The Unquenchable Thirst for Honour
"No novelist is dearer to me than Robert Musil", Milan Kundera says in Immortality. "He died one morning while lifting weights. When I lift them myself, I keep anxiously checking my pulse and I am afraid of dropping dead, for to die with a weight in my hand like my revered author would make me an epigone so unbelievable, frenetic and fanatical as immediately to assure me of ridiculous immortality." Few writers more than Yukio Mishima are defined by the way they have died, with Mishima not only committing suicide in 1970, but doing so with a samurai sword in an act of Sepukku after entering the headquarters of the Japanese Self Defense Force and damning the Japanese for their lack of patriotism in post-war Japan. If Kundera feared the death that would emulate a favourite author's demise and arrive at what he calls the ridiculous, a death that would undermine the work and make a mockery of the author, Mishima anticipates his in various manifestations, seeing his death as giving meaning to the work; not at all superimposing an absurd posterity upon it. Whether it happened to be writing the story 'Patriotism' that focuses on a soldier committing hari kari, giving us a book On Hagakure about "the samurai ethic in modern Japan', or a passage in the story 'Sword': "when a fellow from his own class killed himself", Mishima's death was anticipated in myriad ways in the work.
However, Mishima's oeuvre is haunted by various other preoccupations, including beauty, health, honour and dignity, and if they all come together in the relatively youthful suicide of Mishima in his mid-forties, then it would nevertheless be over-determining to read his fiction, essays etc. as a singular fascination with taking one's life. The suicide is a conclusion to a life of course, and perhaps reflective of how one has chosen to live it, but Mishima was a well-known, respected and even famous novelist long before his radical death. His work was being understood within a different context during his lifetime; why read it so differently after his suicide? What matters isn't to read the work through hindsight, but understand it with insight, to see the interest in certain concerns that happened to lead to Mishima choosing to die, but that suggested an interest in values that coincided with the suicidal mindset but that needn't be an explanation of it.
In a short play/story 'Dojoji' the character Kiyoko talks of an ex-lover who ran off with an older woman rather than stay with her. Kiyoko and this ex were the ideal couple physically. "He was such a handsome boy. When the two us went out walking together, everybody would say what a perfectly matched couple we made." After he runs off with the older woman, one day the older lady's lover fired into the wardrobe the young man was hiding in and killed him. Now Kiyoko wants to buy the wardrobe off an antiques dealer to whom she tells the story. At one moment she hides in the wardrobe herself after talking about the young man who had "spurned the only two treasures I own...my youth and my beauty." Discussing her disappearance with a superintendent, the dealer says that he is very worried, explaining that she has locked herself in there with a bottle of sulphuric acid: "She'll disfigure herself. What a horrible thing to happen! That beautiful face - she's about to commit a suicide of the face." A facial suicide is the sort of self-administered demise that a writer as fascinated by beauty as Mishima could easily comprehend, as though there isn't only life and death but also narcissistic preoccupation watching the incremental dissolution of the physical self. Numerous Mishima characters are concerned with their looks, often out of vanity; occasionally out of physical limitations that nevertheless leave them no less fixated. In 'Rain Bread', one character "went in for body-building, and was vain about his physique. He was almost aggressively muscular, the slightest movement of his limbs sending quick quivers of movement through chains of linked tendons." In 'Act of Worship' "it hardly seemed possible that the grief he distilled from this peaceful life was due solely to a lack of confidence in his own appearance - to his wall eye." Whether it is displaying the body in all its glory or hiding it from the world because of its perceived ugliness, appearances count in Mishima's work. On the cover of a Penguin edition of Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, the writer adorns it dressed only in pants while wearing a headband and unsheathing a samurai sword. If Kundera sometimes allows for a handsome picture of his T-shirt wearing self to share a cover with the production designer's art work, Mishima's cover is blatantly unabashed.
If the body is important then so is the mind. In 'Cigarettes' the narrator says "from the outset of adolescence I couldn't, for one, thing, bring myself to believe in "comradeship". My contemporaries seemed to me all insufferably dim." In the novel Thirst for Love, the central character's brother-in-law, Kensuke has a fine mind: "he could read Greek! In Japan, at least, that was a rare feat. He also knew Latin grammar to an extent of having memorized the declensions of 217 verbs. He could recite the endless names of all the characters in a number of Russian novels." This is Kensuke's wife Chieko's perspective on him, but the third person narrator is a bit more brutal. "Like an author who thinks himself a genius because his books don't sell, he felt that his not being asked to lecture anywhere was evidence that the world was not ready for his message." This is a mind that with the aid of asthma has allowed Kensuke to lead a lazy life in the countryside, as his "talent for cynicism served him well."
