Review: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki – “In Praise of Shadows”

This book was originally published in 1933, first translated to English in 1977. It’s widely considered to be a nifty monograph on Japanese aesthetics and contains paragraphs that at first may seem bizarre and navel-gazing, like this one, on the toilet:

Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet is truly a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Sôseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.

Still, the short monograph pulls you in, letting you get into the contents and kind of made me think of stuff at home in an existentialistic way. Further on the toilet:

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantô region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the leaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste. The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch cold. But as the poet Saitô Ryoku has said, “elegance is frigid.” Better that the place be as chilly as the out-of-doors; the steamy heat of a Western-style toilet in a hotel is the most unpleasant.

The author questions the basic ideas of what “we” dislike:

One reason we hate to go to the dentist is the scream of his drill; but the excessive glitter of glass and metal is equally intimidating.

The praises of materialistic things are quite interesting:

Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware. […] I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soup bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby. […] It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.

Also, on the older trend of blackening teeth:

One thinks of the practice of blackening the teeth. Might it not have been an attempt to push everything except the face into the dark?

However, the “we” and “they” devolves into sheer nationalism and racism at times:

Yamamoto Sanehiko, president of the Kaizô publishing house, told me of something that happened when he escorted Dr. Einstein on a trip to Kyoto. As the train neared Ishiyama, Einstein looked out the window and remarked, “Now that is terribly wasteful.” When asked what he meant, Einstein pointed to an electric lamp burning in broad daylight. “Einstein is a Jew, and so he is probably very careful about such things”—this was Yamamoto’s interpretation. But the truth of the matter is that Japan wastes more electric light than any Western country except America.

That’s just sad. Even though Jun?ichir? Tanizaki quotes another person above, it’s not good, rational or anything other than demagogy. Furthermore:

The Japanese quite aside, I cannot believe that Westerners, however much they may prefer light, can be other than appalled at the heat, and I have no doubt they would see immediately the improvement in turning down the lights.

All in all, it’s like reading a well-written monograph with bits of “Mein Kampf” in it, which ultimately brings this down. The fact that it’s written in 1933 does not excuse anything.

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