In Praise of Shadows

Posted: August 9, 2014 in nonfiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Quick disclaimer: The correct transliteration of Japanese into English involves dashes over vowels, but I don’t know how to make WordPress do these correctly. So I’m missing diacritical markers throughout the entry. I’m sorry.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is a famous early twentieth century Japanese novelist, among those who know anything about Japanese novels (not me). Many of his books have been made into pictures, and there have been four film versions of Manji/Quicksand, which tells the story of a lesbian love affair. Most of his novels seem to be similarly concerned with the often problematic nature of sexual attraction and behavior. This tiny book is an essay on aesthetics.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but Western design is all about cold flat surfaces. They’re easier to keep clean. Cleanliness is at the heart of most of it, and by cleanliness we often mean brightness or newness. We like light. The sun gives life to the entire planet, so we welcome it into our homes as much as we can. Part of our ideas about beauty and health involve exposing the skin to the sun in order to counteract “prison pallor.” We also like things to look new. Well, we prefer things to be new, but we can’t manage that all the time. But these are all Western ideas, Western values. Tanizaki has a tendency to decry Westernness in favor of his idea of traditional Japan.

Traditional Japanese design is all about warmth and shadow. Instead of putting glass in the windows, they put paper. Instead of filling the bathroom with tile and porcelain, they use wood. They only like silver when it’s tarnished, after being touched thousands of times by unwashed hands. They like dirt and darkness. The whole idea of a house is to create beautiful shadows in the corners. They set pictures back in little alcoves so the shadows grow deeper around the art. The attraction to gold is that it shines in very little light, glowing in the darkness. The reason for bright makeup and garish costumes in Japanese theatre is that it was performed with very little light. There’s a certain softness to everything, a haziness as life retreats into obscurity.

One of the things that bothers Tanizaki is Western paper. He sees it as thin and cheap and overly bright, and I’ll agree that much of it is (cheap copy paper). But consider used books. My copy of The Mill on the Floss, for example, has nice paper. You can feel the texture in it. It smells like wood and ink, as a book ought. Holding it without reading it, just touching the pages, warms the hands and the heart. Thank you Oxford UP, but really, most old books have this feel to them. Try a Bantam paperback from the 1960s, or a Penguin Classic. They’re nice. They give me the same feeling as being in a forest. I wonder if, as books age, they return to their woody origin, redeveloping grain. Maybe if we left them alone, they’d grow moss and bark. I love mine too well to try the experiment.

I could agree with many of Tanizaki’s points, though I was a little uncomfortable with the joys of grime, but my brain absolutely rejected his portrayal of feminine beauty.

My mother was remarkably slight, under five feet I should say, and I do not think she was unusual for her time. I can put the matter strongly: women in those days had almost no flesh. I remember my mother’s face and hands, I can clearly remember her feet, but I can remember nothing about her body. She reminds me of the statue of Kannon in the Chuguji, whose body must be typical of most Japanese women of the past. The chest as flat as a board, breasts paper-thin, back, hips, and buttocks forming an undeviating straight line, the whole body so lean and gaunt as to seem out of proportion with the face, hands, and feet, so lacking in substance as to give the impression not of flesh but of a stick – must not the traditional Japanese woman have had just such a physique? A few are still about – the aged lady in an old-fashioned household, some few geisha. They remind me of stick dolls, for in fact they are nothing more than poles upon which to hang clothes. As with the dolls their substance is made up of layer upon layer of clothing, bereft of which only an ungainly pole remains. But in the past this was sufficient. For a woman who lived in the dark it was enough if she had a faint, white face – a full body was unnecessary.

