Mishima’s ‘Sun and Steel’

Mishima Yukio has quickly become one of my favourite authors. The hardest part of writing a post about him, though, is probably deciding just what to focus on, as he was tremendously prolific. In his 20-year career, he averaged at least one full novel a year, one full play a year, several short plays and short stories, as well as some essays and poems. I suppose the best place to start would be Sun and Steel, where he explains the philosophy and aesthetic that underlies his novels.

The central problem Mishima confronts is how to reconcile words, which I understand as analagous to mind or spirit, with the body, the physical world which does not depend on words and which words often cannot describe. The former he felt he mastered at a young age. After all, he made his living as a novelist, read widely, and was naturally introverted as a child.

The body he began to understand only gradually, through a handful of experiences. He relates how, as a child, he would watch religious processions of young men carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) through town, and noticed that they all looked up toward the sky as though experiencing an epiphany. He wondered what they saw and thought. Years later, he took part in such a procession, and as he felt the weight of the mikoshi on his shoulders and began marching in step with the other young men, he realised what they had all been thinking: nothing at all. They were merely gazing at the sun.

When I first read that story, it struck me as anticlimactic. However, I think it relates partly to an older Japanese tradition. Famed swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi noted (in his Book of the Five Rings) that a skilled warrior does not consciously plan his moves, but acts and reacts to an opponent by a kind of instinct. Miyamoto and Mishima refer to a kind of knowledge that does not rely on the intellect, and which words cannot quite adequately describe. While many philosophies (e.g., Confucianism) urge cultivation of the intellect, they often neglect this physical knowledge which, according to Mishima properly forms fully half of human experience.

So, to be a full man, one must cultivate both the body and the intellect. After a man’s gotten a library card and gym membership, though, what should he do next? Is there a way to reconcile these two types of knowledge? The question persists through several of his novels to varying extents. See, for example, Runaway Horses, the second book in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The story takes place in pre-World War II Japan, and the protaganist, Iinuma Isao, has mastered control of his body through kendo, and has also kept his spirit completely pure. This purity leads him to decide that he must, somehow, serve the emperor by protecting him from the corrupted politicians and capitalists who control Japan. His purity gives him the will and his body gives him the ability to act, and his solution is to gather like-minded comrades and then assassinate certain key figures, then commit suicide after accomplishing that mission. They hoped that their own dramatic action would inspire the rest of the nation to demand a restoration of imperial authority.

One could also relate this, of course, to Mishima’s own decision to commit suicide, and in spectacular fashion at that. Along with a few followers, he took over a military office, demanded the restoration of imperial power, and then committed suicide. His inspiration came from words, his action from the body.

 

(image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

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Education without University

I graduated from university this past August, but I’m still uncertain what to make of the experience. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I certainly did not receive an education, even if one limits my courses to my own major (Literature). Despite receiving a good grasp of English-language literature from about 1850 on, my school didn’t even offer many classes beyond that. No classes at all on Greek or Roman literature (in fact, there’s no classicist on the faculty), no classes on Medieval or Renaissance literature (except Dante and Shakespeare), and few on non-English language literature.

Fundamentally, I struggle to see any guiding philosophy behind the school I attended, and the same problem seems to extend to most American colleges. What is the university’s goal? What should its graduates look like? What are they expected to know by the time they graduate, and why? Though a core curriculum existed, the arrangement of courses seemed arbitrary, and despite attending a university that claimed to emphasise interdisciplinary studies, I saw no attempt to link one field with another.

Though American education suffers from many problems, I suspect that most schools could address them first by simply deciding on their first principles; essentially, deciding what a newly graduated student should look like. Should technical expertise take priority? Or should they favour a more traditional approach and emphasise a liberal education?

The latter may be impossible in the climate of most schools, with their emphasis on diversity. Though it should be obvious that DI-versity is opposite to UNI-versity, most schools I’ve looked at proudly advertise their diverse studentry and multicultural approach to education. Though non-western cultures certainly have much to teach, nonetheless the United States arose out of Western European culture, so an American university that claims to value a liberal education, which cultivates the student’s character by learning from what’s best from the past, must emphasise the West.

Most colleges, though, are essentially technical or vocational schools. Thus, fields that have little to no relation to cultural matters, like business, accounting, or engineering, receive just as much of the university’s attention as traditionally liberal subjects like philosophy or natural science. There’s nothing wrong with teaching these fields, of course, but they have no place in a university devoted to liberal education. Students studying, say, finance, feel that an arbitrary assortment of history or art courses have no bearing on their major. They’re right, of course, because to profit from the study of history or art requires some depth of study, not just a couple introductory-level courses, which on their own become little more than an exercise in futility.

