I first became acquainted with the works of Yuiko Mishima at around the same time that I started reading Nietzsche. Just out of high school, I was in my first year of college and in a period of life when the issue of nihilism was increasingly becoming of great concern to me. Like many young men in their late teens, I was struggling to overcome various emotional injuries and insults incurred over the course of learning my place in the social pecking order. With high school behind me, it was time to move forward into a future life and an identity that I had trouble conceptualizing, but which required that I repair my self-esteem, establish some meaningful goals and start working to build a world around myself. I needed guidance, and for better or for worse, I found that guidance in the nihilistic philosophies of authors such as Nietzsche and Mishima.
Nietzsche loomed in my life at that time like a mythic presence from the past. He was long dead; a sage from the 19th century whose respected place in the philosophical cannon was already secure. Mishima, on the other hand, died when I was 6 years old. He had been alive during my own lifetime. People still remembered him and his dramatic suicide, and there continued to be disagreement about how seriously he should be taken as an intellectual figure. As a writer he was obviously talented, but there was much debate about whether or not the content of his philosophy was coherent or simply the product of a perverted and damaged mind. Nietzsche was my respected philosophical guide. Mishima was more like a troubled older friend who fascinated me, but threatened to lead me down a very bad path.
Mishima killed himself when he was 42, and now that I am almost 50 years old, I find myself in the weird position of encountering Mishima as his elder rather than as a young admirer. While for Mishima time stopped in 1970, I’ve continued to grow and develop philosophically, and this puts me in a position to regard my hero from a new perspective. When I was a youngster in my teens, the Mishima I saw was a Nietzschean Übermensch. Though initially a frail child, in adulthood he overcame his weaknesses in order to rebuild himself according to an ideal of his own imagining. His life was his work of art, and my young mind saw in his life project a hopeful path toward the obliteration of regret, embarrassment, and indeed, the complete destruction of an identity rooted in the past. Mishima, to my teenage mind, demonstrated the possibility of creation ex-nihilo. I regarded him as a superman who became what he was by forgetting his past and willing himself to emerge as something completely new. To my younger self, this was hopeful and exhilarating as it suggested that anything was possible and that I also could potentially escape from the fears and wounds of my own history.
From my current perspective as a 50 year old man, I see a different Mishima. To me now, he appears not as someone who has created himself out of nothing by rejecting and overcoming his past, but as someone who is bound to his past, who can’t let go of it, and who has been shaped by the weaknesses that he wanted to leave behind. Nietzsche wrote in various places about the virtue of forgetting, which allows people to free themselves from the chains of resentment. I don’t think Mishima ever mastered this virtue. The fear that gripped him throughout his life was that he would revert back to that scared, fragile, weakling of his early years. Instead of overcoming and leaving this fear behind, it now looks to me as if Mishima’s life consisted of a creative remolding of this fear, which continued to manifest itself in various guises. He resented the world. He thought it was an ugly, awful place because of his own position within it. At birth he had been thrown into a subordinate, “feminized” role as a result of his own frail physical constitution and because of his dependence on a domineering grandmother, a loving but ineffectual mother, and an intellectually superficial father. His greatest wish was to refashion his reality into something beautiful by turning things upside down and becoming the master, the one who was in control and who could command and rule.
I have known two different Mishimas. When I was young, he was a hero who proved that nihilism could be overcome. Today he appears to me as yet another example that nihilism is never overcome.
Mishima’s life is the subject of two recent critical biographies, proving that he continues to fascinate authors and readers today. The first book, written by the govenor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, is titled Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima. The other, titled simply Yukio Mishima, is by Damian Flanagan, and was published as part of the series Critical Lives from Reaktion Books. Though they contain few new insights into Mishima’s ideas or the details of his life, these works nonetheless are of interest to anyone, like myself, who is continually drawn to revisit Mishima’s story, as if it is some sort of classical mythic drama in which one can find the reflections of one’s own nihilistic struggles.
Naoki Inose’s book is a monumental tome at over 850 pages in length. For a reader beguiled by the details of Mishima’s life, there is, nevertheless, nothing superfluous here. In fact, upon finishing it I was left a bit unsatisfied and disappointed with how little attention was actually paid to the final day of Mishima’s life. I wish that the book had been longer, with more description of the drama that unfolded at the self-defence headquarters on November 25th, 1970.
