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.

Spring Snow

tumblr_nnwfv2K8d71sgx9yoo1_250It was over 30 years ago, when I was a student at community college, that I first read Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility Tetralogy. My memory of the first two books in the cycle remained most vivid over the years while the details of second two books faded into vague impressions. At the time, I was mostly focused on the dramatic relationships between the characters and not necessarily the deeper philosophical message of the narrative as a whole. To me at that time, the Sea of Fertility was primarily a story about reincarnation. It all started with Kioyaki Matsuagae, who after dying young was reincarnated as Isao Iinuma, who then, after dying by seppuku, was reincarnated as a Thai princess. I didn’t remember much about the final novel in the cycle, other than that the spirit of the Thai princess reappeared in yet a further incarnation.

Recently I have begun rereading the Sea of Fertility as part of a project I am working on that involves the development of Mishima’s philosophical nihilism. Having now finished the first novel in the cycle, Spring Snow, I find myself wondering whether as a teenager I was attracted to the themes in this book because I already was a nihilist, or whether the book played a role in shaping my youthful worldview. This is an impossible issue to decide unequivocally, of course, as the chains of cause and effect are forever buried in an irretrievable past. However, it is undeniable that this particular book has in some way become woven into my consciousness, affecting the way that I think about and experience the world.

Spring Snow is a tragedy that takes place in the early 1900’s. It tells the story of Kioyaki Matsuagae, the teenaged son of a Japanese nobleman. Kioyaki is a bright, sensitive, good looking yet melancholy young man, accustomed to being catered to and taken care of. However, Kioyaki comes to realize that the life of privilege he leads rests with being born into a noble family whose title and lifestyle are symbols of a more general period of cultural decadence and decline.  Fifty years before, his family had been samurai, living simply and with dignity, but now they have become increasingly westernized, amassing land, wealth and “elegance” as indications of their modernized extravagance.  In this era of cultural decay, capitalism and westernization are inexorably undermining the traditions of the old Japan. Swept up in the tide of history, Kioyaki feels he is doomed passively to submit to his given role as the son of a Marquis, accepting his place in life without any aspirations toward greatness or individual distinction. But part of his passive attitude also includes the conviction that he is fated somehow to violate and disobey the traditions and expectations of his family. He feels that he is a conduit, born to channel the energies of Japan’s social and cultural decline, acting as an instrument for the downfall of his era. At once, he is both a symptom and a vehicle of nihilism:

His elegance was the thorn. And he was well aware that his aversion to coarseness, his delight in refinement, were futile; he was a plant without roots. Without meaning to undermine his family, without wanting to violate its traditions, he was condemned to do so by his very nature. And this poison would stunt his own life as it destroyed his family. The handsome young man felt that this futility typified his existence. (p. 13)

In characterizing Kioyaki thusly, Mishima is, at the beginning of this novel, setting the stage for the rest of the tetralogy. This will be a story of nihilism in both the collective, cultural sense and in the individual, spiritual sense. This Sea of Fertility is to be a tale of both cultural and individual decline. It brings to mind both Friedrich Nietzsche’s and Oswald Spengler’s complex characterizations of nihilism in which individual, concrete human beings come to embody the cycles and rhythms of the periods in which they live. To exist in a time of cultural decline is to participate in that decline and to become its tool. In this sense, the purposes and goals of the individual are in fact the purposes and goals of the universe as a whole. Each of the characters that we are introduced to over the course of these novels are, in this way, passive vessels for the expression of a cosmic project.

Kioyaki’s best friend is a boy by the name of Shigekuni Honda. Honda’s role in this novel (and the rest of the cycle) is to serve as a witness to the successive incarnations of Kioyaki’s “soul” as well as to embody the spirit of reason and logic that both contrasts with Kioyaki’s emotional nature and that acts as a symptom of the emerging modern era. Honda aspires to become a lawyer, advocating the view that all humans are equally accountable to objective and knowable principles that transcend convention and social status. Whereas Kioyaki represents the sad and melancholy sense of an era’s passing, Honda represents the optimistic conviction that behind the cycles of history there is a universal and eternal principle of natural law that never changes. In this, he is influenced by western thinkers like Aristotle (p. 365), and thus Honda also stands as a symbol of the incursion of western thought into eastern culture. He, like Kioyaki, is a product of his times. At one point, the two boys converse about their place in history, and Honda suggests that despite their differences in temperament – Kioyaki being emotional; Honda being logical – future generations will lump them together, along with everyone else in their culture, as part of the same people. “You and I, you see, must be immersed in some style of living or another, but we’re like goldfish swimming around in a bowl without ever noticing it.” (p. 91) So, despite their contradictory natures, both boys are in fact complementary embodiments of an era that is itself full of contradiction, strife and friction. But whereas Kioyaki is tied to a way of life that is coming to and end, Honda is tied to a way of life that is on the ascent. For this reason, Kioyaki himself must tragically pass away while Honda must endure and bear witness to the future as it unfolds.

The central conflict in the novel concerns Kioyaki’s doomed love for Satoko Ayakura, a beautiful young woman beside whom Kioykai has grown up. Satoko loves Kioyaki, but he instinctively rejects any show of affection from her. The reasons for this are connected with Kioyaki’s own pride and his impatience with having to “endure people making a fuss over his looks.” (p. 18) Nonetheless, it is apparent that Kioyaki is obsessed with Satoko, but that he is unable honestly to express his feelings for her. Instead, he writes her an insulting letter in which he falsely claims to have slept with a prostitute; presumably to inspire jealousy and to demonstrate his own position of dominance in relation to her. There is anger in his letter directed toward women in general, suggesting that they are no more than “plump, lascivious little animals” (p. 46) His words are obviously intended to wound, but they also appear to be a desperately emotional expression of Kioyaki’s confused feelings of sexual attraction to Satoko. He loves her, just as she loves him, and in fact, everyone around them assumes that the two of them are destined to be married. Kioyaki, nonetheless, is too emotionally agitated to agree to marriage, and so when Satoko is offered a proposal for marriage from the Imperial Prince of Japan, Kioyaki offers no objections. He spitefully claims that he has no interest at all in Satoko.