Whatever a character's perceived intelligence, Mishima cannot have much respect for those that do not act with dignity and lucidity, and perhaps he expresses this notion of honour best through its very limitations humanly but its possibility aesthetically. In 'Onnagata', Masuyama is overwhelmed by actor Mangiku's artistry as he sees the latter performing Kabuki theatre. Yet by the end of the story he watches as Mangiku falls in love with the youthful Kawasaki, the director of the latest production, one in which "Mangiku's part was that of the girl who is in reality a man. Although this was a male role [unlike many that Mangiku would perform in Kabuke], Mangiku would appear as a man only in the few moments of the final scene." Masuyama finally admires the actor because he is in awe of the ideal nature of the art he performs rather than the reality of Mangiku's life. By the end of the story as he watches Mangiku go off with Kawasaki, he has been disillusioned, but "along with disillusion a new sensation was assaulting him, jealousy. He dreaded where this new emotion might lead him." Earlier in the story the third person narrator notes that during a performance "Mangiku...had been living amidst these grandiose feelings, and he had radiated light on the stage precisely because the emotions he portrayed transcended any known to his audience." "The grand emotions of classical tragedy - emotions quite unrelated to our mundane lives - may seem to be guided, at least nominally, by historical facts - the world of disputed successions, campaigns of pacification, civil warfare, and the like - but in reality they belong to no period." It is these emotions Mangiku displays, but partly because he seems to be drawing such values from the work and living them in his daily existence. "How the actor behaves in real life...yes, Mangiku was utterly feminine in both speech and bodily movements of his real life." Such an actor "is the child born of the illicit union between dream and reality." But by the conclusion, Masuyama sees Mangiku coveting the arrogant young director. Thus, though the story is in the third person, it is seen from Masuyama' point of view, and how reliable can a perspective be when contained by a love by one character (Masuyama) for another (Mangiku), and where he watches the love object falling in love with someone other than he? Equally at the end of the story if Mangiku is compromised by his feelings for Kawasaki, is Masuyama debilitated by the jealousy that will leave him not sharing the higher values he finds in the plays, but the lower values of everyday life? There is no illicit union between dream and reality, but the hard bump that suggests the emotionally quotidian. If intelligence is secondary to a certain ethos in Thirst for Love, then equally, however great one's acting, it is part of a bigger code of being. Masuyama sees Mangiku's human failings, but are his own not evident also?
Thus Mishima's work often explores honour, but doesn't assume it always lies within the realm of his characters, even if of course Mishima is writing fiction just as Mangiku's performances exists in a fictional universe also. One tries to draw on reality and on art to find values that are hard to live by yet are important to attain. However, Mishima is a great modern writer partly because of the gap between honourable values explored and the reality that makes such behaviour difficult to achieve. In Thirst for Love, Etsuko's adulterous husband has died an early death and she goes off to live with her father-in-law. Here in the countryside she falls in love with a young man working on the land and acts initially with dignity in Saburo's presence, before dismissing his lover (the maid) and her young baby, sending them out into the world without employment, and then killing Saburo. If Kiyoko in 'Dijoji' looks like she'll commit a suicide of the face, Etsuko commits instead a suicide of the self: by the end of the novel after murdering Saburo she says: "He got what he deserved. Nobody has the right to cause me pain. Nobody can get away with that." Her father-in-law Yakichi says, "Who says they can't" and Etsuko replies: "I say so. And what I say no one can change." Yakichi concludes "you're a terrifying woman." Etsuko might believe that she has protected her honour, but Yakichi understandably sees in front of him a mad woman who has killed an innocent young man guilty of nothing more than preoccupying her mind. She presents it as an issue of self-righteousness, but we're more inclined to see self-collapse. Mishima takes the idea of hell having no fury like a woman scorned and examines it from the perspective of false honour, just as Kiyoko turned it into an issue of false vanity. However, where in 'Dijoji' this leads to no more than putting on lipstick and Kiyoko noticing how important her face is to her as she forgoes throwing acid on herself, Thirst for Love ends catastrophically. The short piece examines the superficiality of honour; the novel the danger of its erroneous application.
