In Praise of Shadows: A Meditation

September 23rd, 2006  |  Published in Art and Design, Culture, Ecology, Essays

A Meditation on Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows”

By Joshua Sowin

What would the world be like without shadows? Flat, I imagine. Objects would be distinguishable only by color, shape, and texture – not enough information to know how far one object was from another. Our perception of reality would lose depth. In other words, shadows are essential to our view of reality.

Essays have been my passion of late. They are like taking a stroll with the mind of an author, and that appeals to me. To satisfy my craving, I recently read an anthology of personal essays. I have found that anthologies are helpful to get a taste of writers I would not normally be exposed to, and to get a broad overview of a genre. One of the authors introduced to me in the anthology was the great Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965). Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows,” published in 1933, is a meditation on the aesthetics of shadows in Japanese culture. In it he argues that the Japanese “find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing another creates.”

A decorative wall-hung Japanese scroll displays this. “Even the greatest masterpiece,” Tanizaki says, “will lose its worth as a scroll if it fails to blend with the alcove, while a work of no particular distinction may blend beautifully with the room and set off to unexpected advantage both itself and its surroundings.” What is its worth as a decoration if it looks bad? To fulfill its purpose it must blend with the shadows of the alcove and create aesthetic pleasure. The importance of the scroll’s content decreases, and the form dominates.

When I see shadows, I see something to illuminate. As I walk from room to room shadows vanish at the flick of a switch. Yet there are times when even I experience the power of shadows—for instance, at the Maundy Thursday service at church. The shadows and candlelight speak to me of mystery, reverence and beauty – a beauty that is dark and awe-some. It communicates something that is almost never found in our bright, shiny, stark culture. It is the only service I completely enjoy and relax my critical eye. Unfortunately, the Maundy Thursday service only occurs once a year. So while these glimpses do come occasionally, the shadows in my life are usually replaced, without thought, with light.

Tanizaki, on the other hand, enjoys and contemplates the beauty of shadows in everyday life:

Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light…. The “mysterious Orient” of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places. And even we as children would feel an inexpressible chill as we peered into the depths of an alcove to which the sunlight had never penetrated. Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows.

A few years back I became interested in photography. Some call photography “painting with light.” It could also be called painting with shadow. Shadow has a dramatic effect on every picture, which is why the best photography—like any good art—has carefully thought about shadow. For instance, in literature, an author must balance light and shadow—good and bad, pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness. Even in life we have times of light and times of shadow. Sometimes we smile in a sunny, open field, breathe deeply the chill air, and feel all of life is ours to enjoy. Other times we stumble in a fog, unsure where we are, how we got there, and whether we will ever find our way out. We also have that wretched, stalking shadow, sin.

Yet many of us pretend we are all light and in us there is no darkness. We are happy, life is great, everything is normal. It is the charade of life. Then we are alone, our mask drops, and we slip into shadow. Anyone who denies the depravity of mankind is either in denial or has never been alone.

Our leaders fail. Pastors who call the masses to repentance have affairs and look at pornography. Priests who have sworn to celibacy molest young boys. Politicians quickly turn against those who have elected them for petty cash. Scandal after scandal is announced in the newspapers condemning those we admire.

We fail. We think about things we would never admit to others. Couples who pledge to love one another until death sign divorce papers before they create life. Some hate God for existing; others hate him for not. Employees steal. Falsehood prevails. Teenagers—well, what don’t they do? Like King David with Nathan, we are quick to denounce the wicked, when the truth is that we are wicked.

The East is more comfortable with shadows. Tanizaki sees this as a difference in view of surroundings:

But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.

We are obsessed with progress. Progress to what is largely ignored, or put in vague phrases like “a better future.” Truth be told, we just like newness. We are not content with what we have—we are never satisfied in our surroundings—and spend a good part of our lives waiting for and thinking of something better to spend our money on.

How much different is contentment! As Thoreau said, “It is possible to invent a house still more convenient and luxurious than we have, … [but] shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?” We are too quick to put our trust in progress and electronics and luxury. Perhaps it is time to return to better, older things like contentment, skill, and virtue.

*       *       *

History has taught us that technology has consequences both good and bad. One small invention—say, the wheel, the printing press, the microchip—can have far-reaching, unintended consequences. Tanizaki is keenly aware of cultural and technological biases. Talking about Western technology and Eastern arts, he says:

In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines. These machines are the inventions of Westerners, and are, as we might expect, well suited to the Western arts. But precisely on this account they put our own arts at a great disadvantage.

Well suited to the Western arts. That is, noisy arts with a low view of silence. We have become a culture of noise and our art has faithfully followed. Our technology insists on noise—it despises silence. Who wouldn’t change the channel of someone thinking, for 60 seconds, how to best answer a question? Click. Yet, as Theodore White says (as quoted in Daniel Boorstin’s The Image):

Although every experienced newspaperman and inquirer knows that the most thoughtful and responsive answers to any difficult question come after long pause, and that the longer the pause the more illuminating the thought that follows it, nonetheless the electronic media cannot bear to suffer a pause of more than five seconds; a pause of thirty seconds of dead time on air seems interminable.

Pursuing silence and solitude is, in part, turning away from our technology, because it is turning away from noise. Televisions, radios, speakers, portable music players—they are all inherently noisy. And our music is the embodiment of our culture: loud, obnoxious, noisy. Tanizaki notes:

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.

Similarly, we are immersed in ugliness and noise. Who is surprised such a society can produce and embrace such music as rap, death metal, and hardcore? That we produce art that is absurd and meaningless? Being immersed in filth, we have come to see it as beauty.

*       *       *

Why is gold valuable? It has been the most coveted metal since ancient times. Today we think of gold as valuable in jewelry, gold stocks, and usefulness in electronics. Tanizaki, however, points to one of gold’s less-celebrated features: that of reflection.

