A little late for Mother’s Day, here I am reading Chapter 1 from my book The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel:
A little late for Mother’s Day, here I am reading Chapter 1 from my book The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel:
A little late for Mother’s Day, here I am reading Chapter 1 from my book The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel:
Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait, by Andrew Rankin. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018).
The front cover of Andrew Rankin’s Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist, condenses the book’s central thesis into a single image. At the top of the cover is a photograph of Yukio Mishma (taken from the book Ordeal by Roses) smelling a flower. Beneath this is a fainter, inverted version of the same picture, suggesting a reflection of the first. It is as if Mishima is gazing into a pool of water, like the mythic figure Narcissus, relishing his own reflected appearance. The implication is that Mishima, like Narcissus, was self-obsessed.
Rankin’s book effectively argues that Mishima’s self-obsession was expressed through his life-long aspiration toward a “solid identity” (p. 8). This ultimately culminated in his anachronistic identification with the samurai tradition; an identification that both embodied a by-gone era and that allowed for the final, symbolic purgation of that era when, in 1970, Mishima committed suicide by seppuku. According to Rankin, Mishima was not born Mishima; he had to become Yukio Mishima through a lifetime of self-obsessed reflection and effort (something that I have also argued in Chapter Nine of my book Cinematic Nihilism, “Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body”). This process began with a talented and intellectually brilliant Japanese boy named Hiraoka Kimitake who, in living through World War II and in experiencing the defeat and humiliation of his country by the West, sought to understand his place in a confusing world from which he felt alienated. Hiraoka Kimitake would, only after the war, become Yukio Mishima, a literary figure who strained against the limitations of the written word while striving to transform the abstractions explored in his books into concrete reality.
Rankin suggests that it is the problem of beauty that drove Mishima’s quest for a self. This problem is illustrated in what is perhaps one of Mishima’s greatest works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In this story beauty is characterized as an impossible goal that always eludes concrete realization. A monk named Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with a Buddhist temple that, while it is supposed to be the most beautiful of structures, nevertheless strikes him as falling short of its ideal. It is painfully shocking to the monk that the temple fails to live up to its promise, and he concludes that its physical existence is what holds back the manifestation of true beauty. Consequently, Mizoguchi resolves to burn down the temple in order that the pure, abstract form of its magnificence might be liberated.
Rankin’s analysis of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is very good, avoiding what I think are some of the mistakes made by many other interpreters of this particular work. He recognizes correctly that the problem with the temple in the story is not that it is too beautiful, but that it can never be made beautiful enough to express perfect, ideal beauty. It is the tangible nature of the building that holds back and degrades the ideal of beauty, and thus the only solution is destruction of its physical structure. Rankin applies this interpretation of the book to Mishima’s life, arguing that he was like both Mitzoguchi and the temple. In his turn toward body-building, Mishima attempted to make his own physique into a fleshy “temple” that he then suicidally destroyed in order to liberate his own self-created, ideal identity. In this quest both to create and annihilate himself, Mishima exhibited an extreme kind of aestheticism that was all consuming, narcissistic and decadent.
Mishima’s narcissism, however, was of a unique sort, according to Rankin. Whereas the original Greek myth of Narcissus has the central character unknowingly falling in love with his own likeness, Mishima instead was, all along, knowingly obsessed with himself. In the myth, Narcissus happens upon his reflection in a pool of water. When he realizes that what he sees is only a reflection – and thus is incapable of being possessed – he dies of a broken heart. When Mishima retells this myth, however, he replaces the pool of water with a “mirror image” (p. 75). This is an important difference, stresses Rankin, since while reflections in pools of water are natural phenomena that can deceive us, mirrors are unnatural, man-made implements that we already know cast our appearances back to us. Looking into a mirror, you know that you are looking at yourself. You know that the image has no substantial existence apart from your own body. There is, thus, no delusion when gazing at a mirror. You do not think you are engaging with other people. The mirror image, in this way, reinforces self-conscious self-involvement. This was Mishima’s frame of mind, according to Rankin. Mishima was a man who didn’t really care about interacting with others since he served as his own audience. His writing was a tool for him to create his own, self-enclosed world; a world that he eventually externalized in body-building. Lifting weights, Mishima watched his own muscles grow, becoming ever more self-obsessed with the transformation of his skinny, sickly body into a muscular, strong body. All the while, he knew that it was his own self that was both being transformed and observed. It was this dual, narcissistic process that came to dominate Mishima’s life. He was “intoxicated” with his own illusions (Chpt. 5).
Transforming his body eventually became part of a larger, public project of reactionary activism that, as Rankin writes, alienated him “from people on both sides of the political spectrum”:
Those on the left objected to what they saw as his crass glorification of wartime militarist dogma and emperor-centered fascism. Those on the right objected to his eroticization of the sacred imperial institution and to his ad hominem criticisms of the reigning emperor. Within a short time, so it seemed, the flippant aesthete had become a dedicated subversive. Hostile critics began to speak of Mishima as a “dangerous thinker,” a label that pleased him enormously (p. 121).
