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.”

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.

Runaway Horses

6970934-LRunaway Horses is volume two in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility Tetralogy. It tells the story of Isao, the son of Shigeyuki Iinuma, Kioyaki Matsugae’s tutor from Spring Snow. At the end of Spring Snow, Kioyaki, as he lay dying, told his friend, Honda, that the two of them would meet again, “Beneath the falls.” Runaway Horses picks up on this thread, and 18 years later, Honda recognizes his reincarnated friend – now living as the young Isao Iinuma – purifing himself during a Shinto ritual beneath a waterfall at the Konomiya Shrine.

Honda is now 38 years old, married with no children, and working as a judge in the Osaka Court of Appeals. In Spring Snow, Honda’s budding, legal mind was positioned as the rational foil to his best friend’s romantic, passionate nature. While Kioyaki died a young death, withering away from the despair of being permanently separated from the woman that he loves, Honda continued forward in life, systematically pursuing his career until, in Runaway Horses, he achieves a respected position that is the logical culmination of his efforts. As he himself reflects, early on in the story: “…I represent reason for the nation. A height upheld by logic, like a tower formed of steel girders.” (p. 19) Honda, as in the previous volume, will in this story serve as the tempered, rational and reasonable witness to the passionate drama that is about to unfold as Isao, gripped by patriotic frenzy, leads a right-wing revolt against the representatives of capitalism that he and his followers see as indicative of the forces leading Japan down the path of decadence, decay and corruption.

Isao is a student at his father’s “Academy of Patriotism,” a right-wing school that teaches traditional Japanese values, and that rejects the modernizing influences of the west. Isao is one of the school’s most respected students, excelling in Kendo, but held in high esteem primarily due to the purity of his spirit. There is no cynicism or irony in Isao’s manner. He is authentically and uniquely committed to a life in which his values are actualized in every word, every gesture, and every action that he undertakes. Whereas in Spring Snow, Kioyaki represented the purity of tragic love, in Runaway Horses, Isao represents the purity of action. At their core, however, both Kioyaki and Isao are the same insofar as it is a commitment to perfected integrity that defines their essence. In Isao, this perfection is exhibited visibly in his demand that Shinto rituals be carried out with spotless precision, in his excellence at Kendo fighting, as well as in his decorum while in the presence of authority figures. Ironically, it will be this meticulous commitment to tradition that also brings Isao into conflict with the conservative, ruling forces of his own nation. Since these forces – consisting of his father, military leaders, the legal system, and the royal emperor himself – have been infected by the spirit of compromise, submitting to the realities of life in a modern, westernized world, Isao finds himself betrayed by the very institutions that he so passionately desires to reinvigorate. His ideals, it turns out, are too dangerously pure for contemporary society, and so his revolutionary actions are destined to culminate in tragedy. In all of this, the reader who is familiar with Mishima’s own life will see an unmistakable parallel. Isao seems to be playing out the same sort of drama that Mishima himself would enact years later when, after a failed attempt to overthrow the Japanese government and reestablish the Emperor, he killed himself in an act of ritual seppuku. In fact, many commentators detect in this very novel Mishima’s mental rehearsal for his final action.

Isao is fascinated by a story titled The League of the Divine Wind, by Tsunanori Yamao, which recounts an event from the 19th Century during which a group of Japanese patriots mounted a rebellion against the westernized and “Americanized” institutions of the new Japan, which had begun to draw boundaries between religion and government in direct contradiction of the tradition  of “government and worship as one.” (p. 66)  The rebellion was undertaken by a small group who were pure of spirit, utilizing only traditional edged weapons. Such a strategy doomed the rebellion to military failure. However, just as the physical battle was lost, the spiritual statement made by the League in their tragic deaths by seppuku powerfully reasserted the vigor of samurai values. It is this aspect of the story that captures Isao’s imagination, as in it he sees an inspiration for his own life mission.

Isao passes a copy of this story to Honda, who in response writes him a long letter confessing his own emotional admiration for the patriots. But Honda also cautions Isao against the romantic lure of passion. He tells Isao about Kiyoaki, and how his passion destroyed him. Honda, of course, suspects that he is, in fact, writing to his old best friend, and he is desperatly seeking to avert yet another tragic scenario. Thus, he warns Isao that while the tragic beauty of this particular story is undeniable, it is also a fantasy out of touch with modern day reality. In line with his own logical perspective on the world, Honda points out the contradictions, the incongruities and the inconsistencies within the story, closing by advising Isao that he should avoid “the blurring together of purity of resolve and history.” (p.118) The content of the letter, of course, does not please Isao, and he is further puzzled by why it is that a relative stranger like Honda would take the trouble to write such a heartfelt and passionate letter to him about this matter. It is at this point that Isao decides he will seek the help of those in the military in order to plan and carry out an attack modeled after the events in The League of the Divine Wind.

