Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Classics Club: In praise of shadows, by J. Tanizaki

I bought this particular book a while back, but never bothered to open it.  I left it sheltered among many other books that share this fate:  bought because of real interest, even after research, only to remain undiscovered for some time. 

What provoked the sudden re-discovery?  A film called "Le Hérisson" (The Hedgehog).  Great film, based on a great book, but the important point is that it describes a woman with a hidden room full of classic books, with one in plain sight:  In praise of shadows, by J. Tanizaki.  Was my book then considered a classic? 

I had bought it because I liked the subject and the fact that it describes the Japanese approach to it.  Excited to have such a find among my books without intention, I read it during the Classics Club's first readathon on the 5th January 2013.


Tanizaki was an eminent Japanese novelist, who, apart from well-known works of literature, was also known for his scholarly interest in the traditional culture of Japan.  Written in 1933, In praise of Shadows was written to record Tanizaki's search for the aesthetic, at a time when traditional building materials and appliances were being replaced by Western inventions and typical Japanese lacquerware had been rendered garish by electric light - the East was desperate to become Westernised...

Tanizaki writes on the major differences betwen East and West in so many aspects, always keeping in mind the focus on light.  Main conclusion:  While we in the West crave for light (to the point of clinically bright light), people in the East welcome the mystery of the shadow.

There is nothing wrong with light, only we seem to want to hide more than we want to bring to the surface - and so the book jumps to the subject of toilets, where the difference is stark - while we shower our toilets with as much light as possible, in the East they seem to prefer a darker hue to the colours:


the cleanliness of what can be seen only calls up the more clearly thoughts of what cannot be seen

In general, we should embrace the mystery of shadows.  We need to come to terms that we will never fully know what we have in front of us.  


faint light produces an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested
Tanizaki also makes the point of getting to know our roots, our customs, our heritage.  He was resigned to the fact that the younger generation was in a frenzy to adopt anything Western as the better choice:


an insignificant little piece of writing equipment... has a vast influence on our culture
we should be proud of the culture we represent and the nuances that make up for all the facets of our civilisation.  By foregoing our past and looking only forward, we are weak.  We lose the memory that will explain certain facts and we are reduced to puppets:


love (everything) that calls to mind the past that made them
Having identified the perfect house in the Japanese aesthetic, would he want to live there?  The answer is No.  Even though Tanizaki introduces new ideas on the table, in the end it will be the hierarchy of finances versus the hierarchy of arts that will make the final decision on the outlook...  
The fact remains that what Tanizaki has been preaching in this book could not attract anyone if all changes had been inroduced.  What I take from this book is to be aware of my own and my culture's aesthetics, get to know foreign ones as well, and take only certain aspects of all these and make them my own - do not blindly follow others' guidelines and dictates.  And that's the story of life...

Also read for the 2012 Japanese Literature challenge


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