Being called a “dangerous thinker” no doubt was pleasing to Mishima in part because this is precisely the kind of thinking advocated by one of his philosophical idols, Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, Mishima was concerned with the advent of nihilism, and he became determined to find a way to combat and overcome this condition. Nietzsche had claimed that nihilism as a cultural disease results from an overabundance of the formal, structured and logical Apollonian force when it comes to dominate over the life enhancing – but potentially destructive – Dionysian force. Likewise, Mishima (inspired by anthropologist Ruth Benedict) diagnosed Japan’s cultural nihilism as stemming from an imbalance between the “chrysanthemum and the sword” (p. 126). The chrysanthemum, like Nietzsche’s Apollonian force, symbolizes tranquility and the gentle side of Japanese culture, while the sword, like Nietzsche’s Dionysian force, symbolizes Japan’s violent and cruel side. For Mishima, the chrysanthemum had come, after WWII, to dominate Japan at the expense of the sword. What was thus needed was a reaction against civilized softness through the cultivation of samurai viciousness. This project took the form of what Mishima would call “aesthetic terrorism” (p. 146).
The Shield Society was a militia formed by Mishima, consisting of himself and a group of about 100 young followers. Sanctioned and supported by the Japanese government, the stated purpose of the group was to protect the Emperor and to assist Japan’s security forces in combating violent insurrection. In reality, The Shield Society appears to have been viewed by authorities as a bit of a joke; the narcissistic project of Japan’s greatest author. From the perspective of Mishima himself, it seems to have been part of his own preparation for a spectacular death. Rankin writes that it was shortly after the formation of his militia that Mishima began to use the phrase “aesthetic terrorism” to describe various violent, but beautiful, political actions, rebellions, and assassinations from Japan’s past. In associating terrorism with beauty, Mishima seems to have been anticipating his final work of art, a performance piece in which violence, politics and art were combined in one spectacular event that would not only be the culminating point of Mishima’s identity, but would also be the final conclusion to his life. On November 25, 1970, Mishima carried out his final act of aesthetic terrorism, storming the office of the commandant of the Self Defense Forces along with four of his soldiers, and then committing seppuku. This act, both shocking and awe-inspiring, was his last and most stunning work of art, according to Rankin. It was, he writes, “the logical culmination of his life’s work and of all the aspects of his thinking that we have investigated in this book” (p. 172).
I really enjoyed Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist. It is well-written and well-researched. One of it’s greatest strengths is the fact that the author is fluent in Japanese, and so has been able to consult Mishima’s original texts, many of which remain untranslated. Rankin’s insights into these works offer fresh support for his analysis of Mishima’s psychological and artistic development, resulting in an unusually full and satisfying account of the Japanese author’s life-long struggles with self-identity. It is a well-argued and carefully assembled book that makes good use of previously neglected material. I agree with Rankin’s conclusions and admire his diligent research.
I have two criticisms, one having to do with the book’s tone and the other having to do with its philosophical content. First, while Rankin himself is impatient with what he thinks is a “dismissive” attitude toward Mishima by other scholars, the Introduction to his own book, I think, strikes its own unnecessarily dismissive tone toward English language writing that does in fact take Mishima seriously. The author sweepingly proclaims most English language accounts of Mishima as “lightweight” (p. 6). In a footnote he abruptly discounts Roy Starr’s book Deadly Dialectics as “unsatisfactory” (p. 175, fn 7), and he fails even to mention Damian Flanagan’s book Yukio Mishima (Reaction Books, 2014). While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of these other studies, they certainly don’t deserve to be summarily dismissed or ignored.
Second, while I do appreciate the serious attention Rankin devotes to Mishima’s own writings and ideas, the book exhibits a lack of depth when it comes to exploring some of the connections between those ideas and Mishima’s philosophical influences. Rankin is obviously an expert when it comes to the Japanese literary tradition, but his study lacks detail when it comes to the wider philosophical tradition of which Mishima was a part. In particular, Rankin’s account of Nietzsche’s philosophy is quite thin, missing important subtleties about how the Nietzschean dynamic of nihilism is replicated in Mishima’s obsession with the conflict between the ideal and the concrete. Ironically, this is something that might have been addressed had Rankin engaged more charitably with Roy Starr’s book.
Overall, however, I would enthusiastically recommend Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist to anyone fascinated by Yukio Mishima’s writing, his life, or his psychological development. It is an exceptional book.
Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti . Translated by C.V. Wedgwood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1984.
Inside of your head or outside of your head? Where does the real world exist? This is the conundrum explored in Auto-da-Fé, the only work of fiction published by Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book is an intense, lengthy and detailed meditation on the various subjective realities that humans inhabit, how they overlap, interact, and how they conflict and relate to one another. The book is at once touching, terrifying, hilarious and tragic, raising some thought-provoking and unsettling issues about the world-building nature of human thought. Finishing this 464 page book was like awakening from a dream that made me question how much of my “real” life I actually share with others.
The book is divided into three parts: 1. “A Head Without a World,” 2. “Headless World,” and 3. “The World in the Head.” The story follows the life of Peter Kien, a sinologist who lives in an apartment where he has amassed one of the greatest private libraries in the world. As a scholar he is well respected, but he shuns face-to-face contact with others, instead preferring to remain among his books, researching and writing papers that he sends to conferences for others to present in his absence. The first part of Auto-da-Fé takes place mostly inside of Kien’s apartment. The second part takes place outside of his apartment when he is exiled from his home, and the third part describes his return home. While there are a variety of characters that appear throughout the story, the main thread of the tale is anchored in the unfolding of the main character’s thoughts. In fact, the overall structure of this book reminds me of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist, which describes the evolution of consciousness according the triadic convolutions of dialectical logic. Thus, in Part One, Peter Kien begins as a self-contained consciousness (thesis), who, in Part Two, is forced to confront consciousnesses outside of himself (antithesis), until finally in Part Three he consolidates these experiences into a tragic Aufhebung (synthesis).
