state of dimness, would like to glory in the seedy. We attempt to hide in the open, in the brightness. We strive for clarity, yet can’t know it until we get a little gritty. We can’t know ourselves until we face the dark. On the first day of most beginning architecture classes, the instructor invariably opens the discussion with a challenge: “Define architecture.” This, it soon becomes obvious, is a near-impossible task filled with Russian doll after Russian doll of meaning (is architecture mere boards and nails? is it houses? is it palaces? is it magnificent cathedrals or museums? is it art? is it shelter? or is it something else?). The definitions of architecture I like best, though, are those which point out that architecture is essentially an attempt to define and hold emptiness. It is the art of embracing nothing. And inside that embrace, a few shadows might be of more use than all the light we can muster.
Kathe Lison lives, writes and now designs mostly make-believe structures in Tucson, Arizona. If you look hard, you might find some of her old essays in a number of literary journals, though mostly recently she spent an awful lot of time researching and scribbling about French cheese. Her book The Whole Fromage (Crown/Broadway Books) appeared in June. (And yes, she found it tough doing all of that in the dark.)