Yukio Mishima: 1925 – 1970.

imagesI first became acquainted with the works of Yuiko Mishima at around the same time that I started reading Nietzsche. Just out of high school, I was in my first year of college and in a period of life when the issue of nihilism was increasingly becoming of great concern to me. Like many young men in their late teens, I was struggling to overcome various emotional injuries and insults incurred over the course of learning my place in the social pecking order. With high school behind me,  it was time to move forward into a future life and an identity that I had trouble conceptualizing, but which required that I repair my self-esteem, establish some meaningful goals and start working to build a world around myself. I needed guidance, and for better or for worse, I found that guidance in the nihilistic philosophies of authors such as Nietzsche and Mishima.

Nietzsche loomed in my life at that time like a mythic presence from the past. He was long dead; a sage from the 19th century whose respected place in the philosophical cannon was already secure. Mishima, on the other hand, died when I was 6 years old. He had been alive during my own lifetime. People still remembered him and his dramatic suicide, and there continued to be disagreement about how seriously he should be taken as an intellectual figure. As a writer he was obviously talented, but there was much debate about whether or not the content of his philosophy was coherent or simply the product of a perverted and damaged mind. Nietzsche was my respected philosophical guide. Mishima was more like a troubled older friend who fascinated me, but threatened to lead me down a very bad path.

Mishima killed himself when he was 42, and now that I am almost 50 years old, I find myself in the weird position of encountering Mishima as his elder rather than as a young admirer. While for Mishima time stopped in 1970, I’ve continued to grow and develop philosophically, and this puts me in a position to regard my hero from a new perspective. When I was a youngster in my teens, the Mishima I saw was a Nietzschean Übermensch. Though initially a frail child, in adulthood he overcame his weaknesses in order to rebuild himself according to an ideal of his own imagining. His life was his work of art, and my young mind saw in his life project a hopeful path toward the obliteration of regret, embarrassment, and indeed, the complete destruction of an identity rooted in the past. Mishima, to my teenage mind, demonstrated the possibility of creation ex-nihilo. I regarded him as a superman who became what he was by forgetting his past and willing himself to emerge as something completely new. To my younger self, this was hopeful and exhilarating as it suggested that anything was possible and that I also could potentially escape from the fears and wounds of my own history.

From my current perspective as a 50 year old man, I see a different Mishima. To me now, he appears not as someone who has created himself out of nothing by rejecting and overcoming his past, but as someone who is bound to his past, who can’t let go of it, and who has been shaped by the weaknesses that he wanted to leave behind. Nietzsche wrote in various places about the virtue of forgetting, which allows people to free themselves from the chains of resentment. I don’t think Mishima ever mastered this virtue. The fear that gripped him throughout his life was that he would revert back to that scared, fragile, weakling of his early years. Instead of overcoming and leaving this fear behind, it now looks to me as if Mishima’s life consisted of a creative remolding of this fear, which continued to manifest itself in various guises. He resented the world. He thought it was an ugly, awful place because of his own position within it. At birth he had been thrown into a subordinate, “feminized” role as a result of his own frail physical constitution and because of his dependence on a domineering grandmother, a loving but ineffectual mother, and an intellectually superficial father.  His greatest wish was to refashion his reality into something beautiful by turning things upside down and becoming the master, the one who was in control and who could command and rule.

I have known two different Mishimas. When I was young, he was a hero who proved that nihilism could be overcome. Today he appears to me as yet another example that nihilism is never overcome.

Mishima’s life is the subject of two recent critical biographies, proving that he continues to fascinate authors and readers today. The first book, written by the govenor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, is titled Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima. The other, titled simply Yukio Mishima, is by Damian Flanagan, and was published as part of the series Critical Lives from Reaktion Books. Though they contain few new insights into Mishima’s ideas or the details of his life, these works nonetheless are of interest to anyone, like myself, who is continually drawn to revisit Mishima’s story, as if it is some sort of classical mythic drama in which one can find the reflections of one’s own nihilistic struggles.

images-1Naoki Inose’s book is a monumental tome at over 850 pages in length. For a reader beguiled by the details of Mishima’s life, there is, nevertheless, nothing superfluous here. In fact, upon finishing it I was left a bit unsatisfied and disappointed with how little attention was actually paid to the final day of Mishima’s life. I wish that the book had been longer, with more description of the drama that unfolded at the self-defence headquarters on November 25th, 1970.

