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In praise of shadows



Near the top of every list of all-time best design books is a slim volume by a Japanese novelist called In Praise of Shadows. I had tried to obtain it in the past, without success. Now, standing in a bookstore in St Andrews (wood fire in the fireplace) I overheard mention of it and rushed over to where a young Jeremy Irons/Tom Hiddleston-student-of-Russian-literature type with those godly cheekbones and louche hair that the wind can only dishevel beautifully–was talking to an equally prepossessing woman. The book was not on the shelf, but both had read it, loved it, and insisted I must.


I proceeded to ask the proprietor, who thought she had it but supposed it would take a while to find. Would Lynne and I, in the meantime, like some coffee? Not, as it turned out, two cups of coffee, but a tray with a coffee pot, plate of shortbread, cream and sugar, the works, set before us on a small table. She fetched two chairs. Then set about finding the book–a courtliness not at all uncommon in Scotland. The students sat down to talk with us some more.


(That, by the way, is travel as it should be, not the barbaric, bus-excreted hordes that tourism has become from Asheville to Venice.)


She found the book and I read it that night. It has entered my shelf of sundry bibles. It enumerates all the diaphanous ways in which traditional Japanese culture clings to shadows, unfolds its rituals in crepuscular spaces, lantern dimness and hallowed nocturnes. Shadows are the deeper, more mysterious ‘selves’ of material things. Their souls. This is not an abolition of light. It is an adroit management of light toward another state, toward a medium as serene and isolate as paper or tea.


I recall at LACMA, an art museum in Los Angeles, being settled in a room of utter darkness. Solid, spooky, panic-provoking darkness. Time had dissolved. At some point obscure shreds of light quivered distantly in the air, then vanished. For ten minutes or so the viewer wondered if she or he had actually seen them, or merely been subject to some illusory chrism betraying us into an infinite void. Would I ever return? For those minutes of fright and beauty, the soul in me felt tangible.


I thought of this, reading In Praise of Shadows. How euphoric to read someone saying about light and shadow what I’d always felt to be true and tried, with my furniture in particular, to enact. I kept Lynne awake, reading passage after passage.


That’s why, as I’ve said before, I like cathedrals more than museums. Shadow and light perform like vast, entwining perfumes. Nothing is blatantly material. Things hush and flicker in a staggering twilight where art plays its lyrical, vivid part. A flute of glass and stone.


Carl Jung (hold on, folks) made shadows modern (ok, so did De Chirico and lots of others too). I wondered about Jung as I read my book. Like the otherworldliness of cathedrals, the shadow is the sometimes forbidding otherworld of our being. People could live sufficiently wise and moderate lives that the world would go on, improving and self-civilizing, undoing the need for large, eruptive devastations incurred as correctives to our perennial folly. Sounds savage, but Jung is insistent and has, as evidence, millennia of myths affording caution about our hubris, our greed, our faiths, our fatuous rationalizations, our craven leaders, our smartphones.


But Jung’s shadowland is also one of evening gardens or tearooms in Kyoto. A place where the souls of things stir to life. Where, as the Surrealists understood, strange, lovely, disturbing congruences happen that daylight would never permit. Where storytellers sit, like they do at night in the squares of Marrakesh, recounting tall and tireless tales.

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