Oh my. It was bad enough being an American housewife, with the pressures to stay in and keep the house clean, but being expected to stay in, not keep the house clean, and barely even to exist? Straightening out the natural curves of the body until every woman becomes a clothes hanger, an ungainly pole? No. This is not beauty; this is torture. I suppose there are some evolutionary advantages: if you live on a small island chain, it’s important not to overpopulate your habitat (cf the British, who colonized the world to relieve the overcrowding at home). The women Tanizaki describes lack the traditional markers of fertility, and the stress of having to look like that I imagine would reduce what fertility they have. The disembodied face seems more like a ghost than a woman, and Tanizaki’s aesthetic for women has all the problems of Poe’s famous statement that nothing is more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died. How do these men have sex with these women? Who wants to fuck a gaunt stick? Traditional Western thought is that you heap a woman with clothes, and a man’s imagination works busier to imagine what’s underneath them (think about the bustle), but Tanizaki’s view of traditional Japan implies that they heap women with clothes and men forget what’s underneath. I think this is unrealistic, but I don’t really have much contact with Japanese culture other than what you get reading Memoirs of a Geisha and graphic descriptions of seppuku.

Japanese women used to coat their teeth with black lacquer to make their faces seem whiter. Tanizaki is sad that they don’t do this any more.

On the other hand, he also waxes poetic on the beauty of No actors. Kabuki actors wore bright white makeup, but the No actors just used their own skin.

I once saw Kongo Iwao play the Chinese beauty Yang Kuei-fei in the No play Kotei, and I shall never forget the beauty of his hands showing ever so slightly from beneath his sleeves. As I watched his hands, I would occasionally glance down at my own hands resting on my knees. Again, and yet again, I looked back at the actor’s hands, comparing them with my own; and there was no difference between them. Yet strangely the hands of the man on the stage were indescribably beautiful, while those on my knees were but ordinary hands. In the No only the merest fraction of the actor’s flesh is visible – the face, the neck, the hands – and when a mask is worn, as for the role of Yang Kuei-fei, even the face is hidden; and so what little flesh can be seen creates a singularly strong impression. This is particularly true of Kongo Iwao; but even the hands of an ordinary actor – which is to say the hands of an average, undinstinguished Japanese – have a remarkable erotic power which we would never notice were we to see the man in modern attire.

Even in our modern Western society, a man’s beauty is not diminished when he is dressed. Tanizaki is approaching a homosexual aesthetic here: why is there so much gym porn? Not just because it’s a culturally sanctioned opportunity for men to undress together. Gay people (men or women) relate to others in this way more frequently than straight people. Like Tanizaki, we see someone who is attractive, we look at ourselves and realize how little difference there is between us, and we see ourselves as more beautiful because of our similarity with the other. I was hanging out in an airport a couple of weeks ago noticing all the good-looking men walking by, and then I scolded myself a little – ‘Think about what these guys have in common, OccMan. Dark hair, glasses, beard, collared shirt? Now look at yourself. You’re such a fucking narcissist.’ Perhaps, perhaps. After all, I can take an essay on Japanese aesthetics and use it to talk about myself for fifteen hundred words.

Tanizaki realizes that he’s talking like a grumpy old man who can’t see the value of the time he’s living in now, and the nostalgia is so thick you can suffocate in it. But I don’t think his memory is the same as the reality. Only the wealthy could live in the manner he describes. I would imagine that the poor were less interested in beautiful shadows and more interested in getting their work done and their physical needs met. Forget her wispy ghost-face; can she cook? Most women had to leave the house sometime, instead flitting about in the elegant shade. There is beauty to be found in the lives of the poor too.

Tanizaki’s writing is lovely. Funny, serious, artistic, disturbing (lacquered teeth), insightful, possibly inaccurate. It opened to me a new way of thinking, in only forty pages. I find myself looking at the dust and shadow under the bed, trying to see that as one of the more beautiful aspects of the studio apartment, but my eye drifts back to the photographs I have up and I can accept the fact that I see the world as I do, differently than a Japanese writer in 1933. I’ll keep loving light and cleanliness, glass and steel, tile and porcelain. Our style has its own poetry, its own literature, its own culture. It’s good too.

 

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  1. […] Read more here: In Praise of Shadows […]

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