‘In Praise of Shadows’ is a book first published in 1933 by the notable Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki.
The beating heart of the text is a deeply poetic and graceful exploration of: what beauty means, and where it is to be found.
And over the course of what first appears to be a brief and somewhat meandering essay concerning Japanese aesthetics, Tanizaki manages to take almost everything that we think we know for certain about this subject and, with the deft and matchless elegance of a master magician…
Turn it inside out.
Tanizaki begins by telling us that shadows are to the Japanese aesthetic of beauty, as light is to the Western one. And not only the shadows cast by light, but also the shadows bestowed by usage, old age, and time.
He illustrates this principle with examples scattered throughout the book that run the gamut; from architecture, to music; from precious stones, to the ambience of tea rooms; from the deepest mysteries of Japanese theater, to the lines of the female form dancing in the near-dark.
In one such example, when discussing Japanese lacquerware he writes:
“Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware. Nowadays they even make a white lacquer, but the lacquerware of the past was finished in black, brown, or red, colors built up of countless layers of darkness, the inevitable product of the darkness in which life was lived.”
While of Japanese cuisine Tanizaki states quite simply:
“Our cookery depends upon shadows, and is inseparable from darkness.”
Yet for all his certainty, Tanizaki does not claim any kind of moral superiority or absolute truth to the view he is putting forward – he is not saying that his is a better way, he is merely offering an alternative.
Part of the reason for this is the organic source of the aesthetic. Tanizaki explains that it is simply a perspective that evolved naturally, in direct response to the actual circumstances of the oriental life. In one of the book’s most striking passages he explains:
“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 the shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.”
And later on, in the book’s defining explanation of the contrasting viewpoints:
“…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…If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover it’s 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.”
The greatest thing about this essay is that, while it offers a strikingly alternative way of perceiving beauty in the world it never seeks to exclude our own.
Instead, what Tanizaki is offering the Western reader is: a widening of scope, a deepening of perception – the ability to see the poetry inherent in the blank page.
“Such is our way of thinking – 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.”
Because ultimately, the message hidden between the lines of this book is:
As humans, our conception of beauty is, to some degree at least, a learned perceptual filter; so by working to widen our own view of what beauty is…
…we are able to find much more of it, in our own lives.
Thanks for reading. I wish you well.
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