At the intersection of practicality and aesthetics sits this treatise on the beauty of the shadowed, the murky, the unlit. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was written in 1933, yet its weight of meaning is quite contemporary.
Beauty, to Tanizaki (July 24, 1886 – July 30, 1965), is something intrinsically bound to use and purpose of the thing that is beautiful. Its substance, utility, how we engage with it in our daily lives. Moreover, quotidian usage does not demean an object but elevates it to importance worthy of rhapsody.
The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. 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.
In Praise of Shadows is as much of a gentle nod towards Eastern aesthetics as it is a castigation of Western ones. Electric lamps, fountain pens, shiny tile, and flush toilets and mass-produced paper don’t pass unscathed. The delight in shine, in light, is purely Western, argues Tanizaki.
Glassmaking has long been known in the Orient, but the craft has never developed as in the West. Great progress has been made, however, in the manufacture of pottery. Surely this has something to do with our national character. We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.
(Personally, ceramics hold great wonder for me. They are small, cold, with impossibly thin widths and surprising weights.)
In this theme of bounded national character and cultural mindset, Tanizaki extols the benefits of lacquer, light filtered through paper walls, even the suggestive depths of miso broth. One imagines he sits in his home taking note of things within reach, items possessing the “dim of antiquity.”
The Chinese also love jade. That strange lump of stone with its faintly muddy light, like the crystallized air of the centuries, melting dimly, dully back, deeper and deeper—are we Orientals the only ones who know its charms?
In Praise of Shadows is a beautiful, rambling essay on the nuance of domestic things like walls, doors, and ceilings and how materials appeal and recommend themselves to us differently. It invites us into a different way of seeing the ordinary and casual.1
For better or worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.
Accompany In Praise of Shadows with Kakuzo Okakura’s delightful read on the aesthetics and humanity of the Japanese tea ceremony or Pablo Neruda’s exceedingly important elevation of the commonplace to the celestial in Odes to Common Things.
Furthermore, I would like to counter Tanizaki’s claim that Western aesthetics tilt towards the shiny and new with a few quiet odes to gardening, written with the same aesthetic delight, simple pleasure, and need for solitude that Tanizaki so graciously bestowed. Enjoy Gertrude Jekyll’s Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden, Robin Lane Fox’s Thoughtful Gardening, and my own short work There Is No Collective Noun for Gardeners.