A notably unique detail about Inose’s account is his willingness to pass an approving judgement on the quality of Mishima’s seppuku. Chapter 31 ends with the following account:

The wound Mishima made by disembowelment started 1.6 inches below his navel, 5.5 inches long from left to right, and 1.6 to 2 inches deep. Twenty inches of his intestines came out.

It was a magnificent seppuku. (p. 729)

This is an unusual, and I think a brave, admission of admiration. Typically, accounts of Mishima’s suicide adopt a tone of disapproval, as though the act clearly was a terrible and twisted thing. This author’s recognition that Mishima’s death lived up to the aesthetic ideals of a noble samurai disembowelment bravely eschews superficial mainstream moralizing and acknowledges the tremendous – and startling – nature of Mishima’s resolve. What he did really was quite amazing. It was not an act of insanity. It was a disciplined and fully thought out act of aesthetic rebellion. Mishima would have liked to live forever. However, this being impossible, he seized the next best alternative: to grab a hold of his finitude and form it into something of his own choosing. Instead of allowing the impersonal and meaningless forces of nature to take their course, Mishima insisted upon a conclusion to his life that would forever shape the world’s understanding of who he was. He was not the same as the average folks of the world who simply grow old, age and die. He was more like Socrates, another man who chose to die as an act of rebellion against the world in which he lived. His death was a fitting conclusion to his life. Just as there would be no Socrates without his death by hemlock, and just as there would be no Jesus without his death on the cross, likewise there would be no Mishima without his death by seppuku.

9781780233451In his book, Damain Flanagan notes that on the day of his death, Mishima left a note on his desk which read:

Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever. (p. 236)

I see this as an indication of Mishima’s unresolved (and unresolvable) nihilism. The truth of the world is that we can never overcome our imperfections, our finitude, or our missteps. We are thrown into a world and we build our identities from the raw material of the past, which forms the foundation upon which we leap into an undetermined future. Mishima recognized the absurd impossibility of living forever, of being perfect, of being a consummate master of life, and yet he also was unable to give up on the desire for immortality, perfection and complete mastery. Part of the issue here rests with the fact that while we can choose our own projects and interpretations of life, the one thing we cannot choose is the facticity, the givenness, of that which has already transpired. Mishima wanted to obliterate his past, first through novelistic reinterpretation, and then finally through bodily discipline. But in the end, he failed. Neither his novels nor his transformation into a body-building samurai make any sense apart from the concrete facts of his early life. Mishima was a man who, like all of us, could not escape the past. He could merely transform it into something bearable.

I like the fact that Flanagan highlights preoccupation with time as a chronic theme in Mishima’s life. As a child, daily imprisoned in his grandmother’s room, the young Mishima became intensely attuned to the passage of minutes. As a young man during World War II, he became intensely aware of the inevitability of death and the shortness of life. After the War, he became preoccupied with leaving a mark on the world. This required quick and determined action against a backdrop of the passage of time and the irreversible aging of the body. Time conspires against us, threatening to undermine and destroy all of our efforts to create something permanent, beautiful and lasting. This was the problem faced by Mishima, but the reason why his art appeals to so many of us is that it is also the problem we all face.

In his cycle of novels, The Sea of Fertility Tetrology, the final volume of which was completed on the very day of his suicide, Mishima integrated Buddhist ideas about the transmigration of the soul. But Mishima was not a Buddhist in his heart. Buddhism teaches that the suffering of life can be overcome by relinquishing desire, and this is something that I believe Mishima never could do. To the Buddhist, the world is fine the way it is. It is our own yearning that makes the world appear substandard. To Mishima – as to all nihilists – the world always falls short of what it should be, and the only recourse that we have as human beings is to mold reality into a form that more closely resembles our own subjective vision of perfection. The tragedy is that wishing does not make it so, and the objective world continues to resist our efforts.

images-2As the anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s death approaches this month, he would no doubt be pleased that we still remember him and his nihilistic efforts to inject some purity into an impure universe.


The Samurai and the Ubermensch

warrior+of+spiritA short essay that I wrote in the 1990’s titled “The Samurai and the Ubermensch: Tragic Heroes” has been translated into what I think is Norwegian. It appears on a blog called Vama Marga.