The structure of Auto-da-Fé gives important guidance to the reader. Many of the events in the book are surreal and bizarre, and so the tight structure that Canetti has imparted to his story helps to lend assurance that there is a point and a purpose to all of this strangeness. I found myself becoming confused and baffled by the seeming illogic of some of the unfolding events, but by recalling the division of the story I was reading, and by going back and reviewing the events leading up to each bizarre episode, I felt re-centered and confident that there was sense behind the seeming nonsense. Ultimately it became apparent that the main theme addressed by the book is the nature of human alienation and our efforts to make ourselves feel safe, certain and secure in a world that is too complicated and fragmented for us truly to grasp. We falsify reality by oversimplifying it, and then we hold these simplifications inside of our heads. Since everyone is engaged in their own, unique forms of simplification, we don’t really understand one another. We construct reifications that bump into the contradictory reifications others have built up in their own heads, and though it may appear as if we are engaging in meaningful relationships with one another, in fact we are just misunderstanding other people from within our our own mental prisons.
Peter Kien’s specialty as a sinologist gives a central clue to the philosophical underpinnings of this book. His studies in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism introduce us to ideas concerning impermanence, suffering, and the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Throughout the book, the ideas of Kant and Hegel also recur, cementing the author’s preoccupation with the flux and flow of existence and of the alienation of human consciousness from the totality of the noumenal, “thing-in-itself.” Both the Eastern and the Western thinkers referenced in this story are ones who characterize the world as an idea in our heads, something that is not “real” in the sense of having an objective or stable existence. This point is articulated quite clearly in an early passage that might either be the voice of Kien or of Cannetti himself:
…our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle which our mean intelligence – mean in its nature as in its scope – can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar. (p. 71)
The way we understand our situation is by fragmenting and splintering the totality of things into digestible and comprehensible bits and pieces. We are blind to the whole of reality by necessity, since if we paid equal attention to all things all at once, we would be overwhelmed. Each thing would collapse into every other thing, and we would be unable to make distinctions between what is significant to us and what is not. Our minds (to use a metaphor from Sartre) are like flashlights that illumine only small patches of reality at a time. Without this “truncation,” one event would flow into another and there would be no distinct objects, events or situations. It is the human mind that chops things up and then rearranges them into the subjective worlds within which we operate. But then we mistake our own subjective interpretation of the world for the only one that really exists.
This theme is illustrated in the opening chapter of the book. Kien is outside of a bookshop, clutching a case in which he carries some selections from his private library. Here he encounters a young boy who is also fascinated by the books on display in the bookstore window. Kien breaks out of his internal preoccupation with his own thoughts to engage the boy, who reminds him of himself. He promises the boy a visit to his library and then goes on his way. As he walks down the street, Kien becomes aware of a voice asking for directions. When the voice receives no answer to its query, it becomes more and more agitated and angry sounding. Kien thinks to himself that he approves of the silence with which the questioner is met. Who is it that is refusing to provide this man with directions? Most people are too eager to speak, to blab on and on, but here is one person who remains nobly quiet, like the Buddha. It is only when Kien is assaulted that his internal monologue is interrupted and it becomes apparent both to him and to the reader that the “silent one, the man of character, who controlled himself even in anger, was Kien himself” (p. 17). So it was, in fact, the oblivious Kien who was being asked for directions, and his silence was taken as an insult by the questioner! Upon this realization, Kien breaks free from his offended attacker and heads home to the safety of his library.
Kien is the head without a world. He lives in his thoughts. His only friends are his books. Other people are just annoyances that distract from his scholarly work. “The greatest danger which threatens a man of learning, is to lose himself in talk” (p. 17). This is because talk requires one to step outside of one’s own head in order to engage with others, and in engagement with others a threat arises to one’s own internally complete world. Later in the chapter, Kien writes down his own interpretation of his earlier encounter on the street. Instead of rudeness, he characterizes his silence as an act of compassion; a way of sparing the ignorant questioner embarrassment. In a following chapter when the young boy that he promised a visit to his private library appears at his home, Kien turns him away, annoyed at the intrusion. Kien resists anything that challenges the world inside his own head.
Eight years earlier, Kien had hired a housekeeper, Theresa, to dust his books and to prepare his meals. This housekeeper, though physically living in her employer’s apartment, nevertheless occupies her own mental world. Theresa imagines that she is incredibly beautiful while others think she is hideously ugly. She takes great pride in her starched, blue dress, believing it dazzles those around her. At work, she is scrupulous in her duties, but she is also suspicious of Kien’s secret activities. She believes that he must be engaged in some sort of “vice,” either murder or drugs, but she cannot find evidence of any crime. She comes to suspect that Kien is hiding a large sum of money, and resolves that she will somehow profit from his wealth. She works to convince Kien that she too loves books, and impressed, he asks her to marry him. The remaining action in the first part of the book consists of Theresa’s efforts to take over Kien’s apartment and finally to expel him from his own home. By inviting her into his life – first as hired help and then as his wife – Kien initiates a breach in the integrity of his self-enclosed, scholarly world.
