In praise of shadows
Self-reflection for Tanizaki is not a painful or unpleasant process but it is contrasted with the stark nudity of electric light which is become a destroyer of the subtleties that had been treasured by Japanese culture for centuries before (the essay was written in the midst of widespread electrification in Japan in 1933). The brightness of a lightbulb is in contrast to the traditional Japanese aesthetic that Tanizaki savours; its palette of tarnished metals, grainy wood and soft luminescent paper screens. The essay is a lament for a culture of tranquility and reflection lost out to the Western aesthetic of examination, of inquiry, which in brutalist, post modern, industrial architecture – the architecture not of design but of conversion – includes prominent display of vents and fans and piping; so much in contrast to the purist, gentle, Japanese aesthetic of perfection and beauty through extreme self-restraint:
“What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms […] The purist may rack his brains over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway.”
The essay is itself a mirror from another time and culture for us to look into, a lovely treatise on the power and importance of natural light, a challenge to the necessity of constant and increasing electrification. Re-reading my journals reminded me that writing down often hides more than it reveals but Tanizaki’s essay is a reminder that as we progress unrelenting into our future selves we may come closer to understanding our present selves and the world around us if “we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”
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