Junichiro Tanizaki’s (1886-1965) book In Praise of Shadows has been haunting me lately. There it sits on my shelf, as it has for years, ever since it was part of a reading list for an art history course I once took as an undergrad.
It’s a thin volume. Ever so slight, it easily gets lost amongst more substantial books. But every time I’ve gone through my library and thought I don’t need it anymore, I hesitate and then put it back on the shelf.
It took a long time for In Praise of Shadows to make it into the western imagination. First published in Japan in 1933, it took until 1977 for it to be “discovered” and translated into English by a couple of Japan scholars—who else was paying attention to such things?
For being a book about aesthetics it can at once be enlightening, problematic, complicated, evocative, romantic, and critical. It’s somewhat problematic because it evokes a lot of wincing among PhD’s due to its “self-Orientalizing” inflections and evocations of the west versus the east paradigms, setting up absolutist juxtapositions and contrasts that position each in opposition to the other, the east being the “traditional” and “spiritual” and “passive.” All valid points for lit crit and certainly true for the period from whence it came. But it is more than this. It is much more subtle than progressive and critical interpretations projected upon it.
For one, Tanizaki has a cutting sense of humor. He launches into a discussion of the virtues of Japanese architecture by starting with the toilet. “The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose.” It is also, in a broader sense, a cunning critique of western norms and technology that had been flooding into Japan since the mid-19th century, the culmination being two atom bombs and an American occupation under General MacArthur.
It is also a scathing critique of Japan itself finding it difficult to adapt its culture to modernity. Take, for example, this passage on paper: “Paper, I understand was invented by the Chinese; but Western paper is to us no more than something to be used, while the texture of Chinese paper and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose.” He continues, “Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall.”
I write this by firelight and the dimmed, headache-inducing glow of my laptop—all of this ultimately to have negative repercussions on my eyesight, I am sure. I seem to spend a great deal of time in subtle lighting. I blame In Praise of Shadows.
What it offers now, I think, is a phenomenological reading of space, an alternative to mere material or technical interpretations , or even “design thinking” that emphasizes innovation. It is theoretical for sure, but also grounded in the subjective experience of an extremely sensitive and articulate author. It offers a glimpse into an alternative strain of modernity that is not merely a romantic harkening back to simpler “ancient” times. It posits a world that could have been in which technology is perhaps more muted, more in the background. The shiny, reflective, well-lit world of western power and efficiency would have been more nuanced by depth, patina, wear. Hygienic tile bathrooms—to return to bathrooms for a moment—would have been rendered out of wood, stone, even paper.
While these may be the “empty dreams of a novelist”, as Tanizaki admits, they nonetheless endure in the world of design, always looking for something different, something new, something old, even. “A Japanese room might be likened to an inkwash painting,” he says. Perhaps he didn’t anticipate the impact his little essay would have on a western audience hungry for cultural alternatives. It’s interesting to note that western modernity was greatly influenced by threads of culture coming from the “East”, as it were. Interpretations and misinterpretations of the “Other” were like an intoxicant to the Western imagination and innovation. I’m almost positive we could do a diagram tracing Apple’s design sensibilities back to something in Japan and perhaps farther back to Chinese aesthetics—where much of Japanese aesthetics was derived initially. Of course, so much of this is now part of the subconscious. Why bother pulling it apart or theorizing about it?
In Praise of Shadows reminds us of other realms, other feelings that architectural space can evoke, ways of designing for repose, reflection, and solitude in a world that places emphasis on striving, action, and noise. It presents a different way of envisioning space, less “hot” and dynamic and more deep and subtle.
It’s not flashy. It would be so cutting edge to design the anti-flashy, the anti-“hot”, the anti-sexy, anti-innovation yet innovative, in a way. It would take a subtle hand and a high measure of restraint in an era when it is possible to design and build just about anything out of anything. As Tanizaki concludes, “I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or in the arts, where something could be saved.” Could the shadow world of subtle phenomena also be saved in architecture? Can we turn off some of the lights? A few, at least? Can we have just a little less of the shiny and bright? What on earth would a shadowy skyscraper look like? And not just shadowy in terms of light, but in its elemental qualities, its material sensation, the way it “stands”. Like Tanizaki says, “But again I am grumbling.”