Theresa proceeds to isolate Kien in fewer and fewer rooms of the apartment, and in response, Kien endeavors to rouse his library to action. He delivers a speech to his books in which he formulates a manifesto of war against his housekeeper/wife. Yet, he feels foolish using oral speech, remembering that the wise silence of Buddha was his most powerful form of rebellion. When he scrutinizes his books, he realizes that even they can’t unite and agree with one another about a course of action. The Buddha can’t get along with Hegel, and Hegel can’t get along with Schelling. Kant and Nietzsche are at loggerheads. Finally, Kien decides to turn his books so that their spines face the wall, obscuring their identities while keeping them lined up in neat rows. The books, thus, themselves become silent. Their differences erased, they become united in support of their owner in mute rebellion against the take-over by Theresa.
When Kien falls from a ladder in his library, Theresa thinks that he is dead and searches the apartment for a bankbook that she imagines must be hidden somewhere. But she can’t find it. It turns out that Kien is not dead, and she calls on the building caretaker to help her hoist her injured husband into bed. Kien, while recuperating, formulates a plan to remain silent, stiff and impassive toward his wife. Again, silence is his form of rebellion. He becomes immovable stone, fused to the floor, and this provokes Theresa into a rage. She tosses Kien out of his own apartment.
The second part of the book – “Headless World” – finds Kien out on the streets with his bankbook tucked away in his coat pocket. He despairs of regaining his library and so resolves to reconstruct the collection by visiting bookstores in order to purchase replacements for the lost volumes. Each night he stays at a new hotel, setting up his book collection in his room, dismantling it and then carrying it to another hotel the next evening. One night at Stars of Heaven – a cafe that caters to the dregs of society – Kien meets a chess-playing, humpbacked dwarf named Fisherle. Fisherle is married to another humpbacked dwarf who works as a prostitute. He calls her “The Capitalist.”
In Fisherle, Kien imagines a mirror-image of himself. Fisherle’s deformed body provokes him to reflect on his own unusually thin, tall body. Fisherle’s obsession with chess reminds him of his own scholarly obsession with China. Fisherle’s relationship with his wife reminds him of his own relationship with Theresa. In Kien’s mind, Fisherle is just like him, and he feels that he has never entered “so deeply into the mind of another man” (p. 185). Consequently, he decides to hire Fisherle as his assistant. Fisherle, on the other hand, has his own ideas. He is intent on swindling Kien out of the money that he openly flashes about.
As the two of them rearrange Kien’s books in hotel rooms each night, it starts to become clear to the reader that the “books” being hauled around, loaded and unloaded are not tangible, physical volumes. They are ideas being carried around in Kien’s head, and the ritual of unpacking the “books” at night, then repacking them in the morning, is a metaphor representing Kien’s alienation from his scholarly work in his apartment. Unable to sit behind his desk, think and write, Kien is now living in a “headless world,” a world in which he is preoccupied with merely lugging around his knowledge, interacting with others, and trying to survive from day-to-day. Whereas, in Part One, he was a “head without a world,” living cloistered away in his study, now his head, his self, hovers in a homeless, holding pattern.
Fisherle eventually concocts a story about a local pawnbroker shop – The Teresianium (an apparent reference to Kien’s wife) – where books are mistreated. His tale so horrifies Kien that Kien decides to station himself outside of the business in order to intercept customers and pay them to go away before they have the chance to pawn their books. Meanwhile, Fisherle hires a group of people to take Kien’s payments and formulates a plan to abscond to America. He buys an expensive suit and arranges for a fake passport, but before he is able to complete his plan, Fisherle is murdered by one of his wife’s blind customers, his hump sliced off with a bread knife. Kien, meanwhile, has been detained by the police and is escorted home by the caretaker from his apartment. Thus ends Part Two.
The last, and final, part of the book is titled “The World in the Head.” It is the shortest section, but it is here that the main themes explored and illustrated in the rest of the book are clarified, summed up, and made explicit in a conversation that takes place between Peter Kien and his brother, George. George is a gynecologist-turned-psychoanalyst who shows up to take charge of his brother, now detained in the caretaker’s apartment.
Peter and George represent complementary halves of a single person. As George himself states, “If you and I could be moulded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man” (p. 436). Peter’s is a world of internally connected ideas. These ideas, while originating in the minds of others, have become disconnected from concrete human beings and solidified into stable, unchanging systems. He recoils from interaction with flesh-and-blood people, preferring to be left alone to contemplate ideas in isolation. While Peter dives deep into the world of books, his brother George goes out into the world of other people. George is a medical doctor, and as such he reaches out to other people, interacting with, talking with, examining, and diagnosing them. His world is empirical and changing, while Peter’s world is self-enclosed and internally solid. Their conflicting perspectives, different as they are, nevertheless represent two differing aspects of what it means to be human. While there is a natural drive toward unity among humans, a drive toward mass existence, there is also a natural counter-drive toward individuation and isolation. These two perspectives must always chafe against one another, existing in an uneasy relationship. The worlds we construct in our heads are stretched between these poles to one degree or another, but neither one alone can possibly do perfect justice to the world’s true nature:
‘Mankind’ has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils” (p. 411).
Life is an ebb and flow between the drive to reach out to others and the drive to withdraw from others. Peter and George occupy extreme ends of this continuum. In the conclusion of Auto-da-Fé, Peter cannot endure his self-enclosed, isolated existence any longer now that he has been exposed to the outside world. This exposure has had too profound an effect on his interior world. He has become aware that he has imprisoned himself in a world of ideas, words, and books. All of the ideas, sensations and experiences that he has taken in over the course of the story finally come cascading through his mind, mixing together in an overwhelming flow that becomes unbearable, and now it is too late to turn back time. He can no longer ignore the chaos of the world outside of his head. The story ends with the maniacal laughter of Peter as he sets fire to his library and burns to death.
