Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

In Praise of ShadowsIn Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Japanese novelist Tanizaki’s important essay on aesthetics, one of the great 20th-century manifestos, though that term suggests a brawling and list-making modernity that Tanizaki is at pains to eschew. In fact, In Praise of Shadows belongs, roughly, to the anti-modern wing of modernism as it mourns those ways of life destroyed by industrialization and electrification. “Shadow” is Tanizaki’s master trope for what cannot survive in the bright world of omnipresent electric light and shiny mass manufactures. Everything from the dim interiors of Japanese houses to the lacquer on their dishware to the cosmetic teeth-blackening of aristocratic women is encompassed by the image of the shadow: a lack of visibility that sets off all the more beautifully that which is revealed. At Brainpickings, Maria Popova has gathered a number of beautiful quotations from the essay; I will borrow only one, a very famous passage on differences between Japanese and Western toilets, which suggests the (I want to say “brilliant”!) thoroughness of Tanizaki’s aesthetic assessment of life:

The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves… There are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete that one can hear the hum of a mosquito… Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beautifies of nature.

Popova, though, likes to keep things upbeat at her site, so she understandably avoids the less salubrious aspects of In Praise of Shadows. For Tanizaki is not “one of us,” a good postmodernist talking about culture; he makes it clear that he is talking, in fact, about race. The basis of his argument is an acceptance of the racial aesthetic hierarchy that places whiteness at the top; but he finds the whiteness of white people, the norm itself, to be excessively bright and beautiful, which, he implies, has led the whites into the vulgarity of their gadgets and neon; on the other hand, the “Orientals” (the term is Tanizaki’s—or his translators’) have had to evolve the art of shadow precisely to draw out their own more latent whiteness. Another quotation, much less cheering than the rest:

If whiteness was to be indispensable to supreme beauty, then for us there was no other way, nor do I find this objectionable. The white races are fair-haired, but our hair is dark; so nature taught us the laws of darkness, which we instinctively used to turn a yellow skin white. I have spoken of the practice of blackening the teeth, but was not the shaving of the eyebrows also a device to make the white face stand out? What fascinates me most of all, however, is that green, iridescent lipstick, so rarely used today even by Kyoto geisha. One can guess nothing of its power unless one imagines it in the low, unsteady light of a candle. The woman of old was made to hide the red of her mouth under green-black lipstick, to put shimmering ornaments in her hair; and so the last trace of color was taken from her rich skin. I know of nothing whiter than the face of a young girl in the wavering shadow of a lantern, her teeth now and then as she smiles shining a lacquered black through lips like elfin fires. It is whiter than the whitest white woman I can imagine. The whiteness of the white woman is clear, tangible, familiar, it is not this other-worldly whiteness. Perhaps the latter does not even exist. Perhaps it is only a mischievous trick of light and shadow, a thing of a moment only. But even so it is enough. We can ask for nothing more.

I saw someone in a comment suggest that this is a satire of nationalist discourse, and Tanizaki’s tone throughout is indeed diffident and mischievous and provisional, a kind of literary darkness. (The only one of Tanizaki’s novels I’ve read, Naomi, playfully allegorizes the East/West conflict through the story of an engineer’s sexual obsession with a westernized teenager in a narrative that strongly anticipates Lolita, whose themes are, of course, similar, but with Europe as the superannuated “east” and America as the progressive “west.”) The afterword by co-translator Thomas J. Harper explains that Tanizaki’s literary mode belongs to a longstanding Japanese tradition:

One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.” Indeed it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.

This observation implies the problem with too sharply (much less racially) differentiating East from West in artistic matters: Westerners too have long been dissatisfied with the techno-modernity that, for whatever complex of reasons, launched itself from Europe. The problem with techno-modernity, as Tanizaki well knows, is that you can neither live with it nor live without it; again from the translator’s afterword:

Mrs. Tanizaki tells a story of when her late husband decided, as he frequently did, to build a new house. The architect arrived and announced with pride, “I’ve read your In Praise of Shadows, Mr. Tanizaki, and know exactly what you want.” To which Tanizaki replied, “But no, I could never live in a house like that.”

One of the main elements of aesthetic modernity in the West has been an attempt to sing our own praises of shadow, from the Gothic and the Romantic to stream-of-consciousness and beyond. Insofar as techno-modernity is committed to a rationality that is hostile to the aesthetic itself, all artists are in the same position, and art itself (even if it must accept its segregation from everyday life) may be the only available repository for those images and affects that progress casually destroys. Tanizaki puts this well on the final page:

I am aware of am most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind. But we must be resigned to the fact that as long as our skin is the color it is the loss we have suffered cannot be remedied. I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. 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 allows at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.

Many will mock this position or call it by insulting names; for instance, if I remember Habermas’s political typology from The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity correctly, this acceptance of modernity on the condition that it is supplemented by the aesthetic might be called “right Hegelianism” (if you’ve had the good fortune to avoid grad school, let me assure you that this is not a compliment). But the various attempts to re-aestheticize the everyday via the force of the state (nationalism, fascism, communism) usually proved worse than the alienation they attempted to remedy. The autonomy of art is admittedly a compromise, but remains, even now, the only viable solution I can see: art and literature as containers for the darkness that progress otherwise dispels. A novel may be not only a darkened mansion, but also a lacquerware soup bowl or a toilet in a garden.