Shadows and Blur Part 2 — Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon

Maya Deren.   Image via

Maya Deren.  
Image via


The previous post looked at Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which explores the role of shadows in traditional Japanese architecture.  Near the end of the book, he identifies an analogous principle in literature:

“One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is a contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”  Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.  It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.”

In Praise of Shadows, p. 45

(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon provides a great example of art that conveys such mental uncertainty, and it employs shadows of light and of mind. 

(If for some reason the video does not play, you can see it here)

It’s worth noting two things about the film:

1.  The imagery is perfectly clear.  The composition of the scenes are such that we know what we are seeing at all points.   

2.  Because of this clarity, we are abled to discern a strange, shadowed logic.  We can read the various narrative leaps and gaps not as some mistake on our part as viewers, but as questions raised by the film, a clearly articulated riddle. 

Sometimes, a writing student will produce a piece of writing about an uncertain moment, and when pressed, explain that the writing is uncertain because the character on the page is uncertain.  This fails to note the distinction between an uncertain portrait and a portrait of uncertainty.

To employ the use of shadows, whether the literal shadows Tanizaki wrote of when describing the Sumiya Teahouse or the metaphorical ones that create mental uncertainty, is not to eschew clarity.  Deren’s film provides and example of art that renders unknowing with arresting clarity.

Thank you for reading.