Auto-da-Fé is a demanding, yet very profound book. Though seemingly influenced by the structure of the Hegelian dialectic, Canetti is much less optimistic than Hegel, whose philosophy suggests that the human mind can ultimately encompass the overarching Truth of reality in a final synthesis of thought. Canetti’s story, on the contrary, seems to suggest that there is no final Truth to be comprehended by the human mind. Rather, we are all engaged in ongoing relationships with others that lead only to self-delusion and alienation. The ultimate fate of Peter Kein seems to suggest that the only way out of this conundrum is to obliterate the natural tension between inner and outer, the self and the other, that characterizes human life. It is only in death that our illusions evaporate and we are reabsorbed into the tranquility of nothingness.
Nostos, Volue III, Number 2 is now available for purchase.
This issue of Nostos is based on the theme of “loss.” Eleven poets, two essayists, a short fiction writer, and an artist all render their experience and the human expression of loss. Featured in this issue is the poetry of Nathaniel Tarn, who writes in response to Forrest Gander’s Pulitzer Prize winning work Be With. Poet Laureate of Marin County Terry Lucas, award-winning poet Troy Jollimore, former Poet Laureate of Marin County Rebecca Foust, and others provide extraordinary poetry that touches the center of the experience of loss. Non-fiction by John Marmysz and Sheila Bannon explores the fundamental nature of loss. Evocative paintings by June Yokell reflect the varying mood of loss. And the outstanding short story “Angel” by Heather Altfeld makes this issue a complete and moving and insightful collection on the theme.
An affordable, paperback edition of Cinematic Nihilism is now available from Edinburgh University Press.
The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. (New York: The Free Press, 1973).
Everything we do in life stems from the vain attempt to deny our mortality. Having children, fighting wars, writing books, making art, building nations; it is all motivated by our denial of death.
This is the central insight of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, which upon a recent third reading I have come to admire more than ever. It is one of those works in whose pages I see my thoughts and beliefs reflected so vividly that I wonder if it was my first reading of this masterpiece decades ago that shaped the growth of my own later philosophy, or if the ideas in this book merely resonated with what I already believed before reading it. In truth, the tangle of influences involved in anyone’s intellectual evolution are just too complicated and tightly woven to be systematically separated after-the-fact. But no matter. It remains that there are some authors who give voice to thoughts so profoundly correct that it doesn’t matter who wrote them down first.
Becker himself was influenced by a whole tradition of existential philosophy and psychology, with thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard playing key roles in his account of the human condition. Side-lining Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, Becker instead promotes Rank’s claim that it is the quest for immortality, for the infinite, that powers human psychology. He links this psychological insight to the thinking of Kierkegaard, who devoted his philosophical career to articulating how human beings struggle in vain to reconcile their finitude, which is rooted in bodily existence, with their spiritual desire for infinitude. “…man wants the impossible” (p. 155). We know we are doomed to bodily decay, yet we want to live forever. We are a contradiction that cannot be resolved.
And yet we try. In fact, all of humankind’s cultural creations over the centuries have been motivated by the desire to overcome this ontological schism between the finite and the infinite. We follow religions that assure us that once the body dies, the soul will survive forever. We produce children, hoping that they will carry on the family name, and that after they die their children will do the same, and so on, and so on. And even if we don’t reproduce, we make art, write books, build businesses or fight wars that we hope will keep our memories alive when we are physically gone. All of this, according to Becker, is part of the human desire to be heroic, to elevate ourselves above the average, forgettable masses. It is an indication, he tells us that “…we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves” (p. 2). In the grips of this self absorption, we just cannot accept that there will be a time when we are dead and gone, and so we strive to leave a trace proving that we were here. Society is the vehicle that we have developed in order to facilitate this ongoing human craving for immortality. It is a symbolic system that attempts to deny our finitude in order to give birth to things of lasting value. “The hope and belief is that the things man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his product count” (p. 5).
But all of this is a denial of fundamental reality, according to Becker. Humans, in hoping for symbolic immortality, do not have the courage to accept the truth that all things fade and disappear in time; including ourselves. And so we both fear life and we fear death. We fear life because we don’t have the courage to affirm our here-and-now existence as worthwhile in its own rite; and we fear death because it erases everything. These twin fears drive us into the grips of neurosis, the natural, everyday condition of human animals. We are forced, in varying degrees, to reject reality and to build a creative world out of lies that allow us to forget the horrifying meaninglessness of our existence. We seek to insulate ourselves from the absurdity of reality by telling false stories about the ultimate significance of it all. And so we follow leaders who are good at convincing us of their lies. We fall in love with other people, idealizing them as objects of romantic obsession or of sexual distraction. If we have special, creative talent, we make art, write books, produce films or plays. All of these, according to Becker, are considered by society to be “healthy” ways of dealing with the terror of existence, but ultimately they fall on a continuum with other, less “healthy” coping mechanisms, including depression, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual perversion. “…there is no line between normal and neurotic” (p. 178), he tell us, just more or less functional ways of getting along in a world with other people. “Generally speaking, we call neurotic any life style that begins to constrict too much, that prevents free forward momentum, new choices, and growth that a person may want and need” (p. 179). Nevertheless, quoting Rank, Becker insists that “to be able to live, one needs illusions” (p. 188).