In both instances the women have not exhibited the values of Hagakure, and nor has Mangiku, taking into account several of the remarks Mishima makes about their importance in his book on it. Under the heading Dignity he says: "A man's world is a world of consideration for others. A man's social ability is measured by his consideration. Though the era of the samurai may at a glance seem a rough-and-tumble world, it operated precisely on a delicate modulation of consideration for one's fellow man much finer than exists today." "To hate evil and live one's life in righteousness is exceedingly difficult. Surprisingly enough, many errors arise from believing that it is essential to be strictly logical and value righteousness above all else." "If a man holds death in his heart, thinking that whenever the time comes he will be ready to die, he cannot possibly take mistaken action."(On Hagakure) Should Etsuko have taken her own life rather than murdered someone else: shouldn't she have been ready to die and thus avoided the mistaken action? Kiyoko's motivations have their own logic as she wishes to die in the very wardrobe that her great love was killed in, but the result would have been absurd had she succeeded. In 'Onnagata', Mangiku seems oblivious both to Masuyama's feelings for him, and the high regard in which he is held. He lacks consideration.
Now of course if Mishima were a writer of little significance he would have written books holding up certain values he finds in the Samurai ethic; but instead he explores them in various manifestations often through modern living. If he does allow honour to remain it sometimes does so in the most convoluted of circumstances. In the 'Pearl' we once again have a certain type of suicide. Near the end of the story one of the characters swallows the titular object that has caused so much of a nuisance throughout the tale. "Mrs Matsumura watched in horrified fascination. The affair was over before she had time to protest. This was the first time in her life she had seen a person swallow a pearl, and there was in Mrs Yamamoto's manner something of that desperate finality one might expect to see in a person who has just drunk poison." Early in the story Yamamoto slipped a pearl that she found on the plate with a piece of birthday cake into Matsumura's bag as revenge on a woman she has never much liked: she turns her into a thief. The story follows the permutations of this action amongst the people who were at the birthday party before concluding on Yamamoto slipping the pearl that had caused so much trouble early on not into someone's handbag maliciously, but now into her own mouth honourably. The story is a quiet comedy of middle-aged and middle-class mores and manners, but it is as though Mishima is interested once again in the swallowed pearl as suicidal sublimation, and honour as a possibility out of initial moral weakness. "....so impressed was she [Matsumura] by Yamamoto's simplicity and purity that she could only think of that lady as a saint." However the story ends on the woman whose pearl it was with her ring now refashioned to accommodate two pearls, while the two other women at the birthday party, Mrs Azuma and Mrs Kasuga, who had been good friends, now falling out because of the various events.
In this instance the story is narratively complicated, while much of Mishima's work is chiefly psychologically complex. It is not that the characters in the 'Pearl' are one-dimensional; more that the story explores an incident and cares only for the dimensions of character that allow for the permutations that come out of it. In a novel like Confessions of a Mask it is very much the other way round. There is barely any story at all, with the book covering the adolescent years of the narrator as he occasionally apologises for the book's focus. "If there are those who would reproach me, saying that what I have been describing is too much of a generalization, too abstract, I can only reply that I have had no intention of giving a tedious description of a period of my life whose outward aspects differed in no way from those of normal adolescence." Mishima here admits there is no great story to tell narratively, but that there is an exploration worth investigating as he searches out the singularity of a young man's life from the inside, and in a work that can feel close to the autobiographical. Confessions of a Mask explores a teenager's realization of his homosexual desires, but this isn't an act of gay liberation; more a series of contradictions and conflicts continuously being worked through. "My uneasiness was the same as that of which Stephan Zweig speaks when he says that 'what we call evil is the instability inherent in all mankind which drives man outside and beyond himself towards an unfathomable something, exactly as though nature had bequeathed to our souls an ineradicable portion of instability from her store of ancient chaos.'"
Dignity and honour thus become not necessarily timeless codes, but resolutions that can keep in abeyance the chaos of the universe. "In the last analysis, the only thing that matters is the resolution of the moment. A Samurai makes one resolution after another, until they add up to his whole life." (On Hagakure) Such a position doesn't ignore the chaos nor assume that order is fundamental; more that the chaos is paramount and that one must be vigilant in the face of it. In Confessions of a Mask, homosexuality wouldn't be wrong, but it can be a problem if it leaves the individual in a state of ongoing disarray. The narrator's confused relationship with his feelings create confusion in others and chaos in himself. Talking of a friend's older sister and a school acquaintance, Omi, the narrator says: "By watching the men who surrounded her, I came to realize that I possessed not a single trait that could attract a woman. Thus, at long, last I admitted to myself that I could never become an Omi and, upon further consideration, that my desire to become like Omi had in fact been love for Omi...And yet I was still convinced that I was in love with Nukada's sister."
