The Temple of Dawn

The51XJtaD1MmL._SX200_ third book in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, The Temple of Dawn, differs in many ways from the first two installments in the series. For one thing, the plot of The Temple of Dawn is much less focused and economical than are the plots of Spring Snow and Runaway Horses. Unlike the previous two books, The Temple of Dawn meanders here and there, following a very crooked path to its inevitable denouement. In this book Shigekuni Honda, now in his 50’s, becomes the central character. He is struggling with his own increasingly acute anxiety about death and human finitude at the same time that he finds himself entangled in  a lifestyle of decadent wealth and perverse passion. His story leads us from Thailand – where he first becomes acquainted with a young princess – to India, and then back to Japan as he studies Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, striving to understand the mysteries of samsara in an effort to conquer his own suffering. While in the end it all ties together, the storyline becomes unwieldy enough at points that one gets the feeling Mishima was himself perhaps unsure of how all of the themes and action should interconnect.

Another major difference between this story and the preceding ones is that Honda, who previously served as a symbol of reason and logic, now becomes a figure gripped by perverse sexual passion. In middle age, he has developed into a voyeur who not only spies on young lovers at outdoor parks, but also on the female guests at his own home. This change in character is startling and depressing, making Honda seem like an immature youth who lacks self control. The second half of the book finds him in retirement from his career as a lawyer, and so for the first time in his adult life he is in a position where he no longer needs to rely on logic or reason in his daily routines. Instead, he has ample free time during which he travels, throws parties, spies on young couples, and contrives a plot to deflower the young Thai princess who he first met in Bangkok when she was a little girl. Honda has now become the passionate one, but unlike young Kioyaki (from Spring Snow) or Isao (from Runaway Horses), Honda’s passion is not pure but decadent; the result of living too long and having too much free time. In middle age he has become an old pervert who lusts after young bodies that he can never possess except with secretive looks.

While many critics claim that it is in the character of Isao, from Runaway Horses, that we find a confession of Mishima’s true self, I get the feeling that in The Temple of Dawn we also get to see a deep part of Mishima’s psychology; but one that he was vigorously fighting against. While the physically disciplined and ideological Isao perhaps represented the ideal that Mishima aspired toward, with Honda I think we find the actual reality Mishima feared he was descending into as he grew older. The descriptions of Honda’s perverse lust in The Temple of Dawn are very detailed and convincing, leading readers to imagine that the author himself may have been in the grips of precisely these same feelings. The book is filled with detailed, erotic descriptions of young lovers groping at one another lustily, of Honda’s voyeuristic joy at watching, through a peep hole, as three of his guests engage in a threesome, and of Honda’s lascivious responses to the young Thai princesses’ budding sexuality. All of this culminates in an extremely graphic description of the Thai princesses’ lesbian encounter with Keiko, Honda’s neighbor, as Honda secretly watches.  At the same time that it seems as if Mishima takes a great deal of pleasure in describing these erotic scenarios, there is also an abject atmosphere of gloominess and misery that accompanies them. This wretchedness is connected to the fact that it is through the perspective of Honda, an old man, that we get these accounts. His own aging flesh possesses none of the erotic attraction that he finds in the flesh of those he lusts after, and his voyeurism thus becomes something “disgusting” and “repugnant”:

It was outrageous that his pleasure might disgust others and thereby subject him to their everlasting repugnance and further that such disgust might one day grow to be an indispensable element of pleasure.

Chilling self-disgust fused with the sweetest allurement…the very denial of existence joining with the concept of immortality that can never be healed. This unhealable existence was the unique essence of immortality. (p. 271)

Honda’s reality, as well as Mishima’s, is a wounded one in which pleasure and self disgust intermingle, opening up a gash in the fabric of Being. To look at the suppleness and innocence of youth – to long for it, but to be separated from it by one’s own aging body – symbolizes the nihilistic fissure that characterizes all of existence. Our bodies are impermanent but our minds wish for infinity; or as Mishima himself wrote in his final note before committing suicide: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.” It is this despairing sentiment that strikes me as the central theme in The Temple of Dawn.

