Nov 11, 2006

Yukio Mishima: Beautiful Whackjob

Disclaimer: This post is long, unfunny, and about books. You've been warned.
One of my side projects here in Japan is that I've pretentiously decided to read Big Important Books. I have no idea why I think reading Ulysses in Japan is a good idea. Maybe I want to be confused by the English language, as well as Nihongo. Maybe I'm a huge nerd. Maybe my ego is insufficiently inflated. I don't know.
Anyway, I've decided that some of the stuff I read over here should probably be by Japanese authors. You know, since I'm in their country and stuff. Two of my Japanese coworkers recommended Yukio Mishima to me. Both of them, though, were quick to emphasize that he was "crazy." Well, one of them said he was "crazy and kind of fucked up." But crazy nonetheless.
And he was! He was a totally unhinged whackjob who killed himself with a sword. Fun stuff. But, when not kidnapping government officials or disemboweling himself, he wrote books.
Anyway, I picked up Confessions of a Mask, which is considered his Big Famous Book and read it this past week. The book is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man growing up gay in Japan before, during, and slightly after WWII. He is constantly alienated from his environment, as his sexuality continually mismatches him with the other boys at his school, with women, and with what various friends and family members expect of him. He desperately tries to decieve himself, to be attracted to women, to carry on an affair with one, to trick himself into heterosexuality. He fails. He fails to conform to the social standards around him, fails to complete his self deception, and fails to make peace with his nature. The book, if anything, is a splendid example of the effects of alienation.
One of the things that especially liked about it was that Mishima definitely makes alienation something sensual. In one of the book's most cringe-inducing scenes, he describes how his legs shake hopelessly as he tries to have sex with a prostitute (after improperly kissing her, mind you). He talks about how he stares at a woman's legs and feels nothing, yet is continually drawn to men's armpits. A hopeless relationship is summed up in a description of a perfectly penned letter, and he again and again gives us descriptions of how he conflates sex with violence, beginning with the narrator masturbating to painting of the dying St. Sebastian.
So, Mishima does something that I admire quite a bit; he deals in abstracts by way of the substantial. T. S. Eliot called this the Objective Correlative. He maintained that simply mentioning an emotion or idea was not enough to call it forth in the reader, there must be something that elicits it.
Mishima does this very well. Even his use of the passive voice I can forgive, as it adds to the distance and alienation omnipresent in Confessions of a Mask. As to his ideas, though, I have a number of criticisms.
First off, what's with the constant conflation of sex and death? I don't know if Mishima really understood his own "deal" or not, but both he and his semi-fictional narrator constantly knit together sexual desire and the desire to die or kill. I think I have an good idea about this, one that I got from, of all places, Phillip K. Dick.
In The Man in the High Castle (another novel where WWII and Japan figure prominently) Dick offers probably the best description of a Nazi that I've ever encountered. The Nazi he describes is an iconic one, a blonde German youth painted garishly on a propaganda poster, gazing off into some distant something. This particular image, says Dick, bespeaks an illusion of power. The Nazi is one who does not build some endeavor or create meaning. Instead, he fools himself into what he thinks is a sort of universal power- he imagines himself an agent of entropy and oblivion, and seems to think that he is somehow contributes to the inevitable. He thinks that because he contributes to and somehow aides that which is inevitable, he as achieved meaning. In reality, though, this is just a different sort of resignation and nihlism.
It is quite the opposite of what Camus (my favorite existentialist) called a "rebellion against absurdity." Camus says that even though entropy, death, oblivion, etc. will all come, that does not mean that we should embrace them or wish for them. He says that existence can be validated and made meaningful as a thing in the present. Death or an afterlife do not validate or invalidate the meaning that we create now.
If both of the summations above sound facile, it's because Dick and Camus were better writers than I'll ever be, and I'm just summing them up while drinking tea. Go read The Man in the High Castle and The Myth of Sisyphus. They're both short and highly worth it. Do it!