Here’s the text of the original essay, which first appeared in Volume 3 of the philosophy journal Reflections (1994-1995), and subsequently in The Nihilist’s Notebook (Moralinefree Press, 1996):

The Samurai and the Ubermensch: Tragic Heroes

By John Marmysz

“…when whole nations, at first guided by priests, after having slaughtered each other in the name of their chimerical divinities, later take up arms for their king or country, the homage offered to heroism counterbalances the tribute paid to superstition; not only do they then most rightly substitute these new heroes for their gods, but they also sing their warrior’s praises as once they had sung the praises of Heaven…”

–The Marquis de Sade, Reflections on the Novel

Nihilism is the situation obtained when one comes to the realization that beyond the linguistic world, there lies nothing but chaos and disorder. The world as it is, seperate from humans, exists in a state of continual conflict and flux (says the nihilist), and any order imposed upon this situation is necessarily artificial. There is only one “meaningful” option open to humans, however, and this option is to impose order upon the world. Language is the means by which humans impose order upon the actions that appear to occur in the world. The bringing together of art and action is a dangerous balancing act which severely contrasts “man, the creator” with “man, the impotent being.” It is this contrast between empowerment and dissolution which characterizes the heroic figure and which lies at the heart of tragedy.

Ecce Homo and Sun and Steel offer the insights and intimations of two authors into their own lives as they relate to the creative venture. In these two books, Nietzsche and Mishima, cloaked in the overt conventions of the critical autobiography, lash out at the practice of divorcing art from action. They criticize the reification of the linguistic world, which they think has taken place at the expense of the pre-linguistic world. Their quarrel is with those who use words to mediate their experiences in the world in order to deny their own heroic capabilities.

Both Nietzsche and Mishima are advocates of a way of life that stresses a nexus of art and action with an emphasis on the “tragic.” “Saying Yes to life in its strangest and hardest problems; the will to life rejoicing over its inexhaustibility even in the sacrifice of its highest types – that is what I call Dionysian, that is what I understood as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet,”(1) writes Nietzsche in this concise summation of his conception regarding a heroic nobility. This Dionysian status is gained not by “thumbing through books,” but by suffering through experience and rejoicing in the vitality of living. Mishima complements this view when he writes, “He who dabbles in words can create tragedy, but cannot participate in it.”(2)

Mishima begins Sun and Steel with a discussion of the “corrsive function of words.” Mishima writes that an awareness of words preceded an awareness of the body in his own life. As a result, he feels that his view of the world was unnaturally constructed. He became isolated and cloistered away from the world, watching life pass by through his bedroom window. Through his childhood eyes, the world appeared as an abstraction. “Words are a medium that reduces the world to abstraction…and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words will be corroded too.”(3) He draws an analogy between the corrosive function of words and “…excess stomach fluids that digest and gradually eat away the stomach itself.”(4) Words then, as they artificially order the world, are also in a position to to be affected by action in the world. This is a situation of decadence; when the usage of words moves farther and farther away from an expression of liveliness. The artificial order of the world becomes reified (the corrosive function of words) and in turn the individual using the words relates only to that reification through the mediating factor of words (the corrosion of words).

Nietzsche writes, “…in questions of decadence I am experienced.”(5) In this, he intimates his own experience of life denial through words. His imagery is startling similar to Mishima’s in comparing intellectual endeavors with physical conditions. “The German spirit is an indegestion: it does not finish with anything.”(6) The functioning of the stomach is the image par excellence of the reification of the linguistic world. The stomach digests food by breaking it down into component parts which are readily recognizable and useful to the physiology. The various vitamins and minerals that are useful to the body, however, bear little resemblance to the original product. An orange is not simply vitamin C, for instance. What the body does not use is rejected as waste product. In disorders of the stomach the body cannot distinguish between waste and nutrient and consequently churns endlessly, causing distress to the organism. Nietzsche is not embarassed by his experience of decadence but rather sees it as something which has given him a special sensitivity to the “signs of ascent and decline.” He refuses to feel resentment towards his experiences.

The world is a chaotic place given order only by the imposition of human will. Humans, in this way, create something out of nothing. Mishima refers to this creation as a “false order” which “…is a kind of protective function of life in the face of the chaos around it, and resembles the way a hedgehog rolls itself up into a tight round ball.”(7) By creating these little universes humans experience a “…burst of lively, centripetal activity.”(8) This situation seems very much akin to Nietzsche’s “Yes and No saying.” In the face of the “abyss,” man creates and acts as if his creation is real, in such a manner allowing himself the vital and joyous activity of affirming the importance of his creation. The heroic figure moves on towards greater acts of creation using each personal, willful creation as a stepping stone, not towards an ultimate goal, but towards other projects. Nietzsche tells us to beware of the organizing “idea” which “…leads us back from side roads and wrong roads…as a means towards a whole.”(9) Creativity is valued in and of itself, and he advocates saying “Yes” to the process, but “No” to the goal. The endless road of “becoming” is traveled by a will which is excited and invigorated by its trip, enjoying its stops along the way, but which ultimately has no other purpose but to go farther and farther as the journey becomes more and more exhausting.

