The Decay of the Angel

3976118Conflicting feelings overcame me as I finished reading The Decay of the Angel, the fourth and final novel in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. On the one hand, I experienced a sense of satisfied completion at having come to the end of the cycle. The story of Honda’s own journey through life, his tragic decline, and his encounters with the various incarnations of his friend Kioyaki reach a point of fulfillment in this book. The story ends by coming full circle, with Honda, now a disgraced old man, making his way back to Gesshuji monastery in order to pay a final visit to Satoko, Kioyaki’s love from the first book, Spring Snow. There is a clear effort on Mishima’s part to tie together the various characters and themes that were introduced in the previous three books, demonstrating that the dramas of decline and decay were all part of an unchanging reality, a nothingness at the heart of Being that can only be glimpsed by looking past the particular superficialities of history (both individual and collective) and taking in everything “with an unoccupied heart.” (p. 232) There is a strange, nihilistic serenity at the end of the novel as Honda enters the monastery garden to find a place of emptiness, “a place that had no memories, nothing.” (p. 247) I closed the cover of the book feeling that this calm nothingness was an appropriate ending to the saga.

On the other hand, I also experienced feelings of disappointment. While the plot of this installment is simple and well structured, there are sections that are rushed and overly schematic; especially in comparison to the previous book, Temple of Dawn, which perhaps went too far in the other direction, with its long and complicated meditations on eastern and western philosophy. The Decay of the Angel involves the fourth (apparent) incarnation of Kioyaki/Isao/Ying Chan. He is a sixteen year-old boy by the name of Toru Yasunaga who is adopted by Honda, and who then in turn attempts to dominate and humiliate his adopted father. It all unfolds too quickly and impatiently, however, and Toru ends up lacking the sort of psychological and philosophical depth found in other characters appearing in the tetralogy. He is, in fact, almost forgettable. This flaw is probably a result of the fact that Mishima was preoccupied with other matters as he rushed to finish this particular book. The completed manuscript was delivered to his publisher on the very day that he himself commited seppuku after unsuccessfully attempting to rouse the Japanese army to revolution. His distraction shows.

The Decay of the Angel starts off with the image of the ocean, which in Mishima’s novels often is utilized as a metaphor for Being itself. Toru Yasunaga works as a watchman, sighting and calling in the arrival of ships as they approach port. He is a solitary figure, gazing over the waters of the sea, occasionally visited by Kinue, an incredibly ugly girl who lives under the delusion that she is actually incredibly beautiful.

The ocean that Toru watches over is a churning nothingness that “called up all the evil in nature.” (p. 7) It is a “nameless sea” that is “absolute anarchy” (p. 7) evoking the “absurdity of existence” and suggesting that “the loss of the universe is not worth taking seriously.” (p. 9) In the beginning pages of The Decay of the Angel, Mishima thusly establishes his metaphysical point of view. Nothing that happens has meaning, nor does anything in the universe have value. As Honda later articulates to himself, “Everything was the same. From start to finish.” (p. 32) These observations anticipate the final pages of the novel where Honda enters the garden at Gesshuji monastery and is engulfed by a vast nothingness. The central insight around which this entire story revolves is this particular, nihilistic insight: all of the suffering, all of the passion, all of the logic, all of the joy, all of the drama; everything that happens in the course of individual and collective human life reduces to the same thing. That is to say, all of these phenomena are merely aspects of the meaningless nothing that is Being itself. In the previous novel, Temple of Dawn, this same thought is articulated in the theory of “alaya consciousness” that Honda comes to endorse after his studies of Buddhist philosophy. There is no past or future. There is only an eternal “now” in which all things merge as one. The universe is like the ocean whose surface appears torn by violence and turmoil, while in its true depths it is really just one deep, unified, unfathomable abyss.

Honda is now in his late 70’s and more keenly aware than ever of his own impending death. His wife has passed away and he now has formed a very close friendship with Keiko, his neighbor who, in the previous novel, he had watched through a peephole as she had sex with Ying Chan. Keiko and Honda now spend time traveling together, visiting places that Keiko has read about and longs to see. Having just read a book titled Robe of Feathers, Keiko tells Honda that she would like to visit the Mio channel, a dangerous Japanese waterway that serves as the book’s setting.

decaying_angel_2_by_momerath_stockIn Robe of Feathers, fishermen encounter an angel who exhibits the five signs of decay, and so is unable to fly back to heaven. During their discussion of the tale, Honda explains to Keiko that while different literary sources identify a variety of greater and lesser signs, there is general agreement that among the main indications of an angel’s decay are the following five major symptoms: 1. Its flowered crowns fade. 2. Its robes become soiled (from sweat). 3. It gives off a fetid smell. 4. It becomes shrouded in darkness. 5. It lingers in one spot and is no longer happy. These signs serve throughout the rest of the story as indications of the connection between Honda and Toru, the two characters who are the final focus of tragic downfall in the tetralogy.