The relationship between Honda and Isao develops into one of intense friction as Isao becomes increasingly passionate and committed to an early death while Honda increasingly despairs over what he sees as the futility and sadness of a world in which all things pass. In Isao, as pointed out by Roy Starrs in his excellent book Deadly Dialectics, we find the force of active nihilism as he vigorously seeks perfect oblivion in a tragic act of self-destruction. In Honda, on the other hand, we find the force of passive nihilism, which seeks preservation and stasis in an attempt to stop the dynamic flow of an ultimately meaningless world. While Isao pursues action by using violence, Honda pursues stability through logic and reason. Isao follows Dionysus. Honda follows Apollo.

This distinction between the two characters is further emphasized by the fact that Isao is a follower of the Shinto faith. In Shintoism (at least as depicted by Mishima), the point is scrupulous adherence to ceremony. The entire focus of the faith converges on ritualistic action and the rejection of any speculative ideas concerning an afterlife. Everything is focused on action in this world, and not on some other world. Honda, by contrast, is fascinated by Buddhism, which teaches the perpetual transmigration of souls. The soul, according to Buddhism, really is nothing at all in the end, and so there is a passive sadness and despair written into the core of the religion, summed up in a line from a No performance that obsesses Honda: “Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!” (pp. 210 & 216) Human beings suffer in life, only to die and become reborn into a world in which they suffer and die once again. The whole process is one of ceaseless and vain sorrow, leading one of Isao’s mentors to declare the Buddha a “foolish man” who teaches “a philosophy of evil that reduces everything to nihilism.” (p. 241) Isao and his right-wing followers thus reject Buddhism, an institution, like capitalism, that is a foreign import sapping the vital health of the Japanese nation, reducing them to passive decadence.

As Runaway Horses reaches its crescendo, Isao is first betrayed by the military leaders who had promised him support for his samurai rebellion, and then by his own father, who not only turns his son in to the authorities, but who reveals that his own Academy of Patriotism has been funded by one of the very capitalists who Isao had intended to assassinate. When Isao and his comrades are imprisoned and brought up on charges of treason, Honda resigns his position in the Osaka Court of Appeals in order to take on the role of defending attorney for his reincarnated friend.

Isao, lingering in his cell, philosophizes about the essence of his situation, concluding, “It is in the nature of authority to fear purity more than any sort of corruption. Just as savages fear medical treatment more than disease.” (p. 335) He is correct, of course. Authority fears those who are pure precisely because those who are pure cannot be controlled through threats or intimidation. Like Socrates, they are motivated by ideals alone and thus are apt to resist those who try to use them for corrupt purposes. And like Socrates, they can’t be silenced. They can only be eliminated, taken out of this world so that they will never again interfere with the pragmatic operations of managing and maintaining a functioning society. By their very nature, those who are pure of spirit are immune to the law and can’t be controlled by it. As Isao muses:

The law is an accumulation of tireless attempts to block a man’s desire to change life into an instant of poetry. Certainly it would not be right to let everybody exchange his life for a line of poetry written in a splash of blood. But the mass of men, lacking valor, pass away their lives without ever feeling the least touch of such a desire. The law, therefore, of its very nature is aimed at a tiny minority of mankind. (p. 337)

The outcome of Isao’s trial, is that while he and his co-conspirators are found guilty, their punishments are dismissed, with the proviso that punishment might be reinstated depending upon circumstances. With this threat hanging over their heads, the young men are released. The judge’s ruling considered the patriotism behind their motives and their youthfulness, being handed down with seeming confidence that the perpetrators would be relieved to escape punishment and be eager to get back to their lives, families and future careers. For all but Isao this is an accurate calculation.

mishima00002As soon as he is able, however, Isao travels to the opulent, Western-style home of the businessman Busuke Kurahara, who earlier in the story had blundered in his performance at a Shinto ritual. Isao stabs the capitalist to death for profanation of the Grand Shrine of Ise and then flees to a spot on the nearby cliffs. It is there that Isao sits down and disembowels himself as he overlooks the ocean. “The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids.” (p. 419) Isao dies by ritual seppuku, ending this volume of the story, but opening the way to the third part of the tetralogy, The Temple of the Dawn.

The first time that I read Runaway Horses was about 30 years ago, and out of all the books in the Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, this is the one whose details have remained most vivid in my memory. This might be, perhaps, partly due to the fact that portions of the story are dramatized in Paul Schrader’s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, or that in much of the scholarly literature on Mishima and his life, this book is highlighted as an important window into the state of his mind in the years leading up to his suicide. The specifics of the story have, in these ways, been reinforced in my mind again and again. Nonetheless, it is still the case that rereading the book today, I find a unique simplicity and purity in Runaway Horses that makes it unforgettable on account of its own merits; even without secondary cinematic and scholarly reminders of its content. The characters have already been established in the previous novel, Spring Snow, and so the reader is not saddled with the burden of becoming acquainted with a whole new set of protagonists. Additionally, we have been primed by the first novel to be prepared for the tragic trajectory of the unfolding tale, and so we need not waste any optimistic hopes wondering if the story will turn out to have a happy ending. The story is also very simply structured, taking us from the introduction of Isao, to his plan for action, his capture, his trial, and finally to his suicide. It is a story that Aristotle would no doubt praise for its well-structured complexity and proper magnitude. The reader can easily hold the entire plot in his or her head all at once, appreciating the aesthetic unity of the tragic drama as a whole. All of these structural aspects free the reader to be swept along with the story-telling.