Anyway, back to Mishima...
Mishima seems to take the attitude that Dick describes with regards to his own sexuality. Never in Confessions of a Mask does Mishima long for love or understanding. He longs for sex and death- death of both his lovers and himself. Honestly, I think that the idea of real love with another man (you know, the kind where they'd go to Sunday brunch together, or pick out curtains) was something too enormous and sad for him to really want. I think that such an idea seemed such an absurd possibility to him (at least at the young age when he wrote Confessions of a Mask) that he resigned himself into becoming an agent of entropy and oblivion like Dick's Nazi, one who persues an ephemeral meaning by allying with one's destroyer.
Mishima also continually asks if love can exist without sex. "Yes, yes, yes," I wanted to shout at him. Such a question, based upon my own experience, seems naive and obvious to me, yet Mishima seems obsessed with it. In the second half of the book he attempts a heterosexual relationship with a woman whom he seems to love but does not desire. Yet that is my own interpretation. He wonders, constantly, whether he "loves" her or not. "You do indeed," I wanted to say at the narrator, "even if you don't desire her." However, neither Mishima nor his narrator inhabited a society where such a relationship (i.e., a friendship between a gay man and a straight woman) would be usual. The narrator seems to think that their relationship must be sexual or nonexistent, and thus the relationship is duly doomed.
A curious thing that I thought about Confessions of a Mask, though, is that there is no point in which the mask is ever removed. There is one self-critical section in the middle of the book where the narrator comes very, very close to being honest with himself, but he does not accept himself. Nor does he ever ask for acceptance. Nor does it occur to him to even desrire it.
I find this unusual. My personal opinion is that a cry of despair should also be a cry of "what is to be done?" Things Fall Apart, for instance, is not only a great book because of its storytelling, but also because it is demonstrative of the dehumanizing legacy of colonialism, and implicity (well, almost explicitly) it is a plea for cessation of barbarism.
Confessions of a Mask, though, is not a "gay liberation" book. Mishima does not raise his fist or voice in the air to ask for acceptance. He does not long for social or political change regarding his desires, and does not seem to think things could be different. (Perhaps this resignation explains Mishima's later desire for oblivion as he advocated militarism.) To my modern liberal sensibilities, this is bizzare. Why wouldn't you demand your society to change? Why wouldn't you protest? Why wouldn't let loose your barbaric yowp to the world? Because of this, Mishima and his narrator seem tragic beyond the scope of his fiction, and Confessions of a Mask seems to become the testament of a crying, troubled man.
At the end of the day, though, the book is brilliant. Mishima's writing style is something that I immediately took to, and even if he didn't intend to be so, Confessions of a Mask is, I think a great object lesson. Mishima is what happens when human love and desire is stunted and malformed, a tragedy of deception and unacceptance. The narrator's troubles existential troubles and self-hatred in Confessions of a Mask are wonderful arguments (even if they are unintended arguments) for liberalism regarding sexuality. Even if Mishima does not ask for acceptance, I will happily grant it to him.
I don't believe in an afterlife, but if there is one I hope that Yukio Mishima is in some gay S&M version of the Islamic heaven, surrounded by all sorts leather restraints and hot young studs. Maybe they could have some exotic piercings. I think he'd like that.
And don't worry- there will be more drunken ramblings, karaoke beltings, linguistic adventures and cultural mix ups to come. Not everything here is going to be a long literary ramble.

1 comment:

Sydney said...

But I like this long literary ramble! I love that you're in Japan reading Ulysses and Japanese authors in English! When I was in France, I didn't have a TV for the first time in my life, and I was desperate for English language anything. I read something like a book and a half a week in addition to all my school-related reading. Pete says he has a copy of The Royal Family for you, but you have to pay shipping because it weighs like ten pounds. (Psst! Joe! It's me, Sydney! You don't want that book! Just FYI!)