by Andrew Zornoza
In Praise of Shadows, 1933
Leetes Island Books
—But I know as well as anyone that these are the empty dreams of a novelist, and that having come this far we cannot turn back. . . .
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, builds himself a house. Here, he gathers his thoughts 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 Kanto 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 eaves 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 birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy those poignant moments that mark the change of seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas.
A jeweled bauble built by a watchmaker.
Press two stones in combination and a lurching tintinnabulation of Bach twinkles out of an inner chamber.
Push an emerald and a panel slides away, revealing a hidden compartment.
Tanizaki wrote more than twenty novels and is best known for his epic masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters.
In Praise of Shadows is quite different. It has only forty-two pages. And it is not a novel.
Instead, it contains Tanizaki’s musings on aesthetics: on toilets; lamps; lacquerware; heating systems and stoves. Tanizaki obsesses over whether it is worth the considerable expense to conceal the wiring in his house. He obsesses over the proper color of the broth in his bowl of miso soup. He obsesses over everything.
There is fear: prodding the bauble of our lives we may end up with a useless bunch of gears, springs and wood. There is resignation because choices have consequences: choice may be postponed (Tanizaki has a compatriot in Bartleby), but nothing except death waits at the end of the voyage.
Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows is about the surfaces of our lives and the clockwork ticking away underneath: it questions what we decide to hide, what we reveal.
True to its content, In Praise of Shadows is a deceptive book.
It is, a bit, like walking through a Home Depot with Susan Sontag as she channels Tolstoy.
“Even the greatest masterpiece,” Tanizaki says, “will lose its worth as a scroll if it fails to blend with the alcove, while a work of no particular distinction may blend beautifully with the room and set off to unexpected advantage both itself and its surroundings.”
In Praise of Shadows is an odd volume, split into ten essays united by one narrative voice. Despite an attempt to measure the national temper of Japan, it remains closer in spirit to Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information than Joan Didion’s The White Album—more instructive than revelatory.
Yet Tanizaki has not strayed too far from the fictive world where he is so acclaimed: there is a bit of Hamlet in the narrator, a bit of Ahab pounding the seas to find his whale, a bit of Marco Polo via Invisible Cities, a bit of Fitzcarraldo dragging his steamship over the mountain.
Aesthetics versus necessity. Light versus dark. Tradition versus progress. There is very little humanity in the arguments In Praise of Shadows holds with itself. And yet it is filled with emotion:
For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within the emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence, that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.
In Praise of Shadows is a story of desire manifested in physical forms. A soup spoon, say. Or an outdoor lamp.
In these memoir-loving times, it takes a stern rebuke to convince us that we are more than our childhoods. We are more than what happens to us. We are the foods we eat, the apartments we choose, the movies we’ve seen:” The brain is wider than the sky. . . .“
Tanizaki’s prose is elegant in its quiet simplicity, also in its ability to veer into two directions at once without becoming schizophrenic. Along with his compatriots, Mishima, Abe, and Kawabata, he stands (in my bookcase, at least) on that large shelf just below Shakespeare—where Melville, Dostoevsky and Stendahl rub covers. In Praise of Shadows is certainly one of Tanizaki’s more humble works: it would rather live out by the cookbooks and home-repair guides. He has left all but the smallest trappings of fiction behind in this tiny study of everyday objects. And created a story nonetheless.
In the mansion called literature, I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.
When constructing his dream home in Higashi Nada, Tanizaki’s architect used In Praise of Shadows as his guide. The architect was particularly proud of the writing room. He brought Tanizaki there and demonstrated the ingenious way he had set the lighting to consistently remain at the perfect level of dimness.
The renowned author threw his hands in the air: “This is all useless. To write my novel the room must be bright, flooded with light entering from the sea!”
Tanizaki was a man of many contradictions. And he knew it. Despite setbacks, he eventually finished constructing his dream home in Higashi Nada.
He died in 1965.
His house stood until 1995, when it was destroyed in the Kobe earthquake.
“Verse -Chorus-Verse” — Nirvana (mp3)
“What the Snowman Learned About Love” — Stars (mp3)
“Thrasher” — Neil Young (mp3)
Andrew Zornoza is the senior contributor to This Recording. He lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. His latest story is available here. His photo-novel “Where I Stay,” will be available from Tarpaulin Sky Press in early 2009. You can e-mail him at azornoza at gmail.com.
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