The scenes of voyeurism in this novel recall scenes from an earlier Mishima book, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, in which a young boy watches through a peep hole as his mother masturbates and then later has sex with a visiting sailor. In the case of the earlier novel, the boy’s youth at least partially excuses his indiscretion, while in the later novel Honda’s advanced age merely makes the impropriety seem more perverse and inexcusably aberrant. Regardless of this moral difference, the logic played out in both stories charts a similar trajectory. In The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, the young boy’s voyeuristic pleasure leads to the idealization of the sailor, who must ultimately die so that he does not contravene the image of perfection he inspired in the boy’s mind. In The Temple of Dawn, Honda similarly comes to the realization that the pleasure he achieves through voyeurism is related to a desire to disappear completely, to see without being seen, and thus to die to the world around him:

…Honda’s ultimate desire, what he really, really wanted to see could exist only in a world where he did not. In order to see what he truly wished to, he must die. When a voyeur recognizes that he can realize his ends only by eliminating the basic act of watching, this means his death as such. (p. 277)

But Honda does not die, and this is what makes him imperfect, ugly and flawed. His role throughout the Sea of Fertility is to be the one who remains embedded in the world of physical existence, watching others who are more beautiful and pure than himself shatter into puffs of nothingness. In his own life, Mishima, in the end, made the decision not to live like Honda, but to follow a destructive path to perfection. He willingly ceased to exist when he committed seppuku, leaving his readers behind as witnesses who, like Honda, would take perverse pleasure in safely beholding his passions from a distance.

Years ago, when I asked his opinion of Mishima’s works, a professor of mine told me that Mishima was nothing more than a “pervert.” I still recall the uncomfortable atmosphere in the seminar room as I exchanged embarrassed glances with fellow graduate students upon hearing this dogmatic pronouncement from our respected teacher. But in a sense my teacher was right; and I think that Mishima might even have agreed with the criticism. In his later life, the Japanese author engaged in all sorts of “perverse” activities, from being photographed in the nude to engaging in weird death-tinged sex play, to carrying on secretive homosexual affairs both at home and abroad. As he aged, he became more and more obsessed with his physical appearance – most famously taking up body building – while also struggling with the reality that all things physical ultimately decay. His perversion, however, was not rooted solely in the fact that he was allured by youthful bodies or in his narcissistic desire to make his own body beautiful, but also (and perhaps more importantly) in his temptation to continue indulging such obsessions into old age; into a period of life when the forces of nature irreversibly lead to the progressive corrosion of one’s physical splendor, making it appear sad and inadequate when brought into contrast with unblemished youth. An old body and a young body contradict one another, and just as an old body threatens to corrupt the innocence of the young, the young body serves to highlight the signs of decline in the old. To blind one’s self to this contradiction is what is perverse, and I suspect that as he was writing The Temple of Dawn, Mishima was, perversely, struggling with the implications of this contradiction for his own life.

Part One of The Temple of Dawn begins in Bangkok where Honda meets the young princess named Ying Chan, who is thought by her family to suffer from some form of mental illness, as she insists that she is not Thai at all, but Japanese. Honda takes this as an indication that the princess may in fact be the reincarnation of Kioyaki and Isao, his friends from the previous novels. In order to confirm this, he seeks opportunities to observe the princess naked so that he can look for three tell-tale moles that should appear on the left side of her body, as they did on both Kioyaki and Isao. When she is a young girl, Honda is unable to make this confirmation, and so in the second part of the novel – years later, when the princess matures and visits Japan – Honda again becomes obsessed with observing her in the nude, and this obsession quickly takes on absurd proportions: he constructs a swimming pool at his vacation home for the sole purpose of seeing the Thai princess undressed and he arranges for her seduction so that he can spy on her through the peep hole in his study. It is only at the end of the story – while Ying Chan is having sex with another woman as Honda secretly watches – that the confirmation is finally made:

Ying Chan’s whole side was exposed. To the left of her bare breast, an area her arm had previously concealed, three extremely small moles appeared distinctly, like the Pleiades in the dusky sky of her brown skin that resembled the dying evening glow. (p. 299)

Ying Chan, it turns out, is of the same essence as Kioyaki and Isao. This is the revelation that Honda had been looking for from the beginning of the book, and as if the power of this truth is too much to be contained, a fire breaks out, burning down Honda’s home and killing two of his other guests, Mr. and Mrs. Imanishi. Ying Chan and her lover, Keiko, escape the flames along with Honda and his wife Rie.