But the most powerful part of the story still remains the simple dynamic (repeated from the first novel) between Honda and Isao. On the one hand, I felt myself attracted to the logical and reasonable thought process of Honda, our guide through this series of novels. On the other hand, I was utterly entranced by the destructive purity of Isao. The tension between these two ever-present forces in human life – logic and passion – are beautifully and clearly illustrated in Runaway Horses, and in the end I was left unsure as to which of the two I myself believe to be the more admirable. A life of reason and logic can quickly devolve into a life devoid of passion, while a life of passion is always in danger of introducing unreasonably needless suffering and turmoil into the world. Should we side with Apollo or Dionysus? Is it better to think or to act?

The Philosophy of Schopenhauer

767690I came across Bryan Magee’s book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, in a particularly touching way. The librarian at my school, John, was friends with a philosopher from Seattle who had died suddenly. Lacking any close family, it was left to John to take care of his friend’s meagre estate, which consisted of few things other than a small library of books. John called to tell me that his friend would have wanted these books passed along to people who would appreciate them, and so I ended up with this volume on Schopenhauer, as well as another one dealing with the philosophy of humor. Though I never knew the original owner, I still feel a real sense of privilege to have this artifact handed down to me. It makes me feel connected, by philosophical interest, to a person I never met. Philosophy has that power.

The book itself is a thorough and very sympathetic account of Arthur Schopenhauer’s life, his philosophy and his intellectual effect on others. It consists of two main sections: the first is a comprehensive account of Schopenhauer’s philosophical system, while the second consists of a series of appendices detailing Schopenhauer’s influence on such figures as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and many more.

Schopenhauer is a thinker who I was never introduced to by my teachers while studying philosophy. I first learned of his ideas on my own through reading Nietzsche (another thinker avoided by most of my teachers), who accepted the Schopenhauerian worldview while rejecting his “pessimism.” I put pessimism in scare quotes, because Magee makes the point early on in his book that there really is nothing inherently pessimistic in Schopenhauer’s philosophy as such:

“Non-pessimism is equally compatible with his philosophy. The traditional identification of him in terms of his pessimism is largely irrelevant to a serious consideration of him as a philosopher: I am tempted to say that this is a view of his writings which leaves his philosophy out.” (p. 13)

Magee’s point is that the “pessimism” of Schopenhauer is a psychological aspect of the man, not of his philosophical system. Indeed, his philosophy itself shares many things in common with religious systems like Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which offer paths toward the successful reconciliation of human-being with ultimate reality; hardly a pessimistic message. So although Schopenhauer himself uses vocabulary that suggests a rather dark and despairing orientation toward the wold, one could accept all that Schopenhauer describes while still remain cheery and optimistic – or just “agnostic” – in one’s attitude. In fact, as noted above, that is precisely what Nietzsche did.

Personally, while I understand that many people are resistant to pessimism, and that many regard it as a term of criticism when leveled against philosophical belief systems, I am not one of them. Pessimism is actually preferable in my mind to the sort of blind and vapid optimism that many people seem to accept as an unquestioned “good,” and which is generally encouraged and considered the sign of a healthy mind. To me, pessimism can very often be realistic and more sensitive to the world’s actual suffering than shallow optimism. In fact, I prefer sensitive and caring pessimists to insensitive and uncaring optimists who think that just by putting on a happy face, everything will be alright! So while I appreciate Magee’s point about Schopenhauer’s own pessimistic personality, I also think it unnecessary to defend his philosophy against it.

It is refreshing to read a book by someone who enthusiastically embraces the philosophy that he is writing about, and Magee is certainly an author who deals with the content of Schopenhauer’s ideas in a wonderfully personal, passionate, detailed and, at many points, surprising way. Beginning with  Schopenhauer’s early work, as contained in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and devoting most space to an analysis of The World as Will and Representation, Magee goes on to place Schopenhauer within a philosophical tradition of modern, western philosophers working through the implications of Kantian philosophy. The thinkers in this tradition, he emphasizes, exist in the shadow of Descartes, who Schopenhauer thought was an important philosopher for three reasons: 1) He rejected external authority as validation for his arguments; 2) He established that “objective” reality is far less certain than “subjective” experience; 3) He formulated the central issue of modern philosophy in asking “What can I know? And how can I know what I know?” (p. 57) Schopenhauer’s own engagement with these issues led him on a path culminating in the construction of a grand, transcendental idealist system that, while resembling religious doctrines from the east, was developed (Magee argues) independent of those doctrines. The fact that his philosophy shares such a close affinity with ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism, while being developed from a western perspective, suggests, perhaps, that there is something transcultural about the truths articulated by Schopenhauer.