So, where does that leave students? Those looking to learn technical skills do learn them, though I often hear that graduates learn much more from actual working experience. As for those, like me, who look for a liberal education, are left largely on our own. Again, my classes weren’t completely useless, but large gaps remain, and I think I’m beginning to understand what Ezra Pound meant when he referred to ‘young men threatened by university.’ The real draw for university, I think, is the presence of professors who can direct students to the best of Western civilisation, and the students must then take it on themselves to learn from that. So, I’ve started with Ezra Pound, recommended by one of my better professors, and working from his suggestions (mostly in his ABC of Reading). Beyond that, for now I’ll just have to stumble about the library, I suppose.…

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Now to Start Writing

So, after a couple years of a vague desire for a website, here it is – itsollkorrect.com! Yay, me!

Of course, now remains the hard part of making the best of it. The old version of this blog – ollkorrect.wordpress.com – sat dormant for long periods. It still got more use than most blogs out there, but nonetheless felt underused. Now that I have more time to write for it (and now that I’m actually paying for hosting) updates should be more frequent.

What can you expect? Well, the general theme for this blog has been intellectual growth – my own continuing education. Practically, though, I’ll be posting my impressions of whatever works impress me – whether they be poetry, philosophy, film, or whatever else I encounter. Perhaps that’ll range too broadly, but I’m reluctant to separate these topics because I’m not sure that different genres and media can be divided so cleanly.

Besides, many different kinds of works and moods factor into my life, and I enjoy reading and writing about all of them.

So, let’s get writing!

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Oh, Hey

So, I check my blog today for the first time in, well, a little while, and find that my theme is totally different. Hm…

Not that it matters much, since I’m hoping to move this onto its own server soon. More on that later, though.…

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Summer Reading List 2010

I wonder a bit at the utility of making a Summer Reading List. Last year, though I read a lot, what I read only about half resembled the list. Perhaps such an activity is less about a plan than a general goal: “I want to read roughly this amount, and what I read will likely include several of the following.”

Alternatively, making lists is just fun. So, here goes.

Paradiso – Dante (trans. Allen Mandelbaum). I’ve already started this one, actually. Having finished and greatly enjoyed Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso is obligatory. Reading a parallel-text edition only makes it more fun.

Spring Snow – Yukio Mishima (trans. ┬áMichael Gallagher).

The Cantos – Ezra Pound.

The Pillow Book – Sei Shounagon (trans. Ivan Morris).

Caritas in Veritate – Pope Benedict XVI. Actually, I intend to read several papal encyclicals, but this is the largest of them, and my highest priority.

A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy – ed. Wing-Tsit Chan. I’m mostly interested in the Confucians, but it should be an enjoyable book.

I also plan on reading several comics, but I tend to choose those even more arbitrarily than prose. Series I’ve already started and will finish, though, include Masami Tsuda’s Kare Kano, and Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack and Ode to Kirihito.…

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Semester in Review

Well, what a semester; I say ‘what a semester’ mostly because of a month of near-constant panic due to a flurry of closely-packed assignments, but I’m even more anxious now that the year’s almost over. Now that I’m halfway through Senior year, people are asking what I’ll do after graduation and actually expecting a definite answer. Like my senior year of high school four years ago, in fact.

Fuck if I know what I’m doing, though.

I don’t really feel called to any particular vocation, but am attracted to teaching at the university level. That entails graduate school, though, probably a Ph.D., which is fine, but where do I go for that? Besides, it’s too late to apply now for the next academic year, so I’ll have to take at least one semester off. That’s fine too, but most schools also want letters of recommendation, and I haven’t really bothered to brown-nose my professors that much. I haven’t gotten any help from my advisors, either.

That whined, though, I guess my anxiety is ultimately, as Led Zeppelin put it, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”

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Summer and Summer Reading

Finals are done. With that, summer begins.

I subscribe to the school of thought that states that spring, fall, and winter all properly belong to school. Summer, however, has a sacredness about it that is profaned by classes. Summer classes are, frankly, an abomination, and though I realise that they are necessary for some, I have only scorn for those who would destroy their summer vacation willingly.

Not that my summer will be completely free, of course. Besides a part-time job and mowing the lawn regularly, I have also a few goals set out for myself. The first is to build up my art skills a bit for a drawing class I’ll take in the fall. Second is to avoiding forgetting everything I’ve learned in Japanese the last two semesters. The third is to tackle a summer reading programme I’ve developed for myself – perhaps “programme” is too ambitious, but anyway it’s a list of what I’d like to read in the coming months. The early version looks like this:

Absolom, Absolom! – William Faulkner (just finished, actually)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young DogDylan Thomas

Rashomon and Seventeen Other StoriesRyunosuke Akutagawa

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound Ezra Pound

All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

Mencius

In the past, I’ve failed at summer reading lists, because I always get distracted by other projects or other books. Maybe this year will be different?…

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