In a short, concluding chapter, it is reported that upon going back to Bangkok, Ying Chan died at the age of twenty, just like Kioyaki and Isao. She was bitten on the thigh by a cobra and died before any medical help could be administered. This report of her decease brings the story to an abrupt end, and while it is a conclusion consistent with the plots of the first two novels, strangely Mishima takes much less interest in the Thai princesses’ death than he does in the deaths of either Kioyaki or Isao. In the case of the characters from the first two books, their deaths come as passionate crescendoes to their lives, while in The Temple of Dawn, Ying Chan’s demise is reported merely as an afterthought. The passionate crescendo in this book, instead, is reached in the long, explicit lesbian encounter between the princess and Keiko that Mishima describes in loving and minute detail. I think his intention in this explicit closing section may be to recall a passage from the book’s opening chapters, in which it is noted that the P1010544-1024x768crematory in Benares was situated next to the “Nepalese Temple of Love, on which the sculptures honored the thousand postures of sexual intercourse.” (p. 58) Sex and death, in other words, are two sides of the same coin. However, I am puzzled as to why Mishima did not take the opportunity, then, to have the princess perish in the fire that consumes Honda’s home, as this would have been a fitting way of uniting her death and her sexual passion. It would also have created an economical connection to a theme that Mishima obviously did want to draw attention to: the parallel between the conflagration at Honda’s home at the end of the novel and the funeral pyres encountered by Honda during his trip to India at the beginning of the novel.

At the beginning of the story, Honda wanders from Thailand to India, studying Buddhist and Hindu philosophy; in particular trying to understand how it is that in an impermanent world, where the self is an illusion, it would make the least bit of rational sense to claim that the transmigration of souls is a reality. In Buddhism, there is the rejection of a distinct substance comprising the human self. The doctrine of anatman (“no soul”) holds that our “selves,” our identities, are temporary and ever changing conglomerates of feelings, thoughts and sensations. There is no real substance underneath it all, and “quite like a jellyfish devoid of bone, there is no innate essence in all of creation.” (p. 20) Honda puzzles over the question that if this is so, then “what is the transmigrating substance?”(p. 20)

Honda’s studies lead him to examine the connections between various forms of Buddhism, ancient Greek philosophy, modern European philosophy and Hinduism. He notes the similarities between Buddhist ideas on the world’s impermanence and the ideas of Heraclitus, the ancient Greek thinker who claimed that the world was in constant flux, much like the flickering motion of fire. The world forms a unity, but it is a “transitory unity” (p. 99), and like a flame, events come and go in a burning cascade. The phenomena of reality are like the fire that is passed from one torch to another, except that unlike with torches, there is nothing underlying the flames themselves. The world just is the burning. It is pure process with no permanent substance supporting it all. This wisdom, shared by thinkers in both the east and the west, leads eastern and western traditions of philosophy to differing conclusions about the meaning of our universe, Honda discovers. In the case of ancient Buddhism and Hinduism, the world’s impermanence leads to feelings of jubilation and liberation. In the case of western philosophy (starting with Pythagoras and Heraclitus up through Vico and Nietzsche), the impermanence of the world provokes feelings of pessimism, sadness, longing and loss. This is the fundamental difference between east and west.

While in India, Honda becomes fascinated by the “consciousness only” doctrine found in the Yuishiki theory of Mahayana Buddhism, which he comes to think resolves the conflict between the idea of anatman and the transmigration of souls. If we think of our “selves” as comprised not of a substance, but more like a flux, a “foaming waterfall” (p. 111) that is “perfumed” by “seeds” containing all of the energies of the universe, then transmigration comes to make sense as something that is not indicative of some sort of underlying, personal substance circulated from past to future. Instead, like the odor of perfume, what we perceive as our “self” is more like an ever present trace that permeates the very fabric of reality. A transmigrated “self” is like an odor that can be smelled lingering in the air.

According to this view, there is no past, present or future. All that exists is the “vast flow of alaya consciousness” (p. 115), which itself is infused with the seeds of karmic disturbance. These disturbances are always within the universe, which is created and destroyed at every instance. As in Hindu philosophy, which teaches that the universe is like a vast churning and flowing ocean, in the Buddhist ideas embraced by Honda, our own consciousness is like sea foam whose source is the ever present depths of the abyss. Transmigration is, thus, not the literal exchange of a substance across time, but simply a state of the universe’s being in which some element of the eternal process has churned to the surface.

It is in the funeral pyres at Benares that Honda comes to his epiphany. The burning of human bodies returned them to their “seeds,” and in this destruction, something was also created. “There was no sadness. What seemed heartless was pure joy.” (p. 61) This fiery joy was akin to the “sun” that Isao saw behind his eyelids in Runaway Horses as he sliced into his own stomach as he committed suicide, and it also turns out to be akin to the feeling that Honda experiences at the end of The Temple of Dawn as he watches his own house burn to the ground:

Flames reflecting in the water…burning corpses…Benares! How could he have dreamed of recapturing the ultimate he had seen in that holy land?