One way of resolving this problem is superficial; another profound, or rather one creates a false front that could lead to the erosion of self; the other to its augmentation. As the narrator in Confessions of a Mask believes: "everyone says that life is a stage. But most people do not seem to become obsessed with the idea, at any rate not as early as I did. By the end of childhood I was already firmly convinced that it was so and that I was to play my part on the stage without ever once ever revealing my true self." In On Hagakure, Mishima asks: "What is dignity? Dignity is the outward manifestation of inviolable self-respect." Where the former indicates a mask that hides the person, the latter suggests an integrity that manifests itself in outer gesture. If one assumes that life is a stage on which one merely acts, then the chaos remains but in the wings, constantly threatening to return. In Mishima's notion of dignity it isn't ignored and left on the periphery; it is absorbed into the core of man. "It is what makes a man a man."
Or for that matter a woman a woman. Mishima may be much more concerned to show man's fight with dignity and chaos, but there are also plenty of examples of women central to Mishima's work, including in Thirst for Love, The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea (where a widow has a two day affair with a naval officer), and in the short stories 'Pearl' and 'Death in Midsummer' (where a mother of three children suffers a terrible loss). But it is often as though the woman's loss follows the loss of a man. In both Thirst of Love and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, the women are widowers, and in one of Mishima's most brilliant and appalling stories, 'Patriotism', the woman kills herself shortly after her husband takes his own life. Here a lieutenant decides to commit hari kari after discovering that all his closest colleagues had sided with the mutineers in an event taken from history. Mishima's story opens by mentioning the February 26 Incident of 1936, where Imperial Troops attacked Imperial Troops, and goes on in immense detail to describe the lieutenant's ritual suicide. Not before, however, giving us some back story on the couple to the detriment of back story on the incident. Where we are told little about the political situation in Japan at the time, we are given much on the nature of the couple. They have been married less than six months, and there "honeymoon had been dispensed with on the grounds that these were times of national emergency." Here is a man dedicated to his country, and a wife dedicated to her man. "She was not in the least afraid of the death hovering in her mind...she felt as if her body could melt away with ease and be transformed to the merest fraction of her husband's thought." Of course the lieutenant is caught in a bind: he doesn't want to betray his country, but neither does he want to fight against his friends, men who had not long before been to the house as occasional guests. "There may be an Imperial ordinance sent down tomorrow. They'll be posted as rebels, I imagine. I shall be in command of a unit with orders to attack them...I can't do it. It's impossible to do a thing like that." The lieutenant must consequently take his own life, and his spouse Reiko must take hers afterwards. This is the inexorable logic of honour, as though neither husband nor wife have a choice. While we might question the politics, and the sexual politics, involved, we would be missing the point to concentrate on these aspects to the detriment of the honourable.
The point is to muse over the correct decision from a certain point of view, and there is little in Mishima's story asking for us to see their actions as erroneous within the context. When the lieutenant and Reiko make the decision, he says "Good. We'll go together. But I want you as a witness, first, for my own suicide. Agreed?" Just afterwards the narrator notes: "when this was said a sudden release of abundant happiness welled up in both their hearts. Reiko was deeply affected by the greatness of her husband's trust in her. It was vital for the lieutenant, whatever else might happen, that there should be no irregularity in his death. For that reason there had to be a witness." The moment is almost presented as a small bureaucratic detail, of making sure a contract is signed within legal requirements, or of a mess made that the husband won't have time to tidy up and where the wife must afterwards leave the place spick and span. Yet this sense of understatement is consistent with dignity. Both the lieutenant and Reiko will die not at all superficial or absurd deaths, but will die having absorbed the chaos of a situation (where the Imperial order is attacked from within) and done so by dying honourably. Whatever one makes of their decision, their action is not a deed that contributes to the mask, but to dignified feelings towards each other, their friends and the nation. It as though they have gone to the bottom of the problem and realized this is the only solution. This explains there "abundant happiness."
