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In praise of shadows

In praise of shadowsIn praise of shadows – Junichiro Tanizaki
I turn 27 next week. Birthdays have always held a reflective fascination for me and as is often the case, I found myself perusing a few old notebooks and diaries to discover what had become of my former self – what was gone and what remained. The pages of these books are slightly dog eared and old. They have passed through time since they were written with less plasticity than me, with more traction in their present than I ever have in mine; being disconnected, as they are, from any past or any future and formed primarily from the fact that they were written and survived. The ‘I’ who wrote them is gone or is become the ‘me’ who reads them.There is nothing melancholy in a reflection on the transient and changing nature of the world around us – the thought that what is truth and life today may be surpassed and changed tomorrow is not a dark one. It is comforting in many ways that, on the eve of my 27th birthday, I am not the young man who, aged 21, wrote my journals and diaries – that he has not passed in tact through time with me, though the journals have. He is but a mirror for me to look in and to reflect upon – a catalyst for change. Yet I am the same person now as I was then: how much of me must have remained undocumented, unwritten, in shadow.This is the spirit of reflection in which Tanizaki undertakes his delightful essay on the importance of shade, shadow and natural light. The subtleties of shadow are echoed by the subtlety of the thought, ranging from the pleasure of “a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves” to the lost treasure of Japanese No puppet shows “a distinct world of shadows which today can be seen only on the stage but in the past it could not have been far removed from daily life.”

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.”

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

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