Tuesday, 4 October 2011

In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ïchiro Tanizaki

This review is from: In Praise of Shadows (Paperback)
The Japanese have an aesthetic concept called "Wabi Sabi." This term consists of two words. "Wabi" literally means "poverty," but in the aesthetic context it stands for simplicity; "Sabi" is literally "solitude, loneliness," and for aesthetic purposes it means something like natural impermanence. Wabi Sabi encourages, as one observer put it, a profound feeling of inner melancholy, and an appreciation of quietly clear and calm, well-seasoned and refined simplicity.

Andrew Juniper's "Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence" summarizes the concept by saying that "the term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in the Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection. ... Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things." (pages 2 and 51)

In order to appreciate Junichiro Tanizaki's 50-page pamphlet "In Praise of Shadows" it helps to keep the concept of Wabi Sabi in mind. While many people would object to Tanizaki's anti-modernist view of art (and call it "reactionary" or "nationalist"), it is in fact a contemporary take on an ancient aesthetic concept that favors obliqueness (shadows) over brightness, weathered naturalness over functional novelty, the crude over the polished, and - ultimately - irrationality over rationality.
Tanizaki's essay contains good examples of Wabi Sabi, and a few peculiarly funny ones that reek of Zen humor: "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." (page 4) To a Western reader this sounds like unmitigated satire. But it is not. Tanizaki is serious about this stuff. In sum, I find "In Praise of Shadows" a very entertaining illustration of an important Japanese aesthetic concept, written by one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century.

You can read more about this book  HERE.

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