Sunday, July 24, 2016

LITERATURE: 'In Praise of Shadows': An insight on Eastern mind and culture

RE: Essay by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965),Vintage Books, London, 1991, ISBN 9780099283577

I have always been a great admirer of Japanese arts and literature. I first discovered Junichiro Tanizaki by reading 'Éloge de l'Ombre', the French translation of 'In Praise of Shadows' (陰翳礼讃,
In'ei raisan). It was first published in 1933. In my own mind, this essay has sustainedly remained a key source to unveil Japanese aesthetics and arts. But on a second reading many years later, it has also proved to be an open door to understanding the core values of the East.

I recently met with the French writer Mireille Disdero. She has been living in Bangkok for a few years and comes from the same area of Provence, in France as me. We had planned to meet in an interesting, little café called (UN) Fashion in Ekkamai, a notorious Bangkok district, home of many Japanese expats. Our conversation lasted for several hours inside this tiny vintage coffee shop. One
(UN) Fashion coffeeshop, Ekkamai, Bangkok
may argue that it is a familiar trait of French culture to exchange ideas at a café ! Anyhow, the conversation slipped to Japanese literature. So we talked about
Yukio Mishima. We evoked 'The Temple of the Golden Pavilion' (1956). I was fortunate to visit the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto (the Kinkaku-Ji
金閣寺) on my first visit to Japan. Yet, it also reminded me of André Malraux's lines on Japan and particularly on Kyoto. Mireille and I are both residents of Thailand. Therefore, we also evoked Mishima's other novel : 'The Temple of Dawn' partly set in Bangkok (วัดอรุณ,Wat Arun the Temple of Dawn - is on the Thonburi riverside of the Thai capital). But above all, we talked about Junichiro Tanizaki. Mireille Disdero later confessed that it emulated her to read his essay again...

A few days later, as I was browsing through books at the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya, I came across an English version of 'In Praise of Shadows'. So, I bought it and read it in its English version this time. Interestingly enough, the second reading of the book revealed to have far more ramification than just an insight on Japanese arts.

Junichiro Tanizaki
It may be due to the fact that I have lived for more than a quarter of a century in the East. I had found that it had always been a valuable experience to read through oriental insights whereas they came from French writers, who lived in Asia like
Pierre Loti, Victor Segalen, Alexandra David-Néel, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Boulle, André Malraux or Roland Barthes; or English-speaking writers like Pearl Buck, E-M Forster, Georges Orwell, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and even James A. Michener or Paul Theroux. It also recalls Asian writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia), Amy Tan (Chinese-American), Dai Sijie (Chinese-French), Amitav Ghosh (India), François Cheng (a Chinese-born French writer and essayist now an academician). Yet, Japanese literature might remain the most prolific and by all means the most translated source of literature. Besides Junichiro Tanizaki or Yukio Mishima, there exists a large number of Japanese writers whose work has been translated: Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe, Yasushi Inoue, Kobo Abe, Yoko Ogawa, Ryu Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki, to name but a few.
Whatsoever, reading 'In Praise of Shadows' for a second time became another awakening after living in the East for so long !

The mere evocation of 'shadows' triggered my curiosity. The word itself is worth a linguistic pause. In
Voiliers au clair de lune
English, we need to differentiate '
shadow' (a projected form) from 'shade' (a natural shelter from light or the sun). In French, only one word translates both ('l'ombre'). Yet, the French language also provides the word 'la pénombre' evoking, in turn, a partial area of light. I do not know enough Japanese to analyze the word in its original version. Both the English word ('shadow') and the French word ('ombre') carry out Tanizaki's insight. It was primarily meant to unveil the essence of Japanese culture. However, the analysis goes way beyond and acts as a valuable key to understanding the oriental wisdom.
Firstly, it is interesting to realize that 'light', as opposed to 'darkness', stresses the main cultural divide between the West and the East. It is also an echo to Pearl Buck's novel 'East Wind:West Wind'. In the Vintage Books edition of 'In Praise of Shadows', Charles Moore, a renowned architect, who taught at the School of Architecture at UCLA, made the following remark : « In the West our most powerful ally is light. […] It comes with the thrill of a slap for us then to hear praise of shadows and darkness ».
After living in many Asian countries, it does bring clear observations. Whereas it is Malay or the Thai houses, the permanent state of homely darkness remains identical from Japan to Southeast Asia. It accounts for Charles Moore's further observation : « Thus darkness illuminates for us a culture very different from our own, but at the same time it helps us to look deep into ourselves ». Tanizaki is right to say that Westerners fail « to understand the mystery of shadows ». [p.29] He asks the question : « Why should this propensity seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals ? » [p.47]. His answer to the question is that : « As a general matter we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter ». [p.18]. This apparent simple contrast between light and darkness does not simply refer to interior design. It encompasses a much wider cultural space. For the 'shine and glitter' of the West symbolizes the difference. He adds : « As a general matter we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter ». [p.18]. All of a sudden, the statement brings forth a new light – if we may say so – between two major cultures, i.e. the Western culture as opposed to the Eastern culture. It conveys multiple artistic implications. It is not entirely surprising. For architecture and interior design are merely visual representations of any particular culture or way of life.
The following analysis will attempt to explain this. Indeed, Tanizaki's evocation does not simply reveal an insight on the Japanese culture. It also opens many doors to understanding other Asian cultures. As different as the East might appear in all its cultural forms, it still retains core values from a longstanding heritage.

