Saturday, 4 June 2011

Do You Know Me?

If you don’t understand your own society you will not understand another.   How much confusion arises from this simple mistake!  Misled by the superficial codes, and the illusions and abstractions, that form the cultural mix of the country in which we are raised, we take them for reality.  We then climb onto a jet plane and land amongst a new mosaic of arresting images, customs, and baroque descriptions, and we think these are real too.

With the exception of this lone voice, no one of importance praised the work.  Mishima found himself in a peculiarly Japanese situation; he had alienated the Bundan but there was not one hostile squeak from the critics, just a silence – a characteristic Japanese method of criticism.  (The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, by Henry Scott Stokes)

How little does the writer know of Western literary culture.  What he describes is an all too common technique to silence writers and thinkers who go beyond the boundaries of respectable opinion.  Russian Climate quotes Schopenhauer’s view of his treatment in Germany; a hundred fifty years later we see the same process used against Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky in America.  It is the easiest and most effective way to eradicate work that is too difficult and uncomfortable to assimilate.


The book is especially interesting because it tries to get beyond the public face of a complicated man to find out what was really underneath; leading him to commit his theatrical suicide.  It fails.  Not because the reasoning is unsound, or there isn’t enough facts, or he doesn’t give cogent interpretations as to the thoughts and actions of this odd writer.  No.  Not all.  It is something else.  He remains forever on the outside; not quite penetrating, and thus capturing, the nature of the man.  He lacks a certain sympathy.

His most striking feature, in my own experience, was his ability to empathize with others, to understand what they were thinking and to respond to it.  No one of my Japanese friends had one fraction of his uncanny ability to know what was going on in my mind.

The author doesn’t have Mishima’s second sight.  Essential for writing about such a difficult subject, and one that played with appearances.

Mishima was an enormously complicated individual because in large part he was an actor as well as a writer; playing different roles to suit the occasion: author, critic, socialite, jester, celebrity, sportsman, body builder, and aesthetic warrior; to name just a few.  His roles a sort of armour, or, to be more culturally specific, a Chinese portal hiding the Japanese room within.[i]  Although Mishima, in typical style, argued these roles were him; it was the image of a private, sensitive individual that was the illusion.  The outside was really the inside, if we are to believe this view.  Though in a room of mirrors one is apt to get lost, as we look ever more intently at our multiplying reflections; reduced finally to an infinite blur.

Scott Stokes’ comment is striking – it shatters the superficial relativism we often see in the academy today; where cultures are believed to be impenetrable to the world outside.  And it follows his observation that Mishima was well read in the Western classics, of which he knew more than most Japanese writers.  Here is someone thoroughly Westernized,[ii]  but who worships a classical Japanese past; which he wants to enact, but in a confused way.  The writer doesn’t really explore this.  He takes Mishima’s professed dualism, between the sword and the chrysanthemum, which itself is a western abstraction of Japan, at face value, and doesn’t really consider how this writer creatively misinterprets the Japanese past; and for what reasons.  Mishima believed there are two parts to Japanese culture: the pacific and the violent.  Between the wars it was the latter that dominated; since the defeat in 1945 it is peace that is all conquering.  For the culture to be whole and really alive, he thought, both these aspects have to co-exist within it.  Thus Japan needs beauty and restraint but it also must have a strong army and an imperialist mentality. 

However, his history is somewhat askew.  Prior to the Meiji Restoration Japan, under its policy of sakoku, was isolated from the world and lived for nearly two and a half centuries in peace (this had followed a century of civil war between different warlords).  During that time the samurai class gradually fell into decay, as they became progressively poorer and less influential within the society, as the merchants came to dominate a rising urban population.  That is, before 1868, and Japan’s turn to the West, the country was essentially pacific; with a vigorous economy and intellectual life; the army safely sequestered away.[iii] 

This raises a problem.  The author, and I think rightly, links Mishima’s attempt at a coup and his hara-kiri to the Shinpuren Incident of 1876 where samurai armed just with swords attacked an army barracks in protest against the forced Westernization of that period; and particularly a government order which abolished the carrying of weapons.[iv]   Most were killed by rifle fire; the survivors committing suicide.  Before this event the samurai had been peaceful members of society for centuries; with many absorbed into the bureaucracies of the Shogunate.  The Shinpuren incident isn’t so much to do with the decline of a warrior ethos, as a loss of status of a particular group – no longer would they be the defenders of Japan; for this professional soldier class was too weak to defend the country against the modern armies of the West. Their symbolic role was gone and their revolt was a romantic illusion; a protest at their decline and a defence of a lost society.  It reminds me of other rebellions against the modern world, such as the Luddites in 19th century Britain.  In Japan, of course, such resistance is overlain with complicated attitudes to Europe and America – the modern world was both new and foreign.  Thus the Shinpuren Incident is both nostalgia for the old Shogunate and an attack on the new, Westernizing, Imperial Japan.

What appears to have happened is that Mishima has overlain the state ideology of the 1930s and early 40s onto a quite different past; which then he makes into a quite peculiar species.  A thoroughly modern, and western, nationalist ideology, which closely resembles that of the European nation states in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and which often romanticised a distant, often folk past, is confused with the ancient reality.  That is, Mishima is a child of the Meiji Restoration, and the tensions it created: where to be independent Japan had to copy the West.  It needed a big economy to have an effective army.  It required colonies in Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria to protect itself against Russian, European and American imperialism.  It had to be strong to be free.  And it had to be Western to remain Japanese.  This curious amalgam is perhaps best represented in the Rokumeikan, a building where high officials entertained Western diplomats dressed in the latest European fashions; which they believed would lead to a revision of “the unequal treaties”; which inflicted harsh trade policies and extra-territoriality on Japan.  To be like the West, to copy them exactly, would mean to be treated as if there were the West.[v]   A curious illusion, and one that collapsed by the 1890s when this strategy failed.