schopenhauer-y-kantThe transcendental idealist position holds that our understanding of reality is constituted by the mental imposition of a priori conceptual categories upon the data of perception. This is in contrast to the empiricist claim that our understanding of reality is built directly from perceptions, and that the way the world appears to us is (in some way, shape, or form) indicative of the way the world really is objectively. Transcendental idealists, however, dispute that the “objective” world could possibly be anything like our perceptions. Since the categories of our minds actively mold, shape, organize, and indeed distort, perceptual data into a subjective world of lived experience, our subjective world is of necessity different from the world as it is in-itself independent of our experience. This is the fundamental distinction that Kant insisted upon – and that Schopenhauer applauded – between the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. Our experienced, phenomenal reality is a product of the mind’s interpretive powers, and since we cannot step outside of our own minds, we cannot step out of the phenomenal world. And since we cannot step outside of our phenomenal world, there is no possible way for us to know anything about the “objective,” noumenal world that exists independently of us. According to the transcendental idealist, trying to know what objective reality is like independent of our mental interpretations would be like trying to know what the world really looks like independent of our eyes.

One of the key issues that Magee devotes a great deal of attention to in his book is the charge, promoted by empirical philosophers, that transcendental idealism culminates in solipsism; the view that the world is simply the product of the mind. In solipsism, the objective world evaporates altogether, leaving us with nothing more than mind dependent appearances. As Magee tells us, “I have often heard professional philosophers in Britain, including gifted ones, assert that according to transcendental idealism ‘everything exists in the mind, or in minds’ or ‘existence is mental.’ This is a radical error.” (p. 73) The reason why this is an erroneous view is very simple. Both Kant and Schopenhauer clearly recognize the need for some sort of independently existing, objective realm in order to provoke the mind to engage in the process of conceptual interpretation. Knowledge requires both subject and object. Thus, neither of these thinkers deny the existence of an extra-mental world; only that we can ever know that world independent of our thinking about it. Transcendental idealists don’t claim that the objective world does not exist. They only deny that we have direct access to it, or that our subjective understanding of objective reality bears any resemblance to the world of uninterpreted reality. Like the Hindus, they claim that there is a perpetual “veil” of illusion hiding the true nature of the universe from us.

Kant referred to the objective world that exists independent of human thought as the Ding-an-Sich (Thing-in-itself). Schopenhauer’s own system puts “the will” in its place; a development that Magee claims is an improvement, drawing out certain implications of Kantian philosophy that Kant himself did not fully realize. According to Schopenhauer, the objective, noumenal world cannot be, as Kant claimed, a thing at all. Rather, it must be an unbroken unity possessing no parts or boundaries whatsoever. Since the existence of things comes about only by way of the mind’s imposition of time and space upon the the raw data of perception, “things” only exist in the phenomenal, time and space bound world of human interpretation. Independent of that world, the very idea of a “thing” ceases to make sense, and if this is the case, then noumenal reality must be a realm in which there are no distinctions, no boundaries, no divisions. It must be unbroken and singular. According to Schopenhauer, the will is the substance that best embodies these characteristics.

When we aim our attention outwards, using the physical senses, we encounter the will through three filters of interpretation: 1) Time 2) Space and 3) Causality. The phenomenal world that is built out of sensory data is a world of things, located in time and space, interacting with one another according to the laws of cause and effect. However, when we turn our attention inward, toward consciousness itself, we bypass two of these mind-dependent filters, encountering reality more directly, through the single filter of inner time consciousness. It is in this manner, by reflecting on the interior movement and force of thought itself, that we come as close as possible to a direct encounter with the noumenal realm. And it is there that we discover the will, pulsing with primal ferocity.

Magee tells us that Schopenhauer knows he has not deductively “proved” the equation of the will and noumenal reality. That sort of demonstration is, in principle, impossible when discussing matters relating to the objective world as it exists independent of the human understanding. However, Schopenhauer thinks he has offered good reasons for accepting his doctrine, and that by directing readers inward, he has, in a sense, taken us by the hand to show how we may make the same sort of discovery that he himself has made: turn inward and you yourself will confront the will, a vital force of energy, which constitutes the underlying and unitary foundation of all existence. “The whole universe is the objectification of this force.” (p. 139)

Although Schopenhauer is clear that it is not an anthropomorphic entity, Magee suggests that his choice of this term “will” to designate noumenal reality has led precisely to this sort of misunderstanding:

“He has given it the name ‘will’ for no other reason than that the nearest we as experiencing subjects can come to a direct apprehension of it is through manisfestation of primal energy that each one of us experiences in inner sense as the ordinary drive of life, the ongoing thrust, however weak, of being alive…” (p. 142)

ElectricityNonetheless, confusion has occurred, and Magee tells us that occult readings of Schopenhauer abound in which the will is construed as some sort of spiritual world consciousness rather than as the aimless force of energy that Schopenhauer intended. This force manifests in its most complicated form as human consciousness, but it is human consciousness that is the product of will, not the other way around. Gravity, minerals, plants and animals are also products of the primal will, and so it is a mistake to think of will as equivalent to our own human experience of it. In human consciousness, the will gains its most complicated – and thus its most tortured – objectification. But, Schopenhauer insists, such consciousness is continuous with the rest of nature, and not qualitatively different from other non-consicous manifestations. The will, as it exists independent of human consciousness, is timeless and spaceless. It does not think or feel or care. It simply pulses and moves, endlessly objectifying itself in all of the manifestations that comprise the natural world. There is nothing supernatural or spiritual about it at all. The world as will has no ultimate meaning or purpose. It is simply a blind force of energetic striving.

“Bleak, bleak, bleak!” some say, and Schopenhauer does not disagree. He writes:

“life is deeply steeped in suffering, and cannot escape from it; our entrance to it takes place amid tears, at bottom its course is always tragic, and its end more so.” (p. 220)

Magee, as mentioned above, thinks it a mistake to equate Schopenhauer’s philosophy with pessimism. However, the philosopher himself did draw this very implication. Human life, being one of many manifestations of a blind, senseless will, is spent perpetuating itself for no other reason than that it must express itself, the way that electricity must conduct down a wire. This is the will to life, and Schopenhauer sees in this drive the root of our suffering. We take up projects, anxiously pursuing them until we fall into boredom upon their completion, at which time we anxiously take up other projects. The will to life, then, consists of a never ending vacillation between anxiety and boredom. The only types of consolation that are available to us, according to Schopenhauer, are aesthetic experiences in which we lose ourselves for a finite period of time by being absorbed into the rhythms of music or getting lost in the scenery of a painting. Sex also offers escape. But all of these distractions are only temporary. Songs come to an end; we must eventually turn away from paintings; sexual acts can’t go on forever.

You might think suicide would be an option, but surprisingly Schopenhauer councils against it, seeing suicide as “a form of aggression and quite specifically an assertion of self-will.” (p 222) In suicide there is no escape from suffering, but the aggravation of it, as the suicide must anxiously will him or herself to commit the act in the first place. And once dead, the will that was manifest in the body is reunited with the primal, universal will once more to become objectified to suffer yet again.

schopenhThe only real escape comes through turning against the will to life through aseticism. In this, a person ceases to desire altogether, and like in Buddhism and Hinduism, becomes reconciled with the impermanent nature of the universe. But this cannot be accomplished through willing it to be. The will to life must evaporate through an understanding of the ultimate nothingness of our world. When we come to realize that no-thing is ultimately real or important, then the chains that bind us are slackened and we find ourselves melting away into the buzzing backdrop that is the universe, feeling no separation, no distinction between ourselves and all the other manifestations that arise out of the noumena. We realize that everything is, at its foundation, one. Once this is understood, then there is no need for further painful striving.

Is this pessimism? If it is, it seems to me no more or less pessimistic than Buddhism or Hinduism, systems which, apparently, many people find comforting and consoling. So maybe pessimism, despite the complaints of Magee, is not such a terrible thing.

I enjoyed reading The Philosophy of Schopenhauer a great deal. Magee’s treatment of this man’s philosophy is careful, sympathetic and very thorough. But beyond this, I found it extremely edifying to read a book concerned with themes of universal unity while actually experiencing a sense of connectedness with three philosophers – Schopenhauer, Magee, and the original owner of this book – who I have never met.

In philosophy, we all share something in common.

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

9781107031623In his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche consistently criticizes Buddhism, condemning it as a “nihilistic” belief system, and yet he also refers to himself as the “Buddha of Europe.” On certain points, the thoughts of Nietzsche come very close to articulating some of the same insights voiced by Siddhartha Gautama thousands of years earlier; particularly on topics such as the impermanence of the world and the rejection of substance ontology. On other points, such as his advocacy of self-assertion and the will-to-life,  Nietzsche defines himself in direct opposition to The Buddha. So, what is the connection between Nietzsche and Buddhism? This complicated and sometimes confusing relationship is explored in close and subtle detail by Antoine Panaïoti in his new book Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy.

Panaïoti’s book is a version of his doctoral dissertation, written while he was a student at Cambridge University, but this should not scare potential readers off since there is nothing overly technical or difficult about the text. It is clearly written, well researched and easy to read. An interest in the subject matter is all that is necessary before diving into and enjoying this study.