In his essay, Junichiro Tanizaki's main objective is to reveal the spirit lying behind Japanese architecture. So it is no surprise that Charles Moore, an architect, should say that « darkness illuminates for us a culture very different from our own ».
On an architectural point of view, it is interesting to note what Tanizaki says : « In the temples of Japan […], a roof of heavy tiles is first laid out, and in the deep, spacious shadows created by the eaves the rest of the structure is built ». [p.28]. Usually, in the West, the roof is the ultimate part in the construction. It is a constant observation that Asian roofs occupy a conspicuous shape and space whether it is in Indonesia, Thailand or China. They all retain the spirit of inherited darkness. The fact that they all have eaves to keep natural light away is also another noticeable trait. Having eaves is a common feature of Asian houses. All over the Far East, people favor darkness inside out. In the tropical climate of southeast Asia, it also protects its inhabitants from the ambient heat brought by light. Japan, Korea or China have a more temperate climate. Yet, they display the same shadowy atmosphere. Compared to the Western roof, Tanizaki adds that : « if the roof of a Japanese is a parasol, the roof of a Western house is no more than a cap, with as small a visor as possible so as to allow the sunlight to penetrate directly beneath the eaves ». [p.29]. The two chosen images of the “parasol” or the “cap” are particularly significant. Traditionally, the parasol is a mark of widespread respect all over the East. On the other hand, the cap has become a conspicuous attire of the Asian youth.
This is why the darkness created by oriental architecture pervades through its own interior design.
Japanese interior
The Japanese have created their own interior private surrounding : garden, veranda, sliding doors, use of paper and wood. A striking, yet elegant simplicity remains its main inspiration. In Japan, it has generated an appropriate choice of art forms like scroll painting or flower arrangement (
ikebana). Tanizaki adds that  « the scroll and the flowers serve not as an ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows ». [p.31] In his essay, Tanizaki also confesses that « the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else ». [p.29]. But the emptiness and darkness of all Eastern interiors is another common factor. It applies to the function of windows too. They are blurred by the use of paper in Japan or Korea. They remain small and often closed with shutters in more tropical areas. The Malays use varied colored glasses on doors and windows to filter the light and also use curtains when the window is just an open space. It has always struck me how dark and empty most Asian interiors are in the Malay world or other southeastern cultures, in countries under a Chinese artistic influence.
Praising darkness brings forward other cultural aspects that characterize Asia. One, in particular, is the importance of jade in the Chinese world. Geology tells us that there are two main varieties of jade : jadeite in its light-colored form and nephrite as a deeper green variety. Yet, Tanizaki describes jade as a « strange lump of stone with its faintly muddy light » [p.18] and adds that « we seem to find in its cloudiness the accumulation of the long Chinese past » [p.19]. Gold holds a similar value in a created atmosphere of dim light as opposed to brightness. Tanizaki says that « gold retains its brilliance indefinitely to light the darkness of the room » [p.36]. This is how it is used for the gold Burmese or
Thai Buddhas. Tanizaki even adds that : « 
lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark »[p.36]. It now turns our attention to lacquerware, another form of Asian culture found in northern Asia (Japan, Korea, China) as well as southeastern Asia (Burma, Thailand, Viet Nam). Most traditional lacquerware is either black or dark red with sometimes a golden interior. This is why Tanizaki says : « Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware » [p.23]. And he even adds : « Only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed » [p.22]. Chinese invented paper, which in turn influenced the Japanese culture creating « an awareness of the softness and warmth of paper »[p.13]. And this is what the writer says about its perception in Japan : « Chinese paper and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose. […] 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 » [pp.17-18]. This is why comparing the writing brush with the fountain pen [p.14], he ventures to reflect that « an insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless, influence on our culture » [p.15]. His insight on the importance of darkness continues. « The Westerner, he says, uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice » [p.18]. Therefore, this cultural contrast between light versus darkness pervades as he adds. « On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina » [p.18].
As the spiraling effect slowly shows, the physical importance of darkness holds an even more
