Saturday, July 14, 2012

Does Tanizaki Still Speak for Us?

After posting this post, I emailed Finn at Auckland Museum to discuss ideas around the exhibition. He also told me he's coming to a Symposium in Nelson next week, so the prospect of hanging out with him necessitated I finally get around to reading Tanizaki Junichiroh's "In Praise of Shadows" as Finn was the first one to bring this essay to my attention.

I wasn't keen; I don't like Tanizaki. His novels are half a step short of soft porn, (he was very popular and successful in his lifetime, so perhaps the works weren't controversial; donno.) His novels are about women, many young, written by an dirty old man who thinks he knows how (young) women think/feel. Some of his magazine articles are the same. But my sister went through a period of reading Tanizaki (and others) in college, and I was intrigued because she had been a dedicated non-reader before or since. I borrowed one or two about 20 years ago and was shocked that a) my little sister was reading demeaning smut, and b) she found literary merit in them.

While sample-weaving the day after, (and listening to his audiobook,) Alain de Botton also mentioned the essay in his "The Architecture of Happiness".  It was time, eh. I had bought a copy when I was last home; I thought it was important for me to read the original.

I felt some pertinent background seems to be lost in the Western critiques/praises for this essay. He was born in 1886 and the essay was published in 1933 when he was 49/50. After Japan was closed off to most foreign countries for 350 years, (except the Netherlands and China, a point which may or may not have been lost on Mr de Botton in his critique of Huis Ten Bosch; in these 350 years the most interesting part of Japanese culture emerged and flourished,) the US forced us to open the country in 1868. The Shogun's samurai/feudal society thrown out, the Emperor re-throned as figurehead, and the English parliamentary system installed. To say this was a catalyst for changes is, I think you'll agree, an understatement.

In the years that followed, people's the external life changed rapidly. Electricity, railroad, roading, and standardized national postal delivery became available. Though we, boys and girls, were largely literate, an American school system was brought in. Samurai were forced to cut hair and forbidden to carry swards, (their social class itself disestablished, to use the current lingo), Western clothes became available, ballroom dancing was the fad of the aristocrats and the powerful. And there were heaps of funny stories among the regular folks, like mistaking soap for this new healthy food called cheese, or eating bread dough before baking.

Taisho Era (1912-26) and early Showa (1926-89) were when the mindset started to change. Labor and Feminist movements sprouted. The two were not unrelated because both were triggered by the treatment of young female textile workers; the former tried to improved working conditions while the latter tried to improve women's education opportunities and get them out of the mills. The other big part of our labor movement was the still-feudal conditions of farmers. (Women's suffrage didn't come until 1946, under the Allied Occupation.) Things Western began to infiltrate folks' homes.

Suffice it to say, by the time Tanizaki wrote the essay, the novelty of Western technology was wearing out in some quarters and nostalgia crept in.

(One point I tend to forget is that in this era, men, especially a best-selling writer, were allowed/expected/congratulated for being "frank", including (especially?) their misogynism.)

The tone of the essay is "unadulterated curmudgeon". He declares he doesn't know enough about his chosen subject but opines plenty. And the main theme are: 1) if Western technology weren't forced on the masses, we would have develop technology to suit Japanese aesthetics, 2) everywhere the lighting is too strong, (already in 1933 US and Japan were "wasting" electricity more than any other nation/area;), and 3) Japanese homes, in particular, have been ruined because of lighting. He sites examples of how our architecture, art/craft, clothing, theater, and makeup were designed for candle lights, and how too-bright electric lighting is reducing the enjoyment of life. True to form, he even covers sexual attraction; it decreases in light. 

For example, gold used in textiles or art was meant to highlight a small area and call attention to the work seen in the dark. We didn't have many windows, but extremely wide eaves, so houses and public buildings were light only around the edges and dark further inside even during the day. Therefore, we used movable screens where you might expect walls. And every aspect of Japanese life, not just art/craft, must be seen in that light. As it were.

What alarmed me were translations/interpretations of some key words. I've been using the word "dark" as a shorthand, for example, but the original word, "in-ei" is complicated; the first dictionary definition is "the part that is not lit", but the second definition is "nuance", as it is understood shadows/dark is not uniform, never in one value or "shade", but comes always in gradation. We may even perceive this more readily than the gradation in light; we sometimes use this word to mean "value" or three-dimentionality, even.

As opposed to some of the critiques, Japanese do not "prefer imperfection"; the notion of "perfection" (especially an absolute one, or a standard,) doesn't come into play. Life is about interpretation/preferences, is subjective, (therefore he is allowed to opine,) and at best we can group them, (e.g. Western vs Japanese.) When we think of things Japanese, it's a loose set of common understanding shared by people who were born to Japanese parents and grew up in Japan. Common sense shared by people living on those isle, the details of which should never require discussion or questioning because by definition we, and nobody else, already know them.

His descriptions of "current" Japan or "the West" are "too bright", "too uniform", too immediate, therefore lacking in nuance and taste. In contrast the Japan he prefers is nuanced, subtle, and requires time and observation to be appreciated. To say we prefer "imperfection", something that is not perfect, expressed in English, makes us sound a soft kind of charitable people taking pity and/or out looking for the damaged, when all it is we prefer the not obvious.

In the end he cautions us against Colonialism, (even though politically we were not a colony,) and the purpose of his essay was to remind the Japanese to slow down and not imitate the West without questioning, a very common theme in Japanese non-fiction, leading to nostalgia about Japan that may or may not have existed. 