And so we are stuck with our lies. The best we can do is to “burn brightly” and try to get along with other people, allowing them to burn as brightly as they can while living their own lies. But Becker warns us that we should not completely lose touch with the underlying horror of reality. In order to respect and value our illusions, we need to understand their power, and in order to do this we must remember what life would be like without them. We must embrace our illusions heroically and courageously precisely because they save us from succumbing to, and being engulfed by, an awful, cruel and meaningless world; a world that Becker sums up like this:
What are we to make of a creation in which routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types – biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out – not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in ‘natural’ accidents of all types: an earthquake buries 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the US alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures (pp. 282 – 283).
His is a pretty bleak description. It’s no wonder that Becker is an advocate for neurotic withdraw into creative illusion.
From my first reading, when I was in my 20’s, I was moved by the bold, unflinching gloominess of The Denial of Death. Upon a third reading, now that I’m in my 50’s, I’m no less moved. Part of the lasting poignancy of this book is due to the fact that Ernest Becker was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize just two months after he died of colon cancer at age 49. I suppose his experience with this disease may have contributed to his focus on anality, shit, and excrement throughout the book. At one point he asserts that “the anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death” (p. 31). At another point he proclaims that we are “gods with anuses” (p. 51). And later, he warns, “the turd is mankind’s real threat” (p. 227). As cancer ate him from the inside out, it is no wonder that he was powerfully struck by the incongruity between his loftiest thoughts and the filth percolating inside his gut.
Becker’s own immortality project, neatly and cleanly packaged in book form, has been a relative success, as there are people like me, now older than Becker was when he died, who still think about him and his ideas. There is even an Ernest Becker Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness of how the fear of death affects us all. In the end, of course, none of us can escape our own mortality, and so sooner or later we’ll be gone as well. I’m reminded of Yukio Mishima’s final note, left on his desk before committing seppuku: “Human life is finite, but I would like to live forever.”
First published in 1961, Yukio Mishima’s novel The Frolic of the Beasts (Translated by Andrew Clare. New York: Vintage Books. November 2018) was only recently translated into English in 2018. It is a short work, reminding me of Mishima’s more well-crafted novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, which was first published in 1963 and then translated into English two years afterwards. Both stories deal with themes of aberrant love, moral transgression, murder and nihilism, but whereas The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea exhibits an elegant and graceful style, The Frolic of the Beasts is rather clunky and jagged in form. Since I don’t read Japanese, I’m not sure how much of this has to do with the original text and how much is related to the English translation.
The story begins with a prologue describing a photograph of three smiling figures – Yuko, Ippei and Koji – whose apparent happiness, we are told, conflicts with a “wretched incident” that will take place only a few days later. The photo was snapped at the harbor of a fishing village where the three characters live. Yuko and Ippei are married and own five greenhouse gardens near the village where they grow plants and produce for sale. Koji works for them; but there seems to be something secret and unspeakably intimate about the relationship he shares with his employers. This intimacy is confirmed by the photograph and then, at the close of the prologue, with the description of three grave markers that have been erected, against the wishes of villagers, in the local cemetery. Ippei’s grave lies on the right, Koji’s grave is on the left, and Yuko’s grave sits between them as a “reserved monument.” Ippei and Koji, it appears, have died, while Yuko is still alive, but anticipating death; and there is some sort of outrage involving the three that has scandalized the village residents.
The story unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards as the hidden secret alluded to in the prologue is slowly revealed. In Chapter 1, Koji is released from prison and returns to the fishing village of Iro where he is met by Yuko at the port upon his arrival. On the boat ride to Iro, Koji repeatedly thinks to himself “I have repented,” but when he meets Yuko, her first words to him are, “You haven’t changed.” She repeats this phrase as the two of them stop for lunch. “You haven’t changed one little bit,” she says to Koji, and he thinks to himself, “They were frightening words” (p. 22). The reader starts to understand that Koji has committed some sort of crime that has disrupted not only his own life, but the course of Yuko’s life as well. Koji longs for an assurance that he is different than he was before his incarceration – that he is reformed – but Yuko sees in him the same person that was always there: someone capable of violence. And yet, she is not afraid or repulsed by him. Rather, she seems protective of, and in fact attracted to, this young man. Yuko has even insisted upon becoming Koji’s legal guardian upon his release.
The two of them walk through the village, and while Koji starts to feel a sense of shame, Yuko commands him to hold his head high as they pass by the villagers who know about his crime. Eventually, they arrive at Yuko’s house where a fearful Koji is greeted by Ippei.
Ippei was a German literature scholar who once worked as a lecturer before inheriting his parents’ ceramics shop in Ginza. Koji was one of his students, hired to work in the shop. Upon becoming his employee, Koji discovered that Ippei, who is married to Yuko, was involved in a number of extra-marital affairs; something that his wife knew about but tolerated. In Koji’s eyes, “Ippei had everything.” In addition to having a beautiful wife and girlfriends, he was educated, intelligent, wore expensive Italian suits and went to exclusive hair salons. On the other hand, Ippei admired Koji for his youth; in particular his “ability to fight and express anger.” “Old age is all that awaits you. There is nothing other than that,” (p. 29) he told Koji, seemingly encouraging his young employee to grab hold of life while he could. Indeed this is what Koji did, falling in love with Yoku and beginning a secret affair with her.
