Why should this propensity to seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals? The West too has known a time when there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum, yet so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally no feet; Western ghosts have feet, but are transparent. As even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even ghosts are clear as glass. This is true too of our household implements: we prefer colours compounded of darkness, they prefer the colours of sunlight. And of silverware and copperware: we love them for the burnish and patina, which they consider unclean, insanitary, and polish to a glittering brilliance. They paint their ceilings and walls in pale colours to drive out as many of the shadows as they can. We fill our gardens with dense plantings, they spread out a flat expanse of grass.
But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.
–Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, pp. 30-31, Leete’s Island Books, Stony Creek CT, English translation, Foreword, and Afterword Copyright 1977. The essay has been made available to Leete’s Island Books with the gracious permission of Mrs. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
3 Replies to “IN PRAISE OF SHADOWS”
Stunning. Wow. I can't help but also think about your post on the history of sleep a few years ago. Thanks, Heather, for a feast for imagination and reflection. How did you you happen to come upon this and what prompted you to post this particular selection? XXOO
Hello dear Mary Beth, probably pretty much how I come across everything, which is by somewhat eclectic reading. I re-read Bruce Chatwin's "The Songlines" and "In Patagonia" recently, and then I read a biography of him, and I think I came across The Cave of Hands there. Crazy, right? Prehistoric selfies–'I lived. I was here!"…
Whoops, and I was a post or two back with The Cave of Hands. Though "In Praise of Shadows" is kind of the same thing. I came across and read the essay years ago, no doubt through another book. And then, browsing the stacks at the Pasadena Public Library recently, I came across and thought to read it again. Liked it even better this time, probably because I am older this time and the older you get, the deeper the mystery of shadows…