“You know, yokan always makes me think of Tanizaki. You’ve read Tanizaki, of course?”
“I don’t mean the fiction. Have you read In Praise of Shadows?”
“So you’ll recall where he talks about eating yokan as being like eating shadows, or something like that—how he calls it a quintessentially Japanese candy precisely because it’s so… well, so tenebrous, I suppose one might say. Because of its dark translucency. The way it lies on a dark dish all but invisibly in a dim room, and the way it melts on the tongue like a sweet shadow… or like a shadow of sweetness, it’s so mild. I don’t recall the exact wording, so perhaps I should read it again.”
“I recall it,” I said. “I love that book. I love the way Japanese culture has always been able to aestheticize everything… even violent death.”
“It’s so true,” he said. “And Tanizaki is right too. There’s a special Japanese virtuosity of the umbratilous, the nebulous, the… softly shadowed. It’s a sign of true reﬁnement to be able to love shadowy spaces… liminal intervals… places of transition. There’s a tacit metaphysics there too, in that aesthetic sensitivity to the dim and crepuscular, and to the moments and spaces of fluid indistinction… the junctures where possibility brieﬂy overwhelms actuality, where anything might emerge, where the mystery of being announces itself in the as yet undisclosed next moment. It speaks of the sheer fortuity of all of the world’s beautiful transformations. Dreams overwhelming waking thoughts. Unseen presences overwhelming visible absences. lt’s—how can a poor dog say it without lapsing into ecstatic gibberish?—it’s that lovely ﬂoating experience of suspense on the threshold of existence, where it seems anything might come into being. Twilight consciousness. And there’s a lovely metaphysical fragility there too, isn’t there? A sustained precariousness, as though at any moment the world might melt into potentiality again. Which is itself another revelation of the wonderful needlessness of the gift of being.” He heaved an especially deep sigh and his smile became distinctly melancholy. “In the modern world, flooded as it is at all times by shrill, brittle electric incandescences, lit by the leprous white glow of computer screens, we desperately need more shadows… more love of shadow as such. We need those places and moments in which the mind sees nameless things moving in the obscurity, in the dusk, and occasionally even knows itself as conjuring the world out of a more primordial, more timeless dreaming.” He fell silent, his eyes turned downward. It was many moments before I spoke.
“I think you found a way to say it very well. You always do. I know exactly what you mean— even if I couldn’t rephrase it in any way intelligible to myself.”Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart. Pages 320-322.
Some passages from In Praise of Shadows by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). This is from he translation by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker.
As a general matter we ﬁnd it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a ﬁne brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for tea kettles, decanters, or saké cups, we prefer not to polish it. 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.
…Of course this ‘sheen of antiquity’ of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime. In both Chinese and Iapanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling. …For better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.
…Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its ﬂorid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reﬂects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that ﬁnd their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie. …Indeed the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as though little rivers were running through the room, collecting little pools here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night itself.
Tanizaki and Gerard Manley Hopkins share some ground with the lines “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil” (from “God’s Grandeur”) as Hopkins words at this point turn toward a positive longing to feel the dark soil with bared feet and even to wear its smudge.