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 gold, 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. Silver and other metals quickly lose their gloss, but gold retains its brilliance indefinitely to light the darkness of the room. This is why gold was held in such incredibly high esteem.

Gold is an excellent accent because of the way it reflects light. A good atmosphere, similarly, sets the proper mood for the occasion. These atmospheres have accents—a black sky has shining starts; mountains snow-topped peaks. The accent compliments the surroundings.

We are losing our taste for atmosphere in life. We prefer to experience it second hand through television and movies. Another way to say this is that we have stopped caring how the form affects the content. I consider this most times I attend church. Is the music style conveying its content properly? Is the sanctuary? Is the order of service? Is the atmosphere? Perhaps that is why this paragraph resonated with me:

I have said that lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark; and for this same reason were the fabrics of the past so lavishly woven of threads of silver and gold. The priest’s surplice of gold brocade is perhaps the best example. In most of our city temples, catering to the masses as they do, the main hall will be brightly lit, and these garments of gold will seem merely gaudy. No matter how venerable a man the priest may be, his robes will convey no sense of his dignity. But when you attend a service at an old temple, conducted after the ancient ritual, you see how perfectly the gold harmonizes with the wrinkled skin of the old priest and the flickering light of the altar lamps, and how much it contributes to the solemnity of the occasion.

The priest in the brightly lit room is an aesthetic contradiction; the priest in the shadows an aesthetic companionship. Gene Veith was one of the writers who brought this to my attention. In his book State of the Arts, he says:

A Baptist preacher dressing up in vestments and swinging an incense burner is ludicrous, as is a Catholic priest conducting mass in jeans and a T-shirt while playing a guitar. The sense of absurdity comes from an aesthetic contradiction—the form and the content do not go with each other…. The form communicates the content, so that changing the style changes the message, whether it is intended to do so or not.

What does a bright church with a stage, floodlights, televisions, causal dress, booming speakers, and presentational technologies communicate aesthetically? Something much different from one that is darker with an altar, candlelight, books, and formal dress. The theology of the church should be informing the aesthetic environment, yet it is common for the modern church to not even think about these issues. They are so obsessed with being relevant that they lose relevance. That is, they have much to offer our culture, yet what many offer—gaudy entertainment set to a spiritual tune—is exactly what our culture needs less of, not more.

*       *       *

When talking about two different kinds of Japanese theatre, No and Kabuki, Tanizaki talks about how

the gaudy Kabuki colors under the glare of the Western floodlamps verge on a vulgarity of which one quickly tires. And if this is true of the costumes it is all the more true of the makeup. Beautiful though such a face may be, it is after all made up; it has nothing of the immediate beauty of the flesh…. the Kabuki is ultimately a world of shame, having little to do with beauty in the natural state.

Like the Kabuki, makeup is a world of shame. It is ashamed of natural beauty, and instead exults in artificial beauty. Even the name is unappealing—who wants to be made up? Who wants to be something they are not? Why do young women, in their prime of beauty, cover their beauty with paint? What is so attractive about artificial beauty that we demand it in our magazine and films, which “enhance” models and actions through makeup and digital editing? The artificial surrounds us. Can the natural return?

This stems, Tanizaki argues, from “excessive lighting.” True, if we had more darkness we would not see so many flaws. As televisions get larger and brighter, more makeup is put on. But a more natural way to hide flaws, create atmosphere, and highlight beauty is through shadow. This is what happens at the No. Compared with the Kabuki, it is “shrouded and the beauty that emerges from it make a distinct world of shadows which today can be seen only on the stage.”

Yet we do not tolerate shadow. We must illuminate everything as brightly as possible. Everywhere we go is lit brightly—from streets to stadiums.

Japan wastes more electric light than any Western country except America…. So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.

The evils of excessive illumination. What a fascinating and convicting thought. It can be an evil aesthetically, ecologically, and functionally. Aesthetically, which is primarily what Tanizaki is denouncing, it makes life unnatural and bland. Ecologically, our obsession with excessive illumination costs the world dearly through pollution, species extinction, and other irreversible damage. Functionally, is it not wrong to waste limited resources when God has given us a wonderfully bright light—the Sun? Artificial light is for night, not the day.

*       *       *

Tanizaki was also something of an ecological prophet. When discussing the city’s decision to build a highway through Mino park, he says:

 [T]o snatch away from us even the darkness beneath trees that stand deep in the forest is the most heartless of crimes. At this rate every place of any beauty … , as the price of being turned over to the masses, will be denuded of trees.

What he feared has happened. What place does not have highways? The U.S. Interstate System is a typical example—hills bulldozed, people run out of their land, mountains dynamited, forests destroyed—all so traffic doesn’t have to go through smaller rural roads. The natural lay of the land is rarely consulted about this. We do not go around anything – we go through it. And we are the worse off for it, even though we can travel quicker. Tanizaki continues:

There are those who say that when civilization progresses a bit further transportation facilities will move into the skies and under the ground, and that our streets will again be quiet, but I know perfectly well that when that day comes some new device for torturing the old will be invented.

So far these optimists that Tanizaki speaks of have been wrong. In many cities there are both subways and airplanes, and the streets are anything but quiet. And, of course, these other transportation devices are not quiet, either.

Tanizaki was too astute and realistic to be an optimist. And his fears were accurate—what he denounces has become progressively worse. Technology is not ushering us into some kind of techno-utopia like so many seem to believe. Our progress has caused immeasurable social and ecological destruction along with its many advantages. Yes, we live longer, richer, and with more gadgets. But if life is robbed of rewarding and meaningful work, community, stability, silence, health, and wilderness, can our progress really be considered progress?

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