While out with Yoku one day, Koji discovered a heavy, black wrench laying on the ground. Not really understanding why, he picked it up and put it in his jacket pocket. Reflecting upon this later while imprisoned, he interprets the incident as having some sort of metaphysical importance. Koji concludes that it was not he who actually decided to pick up the wrench, but rather that the wrench itself was a manifestation of some primal “will” that had become concrete and which sought to throw the order of reality into chaos. This section of Chapter 2 immediately brought the ideas of Schopenhauer to mind. Schopenhauer, of course, considered all things in the world to be manifestations of an underlying, unitary will, but this cosmic will was neither benevolent nor moral. Rather, it was energetic, violent and cruel. It would make sense that Koji, a student of German literature, would be familiar with these ideas and thus come, in retrospect, to understand the black wrench as the embodiment of a force that seeks to disrupt his world.
And this wrench does indeed change the course of things. When Yoku and Koji walk in on Ippei and his lover Machiko engaged in a romantic rendezvous, Yoku becomes upset and Ippei strikes her across the face. Koji’s inner feelings are confused as he observes all of this. “…he wasn’t sure whom he hated” (p. 49). He longs for this confrontation to lead to some sort of epiphany, a pulling away of the veil that will lead to the revelation of the raw perversity of human nature, but instead all he sees is “nothing other than things he had grown utterly tired of seeing: the mediocre concealment of human shame, the irony of keeping up appearances” (p. 47). This disappoints him. The concrete discovery of her husband’s infidelity, which Yoku knew about all along, is not greeted by her with the “delight” of one who has finally revealed a long suspected truth; instead she reacts in the stereotypical way that a spurned wife is expected to act. At this, Koji recoils instinctively and finds himself compelled to correct things by taking an action that will impart lasting and profound significance to this moment. He reaches into his pocket, grabs the wrench and strikes Ippei repeatedly in the head.
In Chapter 3 we learn about the aftermath of the attack on Ippei. The blows he delivered caused severe brain damage, reducing Ippei to a passive and persistently grinning idiot who needs to be cared for by his wife. This is the crime for which Koji was incarcerated, and though he tells himself that he has “repented,” he nevertheless also feels as if this act of violence was a necessary corrective to the ugly, stupid and senseless reality that would otherwise have been the destiny of these three people:
At the time, I could no longer endure that putrid world; a world bereft of logic. It was necessary that I impart some logic into that world of pig’s entrails. And so you see, I imparted the cold, hard, black logic of iron. Namely, the logic of the wrench. (p. 51).
The “logic of the wrench” defies the nihilistic meaninglessness of reality. It is an attempt willfully to alter the course of nature so that these three characters will no longer be doomed to the mediocrity of conventional, forgettable lives. While they may be demonized, pitied and reviled by others, “the logic of the wrench” assures that they will not be easily forgotten as boring, faceless, run-of-the-mill drones that are merely part of the herd.
Following his incarceration, Koji settles into life with Ippei and Yoku, working in their greenhouses alongside Teijiro, one of the couple’s other employees. One day, he accompanies Yuko and Ippei on a hike to a waterfall in order to make an offering at a sacred shrine. Koji thinks about how happy he is in this peaceful setting, but the hike is rather strenuous, Ippei becomes tired, and Yoku, upon their arrival at the shrine, begins to speak and act disrespectfully and sacrilegiously. She complains that the shrine itself is “dull” and “small,” and then starts to taunt her husband by asking him if he even understands the concept of sacrifice. Ippei seems confused, but Yuko persists, trying to get him to pronounce the word “sacrifice.” When he is unable to do so, she asks him if he understands what a “kiss” is and then grabs Koji, embracing him passionately as her husband watches. This enrages Koji, who slaps Yoku across the face and then turns to face Ippei, who stands passive and silent, that ever present grin fixed to his face. It is a look that terrifies Koji, and in order to escape this fear, he once again embraces Yoku.
Chapter 4 begins with Koji drinking alone one night in the only bar in Iro. It is here that he meets up with two young men – Matsukichi and Kioyshi – and the beautiful daughter of his co-worker Teijiro; a young woman named Kimi. Kimi is on vacation from her factory job, but oddly she does not stay with her father, nor does she spend any time with him. In the past, after the death of her mother, she had seemed to be quite happy living together with her father, but then, quite suddenly Kimi left home, and it became apparent that there had been some sort of falling out.
Koji sits with his three friends in the bar, becoming more and more drunk. Finally, the three young men leave with Kimi and take a row boat out to a small island where they go swimming and then dry off by a campfire. Matsukichi and Kioyshi steal Kimi’s ukulele, which they see as a symbol of her love, and row away, leaving Koji and Kimi stranded on the island together. At the campfire, Kimi tells Koji that she knows he really loves Yuko, but that “just for this one night she was prepared to make a sacrifice and act as a stand-in” (p. 99). But as they have sex, Koji thinks to himself how the experience is “nothing but a poor imitation,” not of Yuko, but of the idealized sexual images that he had conjured up in his imagination while in prison. Here we find yet another indication of the nihilistic theme at the center of the story.
The nihilist considers all existent things to be substandard and flawed when compared to the superlative ideals that human beings are capable of imagining. On earth, there is no such thing as perfect Truth or Justice or Beauty, and so reality as it exists is always defective, ugly and deficient. The only perfections that exist are idealizations, and, disappointingly, the ideal is always incapable of becoming real. Thus, Kimi’s actual beauty is a “poor imitation” of real Beauty, and at the end of the chapter Koji reflects on how the sandals she has left on the island will eventually decay, being “transformed into a dwelling place for an infestation of sea lice,” finally melting “into the great multitude of unearthly, formless material phenomena that exist on earth” (p. 101). Reality is a raw, unformed, ugly, meaningless mass of matter. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say, the world of physical existence is an existence that is “in-itself.” It is a vast absurdity that means nothing at all until human beings exert their willful interpretational efforts to make something out of the nothing; just as Koji did with his wrench. But even those human interpretations are ephemeral, doomed to decay and to die along with the people who formulated them. Nature is ugly and meaningless, and the best thing that a human can do in life is to commit crimes against nature in defiance of its absurdity.