spiritual influence. « We do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance » [p.20]. Could this statement account why Westerners are more extrovert and Asians more introvert? « Japanese music, he says, is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere »[p.17] pursuing that « in conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement » [p.17]. This is particularly true for the Japanese and also for the Thais. But one could object that it is not an overwhelming trait everywhere in the East. Anyhow, even Man's nutrition seems to have been identically influenced. « Our cooking depends on upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness ». [p.27]. « 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 » [p.26]. The Thais have an identical taste for presentation. They have mastered the art of carving artistically fruits and vegetables.
In the final section of his essay, Junichiro Tanizaki considers some of the most traditional aspects of the Japanese performing arts : the Nô, the Kabuki, or the Bunraku puppet theater. « It is an essential condition of the Nô that the stage is left in the darkness » [p.40]... « The darkness of the Nô stage is after all the darkness of the domestic architecture of the day » [p.41]. « In the Nô only the merest fraction of the actor's flesh is visible – the face, the neck, the hands – and when a mask is worn […] even the face is hidden, and so what little flesh can be seen creates a singularly strong impression » [p.39]. It enables him to switch to an even more sensitive aspect of Asian culture regarding the color of the skin. « Nothing quite so becomes the Japanese skin as the costumes of the Nô theater ». […] « The Nô actor, unlike the Kabuki performer, wears no white powder »[p.37]. « The Nô actor performs with no makeup on his face or neck or hands » [p.38]. All Asians resent having a dark skin. It explains their fear of the sun rays. Western tourists may have noticed how empty beaches are in the daylight. It is simply because Asians get easily tanned in the sun and by all means want to preserve a natural whiteness. The Asians would only go to the beach by the end of the day when the sun is about to set. It is a common sight in Thai daily life – and even in Bangkok – to see women as well as men – walking with an open umbrella as a protection from the destructive effects of the sun rays. This is why Tanizaki says : « From ancient times we have considered white skin more elegant, more beautiful than dark skin » [p.48]. A Thai friend of mine even confessed on many occasions that Thai employers would often deny appointing prospective applicants with a darker complexion. It is true that due to
climate variations, northern Asians are more naturally whiter than say the Malays living in the south. In Thailand, it also has a strong social importance. Country people are more exposed to the sun than city dwellers. It accounts why outdoor workers or countrymen cover up their body from up to down to avoid the sunlight. But even in cities, men, for instance, prefer to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Dark-skin Malays often regret and apologize for the color of their skin as an inescapable fatality. Yet, it never underlines any racist implication. It may be due to their deep religious belief. However, if they apply it to their skin, just consider how they feel when they have to deal with colored people. As a matter of fact, it may be socially compared to the whiteness of northern Indians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Indians or Sri-Lankans. If there is no real racist exclusion due to the color of the skin, we cannot deny that it also clearly reveals a silent discriminatory factor. But it remains a cultural aspect with no aggressive characteristics. It is interesting to hear what Junichiro Tanizaki has to say in regard of the Japanese complexion. « No matter how white, he says, it is tinged by a slight cloudiness »[p.49]. And by evoking Asian hair, he adds : « The white races are fair-haired, but our hair is dark; so nature taught us the laws of darkness »[p.51]. As true as this statement might be, in general, it seems to ignore that dark hair is also a trait of Mediterranean cultures. However, this natural repulsion at brightness in the Japanese culture applies to some facial traits like the eyebrows, lips or teeth. Being at a Kyoto teahouse, Tanizaki observes a geisha, « an elderly waitress with shaven eyebrows and blackened teeth » [p52]. He then recalls that « the woman of old was made to hide the red of her mouth under green-black lipstick » [p.51]. Aesthetics show a very different perspective often miles away from the Western canon of beauty. Burmese women (and males sometimes) spread a yellowish blur of rice powder on their faces.
So this boundless propensity for darkness accounts why Tanizaki says that « we resign ourselves to darkness as inevitable » [p.48]. The oriental fatality factor has also a cultural connotation. He says : « We Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content with things as they are » [pp.47-48]. Considering how all Asians can quietly integrate wherever they are, it brings to light this last statement.

