A Writer’s Notebook: response to Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows”

This is an old crib from a class assignment. I was in grad school taking a creative nonfiction workshop (which, this fall, I will be teaching myself, so hey, progress!), and I’d missed a day. (I forget why.) To make up for the missed class discussion, I had to write this response to an essay, much as I will have students write responses to essays — even when they don’t miss class — this coming fall.

In reading Tanizaki’s essay, I am reminded of the old Zen meditation device of a square of white paper surrounding a large disc of black. The idea was to sit and stare at this big dot in empty space until you became Enlightened. What that meant, exactly, I’ve never been quite sure of — perhaps you stare until the black and white are no longer distinct, where you make no more such judgments of division — though I’m sure the great Zen masters would point out that if you figure out the purpose of staring at the dot, you’ve missed the point and must begin again.

It’s the parable — central to the essay in location if not in theme — of the origins of Japanese culture and the “shadows” of his title in relief to the pure white that so often creeps up in his essay (in porcelain tiles, in paper, and so on). That’s what makes me think of the Zen dot. But it’s also his mode of writing, his tone and his address: This essay is a meditation in a sense perhaps purer than Montaigne’s, because I get the feeling that Tanizaki is writing not for me, not for a general audience, not even for himself, but for the sake of writing period. It is a reflection not of Tanizaki (though he does show up often in the piece as a commentator) but of Tanizaki’s mind, which, ultimately, is not Tanizaki’s mind but Mind. This, perhaps, is what Lopate is referring to when he comments that Tanizaki’s essay “opens up” to encompass Japanese culture as a whole and even human culture as broader than Japanese alone.

What amazes me is the organicism of his process. In the opening, it is about architecture alone, about the very personal decisions he’s made in constructing his own home according to modern “necessities” as well as traditional aesthetics. This naturally unfolds into broader considerations of Japanese taste in general and the conflict between tradition and modernity, which of course raises the more crucial — for Tanizaki — issue of traditional Japanese in conflict with (or, worse, being supplanted by) modern Western. But because he continually returns to the frame of his home and his private tastes, this transition is gradual to the point of being imperceptible. Yet it does occur with force, like the old Taoist metaphor about the fluid strength of water eroding stone, so that by the end of the essay — which is overtly a plea for remembering Japanese traditions in the face of increasing Westernization — I find myself thinking at first that this is what the essay has always been about. I am drawing no distinction between the bright beginning and this other purpose emerged from the shadows of the essay.

There was a time when I read everything — fiction and poetry, anyway, as well as the images of film — in search of Christ motifs. I was obsessed. Lately, I’ve been doing the same with Buddhism, finding Eastern philosophy behind every thing I read or see. (As an illustration of this transition, I once started a massive and near-uncontrollable paper on the Qumranic dual-messiah theme in The Matrix; after my wife and I had watched the third film, she commented that she didn’t really buy the film’s explanation for why a reincarnated character had changed appearance, and I responded “Oh, it’s a Buddhist thing,” a comment that was unintentionally pretentious and condescending and which got me in a lot of well-deserved trouble at home, but which also signaled my shift in focus when I interpret things.) I am relieved, in a way, that finally such a reading is deserved and not the product of my own perceptions, because I would argue that Tanizaki is profoundly and intentionally Buddhist not only in what he says but in how he says it. At AWP this year, one of the last panels is titled Writing the Buddha, and I hope it will further validate my perspective; I hope, if the opportunity comes up, to mention Tanizaki and perhaps this essay.

What to say about a response essay? I’m a bit of a purist, by which I mean a true response should be a pure response: start with how you feel in the moments during or immediately after reading a work. There are no wrong answers in such a response: you are simply recording what you think and feel.

Sometimes those thoughts and feelings will be, on reflection, misinformed or somehow off the mark. And that’s fine — you have a position from which to learn something. But sometimes, by stripping away the onus of scholarly insight and critical thought and focusing instead on the reading experience and creative thought, you can access the material in a way you might not otherwise have done.

This piece, incidentally, is a bit of both. In that respect, it sort of doesn’t really belong here in the notebook, because this isn’t the first draft — I edited this before I handed it in to my professor. But it is very near the first draft, and the reactions here still feel honest to me. So, in that sense, it still feels pure.

But maybe I’m wrong. Go read the essay and tell me what you think!

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