Those pesky shadows – we must praise them

I’ve had many thoughts about shadows, and I have written my thoughts about shadows here recently. I’ve been thinking about shadows again today as I’ve just finished reading a tiny, yet huge (in terms of impact), book about shadows: In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Tanizaki was a Japanese novelist of much talent and I knew about him before I came across this book. I had previously read one of his novels while I was living in Japan: Some Prefer Nettles which I remember as being quite beautiful and moving. Incidentally, I read a lot of Japanese fiction in Japan – some of the best books I have read were Japanese in origin.

Tanizaki died in 1965 which I think is why In Praise of Shadows is described as ‘vintage’. It might have been written a long time ago, but its sentiment is far from vintage. In Praise of Shadows is a work of non-fiction and it is about shadows, both real and metaphorical. Essentially, in it Tanizaki is urging us to look at and treasure the accepted, the mundane, the negative and, above all, the shadows. He travels through a plethora of Japanese things and discusses them as he goes.

The man and his cat

On one level you could read this book as a celebration of Japanese culture and the Japanese aesthetic over Western culture and the Western aesthetic. On another, and on the level I read it, you could see this book as a celebration of the still-life, the worn out, the used, the touched and the taken for granted. It is a book about things and places. It doesn’t actually matter whether those things and places are of Japanese origin or not. It is how we look at them that is important to Tanizaki.

My favourite passage is near the beginning, which is a description of the poetic beauty of the Japanese toilet. We all sit in the toilet and ponder, but we never think to notice it or to consider it. Why not? We should. It is a place of sanctuary from the rest of the world. It is a place where we can be calm and think.

His descriptions of how Japanese naturally feel the need to retain the patina on their  resonated with me. He argues that in the Western world we loathe a thing’s patina and we polish it off, so that the thing appears ‘as it originally was’ rather than ‘as it is now’. In the West, we want to still time, we want to preserve. In Japan, they worship time and dislike preservation. Time can’t be stopped, they believe, so why would you want to? Time is part of the history of the object. We want to eradicate it. They accept it. I’m with the Japanese on this one.

As an artist of objects I look at the patina of things. I love the idea of the ‘trace’ on an object, I always have. I cherish the shine of an object’s grime and I want to sense the lives that has touched it. So for this reason, this book spoke to me.

Then after finishing the book, I read the afterword and this sentence also struck a chord with me but for a different reason: ‘He [Tanizaki] has the perverse habit of shifting without warning from a tone of high seriousness to something near facetiousness’. The writer of the afterword is assuming that the ‘Western’ reader would find this frustrating, as they would the ‘haphazard style’ of Tanizaki.  I took umbridge to this assumption. I disagree, quite strongly. I feel a sort of kinship with Tanizaki’s style of writing, for my writings, for what they are worth, are quite similar. I meander from thought to thought and idea to idea. It is just how it comes. Take this blog, for example. I just want to write about this book. I didn’t know what was going to come out of my fingers. I don’t feel the need to edit it now as I re-read it. It works well enough as it is.

The same philosophy applies with my art. I am constantly wondering around, off on tangents, following thoughts and ideas, going on new journeys. I am sure it is the way I will always be. Perhaps this is the Japanese way and maybe I was influenced by my two years there, and all the books I read during my non-working hours (I read a lot). But whatever the answer is, shadows rock, they really do. Go forth, people, and consider the shadows. Toilet too. Go and ponder.

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