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our roots

At least since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we’ve seen shadows as a metaphor for the illusory and wicked aspects of life, for that which we must eradicate in order to illuminate the truth and inherent goodness of existence. And yet we forget that the darkness they cast evidences the light — palpable proof without which we might not appreciate or even notice the radiance itself.

“Reality,” wrote Philip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And yet how are we to be sure that what we observe actually is? After all, so much of what we experience as reality is the product of our remarkably flawed perception.

Some 2,400 years earlier, Plato explored this very question in his famous Allegory of the Cave — perhaps history’s most masterful figurative inquiry into the meaning of life and the nature of reality

The 1933 gem In Praise of Shadows by Japanese literary titan Junichiro Tanizaki (July 24, 1886–July 30, 1965) belongs to that special order of slim, enormously powerful books that enchant the lay reader with an esoteric subject, leaving a lifelong imprint on the imagination.

It Examines the singular standards of Japanese aesthetics and their stark contrast — even starker today, almost a century later — with the value systems of the industrialized West.

He writes:

“We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty”

At the heart of this philosophy is a fundamental cultural polarity.

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:

“The quality that we call beauty … must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows toward beauty’s ends.”

essay from brainpickings.org