Under the eaves

In Praise of ShadowsIn Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The quality that we call beauty 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

(If you don’t have time to read the whole of my review, go ahead and skip the next two paragraphs)

There is a practice essay prompt in the US College Board’s guide to the SAT book that goes something like “Do changes that make our lives easier always make them better?”. This is one of my favourite prompts, as it captures a real tension. It’s easier to drive to the supermarket for a loaf, but wouldn’t we be better off walking, saving petrol (and the money it costs), breathing some fresh air, enjoying the glorious Autumn day and (assuming they’re in working order) stretching our legs? Might it not be even better if we used some of the organic whole spelt flour in the cupboard to make real honest-to-goodness home-baked bread? Take your frustrations out on an unfeeling lump of dough, save still more money, avoid additives and enjoy the fruit of your own labour! But we are time-poor, we are tempted, we drive to the supermarket after all.

Another common experience is sadness as an enjoyable technology is superseded. For decades after my mother stopped using her Singer sewing machine it sat in the corner taking up space, its implacable beauty defying anyone to suggest throwing it out.

This is Tanizaki’s elegy for the aesthetic superiority of vanishing inconvenience and grime. The Japanese house crouches in the deep shadow of its roof, lit by the mournful and meagre glow trickling through its paper walls. In this dimness, its simplicity and its natural materials, slowly gathering oily grime and wearing away (and thereby growing ever more beautiful), make sense; they provide the balance and poetry and mystery that make the quotidian details of life so pleasurable. Soup served in lacquer bowls so you can’t see what’s in it properly and chilly outdoor toilets are infinitely preferably, aesthetically speaking, to pale ceramic dishes and sparkling tiles.

My point in making light here is that Tanizaki sells it, even if I am repelled by his remarks on skin colour and dubious about the idea of a stable ‘national character’. A writer who can make me yearn, spine tinglingly, for a wooden outhouse instead of a cosy en suite can only be a genius. There is a rich thought here about the subjectivity of experience that is missed by Western aesthetics. We plan our lighting for mood, but only for the stage consider how it will create the scene. When Tanizaki describes ‘darkness lit by candlelight’ or the gold costumes of the Noh glowing in dimness, he makes us aware that every banal drama of the day takes its character from its illumination. But he makes an even stronger point, a superb, thrilling point:

how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science. Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art – would they not have suited our national temper better than they do?

To take a trivial example near at hand… if the [fountain pen] had been invented by the ancient Chinese or Japanese it would surely have had a tufted end like our writing brush… and since we would have found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper would have been more in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy.. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own.

This musing of the conservative, aging novelist is not mere nostalgia, letting the old machine linger and sighing uselessly for bygone days, but the wellspring of hope behind decolonisation: even the culture-shaping tools of science and technology can be remodelled and reshaped; the invader can be displaced by new growth surging up from the strong roots of indigenous knowings… This is something the Rationalist fails to imagine. Sometimes, Tanizaki’s melancholic essay surprisingly shows us, radical change begins by going backwards.

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