A notably unique detail about Inose’s account is his willingness to pass an approving judgement on the quality of Mishima’s seppuku. Chapter 31 ends with the following account:
The wound Mishima made by disembowelment started 1.6 inches below his navel, 5.5 inches long from left to right, and 1.6 to 2 inches deep. Twenty inches of his intestines came out.
It was a magnificent seppuku. (p. 729)
This is an unusual, and I think a brave, admission of admiration. Typically, accounts of Mishima’s suicide adopt a tone of disapproval, as though the act clearly was a terrible and twisted thing. This author’s recognition that Mishima’s death lived up to the aesthetic ideals of a noble samurai disembowelment bravely eschews superficial mainstream moralizing and acknowledges the tremendous – and startling – nature of Mishima’s resolve. What he did really was quite amazing. It was not an act of insanity. It was a disciplined and fully thought out act of aesthetic rebellion. Mishima would have liked to live forever. However, this being impossible, he seized the next best alternative: to grab a hold of his finitude and form it into something of his own choosing. Instead of allowing the impersonal and meaningless forces of nature to take their course, Mishima insisted upon a conclusion to his life that would forever shape the world’s understanding of who he was. He was not the same as the average folks of the world who simply grow old, age and die. He was more like Socrates, another man who chose to die as an act of rebellion against the world in which he lived. His death was a fitting conclusion to his life. Just as there would be no Socrates without his death by hemlock, and just as there would be no Jesus without his death on the cross, likewise there would be no Mishima without his death by seppuku.
In his book, Damain Flanagan notes that on the day of his death, Mishima left a note on his desk which read:
Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever. (p. 236)
I see this as an indication of Mishima’s unresolved (and unresolvable) nihilism. The truth of the world is that we can never overcome our imperfections, our finitude, or our missteps. We are thrown into a world and we build our identities from the raw material of the past, which forms the foundation upon which we leap into an undetermined future. Mishima recognized the absurd impossibility of living forever, of being perfect, of being a consummate master of life, and yet he also was unable to give up on the desire for immortality, perfection and complete mastery. Part of the issue here rests with the fact that while we can choose our own projects and interpretations of life, the one thing we cannot choose is the facticity, the givenness, of that which has already transpired. Mishima wanted to obliterate his past, first through novelistic reinterpretation, and then finally through bodily discipline. But in the end, he failed. Neither his novels nor his transformation into a body-building samurai make any sense apart from the concrete facts of his early life. Mishima was a man who, like all of us, could not escape the past. He could merely transform it into something bearable.
I like the fact that Flanagan highlights preoccupation with time as a chronic theme in Mishima’s life. As a child, daily imprisoned in his grandmother’s room, the young Mishima became intensely attuned to the passage of minutes. As a young man during World War II, he became intensely aware of the inevitability of death and the shortness of life. After the War, he became preoccupied with leaving a mark on the world. This required quick and determined action against a backdrop of the passage of time and the irreversible aging of the body. Time conspires against us, threatening to undermine and destroy all of our efforts to create something permanent, beautiful and lasting. This was the problem faced by Mishima, but the reason why his art appeals to so many of us is that it is also the problem we all face.
In his cycle of novels, The Sea of Fertility Tetrology, the final volume of which was completed on the very day of his suicide, Mishima integrated Buddhist ideas about the transmigration of the soul. But Mishima was not a Buddhist in his heart. Buddhism teaches that the suffering of life can be overcome by relinquishing desire, and this is something that I believe Mishima never could do. To the Buddhist, the world is fine the way it is. It is our own yearning that makes the world appear substandard. To Mishima – as to all nihilists – the world always falls short of what it should be, and the only recourse that we have as human beings is to mold reality into a form that more closely resembles our own subjective vision of perfection. The tragedy is that wishing does not make it so, and the objective world continues to resist our efforts.
As the anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s death approaches this month, he would no doubt be pleased that we still remember him and his nihilistic efforts to inject some purity into an impure universe.