Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist

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.

Wintertime Despair

It’s a pattern I recognized in myself long ago. As wintertime approaches, the confidence, enthusiasm and hopefulness I felt earlier in the year have been replaced by self-doubt, lack of motivation, and feelings of doom. It’s always the same. On the outside, things are going great. I’m physically active, intellectually productive, and involved in creative projects. Yet on the inside things are less than great. I’m distracted, detached, and unable to concentrate. My mind flits this way and that, unable to rest for very long on one thing. It’s the despairing, down-side of an ongoing cycle that has been a part of my psychology ever since I can remember.

And yet, I feel lucky that I’m able to recognize my moods as parts of a cycle. It gives me the power to put these feelings into their appropriate place and not submit to rule by them. The seasonal rhythm of emotional ascent and decline going through my head, once recognized, encases all feelings – of both happiness and despair – within a frame of reference. None of them will last forever. They are all part of an ephemeral flux and flow, leading nowhere in particular, circling back on one another like a roller-coaster traveling on an infinitely looping track. There is no problem to solve or any deep-seated issue to come to terms with. I’m just along for the ride, and am aware that the downward descent will at some point inevitably lead to an upward climb, which will itself be followed by yet another descent, and so on.  In this regard, I’m different from those who seek cures for their dark moods. Pills, therapy, religion, and politics bring solace to some people, but I reject them all as aids to the alleviation of my own up and down mental roller-coaster ride. I prefer to just let the ride continue, learning how to observe it with the detachment of a spectator on the sidelines.

This is the power of indifference; a lesson I’ve adapted from the Stoics and Buddhists. Every attempt to change the pattern of inner life produces consequences too complicated to predict or control; consequences often worse than the conditions we seek to overcome. Take a pill to alleviate sadness and the changes in brain chemistry lead to illness. Become involved in politics and end up oppressing and killing others for your cause. Discover religion and soon find that you’ve also lost yourself. Dive into therapy, and end up thinking that you are the only one who knows the true path to well-being. It’s all part of the push and pull of events in the mental universe. One thing leads to another, and another, and another, and another, and so on. The illusion, from my perspective, is that any of it will ultimately culminate in a final, static state of happiness and satisfaction. And here is where I diverge from the Stoics and the Buddhists. There is no bliss, no Nirvana at the end of it all. One path is just as legitimate any other path. They all lead nowhere. The journey is its own reward or punishment.

For me, a perspective of detachment is the most helpful vantage point from which to regard the absurd and ongoing processes of inner life. Detachment, however, is not the same as passivity. In detachment, the activity of life continues to go on, uninterrupted, whereas in passivity, there is a hostile effort to sabotage the cycles of life through withdrawal. The more passive one becomes, the more the patterns of life fracture through one’s non-participation. The world continues to act on you, even as you relinquish power over it, and things become increasingly chaotic and unpredictable. In detachment, on the other hand, one does not withdraw from feelings, commitments and obligations, but rather cooly allows the already established patterns of the mental world to continue in a more or less predicable way. In detachment, actions strengthen the integrity of lived patterns so that the chaos of existence can be enclosed within those patterns. Passive people allow themselves to get pushed around unpredictably by the world. Detachment, on the other hand, enables one to remain actively engaged in shaping and channeling the world’s chaos while, on a meta-level, remaining aloof and distant from the whole process, like a bystander observing a roller-coaster as it thunders along its tracks.

And so, I have no desire to change a thing. My mental rhythms continue to pulse in their regular and predictable ways. As I watch, detached and indifferent, I’m still in the process of trying to learn just who it is that I am. I haven’t figured that out yet. And if you don’t know who you are, then what sense does it make to try and change yourself?

2020 Meeting of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

I just received confirmation of the line-up for our session at the 2020 meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Chicago:

Thursday, February 27
Thursday evening, 7:30pm – 10:30pm

International Association for the Philosophy of Humor
“West and East: Humor in the History of Philosophy”
Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

Speakers:

John Marmysz (College of Marin)
“That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes”

Lydia Amir (Tufts University)
“Clarifying Montaigne’s Thought through Homo risibilis: How the Philosophy of Humor Bears on Unresolved Problems of Interpretation”

Matthew Meyer (The University of Scranton)
“Between Tragedy and Comedy: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra IV as Zwischenspiel”

Jonathan Weidenbaum (Berkeley College)
“To Laugh in a Pluralistic Universe: The Relevance of William James for the Philosophy of Humor”

Choong-Su Han (Ehwa Womans University, Seoul)
“An Elucidation of the Meaning of the Buddha’s Smile”

The Denial of Death

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.”