A Chop Heard Round the World: Mishima
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Review of Yukio Mishima's The Temple of Dawn, Vintage Books, 1990.
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On November 25, 1970, prolific Japanese author Yukio Mishima completed the last book of his four book cycle The Sea of Fertility. He was 45 years old. On that same day, he committed seppuku, Japanese ritualized suicide. In full view of government officials, Mishima stabbed himself and then one of his assistants chopped his head off. It is impossible to read Mishima without bearing his suicide in mind. Not that the writing pantheon lacks its fair share of grisly obituaries, like that of boyish and boozy Hemingway, whose long love affair with firearms reached a fatal climax. Whether the root cause was alcoholism or depression or simply the accumulation of the daily half-deaths required by the profession, we may never know. An author has seen and expressed enough of this life; here it is; he's had enough.
The Temple of Dawn is the third book of the tetralogy. It is tender and beautiful and enigmatic. It is at once tale, travelogue, and metaphysical treatise. The metaphysical problem is this: If Buddhism says that there is no self, how can Buddhism also accept reincarnation? What gets reincarnated? In search of an answer, Mishima writes a mini-history of the soul.
The interest in this question is personal for the novel's main character, Honda, not to be confused with the fuel-efficient cars by the same name. Honda travels to Bangkok on a business trip. There he learns that a certain prepubescent Thai princess named Ying Chan believes that she is a reincarnation of Isao, a Japanese man known to Honda. Much to the irritation of the prim ladies of the court, Ying Chan constantly voices her desire to return to Japan.
Honda secures an audience with the princess and discovers that she has an accurate memory of her former life. Troubled, Honda sets off on a trip to Benares, India to confront religiosity at its purest and the planet at its most filthy. Mishima's descriptions of Benares would be hard to better: it is "soul-shaking" - "a piece of carpet, hideous to the point of brilliance" - "the end of the world." Valiantly, Mishima dives into the baffling contradiction that is India: "In India the source of everything that seemed heartless" - poverty, toxicity, suttee -- "was connected with a hidden, gigantic, awesome joy!" You cannot understand this, alas, unless you have been to India.
His visit to India alters Honda permanently, as it has so many others, including myself. It bars him from thinking "in a direct and simple way." Everything afterward is referred back to that experience. Honda speaks of it as a "cure." A cure for what? "This frightfully boring disease" of perception, of Maya, of forever wishing to possess what one desires.
What does Honda desire? Well, the toothy Thai princess has blossomed into a woman, with a vengeance one might say, and Honda wants her. It is Death in Venice all over again: another's youth viewed as a kind of antidote to one's own decrepitude. But he is decades her elder, he is married, she is aloof. His lust is checked by philosophy, philosophy succumbs to lust. Back and forth.
The following paragraph may not be suitable for all audiences. Eastern eroticism is as much concerned with what is not done as with what is done, with what is not seen as with what is seen. The Kama Sutra, for example, says that orgasm should be postponed as long as possible, and is treated as failure rather than victory, weakness rather than strength. Honda, who is given to voyeurism, runs his eyes over every inch and crevice and pore of the young bronze princess, but he never once has the opportunity to touch her body. As readers, we are glad of it: odes on the beauty of the human body will always win out over the often goofy and messy act of love. Ultimately Honda resolves to hold her in his imagination rather than hold her in his hands. But like all resolutions, this one does not last. Honda finds himself standing beneath his beloved's window, a Romeo wearing orthopedic shoes.
Many a book has been written about the obsession of older foreign men for younger Thai women. To be sure, it is a common occurrence, as any visitor to Thailand can attest. The old-young part of this pairing is easy enough to explain: men, like it or not, will often choose physical beauty in a partner over character or intelligence. The reason for the foreign-Thai affinity is more obscure. It may be merely a variation on the Death in Venice theme. The Thai worldview is exceptionally youthful. Honda notes with awe that his princess is "casually oblivious," that she grins like a child, that she constantly fails to fulfill appointments. She is, or seems to be, free. Honda gazes upon her with the same love, nostalgia, and envy that we feel watching children in a playground: "One could but assume that she was one of those rare people who knew what happiness was."
Honda, needless to say, is not one of those rare people, and The Temple of Dawn is sprinkled with passages intimating the narrator's (and author's) suicidal tendencies. After the ghats of India, dissolution of the body into its constituent elements (a.k.a. death) is hardly troubling, and is even desirable. Life breeds disillusionment breeds pessimism. "The important thing is to act on this foresight," - gasp! - "even by dying." Or: "It was better to be caught in sudden, complete catastrophe than to be gnawed by the cancer of imagination." Coming from a family of samurai, Mishima had self-annihilation in his blood, and violence freshens his imagery: "He felt the urge to thrust his hand down his throat and...extract his heart."
Great writers are more than just craftsmen and storytellers. They partake of the divine, inhabiting that often stuffy and always lonely space between heaven and earth. To convey both aspects of this hybrid existence (lusting after women, lusting after salvation) with equal virtuosity is a supreme task. All the more reason to lament Mishima's gory and untimely exit. But if the slide into mediocrity and obscurity is the only other fate of the once great and glorious - who knows but that the samurais were not wiser, to prefer the sword?
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