The involvement of the Imperial family introduces a pivotal and fateful factor into the relationship between Kioyaki and Satoko. Marriage to a prince is not a matter of individual affection, but rather a ritual that has more to do with tradition and matters of state than it does with love. When Satoko reluctantly accepts the proposal of marriage from the prince – after repeated attempts to reconcile with Kioyaki – she sets into motion a chain of events that can not be interrupted without extremely damaging consequences to the reputations of herself and her family. Forces much larger than the wills of two people are now in effect.

It is only at this point in the story that Kioyaki expresses his desire to be with Satoko. He arranges – with the help of Honda, his own attendant, and Satoko’s attendant – a series of clandestine, romantic liaisons, which result in Satoko’s pregnancy. Why is it that Kioyaki feels compelled to finally express his passionate love only after Satoko has been promised to the prince? I think there are two answers to this question, each corresponding to one level of the collective and individual nihilistic rhythms embodied in this story. On one level, this illicit love affair is one that promises to further the decline and fall of the noble families that are involved in the scandal. This is a circumstance that promotes the fated mission Kioyaki has been assigned by the course of history itself. In defying the traditions of the Imperial Emperor, he plays his key role in the nihilistic decline and decay of traditional Japanese customs and expectations; a role that early on he recognizes as part of his unchosen destiny. The other answer operates on the individual, rather than the cultural level. Kioyaki throws himself into his love affair with Satoko only at the point at which the relationship promises to yield tragic beauty instead of conventional happiness. As Honda suggests to him, “From the very beginning you’ve been bewitched by impossibility…You were drawn in precisely because the whole thing was impossible.” (p. 267) It is only when their love becomes an impossibility that Kioyaki finds value in the relationship. To become married and to perpetuate the life of his parents would chafe against the aesthetics of one who sees the world through the lens of decay and decline. The only appropriate love for a person who is a conduit for the spirit of nihilism is a tragic, impossible love. And for this reason Kioyaki’s passions for Satoko are inflamed precisely at that point in time when their love becomes doomed.

And doomed it is. Satoko is forced to undergo an abortion by her parents, who contrive to hide her indiscretions so that the marriage might proceed. Instead, Satoko cuts off her hair and joins a convent, renouncing the world forever. Kioyaki, travels to the convent but is repeatedly denied a meeting with Satoko. He becomes deathly ill, and when his friend Honda comes to his side, he makes one last attempt to contact Satoko. This request too is denied, and and so the pair of friends depart back to Tokyo, where Kioyaki dies two days after his return home. Mishima makes a point of emphasizing that even in the throes of death, his face, though contorted in pain, is tragically beautiful:

Despite the contortions, however, it was beautiful. Intense suffering had imbued it with an extraordinary character, carving lines into it that gave it the austere dignity of a bronze mask. (p. 374)

So it is that the tragic downfall of Kioyaki, predicted at the beginning of the novel, reaches its sadly beautiful conclusion. His last words to Honda, “I’ll see you again. I know it. Beneath the falls,” (p. 376) set the stage for the next novel in the cycle, Runaway Horses.

Kioyaki’s tragic story provides a background against which many other characters appear over the course of Spring Snow; their stories entangled and intertwined with that of the main character. There are a pair of Thai princes who stay with Kiyoaki while they study in Japan. One of them learns of the death of his fiancé – who is also the sister of the other prince – and they both return home to mourn her loss. There is Kioyaki’s tutor and attendant Iinuma, who is dismissed from his post when he becomes involved in a forbidden love affair with a servant from the Ayakura household. He is a pivotal character in the following book, Runaway Horses, in which he appears as an influential right-wing author whose son, Isao, becomes involved in a terrorist plot against the government. There is also Tadeshina, Satoko’s attendant, an aging geisha, who is instrumental in organizing the clandestine meetings between Kiyoaki and Satoko that lead to the disgrace of both the Matsuage and the Ayakura families. Her actions, it turns out, have been inspired by the long forgotten suggestions of Count Ayakura himself, who had at one point in the past instructed Tadeshina to secretly encourage his daughter to lose her virginity before marriage as a way to spite the Marquis Matsuage, Kioyaki’s father, with whom he carries on an unspoken rivalry.

tumblr_nqfducOCSI1qivmgqo1_1280All of these relationships (and more!) unfold over the course of Spring Snow. While trying to keep track of them can sometimes be as confusing as tracing the associations between characters in a Russian novel, what ultimately ties them together is a message of fated doom and the decline of familiar, old ways of life. Nihilism, in both the collective/historical and individual/existential varieties, is the undercurrent of most of Mishima’s novels and, as in Spring Snow, these currents complement and augment one another. As particular characters find themselves swept along with the tides of history, the dramatic interest of the stories emerges from how each individual experiences the suffering of decline and decay in their own unique, yet connected ways. In Mishima’s world, happiness is never attained by anyone. However, there is a sort of fulfillment and satisfaction that obtains in watching these tragic destinies play themselves out to an aesthetically beautiful completion.