Friday, December 11, 2015

Yukio Mishima

[Originally published on July 27, 2012]

Recently, my niece was visiting and decided to read my old paperback edition of The Great Gatsby.  Despite her private school and liberal arts college education, she had never read about Jimmy Gatz and his self-transformation into the mysterious millionaire of Long Island.  Remarkable, given what that education cost, eh?  She does, however, know that plastic is "bad" or something.

Anyway, she read the story and, when we were talking about it, she mentioned something that's been noticed by many a reader and critic.  Namely, F. Scott Fitzgerald rarely wrote a bad sentence.  I told her I found that to be true even in his later works, when he was surviving on a hot fudge sundae and two quarts of whiskey a day.  I really couldn't think of any other American writer of whom the same could be said in regards to either literary ability or diet.

There was, however, a Japanese writer who had also mastered the art of composition.  He, too, could not write a bad sentence, although he is not always well-represented by English translators.  He's pictured above in a moment of repose: Yukio Mishima, considered by many to be the greatest Japanese writer of the 20th century. 

He was, as opposed to Fitzgerald, highly disciplined in his physical life.  Instead of fortifying his art with whiskey and ice cream, Mishima was a body-builder and weight-lifter.  He despaired of the relative physical slightness of Japanese men of his generation, especially as compared with the American GI's who occupied post-war Tokyo, and sought to train that away through hard work in gym and dojo.  By 1970, he may have been the most physically fit man of letters the world had ever known.  This discipline is discerned in his artistic craft as well, as his plays, short stories and novels are clearly the product of much careful labor and thoughtfulness, with no small portion of appreciation for the fractured and fractious beauty of the world.

He was also a little un-hinged.  Did I mention that? 

He died shortly after taking charge of a Japanese army headquarters building.  Yes, that's right.  He did that in 1970, armed only with a sword [with about three or four followers].  He did so in order to lecture the assembled soldiers on the need to re-claim the pre-war values of labor, faith, and industry.  Then he committed ritual suicide; the kind known as seppuku.  I'll spare you the details.

Mishima's writing carries a beauty that is typically Japanese and seemingly cannot be produced by other cultures.  As Japanese literature is based on a liminal balance of loss and fulfillment, the artistic fulcrum is fragile if not presented in a way that is resolute, yet slight.  Like paper walls, flower arrangement, or haiku, what looks simple is surprisingly strong.  It is an art that is difficult to master and few have surpassed Mishima in this regard.  [Ironically, my Japanese students did not care for Mishima, although not for literary reasons.  They felt he was a cultural embarrassment due to the nature of his death.]

Also, and as odd as this may sound coming from one of my profession, he turned his self-determined death into a form of art, too.  I appreciate that more and more as the 21st century seems to be a time when timid artists and writers compliment one another on their "courage" and "transgressive work".  Somehow, criticizing Republicans, Mid-Westerners, Southerners, Christians, gun-owners, the obese and the poor doesn't seem as courageous and transgressive as storming an army headquarters, urging an indifferent audience to claim values that had long since become alien, and then ritualizing self-slaughter in order to satisfy...well, perhaps that is best expressed in the quotation below.

"All my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence. For forty-five years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels. The more I wrote, the more I realized mere words were not enough. So I found another form of expression.  I want to make a poem of my life."