Panaïoti’s initiating insight is that the fundamental connection between Nietzschean philosophy and Buddhism stems from their shared concern with the problem of nihilism. While the concept of “nihilism” is itself a complicated and difficult topic, Panaïoti summarizes the problem as one in which the world of becoming is viewed as both “unreal” and “not good.” (p. 21) In the thinking of the nihilist, the impermanent and changing world of flux that is apparent to our senses is neither real nor good precisely because it is not stable and permanent.  A stable and permanent realm would be the only one that measures up to the nihilist’s standards for a “real” world; a world which Nietzsche and Panaïoti refer to as the wahre Welt (German for “true world”). Since such a “true world” apparently does not exist, the nihilist responds either by condemning all of reality as “not good” or by positing the existence of an unapparent world that is unseen and hidden, but valuable because it is eternal and unchanging.

This latter maneuver is an act of ressentiment against reality. While it is an attempt to move beyond nihilism, from the perspective of those like Nietzsche and Siddhartha who claim that the world really is characterized by impermanence, it is also an illusion (or as Panaïoti claims a delusion) that distracts us from the actual nature of reality. By looking for the “truth” in some hidden, illusory realm, humans delude themselves and ultimately waste their lives hunting after phantasms and “spooks” (a term that Max Stirner playfully utilizes in his classic work The Ego and Its Own) rather than learning to embrace the world for what it is: a process of never-ending flux and change.

The problem that concerns both Nietzsche and Buddhists, then, is the problem of how to overcome aversion to an impermanent world in which nothing – including the “self” – remains stable. How is it that one can move beyond the crisis of nihilism, avoid ressentiment and salvage a sense of value and worth while still affirming a world that is neither constant nor lasting? Panaïoti argues that this is where the connection between Nietzscheanism and Buddhism lies, and it is in their responses to this question where we find points both of overlap and of divergence. Ultimately, however, the author argues that Nietzscheanism is more like Buddhism than Nietzsche himself recognized. Both systems turn out to be paths toward a sort of “great health” that will dismantle the delusions of ressentiment, allowing us actively to affirm and embrace an impermanent world. They are both philosophies that strive to confront and solve the problem of nihilism not by denying reality, but by recognizing it for what it truly is.

When the supernatural realm of the gods (or God) is rejected as a delusion, then it is only in the non-supernatural world that we can seek justifications for life.  For this reason Panaïoti argues that in both Buddhism and in Nietzsche’s philosophy an appeal is made to the this-worldly standard of “health” as the most appropriate goal of aspiration. When God has died, one must look for more natural criteria against which to make valuations if one is to continue to embrace life rather than retreating from it, and in both Buddhism and Nietzscheanism this is precisely what is done. While superficially it may appear that there is a conflict between Nietzsche’s admonition to make the world’s suffering “greater than ever” and the Buddha’s admonition to eliminate the world’s suffering altogether, Panaïoti argues that at a deeper level both individuals are actually concerned with a similar project: the project of making people so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive the obstacles, challenges and consequent sufferings that occur during the course of living life as objectionable.

This is the meaning of the Nietzschean aphorism, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (Twilight of the Idols: 8) From the perspective of healthy strength, the struggles of life are embraced as a necessary part of self discovery and adventure. It is only from the perspective of unhealthy weakness that people recoil from life’s challenges and surprises, according to Nietzsche. What  an unhealthy person experiences as vile torment, a healthy person experiences as affirmative and invigorating. This, according to Panaïoti, is a message that is also taught in Buddhism, where healthy compassion is encouraged as a means toward enlightenment. The term “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” and thus this central Buddhist virtue requires an engagement with the suffering of others, not in order to condemn reality, but in order to learn how to embrace and affirm it. Ultimately, in the state of nirvana, the Buddhist finally attains a “great health” that experiences joy through compassion. Joy and suffering become one, just as Nietzsche also taught, when we are able to understand suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth rather than as some sort of supernatural punishment. So it is that both The Buddha and Nietzsche offer a similar solution to the problem of nihilism. In a world of impermanence, where nothing lasts and everyone grows old, gets sick and dies, we need not recoil or retreat from life. If we learn to value the virtue of spiritual health in the way that others have chosen to value God or heavenly salvation, we might be able to embrace the challenges and obstacles of this world as opportunities that spur us on to become more vital, potent and robust.

