Tag: Mishima Yukio

What’s the Appeal of Mishima Yukio?

SFA222007830A while back, while visiting a friend of mine, I mentioned having recently re-watched Paul Schrader’s fascinating biographical film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He had never heard of Mishima Yukio, and after explaining that he’s famous as one of Japan’s greatest novelists and infamous for committing suicide in spectacular fashion in 1970, he asked why I had such obvious admiration for a man who committed suicide, which, being a faithful Catholic, I consider to be an inherently evil action.

It’s a fair question, and one that I could have dodged by saying I just like his novels. I certainly do love his novels, but that isn’t what first attracted me to his work. Rather, my first exposure to him came in my days as a college-age delinquent. He was one of a handful of authors in the university library’s small section for Japanese language and literature, and since I didn’t have a lot of time I grabbed the shortest book there, Sun and Steel.…

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The Bibliophile’s Journal IX: The Crystal Comes Back

Yep, going back to subtitles for this monthly – hey, remember when Bibliophile’s Journal was going to be a monthly series? Well, we just skipped a month or ten. No big deal.

Anyway, I’ve read a few things in the past month or so, so let’s bring the journal back.

First up, Alex Cross, Run by James Patterson, and Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Alex Cross was loaned to me by my boss, Rules by a co-worker. I’m fifty pages into the second and it’s tolerable; I finished the first and it sucks. Our hero, Alex Cross, perfectly fits the cliché of the “good cop,” so if you’ve seen most any B-grade crime movie or TV show, you’ve met this character. The villains are one-dimensional and more evil than Satan; Patterson tries to add some shock value by making their crimes perverse and adding some sexual tension between the two men, but it comes across as what an eighth-grader would write if asked to produce a “shocking” crime novel.…

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The Bibliophile’s Journal VIII

Yeah, dropping the post subtitling thing after one week. Maybe next time, if I think of something good.

Anyway, this past month may mark the beginning of a change in the way I read books, since I’ve subscribed to Audible. I’ve listened to a handful of audiobooks in the past, and though I don’t like them nearly as much as sitting down and reading through a physical book I decided to give this a try since I often find myself listening to podcasts while, say, cooking or working out. I don’t actually follow many podcasts, though, but audiobooks seem like a logical step. Besides, I don’t get through as many books as I’d like, and this should help with that.

The first audiobook I downloaded was Mishima Yukio’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Like I expect from a Mishima novel, much of the story consists of either seemingly unrelated anecdotes of the narrator’s life or philosophical tangents, but they all tie together and lead towards the novel’s climax (so it seems so far, but I’m 90% through and am pretty sure I know where this will end). Mishima’s stories remind me somewhat of Flannery O’Connor in that he likes to make use of the grotesque not so much for shock value, but to make a larger point, though that point seems more obscure with Mishima than O’Connor. At least, I feel like I grasp O’Connor’s ideas more readily than Mishima’s.

On a side note, it took some time to get used to the reader’s voice. It’s softer and higher-pitched than I expected, though I suppose it does match what I imagine the narrator’s voice would sound like. I guess I was just prefer movie announcer guy’s voice when listening to someone read.…

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Notes on the Didactic Use of Fiction

“Didactic” literature has a poor reputation, in part because of its distinguished critics. J.R.R. Tolkien’s dislike of allegory is well-known, and his friend C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is often compared unfavourably to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings partly because one is allegorical and one is not. Edgar Allan Poe also criticised explicitly didactic literature, and Lewis Carroll mocked the tendency to look for a “moral” to stories via Wonderland‘s Duchess character.

Certainly, stories written with a particular moral in mind often turn out awkward or hammy, but can we entirely discount a didactic use of fiction? After all, Aristotle points out in the Poetics that children learn primarily through mimesis (roughly, “imitation”), and he refers to drama and epic poetry as “mimetic” arts, since they’re imitations of (what is plausibly) real life. Few, I think, would deny that the best way to learn something is often through experience; the more successful businessman will generally be the one who has been in business for several years, not the one who has merely read the abstract principles of economics, and one could regard fiction as a vicarious form of gaining experience.…

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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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