Mishima turns to weight lifting in an attempt to attain the classical ideal of human form that he feels will allow him to experience the “tragic” personally. Becuase his early years were preoccupied with words, he seeks to balance his life with a physical counter-weight. Certainly this physical experience is still mediated by “the ideal” which he seeks. His body itself comes to act as a metaphor in flesh of the human condition. One sculpts reality in much the same manner as one sculpts the body through weight training. There is a certain goal which is focused on for the moment, but that goal is valued only insofar as it may be destroyed when it comes into conflict with something greater than itself. The body (or life) can be intellectualized, but what brings dignity to it is only the element of mortality that lies within. For the flesh this may mean death. For life it means a confrontation with the “abyss.”

The more agressively that Mishima imposes his intellect upon his body, the more he realizes that the body and the intellect are inseparable. “…I was driven to the conclusion that the ‘I’ in question corresponded precisely with that physical space that I occupied.”(10) By taking up the practice of Kendo sword fighting he realizes the need for opposition in the task of overcoming. The pain of being struck with the sword is likened to a philosophical defeat. He admits that “…masterpieces…sometimes arise from the midst of such defeat…” but, he goes on, “I had no taste for defeat – much less victory – without a fight.”(11) It is the fight that he has a taste for, or in other words, the process of conflict.

Likewise, Nietzsche emphasizes the battle over the goal. “The task is not simply to master what happens to resist, but what requires us to stake all our strength, suppleness and fighting skill – opponents that are our equals.”(12) It is a simple matter to conquer that which is already beneath you. To move beyond that which is already your equal is the real test of the will. This is the process of overcoming which leads one higher and higher, bringing one towards the experience of the “tragic.” As the linguistic world becomes more and more complex, its position in relation to nothingness becomes more and more precarious. This situation threatens a fall of truly apocalyptic proportions. Mishima writes, “Facile cynicism, invariably is related to feeble muscles or obesity, while the cult of the hero and a mighty nihilism are always related to a mighty body and well tempered muscles. For the cult of the hero is, ultimately involved with the contrast between the robustness of the body and the destruction that is death.”(13) For the mediocre individual to fall is not tragic, but simply pathetic. It is necessary for the tragic aesthetic that there be a certain height to the descent. To paraphrase an earlier quote from Nietzsche, rejoicing in the sacrifice of the highest types is a key element in experiencing tragedy.

“The most appropriate type of daily life for me was a day-by-day world destruction; peace was the most difficult and abnormal state to live in.”(14) Mishima here gives us his formula for life, and it is in perfect sync with Nietzsche’s formula. “…and whoever wants to be a creator in good and evil, must first be an annihilator and break values.”(15) Creation in this sense presupposes the willingness to destroy. The order we impose upon the world is a constraint upon us when the time to overcome occurs, and at such a crossroads the warrior spirit is needed in order to decimate the linguistic constructs that we have come to depend on. For original, creative acctivity to be allowed, there must be nothing available to plagarize or react against. Nietzsche refers to this resignation in the face of the void as “Russian fatalism” which occurs when the individual no longer attempts to “…accept anything at all – to cease reacting altogether.”(16) This attitude is most assuredly what Mishima meant when he referred to the “mighty nihilism” of the heroic spirit. Whether he be called Ubermensch or Samurai, the individual that acts in the world does so heroically if he recognizes the “abyss” yet chooses to act anyway.

Nobility is like a meniscus, relying on the tension created by contrasting nothingness with creation. It can tolerate very little unequal pressure; too much and it ruptures. An aesthetically pleasing life is to be sought in that in between area inaccessible to words or action alone. Ironically, the sometimes extreme and severe philosophies of Mishima and Nietzsche are in fact philosphies which advocate a kind of moderation. The heroic figure is valued for his masterful ability to live a life in which he moderates the need for order with the desire for creative action. Standing between empowerment and dissolution, the hero is as deserving of “songs of praise” as any god.


(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 273. (New York. Vintage Books, 1989).

(2) Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 14. (Tokyo. Kodansha International, 1982).

(3) Ibid, p. 9.

(4) Ibid, p. 9.

(5) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 223.

(6) Ibid, p. 238.

(7) Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 25.

(8) Ibid, p. 24.

(9) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 254.

(10) Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 7.

(11) Ibid, p. 48.

(12) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 232.

(13) Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 41.

(14) Ibid, p. 57.

(15) Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, p. 327.

(16) Ibid, p. 230.