In the conclusion of his book, Panaïoti proposes “a new response to the challenge of nihilism” modeled on the insights of both Buddhism and Nietzsche, which he calls “great health perfectionism.” (pp. 212 – 229) Great health perfectionism is a form of idealism that asserts “a distinctive ‘healthy type'” (p 218) as the goal of aspiration. This ideal healthy type is not conceptualized as a positive “Good,” however,  but rather as involving the “recovery from illness.” (219) As such, it is a kind of negative ideal that tells us what to avoid so that we can move toward becoming more and more healthy. I detect an echo of Epicurus here, who held that pleasure is not a positive quality in human life, but something that is approximated by the progressive elimination of pain. This would dovetail quite well with the Buddhist directive to withdraw from the suffering and pain of the world, but Panaïoti insists that if we pair these insights with Nietzsche’s philosophy, great health perfectionism will emphasize the creative and active aspects of striving toward, rather than withdrawing from, the perfection of health. It will, thus, express an active rather than a reactive ideal. In great health perfectionism, we are encouraged to constantly strive toward health by constantly moving away from sickness. Since the targets by which we gain our bearings are moving ones, the author seems to be suggesting that his philosophy will help us  come to terms with the reality of impermanence while avoiding the despair of meaninglessness.

While I love the bulk of Panaïoti’s book and admire his scholarship, I have two related criticisms that are focused on his concluding ideas. First of all, his  “new response to the challenge of nihilism” sounds to me very much like ancient Stoicism, and thus I think it is not really a “new” response at all. Second, in appealing to the ideal of “great health,” it seems to me that Panaïoti is not so much offering a “response” to nihilism so much as he is articulating a perspective that demonstrates his own further entanglement in the dynamics of nihilism; a situation, which as I will explain below, I do not really object to since I see nihilism less as a problem to be solved and more as an underlying condition of human existence.

First let me address the point that the author’s suggestions are not really “new” but actually a reiteration of ancient Stoic ideas. As Panaïoti describes it, great health perfectionism directs us to embrace the world and all of its challenges as a necessary backdrop to life’s unfolding drama. Furthermore, great health perfectionism encourages us to engage the world ironically, like actors on a stage. As I act in the world, I should retain an ironic awareness that I am simply playing my role in life and that, for this reason, it is not really “me” that is doing the acting at all. Additionally,  great health perfectionism is for everyone; slaves as well as masters. Thus is avoids the elitism of Nietzsche’s philosophy and embraces the call to compassion of Buddhist philosophy.  But what Panaïoti describes here are just the suggestions of the ancient Stoics, and the reason why I suspect he has arrived back at this position is directly attributable to his Buddhist reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was an admirer of the Stoics, but he interpreted Stoic ideas (and the doctrine of amor fati in particular) as manifestations of the master mentality. What Panaïoti has done, by way of Buddhist interpretation, is to strip Nietzsche’s account of its elitism and once again make Stoic doctrines applicable to all people. In Panaïoti’s reading, amor fati is not exclusively for masters, but a doctrine for slaves as well. Consequently, he arrives at an egalitarian philosophy that closely resembles the original form of ancient Stoicism. What is new appears old again!

Whether it is actually “new” or not, in regard to its content Panaïoti asserts that the only really pressing objection to great health perfectionism is what he calls the “saintliness objection.” (p. 229) This is the objection that his proposed ideal is so ambitious that it is impossible to reach. He responds to this “pressing” objection by stating that such an unreachable ideal provides a goal for human striving, and thus it is not so bad that it is unreachable, since it provides a path for continued and ongoing human aspiration. This is the focus of my second criticism. If aspiration toward the impossible is not such a bad thing, then what is the problem with nihilism in the first place? Recall that the “crisis of nihilism” erupts when the apparent world is rejected in favor of an unapparent world. When we strive after abstractions at the cost of this world, we denigrate and belittle this world in favor of an illusion, or as Panaïoti calls it, a “delusion.” This is the root of ressentiment, and it is precisely this sort of delusion that great health perfectionism is intended to combat.

But any form of “perfectionism” is subject to the charge of ressentiment insofar as it posits the goal of a perfect ideal as worthy of aspiration rather than simply counseling us to affirm the concrete, non-ideal world that we live in. If the conundrum of nihilism is initiated when an abstract, non-apparent reality is elevated and affirmed as more real or valuable than our actual, concrete, apparent reality, then I fail to see how encouraging us to pursue the superlative goal of “great health” helps to alleviate ressentiment or the problem of nihilism at all. It seems only to reinscribe the challenge within another set of values. As De Beauvoir puts it in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, the nihilist is essentially a frustrated idealist precisely because the nihilist has come to the realization that abstract perfection of any kind is an impossible goal. The only way to eradicate nihilism, then, is to dissolve any notion of the “ideal” and to live only according to the “real.” In order to overcome nihilism, we have to kill Plato.

I don’t want to kill Plato. I’ve come to embrace nihilism, and so I personally do not see it as something that necessarily needs to be “overcome” or as a problem that needs to be solved at all. As I argue in Laughing at Nothing, there is not necessarily anything undesirable or destructive about nihilism. Nihilism is a situation in which one constantly strives toward unreachable goals, and though this striving may be at times unpleasant, if we cultivate the ability to appreciate the incongruous and absurd struggles of life, we can extract some form of amused pleasure out of the process while participating in a kind of progress that is eternal and ongoing, but which does not ever reach a final termination point. Panaïoti’s “great health perfectionism” has just this sort of structure to it, and so while I have no objection to the form of the idea,  it seems neither new to me nor does it seem to really solve any problems. Rather, it is just one more illustration of how entrenched nihilism is in the very structure of human life.