Honda and Keiko visit Mio, where they encounter Toru manning his watchtower. Upon meeting the boy, Honda immediately realizes that there is something significant about him. When their eyes meet, Honda recognizes that Toru is his “duplicate down to the finest detail.” (p. 67) While Honda is very old and the boy is very young, what Honda sees duplicated goes deeper than mere surface appearances. There is a profound, abyssal evil that Honda finds perfectly mirrored between himself and the boy. This evil is related to their shared decline and decay. While Honda’s own body has aged, withered and become old, this boy clearly exhibits the signs of an angel’s decay. When Honda and Keiko first enter the watchtower, Toru is wearing wilted and worm eaten flowers in his hair; a gift from Kinue, his insane friend. He is sweating profusely, wiping his armpits and neck. He also lingers in this one spot – his watchtower – working, sleeping, eating and receiving guests in a single place. All of these indications reinforce Honda’s conviction that there is something uniquely important about this boy; something that connects the two of them together in the tragic drama of life. Honda’s mistake, however, is to jump to the conclusion that Toru must also be the latest incarnation of Kioyaki/Isao/Ying Chan.  He notices, through Toru’s white t-shirt, three moles on his left side, and takes this as adequate evidence that he has been reunited with his old friend once again. He thus makes the abrupt decision to adopt this boy and raise him as his son.

Honda teaches Toru western manners, sends him to school, writes him into his will and is repaid for all of this with Toru’s resentment and hatred. The boy contrives to take over Honda’s home, physically threatening and humiliating the old man. He enacts a plot to get out of a marriage arranged by Honda, disgracing his fiance and then moving his insane friend Kinue into the family home. He sleeps around and arrogantly plans to have Honda declared incompetent so that he can take over the old man’s fortune. The only thing that offers Honda a thread of hope is the possibility that at the age of 20, Toru will die if he is indeed of the same substance as Kioyaki/Isao/Ying Chan.

Toru does not die at 20, but due to Keiko’s intervention, he is put back in his place. Keiko, who Mishima identifies as an “angel killer,” (p. 211) reveals to Toru the reason why he has been adopted, reinforcing the fact that if there is indeed anything special about him, he will soon be dead. She insists, however, that there really is, in fact, nothing special at all about Toru:

There is no special right to happiness and none to unhappiness. There is no tragedy and there is no genius. Your confidence and your dreams are groundless. If there is on this earth something exceptional, special beauty or special evil, nature finds it and uproots it. We should all have learned the hard lesson, that there are no ‘elect.’ (p. 212)

Toru, unable to endure the thought that he is just an ordinary person, drinks poison, failing in the commission of suicide but going blind. Because of his blindness, he is unable to complete his plan to take over Honda’s household and so instead moves into a guest house with Kinue, who now, in addition to being ugly, has become incredibly fat. The two of them plan to get married, presumably to linger in one another’s presence until they die, living in one dark room, wretched, pathetic and taken care of by Honda.

Many readers remain unsatisfied and confused by Toru’s character in this book. He doesn’t fit neatly into the most obvious narrative arc, which, at least on the surface, tracks the various incarnations of a single “soul” over a variety of lifetimes. But Mishima’s tetralogy is not about surfaces. It is about the deep nothingness at the heart of Being, and its discovery by the one character who appears in all four of the novels: Shigekuni Honda. He is the real focus of the cycle, not Kioyaki/Isao/Ying Chan/Toru, and so to understand the significance of Toru in this last installment, one needs, I think, to shift focus away from the idea of reincarnation and shift focus toward Honda’s own psychological and spiritual development. In fact, I think that what is going on over the course of this entire cycle of novels is really a reflection of Honda’s own mental processes, and is not indicative of an objective cycle of reincarnation at all. Reincarnation is, I think, simply a comforting myth in this story; a reflection of Honda’s own naive and hopeful mental projections that serve to keep him insulated from the true, vast, meaningless nothingness of the universe.

Honda’s fascination with Buddhist philosophy (and the vast amount of space that Mishima devotes to its explication in the third novel) can easily mislead readers into thinking that The Sea of Fertility is earnestly endorsing these ideas. However, it seems to me that just the opposite is the case. In Temple of Dawn, there are passages emphasizing that Buddhism was a foreign import to Japan, and that the doctrine of reincarnation was not original to Buddhism or to Japanese culture at all, but was initiated by western systems of belief like Pythagoreanism and ancient Greek Orphism. Whatever the historical truth is, Mishima’s concern with this issue highlights the fact that for him Buddhism is a system of belief that has been contaminated by the western world, and thus is a form of decadence that exercises a weakening influence on the Japanese spirit. The doctrine of reincarnation is an artificial and westernized lens through which a person like Honda finds order, comfort and a chain of consistency in a universe that is really chaotic, meaningless and unfathomable.

