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July 7th, 2004

The Importance of Shadows

I just finished re-reading In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, a Japanese novelist/essayist from the early to mid part of last century. In this particular essay, originally penned in the early 1930s, Tanizaki takes a close look at the importance of shadows and darkness in contributing to the traditional Japanese aesthetic. He laments the days of old before the proliferation of the electric light when rooms were lit only by candlelight and the darkness provided an elegance that’s unattainable with electric light.

Early in the essay he discusses how even the most unassuming places are made beautiful by the sparse use of natural light:

… The novelist Natsume Soseki 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 Japanest toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.

As I have said there are certan 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 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 justic claim that of the most aesthetic…

I can certainly appreciate Tanizaki’s respect for the Japanese toilet, but believe it or not, that’s not what I want to focus on. Rather, I got to thinking about exactly how bright our modern world is. Everything is illuminated, light bulbs are uncomfortably powerful, and if a room is dim, we’re inclined to turn on another light. Even the myth of “you’ll hurt your eyes if you read in the dark” continues to pervade.

One feeling I’ve always had about my own house is that it’s entirely too bright (mainly because we’re indecisive about paint colors and hence, still have a lot of unpainted walls). I’ve always appreciated dark colors. My studio in the basement is painted a dark green color with black trim. It provides an almost intensely serene place for me to work on music or do some thinking. At the same time, I much prefer having one soft light on in a room to having four very bright lights illuminating every corner, but I have yet to find a light bulb that provides a comfortable level of luminescence. At the same time, I’ve always considered my “ideal” home to be in the woods, where the dark is even darker and the summer morning brightness is subdued by tree branches.

What are your thoughts? Do you find peace in a room where portions of it are hidden in shadows and the rest of the room is bathed in a soft natural light or are you only “at home” if you’ve got every light in the house on at once?

Posted in Haiku, Toilets

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