The ugliness of reality is further unveiled in Chapter 5. Before Kimi leaves to go back to her factory job, her father, Teijiro, proudly confesses to Koji that shortly after the death of his wife, he raped Kimi, his own daughter, and this is why she hates him. Teijiro produces a photograph that he bought in Tokyo of a young school girl and a young school boy having sex. Smiling, he says to Koji, “What do you think? It looks a bit like her, doesn’t it?” (p. 108). Teijiro – like Ippei and Koji – is a criminal. In confessing his own crime, he expects Koji, who has also slept with Kimi, to participate in his perverted sexual titillation. It is an attempt to share a bond of corruption with Koji in whom he recognizes a kindred, aberrant spirit. But Koji is still resistant. He is still convinced that he has “repented.”
When Kimi stops to say goodbye, Yoku is present, and Koji senses that she is jealous. But, as it turns out, she is not at all jealous of the sexual affair that he has had with Kimi. She is jealous of Koji’s crime:
Yuko’s jealousy was directed not at Kimi, who was of no importance. It was directed, she said, at Koji’s crime.
The anguish she felt at not having a crime to her name like the one he committed had grown in intensity. Ever since the picnic that day at the waterfall, this thought had rooted itself blackly in her mind – she wanted to compete with Koji’s crime, to somehow be able to own a crime like his in order to at least stand beside him. (p. 119)
Yoku is the only one who possesses no crime of her own, and because of this, she feels lacking and weak. She is the only one in her household who has not willfully challenged the conventional course of life, but rather has simply allowed herself to be swept along by the actions of others. In order to correct this, she must commit a willful transgression against morality.
The story comes to a crescendo when, on a walk with Ippei, Koji confronts his former teacher and accuses him of being a “hollow cavern,” and an “empty hole” (p. 140) around which the entire household revolves. This former scholar has lost all inner thought. He is a perpetually grinning nothing that everyone else must cater to. He has become a being-in-itself, a dumb, ugly force of nature, propelled by inertia and necessity rather than by willful desire. Like a black hole, he sucks everyone around him into his orbit, in the process also sucking the energy out of their lives. However, as Ippei becomes increasingly agitated, it becomes apparent that there is some sort of willful, inner consciousness still alive within him. “What is it you want?” Koji asks, and finally Ippei responds, “Death. I want to die” (p. 144).
The book ends with a first-person epilogue in which a researcher recounts his visit to the town of Iro and his meeting with a priest who recounts his memories of Yuko, Ippei and Koji. The priest recalls how at dawn on a particular day, Yuko and Koji appeared at his temple, hand-in-hand, looking like a bride and groom. They confessed to him that they had strangled Ippei to death. The priest shows the researcher the photograph described in the book’s prologue, and explains that Koji had given it to him the day before the murder. This was used as evidence of premeditation in his court trial, and so Koji was sentenced to death, while Yuko was sentenced to be imprisoned for life. While in prison, Yuko and Koji requested that the priest arrange for three graves to be established in which Yuko would be buried between Ippei and Koji. The priest gives the researcher a photograph of the grave markers, and he in turn visits Yoku in prison, passing the photo along to her. She now can be assured that she has committed a crime that justifies her lying alongside her husband and her lover for eternity.
The Frolic of the Beasts echoes themes that are found in many of Yukio Mishima’s major works, like The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the Sea of Fertility. Like these other books, it is a nihilistic tragedy in which the main characters struggle, suffer and ultimately die in the vain attempt to impose their ideals onto a meaningless and resistant world. Their actions take the form of crimes against conventional morality precisely because it is conventional morality that serves to keep individuals tied to an everyday, normal and unexceptional way of life. In order actively to break free from passive mediocrity, the characters in Mishima’s stories find that they must challenge the world as it has been given. The given world – the world in-itself – is an ugly, meaningless nothing that absorbs and dissipates all human effort. It is like the ocean, which provides a dark and threatening backdrop to The Frolic of the Beasts (as well as to The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea). The ocean serves as a symbol of Being itself; a dark, formless and flowing reality giving rise to, and then reabsorbing, all worldly phenomena. Like waves that erupt on the surface of the sea and then melt back into the depths, individual human lives erupt forth from Being, struggle for a short time to make something of their short existence, and then are inexorably vanquished back into the formless void.
In Mishima’s stories, just as in his own life, individual perversion, crime and depravity become acts of defiance against a meaningless world. Though human existence is impermanent, at least crimes against nature can potentially leave a lasting scar on the face of Being.
The paperback edition of Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now available for pre-order. Scheduled to be released later this year, it’s a bargain at $29.95!
Seen in San Francisco is a website featuring photos taken in San Francisco. One page highlights Bound Together Bookstore; and in particular three books that everyone should read:
Daniel O’Brien of Glasgow University has published a perceptive and positive review of my book Cinematic Nihilism in the journal Film-Philosophy:
“Cinematic Nihilism is essential reading for film-philosophy scholars or anyone wishing to explore how a nihilistic approach creates positive potential for activity and achievement.”
The full review appears in the latest issue (Volume 23, issue 1) of Film-Philosophy, available online.