'In Praise of Darkness' is an essay with « an erratic course » according to Thomas J. Harper, a Senior Lecturer in Japanese Literature at the Australian National University. It is a form of Japanese 'stream of consciousness', which adopts « the truest representation of the searching mind » in order « just to 'follow the brush' » (Afterword of the Vintage Edition). By stressing the differences between the bright and the dark, it opens our Western eyes onto a totally different realm. It also triggers more questions that I may be able to analyze in future articles: why are Thais so attracted by Japanese culture or why Western painters like Claude Monet or Vincent Van Gogh were so attracted by the Japanese art?

Christian Sorand
Bangkok, July 2016

Bibliography :

Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969) : Voyage d'une Parisienne à Lhassa (1927) [My Journey to Lhasa], Mystiques et magiciens du Tibet (1929) [Magic and Mystery in Tibet], Le Lama aux cinq sagesses (1935), Au cœur des Himalayas : le Népal (1949)
Amélie Nothomb (1966-) : Stupeur et tremblements (1999) [Fear and Trembling, 2002], Métaphysique des tubes (2000) [The Character of Rain, 2003], Ni d'Ève, ni d'Adam (2007) [Tokyo Fiancée, 2008]
Amitav Ghosh  (1956-) : The Glass Palace (2000)
Amy Tan (1952-) : The Joy Luck Club (1989)
André Malraux (1901-1976) : La Condition Humaine (Man's F[ate, 1933), La Voie Royale (The Way of the Kings, 1930), Antimémoires (1967) [Anti-Memoirs]
Dai Sijie (1954-) : Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise (2000) [Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress]
Ella Maillart (1903-1997) : Oasis interdites (2004) [Forbidden Journey - From Peking to Cashmir]
E-M Forster (1879-1970) : A Passage to India (1924)
François Cheng (1929-) : Vide et plein – le langage pictural chinois (1979), Le Dit de Tyanyi (1998)
Georges Orwell (1903-1950) : Burmese Days (1934)

Herman Hesse (1877-1962) : Siddhartha (1922)
James A. Michener (1907-1997) : Caravans (1963)
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) : Almayer's Folly (1895), Lord Jim (1900)
Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) : Naomi (1924) [Chijin no Ai,痴人の愛], Some Prefer Nettles (1929) [Tade kuu mushi,蓼喰う蟲], In Praise of Shadows (1933) [In'ei Raisan, 陰翳礼讃],
Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) : Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950) [The Sea Wall, 1952], Le Vice-Consul (1966), L'Amant (1984) [The Lover]
Nicolas Bouvier (1929-1998) : Chronique japonaise (1981)
Paul Theroux (1941-) : The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), Riding the Iron Rooster (1988)
Pearl Buck (1892-1973) : East Wind : West Wind (1930), The Good Earth (1942), Dragon Seed (1942)
Pierre Boulle (1912-1994) : Le sacrilège malais (1951) [Sacrilege in Malaya, 1959], Le Pont de la rivière Kwai, (1952) [The Bridge Over the River Kwai ,1954], Les oreilles de jungle (1972) [Ears of the Jungle]
Pierre Loti (1850-1923) : Madame Chrysanthème, (1887), Un Pèlerin d'Angkor (1912),
Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) : This Earth of Mankind (1980) ['Bumi Manusia']
Roland Barthes (1915-1980) : L'Empire des Signes (1970) [Empire of Signs, 1983], Carnets du voyage en Chine (2009)
Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) : The Casuarina Tree (1926)

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) : Amok (1922) ['Der Amokläufer']
Victor Segalen (1878-1919) : René Leys (1922)
Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) : Confessions of a Mask (1949) [Kamen no Kokuhaku,假面の告白], The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) [Kinkaku-ji,金閣寺], After the Banquet (1960) [Utage no Ato,宴のあと], The Temple of Dawn (1970) [Akatsuki no Tera, 曉の寺]