The ritual suicide also allows however for Mishima to link sex and death, as though desire often needs to pass through a still stronger death-drive. As he prepares to make love with his wife the lieutenant wonders, "was it death he was now waiting for? Or a wild ecstasy of the senses? The two seemed to overlap, almost as if the object of this bodily desire was death itself?" Yet this is part of a broader interest in paradox evident in Mishima's work. "Exaltation swelled Ryuji's voice when he touched on the misery of his life." (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea) "He couldn't understand why society in general wasn't uncomplicated and beautiful, like the world of sport, why its conflicts weren't resolvable through contests whose outcome was evident to anyone. Over the years, he had elevated this resentment into a kind of poetry." ('Sword') "Joy flashed across her face like agony." (Thirst for Love)
Now one reason why Kundera might have seen his death doing weights as ridiculous would have been because of its weak existential link with the work. It was already weak enough in Musil's case; but to die a death that would resemble that of a writer whom one greatly admires without having much of a connection to the work becomes an absurdity too far. Mishima's death however was matched only two years later by one of Japan's greatest modern novelists, Yasunari Kawabata, a close friend of Mishima's. According to one Kawabata biographer, the writer had nightmares about Mishima's suicide for at least two hundred nights in a row (Imdb) before gassing himself in his apartment. Here though we don't at all see ridiculousness, but instead coherence, with both Mishima and Kawabata writers fascinated by death in their work. In Mishima it is often as we've proposed about pride and dignity; in Kawabata about death as the big sleep and life as a continuation of being that incorporates subjects and objects, the dead and the living. One of Kawabata's best known works, House of the Sleeping Beauties focuses on older men who go to a house to sleep next to young women rather than have sex with them. The women are drugged and the visitors can look but not touch. The women are neither quite dead, nor quite alive, and the men are nearing the end of their own mortality. Thousand Cranes opens with a note on tea ceremonies, such is the importance of this age-old ritual going back to the thirteenth century on the short novel. Both writers in very different ways incorporate within their work a particular approach to existence that isn't life affirming but death defining: our life is contained by or gains much of its meaning from death or the presence of the past in the present.
For some this approach on Mishima's part was simultaneously immature and hopelessly morbid. "His vision of life" according to Martin Seymour Smith, "was pitiful: he was, for all his gifts and his occasionally expressed sense of beauty, no more than a nasty little boy." (Who's Who in Twentieth Century Literature) Hardly showing signs of critical maturity himself in this instance, Seymour Smith nevertheless captures an element of Mishima's perversity, but he seems to take the man and the work as one and the same thing. When we talk of Mishima's suicide being consistent with his life that isn't quite the same as insisting there is no difference between the two. In Thirst for Love it is unlikely that Mishima's approach to Etsuko's decision to kill the object of her preoccupation Saburo is approved, while the double suicide in 'Patriotism' happens to be. From a certain point of view both the story and the novel might show signs of immaturity on the characters' part. But where in Thirst for Love the woman's childish infatuation with a man half her age leads to the latter's demise and what we might assume is her collapse into psychosis; in 'Patriotism' however, we could disagree with the lieutenant's decision to kill himself, and feel it particularly harsh that the wife has to witness his death and then kill herself too, but we must see it is as consistent with honour and dignity. In Thirst for Love we witness honour and dignity's failure. The danger of attributing a certain sensibility to a writer through their work doesn't just lie in the cause and effect (as if all writing is inevitably autobiographical), but that usually it requires an oversimplification of material that goes in several different directions according to the needs of the given novel or story.
Trying to pin down a sensibility, however, by starting with the oeuvre and alluding to the life, can lead to a partial understanding of the work rather an assertive judgement of the writer. If there is a Mishima world view it rests in exploring the success and often the failure of honourable actions, sometimes vaingloriously pursued (Kiyoko locking herself in the wardrobe in 'Dojoji') and sometimes subtly deflected - Mrs Yamamoto's pearl swallowing in 'The Pearl'. Often it can be hopelessly self-protective as we frequently see in Confessions of a Mask, and sometimes dangerously misplaced (as with Etsuko in Thirst for Love). On occasion it can be found on the stage ('Onnagata') and sometimes with terrible rigour in a character's life - as we discover in 'Patriotism'. If Mishima's suicide haunts the work retrospectively it is nevertheless more useful to look for a principle deeper than the suicidal to comprehend the material, while also accepting that unlike Kundera's claim that it would have been silly to have died while lifting weights, it hardly damages our sense of Mishima's oeuvre when we know that he ended his by ritual disembowelment. Mishima might have called one of his finest novels Thirst for Love, but overall there is surely much more present an unquenchable thirst for honour, an honour that can give shape to the confusions, the ontological chaos, of life.
© Tony McKibbin