At the end of Decay of the Angel, it is the false nature of reincarnation that is finally revealed to Honda as he emerges into the monastery garden. The first novel in the cycle, Spring Snow, ended when Honda and his friend Kioyaki travel to the Gesshuji monastery in the hope that Kioyaki could see his lover Satoko, who had renounced the world and become a nun. He is denied an audience with her, and at the end of that book Kioyaki dies. At the end of Decay of the Angel, Honda reenacts the final journey of his friend, climbing the long path to the doors of the monastery, hoping to speak with Satoko, who has become the abbess of the monastery. Now that he is an old man, the hike up the mountain path is almost too much for Honda, and as he makes his way toward the doors of Gesshuji monastery, he himself starts clearly to exhibit the signs of the decay of an angel:

  • The first indication of this is his observation that the path forward is wrapped in shadows. “There was a reason for the shadows, but Honda doubted that it was in the trees themselves.” (p. 236) This is the fourth sign described by Honda himself earlier in the novel.
  • The next indication is when he begins to encounter withered “dew flowers” along the path: “everything was ominously, threatening dry.” (p. 238) This is the first sign earlier described by Honda.
  • The next indication is when he feels the “sweat coming through his shirt and soaking the back of his suit coat.” (p. 239) This is the second sign Honda described. Presumably, as he sweats, Honda begins to smell, which is the third sign of decay.

All along the path, a white butterfly leads Honda on his way, but strangely the butterfly, Honda notes, flies unusually low and near to the ground. Could this be an indication of the pull of the earth on all creatures, and of the looming reality of death? Like the wings of a decaying angel, the butterfly’s wings are unable to transport it very far away from the earth or toward heaven.

When Honda does reach the monastery, he is admitted to an audience with Satoko. After all of these years she is clearly older, but unlike Honda she does not appear deteriorated. “Age had sped in the direction not of decay but of purification.” (p. 243) Satoko, in this final scene, seems to represent the alternative to Honda’s decline. While the flesh must age, one’s perspective on this process is what determines whether it is borne as decline or as purification.

In the case of Honda, he has, over the course of the four novels, grown older anxiously searching for signs that death leads to something more; that when one’s body dies, the spirit, the true essence of a person, is somehow reincarnated into another body to live again. His entire life has consisted of a search for signs that might justify the finitude of this embodied existence by looking to its repeated continuation in further and further incarnations. It is as if living this one life is not enough. Without another life, and another, and another – into infinity – existence seems meaningless to Honda. The appeal of the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation is that it offers hope that friends will meet again, that the universe is moving in a particular direction, and that there is some sort of enduring essence to “you” that can never be destroyed.

On the other hand there is Satoko, who has been cloistered in a monastery for the same period of time Honda has been searching for his reincarnated friend. She is completely unconcerned with the idea of reincarnation, and when Honda mentions Kioyaki’s name, she does not even know who he is. She suggests to Honda that, perhaps, there never was such a person; an idea that would undermine the chain of events that has been the driving motivation of Honda’s entire life.

Upon considering this possibility, Honda wonders if he himself is an illusion, and when shown to the south garden of the monastery, he finally arrives at a place where there are “no memories, nothing.” (p. 247) In reaching this place, Honda, I think, has come to terms with the finitude of existence and now can avoid the distraction of other worldly hopes and dreams. He himself is a decayed angel who once aspired toward a kind of “heaven,” but now finds himself bound to the earth.

p14-flanagan-mishima-z-20151122-870x580So in the end, The Sea of Fertility is a cycle of novels not about Buddhism or about reincarnation. It is, rather, about a man who cannot endure the thought that life is a one-shot deal. It illustrates that without passionate purity and commitment, human beings have a tendency to continually defer and postpone their projects out of fear, weakness and the misplaced hope that they will always have another chance to get things right. Like Honda, most of us give in to our weaknesses, watching the world go by while admiring others who act according to the courage of their convictions, devoting their lives to an ideal by writing “a line of poetry with a splash of blood.”

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In Defense of Humorous Nihilism

51X+kM8FR-L._SY300_[1]My article, In Defense of Humorous Nihilism, appears in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. This is a special issue devoted to the philosophy of humor.

You have to be a subscriber to view it online, but the magazine is also available in bookstores and on amazon.