When I was about six, I read a story about a little girl who meets bears behind doors, creatures who live in the shadows, whom no one sees but children. Since then, I have loved shadows—under tables, on snow, in a puppet’s theater. In a church. Behind a stone wall. Among the tallest zinnia plants.
There was no use resisting, therefore, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s little book In Praise of Shadows when Owen and I came across it recently at the Strand..
Tanizaki is a well known novelist in Japan. He lived from 1886 to 1965 and wrote In Praise of Shadows in 1930, a meditation on the traditional Japanese fondness for shadow rather than bright light. Even in the 1920s, Japan was following in the footsteps of the west and introducing electric light to its buildings, a trend that Tanizaki mourned. In a fluid, meandering, and gentle style, Tanizaki reflects on the character of traditional Japanese architecture, theater, human beauty, food, and, yes, even the toilet.
We are so used to light. We crave light. We fill our buildings with windows and admire bright colors in clothing, art, and kitchens. Tanizaki persuaded me to reconsider. As I read I felt as if I were floating back in time and across continents to a low-eaved Japanese house where the light from the garden was filtered through papered windows, where in the evening lacquerware gleamed by candlelight, and in a dim corner a bowl of steaming rice shone like pearls.
The beauty of low light, darkness, and candlelight, and thus by extension of muffled sound or silence, of thought as opposed to talk, of spaces where work requires focus, the kitchen, for example, where simple food is prepared by hand—these are appealing to me, offering a respite from our often glaring, loud, cluttered spaces.
And toilets? Tanizaki speaks of the toilets of bygone days, built outside, very clean, open to the sounds and sights of birds, insects, plants, and rain. He guesses that haiku poets conceived some of their best ideas perched in such toilets. Tanizaki’s reflections remind me of Owen’s and my experience staying on an island in a northern Minnesota lake one summer where there was no running water. Through the screened windows of each compost toilet on the island one could relish the absolute silence and the beauty of the view. I understand what Tanizaki is getting at.
What I love most about Tanizaki’s book is the way he writes--in prose both delicate and robust that doesn’t take itself too seriously but manages to plumb subjects and bring to the surface subtle and delicate ideas.
I hope to read Tanizaki’s novel Some Prefer Nettles. I’ll report back. And I’ll write about color, too. Even Tanizaki allows that a little gold applied to a piece of black lacquerware or woven into a garment “gleams forth from out of the darkness.