The house had turned into kindling and life had become fire. All triviality had turned to ash and nothing but the most essential was important, and the hidden, gigantic face had turned up its head abruptly from the flame. Laughter, screams, sobs were all absorbed in the clamor of the flames, the crackling of wood, the distorted panes of glass, the creaking of the joints – sound itself was enveloped in an absolute quiet.” (p. 306)

Destruction and creation appear to Honda as two sides of the same flowing, burning process by which the phenomena of reality become present to our senses. The essential nature of the universe just is the flow and movement from one state to another, and in this, destruction and creation become one; or more accurately, they cease to make sense as distinct or separate states of being. The universe is whole and complete: an “absolutely quiet” unity. When all things trivial and non-essential are set aside, and when one regards our world in terms of its deep continuities rather than in terms of superficial discontinuities, a vast, quiet nothingness is revealed at the heart of it all. This implies that Kioyaki, Isao and Ying Chan were all parts of one, ongoing process, and that it was only from Honda’s detached observer’s perspective that they appeared as separate incarnations.

But doesn’t this also imply that Honda is a part of the whole process himself? If his role in these first three novels is to act as an eyewitness to the drama of birth and death, and if the unity of the world is grasped only by looking past concrete particulars into the dark, unchanging process of flow that connects all things, then the looker, the observer is an indispensable aspect of the process by which the Truth of the universe is revealed. Things must first be broken apart before they can be put back together; unity must first be destroyed before it can be reestablished. That is part of the ongoing flow of existence itself, and perhaps Mishima’s message in The Sea of Fertility is that a spectator like Honda – a voyeur who stands apart from the world and who strives to see things as if he is not a part of it all – is a necessary aspect of the very process by which the idea of unity comes to make sense. Purity requires decadence. Unity requires plurality. Passion requires aloofness. Life requires death. In order to understand all of this, there must be someone to distinguish and compare the two sides of each dichotomy. The observer is folded into the process of becoming, like butter into a cake mix.

I’ll make one last set of observations about The Temple of Dawn. The title of the book refers to Wat Arun in Bangkok, Thailand. In the beginning of the story, Honda visits Wat Arun, and his guide, Hisikawa, offers a narration of the significance of the evening glow falling upon the temple:

…evening glow is expression. And expression alone is the function of evening glow. …In this great operation the colors of human intestines, ordinarily invisible, are externalized and spread over the entire sky. The most subtle tenderness and gallantry are joined with Weltschmerz, and ultimately affliction is transformed into a short-lived orgy. The numerous bits of logic which people have so stubbornly cherished during the day are all drawn into a vast emotional explosion of the heavens and the spectacular release of passions, and people realize the futility of all systems. In other words, everything is expressed for at most ten or fifteen minutes and then it’s all over. (p. 11)

As he listens to his guide speak in poetically melancholy terms about the evening sunset, Honda thinks to himself:

Yet there stood the Temple of Dawn! (p. 11)

Wat Arun PhotoWhen I first read this novel as a teenager, I had no idea that much later in my own life I would also visit The Temple of Dawn. Rereading this book now, the sensations that I had when I was there in Bangkok looking at the temple, climbing to its top and walking around its grounds all rushed back to me and triggered a pair of thoughts, both of which have “perfumed” my current experience of this particular book.

First of all, it strikes me as profound that a great writer like Mishima, a man I never met but have long admired, stood in the same place I did, looked at the same structure and came to contemplate some of the same ideas with which I have also become obsessed. The Temple of Dawn stood long before Mishima or I were born. It continued to stand after Mishima died, and it will continue to stand long after I die. It’s stability feels like an anchor; and yet it is a temporary anchor. Like all things, it too is impermanent. But it has lasted long enough to provide a point of contact between Mishima’s writing and my thoughts. I feel a tinge of wonder and gratitude at this fact.

The second thought, with which I shall close, is that when I first set eyes on Wat Arun I was filled with an irrational and inarticulable feeling of sublime awe. The simple and stark immensity of the temple, jutting into the sky on the shore of the Chao Prya River, upsetting and yet complementing the horizon, struck me as both beautiful and terrifying. Silhouetted against the evening glow, it appeared as a dark, almost featureless monolith, calling attention not to itself so much as to the point of interpenetration between open sky and solid earth. The finite touched the infinite at that point where the temple pierced the heavens.

What Mishima’s books do with words, The Temple of Dawn does with stone.