In Praise Of Shadows

In Praise Of Shadows

I recently stumbled upon a beautiful slim book on Japanese aesthetics — “In Praise of Shadows.” This is written by the doyen of Japanese literature, Junichiro Tanizaki. Essentially the book captures the distinction between Western and Eastern sense of aesthetics (particularly Japanese).

Unlike the Western conception of beauty — a stylized fantasy constructed by airbrushing reality into a narrow and illusory ideal of perfection — the zenith of Japanese aesthetics is deeply rooted in the glorious imperfection of the present moment and its relationship to the realities of the past.

I have been fascinated with objects worn out by life and living. And I find it incredibly comforting to be surrounded by these objects with its relationship to the past. I remember as a 9-year-old kid climbing into the attic of my house and pulling out my grandfather’s discarded easy chair. Those days we had a family carpenter like a family doctor who helped me put it back together. The joy of assembling that piece with all its imperfections was a delight. Tanizaki captures this feel very succinctly in his “In praise of shadows.”

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. We begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark and smoky patina.”

“Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement.”

He further talks about the evils of excessive illumination “Light is used not for reading or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs against the basic idea of the Japanese room.”

I have found this sense of aesthetics fascinating, as also essentially human — imperfect, vulnerable, mysterious, and the scars are what makes it beautiful. Even in our work, the occasions when this aesthetic sensibility has dominated our thought process, our work has demonstrated a silent power.

When the attempt was to explore a problem by accommodating its complex and contradictory layers, solutions became much richer. When the work had the depth of shadows and allowed participants to explore and find their meanings, work became inspiring. When we dared to leave things unsaid and allowed participants to complete the puzzle, work became more impactful.

When the thinking space allows for accommodating imperfections and vulnerabilities than yearning for a perfectly prescribed solution, magic happens!

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