His ancestors belonged to the aristocracy; he went to an aristocrat’s school; and in his early adolescent was influenced by romantic nationalism, an ideology encouraged by the military rulers of the state.  He was imbued with a worldview he could not escape; formed at that most impressionable age.[vi]   Being very intelligent and an artist of the first rank this would, of course, cause immense problems, as he strove to create an identity of his own; to make a space for his own freedom.

The author doesn’t explore in any great detail the emotional reaction to living with an old woman, in perpetual decline during his earliest most formative years.  He believes, and I think correctly, that part of the answer to Mishima’s obsession with death is to found in that time; but he doesn’t properly connect the physical decline of the grandmother with the aversion which must have arisen in the young Mishima – intense love intermingled with the need to protect the self from terminal illness, and bodily decay.  Emotionally this may have given him the feelings, and the stimulus, to force himself to die young.  It was because of this relationship that the cult of death, the ideology of the literary groups to which he belonged in his youth, was not just an idea, an intellectual abstraction, but was fused with his feelings; and fully integrated into his personality it drove him ultimately to his suicide.

His grandmother dressed him as a girl.  And he was separated from other children, seeing them only occasionally.  He was trained from a young age to succeed and be successful; and he was abnormally precocious.   All this would isolate him from a normal childhood, which traditionally in Japan has seen greater a separation from adulthood, a time of greater relative freedom than elsewhere.[vii]   One would expect him to be somewhat aloof and distant from those around him, as he was, the author confirms.  Also, many precocious adolescents never quite grow up: their development seems to stop just short of full maturity.  Both these aspects – his lack of a regular childhood and his precocity – may explain his later play acting, and the views that he held.  He never accepted the boundary between adult and child; while his views never developed beyond what he acquired in his teenage years.  He remained the indoctrinated youth of the early Showa period.

He was homosexual in a society where it was frowned upon; he was physically weak but wanted to be strong; he was a writer but needed to be a hero.  He wanted the world to stop in 1943.  These, together with his unique cultural and familial background, are the tensions which drove Mishima, and which he could not resolve; until his death on November 25th 1970. 

What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my true nature, and… what people regarded as my true self was a masquerade.

Intellectuals make explicit what most people only feel; and are aware of vaguely.  This can create a certain disgust, particularly with themselves, as they consciously expose the immorality, shallowness and general apathy around them.  This may appear a paradox but is the reaction of individuals who feel isolated from the community; that breaking of the social bonds, and its associated sense of unnaturalness – it is this that creates that personal distaste.  One trajectory, and all too common, is for the writer, especially as they grow older, to project that self disgust onto the rest of the society; together with an urge to make themselves clean; this is particularly so with creative artists, so close to their own feelings; and their alienation from their own society.[viii]   This feeds into simple dualisms, separating me from you, us from them, and the chrysanthemum from the sword.  In some personalities, especially if like Mishima, they want to act in the world, rather than just write about it, that explicitness quickly becomes self-consciousness.  Everything he does, as actor, samurai, singer and model, seems to the outside observer to be a performance.  In one respect it is: where others act without thought, he thinks while he is doing it.  What is unconscious in them is far too conscious in him.  So what is natural in them looks unnatural in him – because to think about what you do subtly changes it, turning it into artifice.  Why?  He is always watching from the outside, at least to some degree.  He is performing for himself, and also for others - for being intensely self-conscious is to be all too aware of other people, who become his audience. 

The pose was his true nature, because he was too much the intellectual, and too much the intelligent, and self-conscious, adolescent; always watching himself in the mirror.  That is not to say that the gangster and the right wing ideologue is his real being.  No.  It is the acting out of that personality which manifests itself in the gangster and ideologue.  That is Mishima.  And we have an inkling of that when we will see him as he really is, parading in front of us.

This will help us understand that final act in the Ichigaya barracks, which seemed more a play than a real rebellion.  He wanted to act out the feelings and aesthetic that was inside him, and so he turned the general’s office into a stage; thus the arrangements had to be just right: the banners, the ancient sword, the speeches, his death before his lover, and in front of a watching public.  The spectacle was more important that the result. The act is the art.  The artist recreating the world in his own image.[ix] 





[i] See the Joan Stanley-Baker quote in Something Better, about the public front, which tends to mirror the foreign influences, and the private interior which is Japanese.
[ii] His home was built in the Western style and decorated in a sort of kitsch Victoriana.
[iv] This was part of a wider government legislation to change the legal status of the samurai, and to create a proper, and much larger, citizen army on the Western model.
[v] See Edward Seidensticker’s Low City, High City for a description.  But this goes much further back in Japanese culture.  See footnote i.
[vi] The two most impressionable ages are the first few years after birth and adolescence. In the former the effects are predominantly emotional.  In adolescence it is the content of one’s thought, when the child acquires their ideas about the world, along with the cultural tastes and politics, that is exceptionally responsive to influence and stimuli.  In Mishima’s case he was deprived of the love of his mother, forming a very close bond with an authoritarian grandmother, who was permanently unwell.  His youth was dominated by the ideas of decadence, and the romantic nationalism of an aggressive imperial power.
[vii] Faster! Faster! Faster! has more comment.
[viii] See Energy for further discussion.
[ix] There are a few references to Nietzsche, and the author notes that Mishima’s mother put a book of Nietzsche’s on their home altar.  But this is not explored.  Yet surely this is one of the keys to this mystery: Nietzsche’s idea of aesthetizing the world; of making reality art.

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