The Buddha in Hollywood

On January 10th, 2013 I will deliver a lecture on Buddhist themes in contemporary film. The lecture will take place at the Buddhist Temple of Marin, in Mill Valley California from 7:30 – 9:30pm.

The ideas articulated by Siddhartha Gautama in the 5th Century BC are truths that extend beyond Buddhism itself. In this talk, I will examine a number of contemporary motion pictures in order to demonstrate how ideas basic to Buddhism are also conveyed through popular culture. By scrutinizing films such as Night of the Living Dead, Perfect Sense, The Fountain and The Matrix, we will discover how impermanence, suffering, desire and the aspiration toward enlightenment are common themes in modern film.

Full details can be found at:


Buddhism is a belief system that stands somewhere between a religion and a philosophy. Like all religions, it asks followers to have faith in a program that promises to alleviate human suffering once and for all. Like a philosophy, however, it encourages people to use logic and reason in order to sort through and understand the realities of human existence. Buddhism rejects the notion that there is any form of supernatural help to be had in the struggle toward perfection, insisting that it is only through personal effort that one can achieve enlightenment. “Be lamps unto yourselves,” Siddhartha is reported to have told his closest attendant, Ananda, as he neared death. “Do not look for refuge in anyone but yourselves.”

I find the individualism and the non-supernatural character of classical Buddhism very attractive, and after reading Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha, I am even more intrigued by the system of Buddhism and the man who created it. It is, incidentally, important to emphasize that Siddhartha Gautama was a man, and not a god. In becoming a buddha, Siddhartha did nothing more than “wake up” to the reality of the world. He relinquished his desires and found peace amidst the impermanence of all things. He ended his craving for the world to be anything other than what it really is. This is all that Buddhist enlightenment consists of. In fact, according to Siddhartha, anyone is capable of becoming a buddha and of achieving nirvana, which is why writing a biography about Siddhartha is so appropriate. He was a man who struggled with problems like anyone else, making mistakes, learning lessons and changing directions throughout his life. He started by following in the footsteps of others, and later came to break away from all authority, ultimately establishing his own path toward reconciliation with the infinite.

Armstrong’s biography highlights, more than most other texts I’ve read, the mistakes and u-turns in the life of Siddhartha, from his abandonment of asceticism to his initial refusal to admit women into his order. Armstrong does a wonderful job of showing that Siddhartha was not a divinely inspired figure who claimed to channel the unquestionable and final wisdom of the gods, but a real flesh and blood man who, though he sometimes stumbled, remained magnificent due to his willingness to admit mistakes, readjust his views, struggle with difficult ideas and to keep preaching the Truth as he saw it. In this regard, Siddhartha resembles someone like Socrates more than he does Jesus. He was not a god/man, but a human being through and through.

There are ideas and speculations in Armstrong’s book I have never encountered before, and that imbue the Buddha’s life and message with an increased level of complication. One of these claims is that the Buddha offered a different set of teachings to those who were ready to fully commit to enlightenment than he did to those who were not. Armstrong writes that the Buddha encouraged the less committed to follow the basic rules of morality simply because it would make their lives easier and happier in the here and now. This is a quite pragmatic attitude toward morality that does not seem entirely consistent with other Buddhist doctrines, such as the second step in the Eightfold Path, which emphasizes the necessity of “right intentions,” or the Buddha’s assertion, in the Digha Nikaya that “there is no teaching for one type of person and another for other types.”

Another alarming speculation that Armstrong raises is that the Buddha’s death might not have been the result of accidental food poisoning, as the Pali texts report, but that it may have been a deliberate act of murder. She cites a scholar who points to the fact that upon sitting down to his last meal, Siddhartha did not allow any of his friends to eat from the same bowl out of which he served himself, and afterwards that he had the leftover food buried. This might be an indication that Siddhartha knew that his food had been tampered with and that he was trying to protect those who were with him. If this truly is the case, then it would be one more way that Siddhartha resembles Socrates, who willingly drank hemlock while his friends looked on.

For those who approach Buddhism from a religious orientation, Armstrong’s book might be unsettling. The overall picture she paints is of a man who was fallible, at times mistaken, and often depressed and isolated. Such characteristics might not be the sort that inspire faith and unshakable confidence in followers. For those of us who approach Buddhism from a philosophical perspective, however, these same characteristics inspire empathy and reinforce the feeling that the Buddha was a real, flesh and blood human being who suffered in many of the same ways that the rest of us still suffer. If this is so, then his thoughts on how to confront the pain of impermanence can stand alongside those of other great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger.