The Conversation

Lawrence-Torcello300-470x260My friend, Lawrence Torcello, was recently interviewed for a podcast called The Coversation. Here’s a link to the interview in which he discusses the philosophy of John Rawls and defends the ideas of liberalism:

Larry is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is also one of the nicest guys that I know.

The Samurai and the Ubermensch

warrior+of+spiritA short essay that I wrote in the 1990’s titled “The Samurai and the Ubermensch: Tragic Heroes” has been translated into what I think is Norwegian. It appears on a blog called Vama Marga.

Here’s the text of the original essay, which first appeared in Volume 3 of the philosophy journal Reflections (1994-1995), and subsequently in The Nihilist’s Notebook (Moralinefree Press, 1996):

The Samurai and the Ubermensch: Tragic Heroes

By John Marmysz

“…when whole nations, at first guided by priests, after having slaughtered each other in the name of their chimerical divinities, later take up arms for their king or country, the homage offered to heroism counterbalances the tribute paid to superstition; not only do they then most rightly substitute these new heroes for their gods, but they also sing their warrior’s praises as once they had sung the praises of Heaven…”

–The Marquis de Sade, Reflections on the Novel

Nihilism is the situation obtained when one comes to the realization that beyond the linguistic world, there lies nothing but chaos and disorder. The world as it is, seperate from humans, exists in a state of continual conflict and flux (says the nihilist), and any order imposed upon this situation is necessarily artificial. There is only one “meaningful” option open to humans, however, and this option is to impose order upon the world. Language is the means by which humans impose order upon the actions that appear to occur in the world. The bringing together of art and action is a dangerous balancing act which severely contrasts “man, the creator” with “man, the impotent being.” It is this contrast between empowerment and dissolution which characterizes the heroic figure and which lies at the heart of tragedy.

Ecce Homo and Sun and Steel offer the insights and intimations of two authors into their own lives as they relate to the creative venture. In these two books, Nietzsche and Mishima, cloaked in the overt conventions of the critical autobiography, lash out at the practice of divorcing art from action. They criticize the reification of the linguistic world, which they think has taken place at the expense of the pre-linguistic world. Their quarrel is with those who use words to mediate their experiences in the world in order to deny their own heroic capabilities.

Both Nietzsche and Mishima are advocates of a way of life that stresses a nexus of art and action with an emphasis on the “tragic.” “Saying Yes to life in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life rejoicing over its inexhaustibility even in the sacrifice of its highest types – that is what I call Dionysian, that is what I understood as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet,”(1) writes Nietzsche in this concise summation of his conception regarding a heroic nobility. This Dionysian status is gained not by “thumbing through books,” but by suffering through experience and rejoicing in the vitality of living. Mishima complements this view when he writes, “He who dabbles in words can create tragedy, but cannot participate in it.”(2)

Mishima begins Sun and Steel with a discussion of the “corrsive function of words.” Mishima writes that an awareness of words preceded an awareness of the body in his own life. As a result, he feels that his view of the world was unnaturally constructed. He became isolated and cloistered away from the world, watching life pass by through his bedroom window. Through his childhood eyes, the world appeared as an abstraction. “Words are a medium that reduces the world to abstraction…and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words will be corroded too.”(3) He draws an analogy between the corrosive function of words and “…excess stomach fluids that digest and gradually eat away the stomach itself.”(4) Words then, as they artificially order the world, are also in a position to to be affected by action in the world. This is a situation of decadence; when the usage of words moves farther and farther away from an expression of liveliness. The artificial order of the world becomes reified (the corrosive function of words) and in turn the individual using the words relates only to that reification through the mediating factor of words (the corrosion of words).

Nietzsche writes, “…in questions of decadence I am experienced.”(5) In this, he intimates his own experience of life denial through words. His imagery is startling similar to Mishima’s in comparing intellectual endeavors with physical conditions. “The German spirit is an indegestion: it does not finish with anything.”(6) The functioning of the stomach is the image par excellence of the reification of the linguistic world. The stomach digests food by breaking it down into component parts which are readily recognizable and useful to the physiology. The various vitamins and minerals that are useful to the body, however, bear little resemblance to the original product. An orange is not simply vitamin C, for instance. What the body does not use is rejected as waste product. In disorders of the stomach the body cannot distinguish between waste and nutrient and consequently churns endlessly, causing distress to the organism. Nietzsche is not embarassed by his experience of decadence but rather sees it as something which has given him a special sensitivity to the “signs of ascent and decline.” He refuses to feel resentment towards his experiences.

The world is a chaotic place given order only by the imposition of human will. Humans, in this way, create something out of nothing. Mishima refers to this creation as a “false order” which “…is a kind of protective function of life in the face of the chaos around it, and resembles the way a hedgehog rolls itself up into a tight round ball.”(7) By creating these little universes humans experience a “…burst of lively, centripetal activity.”(8) This situation seems very much akin to Nietzsche’s “Yes and No saying.” In the face of the “abyss,” man creates and acts as if his creation is real, in such a manner allowing himself the vital and joyous activity of affirming the importance of his creation. The heroic figure moves on towards greater acts of creation using each personal, willful creation as a stepping stone, not towards an ultimate goal, but towards other projects. Nietzsche tells us to beware of the organizing “idea” which “…leads us back from side roads and wrong roads…as a means towards a whole.”(9) Creativity is valued in and of itself, and he advocates saying “Yes” to the process, but “No” to the goal. The endless road of “becoming” is traveled by a will which is excited and invigorated by its trip, enjoying its stops along the way, but which ultimately has no other purpose but to go farther and farther as the journey becomes more and more exhausting.

Mishima turns to weight lifting in an attempt to attain the classical ideal of human form that he feels will allow him to experience the “tragic” personally. Becuase his early years were preoccupied with words, he seeks to balance his life with a physical counter-weight. Certainly this physical experience is still mediated by “the ideal” which he seeks. His body itself comes to act as a metaphor in flesh of the human condition. One sculpts reality in much the same manner as one sculpts the body through weight training. There is a certain goal which is focused on for the moment, but that goal is valued only insofar as it may be destroyed when it comes into conflict with something greater than itself. The body (or life) can be intellectualized, but what brings dignity to it is only the element of mortality that lies within. For the flesh this may mean death. For life it means a confrontation with the “abyss.”

The more agressively that Mishima imposes his intellect upon his body, the more he realizes that the body and the intellect are inseparable. “…I was driven to the conclusion that the ‘I’ in question corresponded precisely with that physical space that I occupied.”(10) By taking up the practice of Kendo sword fighting he realizes the need for opposition in the task of overcoming. The pain of being struck with the sword is likened to a philosophical defeat. He admits that “…masterpieces…sometimes arise from the midst of such defeat…” but, he goes on, “I had no taste for defeat – much less victory – without a fight.”(11) It is the fight that he has a taste for, or in other words, the process of conflict.

Likewise, Nietzsche emphasizes the battle over the goal. “The task is not simply to master what happens to resist, but what requires us to stake all our strength, suppleness and fighting skill – opponents that are our equals.”(12) It is a simple matter to conquer that which is already beneath you. To move beyond that which is already your equal is the real test of the will. This is the process of overcoming which leads one higher and higher, bringing one towards the experience of the “tragic.” As the linguistic world becomes more and more complex, its position in relation to nothingness becomes more and more precarious. This situation threatens a fall of truly apocalyptic proportions. Mishima writes, “Facile cynicism, invariably is related to feeble muscles or obesity, while the cult of the hero and a mighty nihilism are always related to a mighty body and well tempered muscles. For the cult of the hero is, ultimately involved with the contrast between the robustness of the body and the destruction that is death.”(13) For the mediocre individual to fall is not tragic, but simply pathetic. It is necessary for the tragic aesthetic that there be a certain height to the descent. To paraphrase an earlier quote from Nietzsche, rejoicing in the sacrifice of the highest types is a key element in experiencing tragedy.

“The most appropriate type of daily life for me was a day-by-day world destruction; peace was the most difficult and abnormal state to live in.”(14) Mishima here gives us his formula for life, and it is in perfect sync with Nietzsche’s formula. “…and whoever wants to be a creator in good and evil, must first be an annihilator and break values.”(15) Creation in this sense presupposes the willingness to destroy. The order we impose upon the world is a constraint upon us when the time to overcome occurs, and at such a crossroads the warrior spirit is needed in order to decimate the linguistic constructs that we have come to depend on. For original, creative acctivity to be allowed, there must be nothing available to plagarize or react against. Nietzsche refers to this resignation in the face of the void as “Russian fatalism” which occurs when the individual no longer attempts to “…accept anything at all – to cease reacting altogether.”(16) This attitude is most assuredly what Mishima meant when he referred to the “mighty nihilism” of the heroic spirit. Whether he be called Ubermensch or Samurai, the individual that acts in the world does so heroically if he recognizes the “abyss” yet chooses to act anyway.

Nobility is like a meniscus, relying on the tension created by contrasting nothingness with creation. It can tolerate very little unequal pressure; too much and it ruptures. An aesthetically pleasing life is to be sought in that in between area inaccessible to words or action alone. Ironically, the sometimes extreme and severe philosophies of Mishima and Nietzsche are in fact philosphies which advocate a kind of moderation. The heroic figure is valued for his masterful ability to live a life in which he moderates the need for order with the desire for creative action. Standing between empowerment and dissolution, the hero is as deserving of “songs of praise” as any god.


(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 273. (New York. Vintage Books, 1989).

(2) Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 14. (Tokyo. Kodansha International, 1982).

(3) Ibid, p. 9.

(4) Ibid, p. 9.

(5) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 223.

(6) Ibid, p. 238.

(7) Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 25.

(8) Ibid, p. 24.

(9) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 254.

(10) Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 7.

(11) Ibid, p. 48.

(12) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 232.

(13) Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 41.

(14) Ibid, p. 57.

(15) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 327.

(16) Ibid, p. 230.