If you read an essay in a similar vein written around 1933, say, by a best-selling male writer in his 50's, about your culture, would you think it represents the sentiments of you or your compatriots now? I don't like the West over-romanticizing Japan; it's lazy academia/journalism. But as long as you know a grumpy curmudgeon wrote this between the two big wars, it's a hilarious read. I need to read my copy, and four other essays in the same volume, a few more times, and get a hold of the English version.

Very coincidentally, Ben just started watching "The Twilight Samurai" (2002); I assume Tanizaki would approve the depiction of the interior. Even on the sunniest days, Japan's sun is never as bright as, say, Nelson.


EDIT:

Tanizaki's "In Praise of Shadows" in English can be found here. Caution: some/much content/s may offend. (I haven't read the translation yet.)

Original Japanese text can be found here

Okakura Tenshin's "Book of Tea", written in English by him in 1906 can be downloaded from here. Having been written soon after and amidst the drastic changes, I understand he is not as "victimized" by Westernization. I haven't read this either, but will.

8 comments:

  1. Ooops, faulty DVD. Poor Ben.

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  2. To be a bit more responsible, I've been Googling Tanizaki and his book a bit.

    Googling his name and book title in Japanese, many hits are links to booksellers. Others include: 1) those who mention it having been part of the Junior High (years 7-9) Japanese curriculum, 2) one who was recommended it by a French "actor", 3) one who has no intention of reading it even though it was highly recommended because of Tanizaki's reputation as a smut novelist, and 4) one person described it as something old written by an old man long time ago with no relevance to current Japan. Me, I don't think it's THAT bad but maybe it's because I'm old.

    But that many Japanese have to read essays written by design teachers, novelists and non-Japanese to learn/be reminded of Japanese tells me the post-War (that's WWII) generation have grown up in a drastically different world than previous ones.

    I was born in 1958, and my early life was MUCH more similar to that of my parents, born 1928 and 30 respectively, than to my sister's (1964) and brother's (1971).

    There was one mention of it being one of the fundamentals in understanding Japanese design.

    If you are interested, someone actually put the original text online here: http://www.kuniomi.gr.jp/togen/iwai/raisan.htm. The appearance of this file is similar to how the original text was set: no spaces, no paragraph changes, but each short chapter crammed with letters like a torrent of thoughts and words.

    I found one critique by a blogger, http://be-here-now.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2011/06/post-bbaa.html. He had a few false starts in 20 years but was requested to review it so he did. He loved the smoothness of the writing, but he makes no comment of the aesthetics portrayed.

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  3. The last blog post in the comment above: the only personal thought by the blogger was that he was surprised how life in 1992 was similar to life in 1911, possibly because the magazine that published the essay was for the upper echelon of the society.

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  4. Oh, my. If I persevere, I thought I may find something redeeming. I found one post by someone who went to listen to a lecture by a MIT architect; the architect was so intrigued he traveled all the way to Kyoto to see a Japanese toilet. The blogger hadn't read the volume.

    Another by a youngish woman clearly disliked the misogynist cracks and felt Tanizaki was a cranky paranoid old man. But his blogger liked the essay on Laziness in the same volume; I haven't read this essay yet.

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  5. My last comment re. what I found Googling in Japanese: the youngish woman mentioned above preferred this book: Okakura Tenshin, Cha no Hon, or Book of Tea. I haven't read it, but free download is available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/769

    The last site I found was a book review site where folks can leave shortish review in the form of comments. This book has 749 reviews to date: http://book.akahoshitakuya.com/bl/4122024137?p=1&t=c and I read the first of 5 pages. There seem to be about the same numbers of people who thought all Japanese should read it, OR it's irrelevant and should be read in a historical light. There were many praises for the writing, especially by those who have never read his novels. At the same time, there were comments like, "Japanese prefer a glimpse of underwear over full-frontal nudity. Gotcha," reflecting Tanizaki's place in Japanese literature.

    I forgot to mention he has a long diatribe praising old-fashioned, dark, dingy and often-separately-built toilets with a view vs. "modern, well-lit" loos. Many commented on it, one wondering what Tanizaki would have written about the ultramodern, ultraclean Japanese toilets.

    The book might have regained popularity after last year's earthquake and planned electricity outage; there were many new comment after the book being read in this context.

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  6. I'm going to go clean the house now, but in case you are interested, here is a translation of Tanizaki's book in English: http://dcrit.sva.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/In-Praise-of-Shadows-Junichiro-Tanizaki.pdf. Everything by him on ProjectGutenburg were his novels, in Japanese, unfortunately.

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  7. Now to the English version. I haven't read much in the last 36 hours due to a menacing headache, so I'm linking what I found without reading, but if anyone is interested here is a series of overwhelmingly favorable reviews by Western readers: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34473.In_Praise_of_Shadows.

    This is by a Norwegian man: http://enthusiasms.org/post/161363643

    And this was in the Guardian a while back: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/oct/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview25

    This should be enough. I have to go reread the book, the English version, Okakura, and the reviews I linked. In the next few days.

    I have to go weave, though. Imagine that!

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  8. LOL. In "Twilight Samurai", the protagonist's friend's little sister (and later love interest) was married to a moderately well-to-do, only to later appeal to the hierarchy for a divorce on account of the husband's drinking. Said little sister visits the protagonist, complaining, "Ever since I came home, I've been made to work on the loom, so I had to sneak out for a break today."

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