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Bridging East and West

ISSUE:  Summer 1987
Mishima, or the Vision of the Void. By Marguerite Yourcenar. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $13.95.
Two Lives and a Dream. By Marguerite Yourcenar. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $16.95.

The work of Marguerite Yourcenar is noted for crossing boundaries of space and time. With her profound historical sense, she can make real to us the Emperor Hadrian in ancient Rome and Zeno, the itinerant surgeon of northern Europe in the 17th century. Coming closer to our own time we have Eric of Coup de Grace, the free-lance fighter in the aftermath of World War I. A Coin in Nine Hands gives us Italy in the grip of Mussolini. This wide range, of time particularly, is not confined to her works of fiction. In her critical essays, collected in English under the title The Dark Brain of Piranesi, she takes us from Rome to the Germany of Thomas Mann.

The present essay is a study of Yukio Mishima, an author writing of his country in the throes of defeat, of a Japan, in fact, engaged with problems imported directly from the culture of our own contemporary West. Mishima, or the Vision of the Void, is considerably longer than the essays included in The Dark Brain of Piranesi. It is actually a short book, and includes a study of the life of her subject. As so often in previous work, Yourcenar has linked literary criticism with biography, and with her subject’s relation to the times in which he lived. Indeed, in Mishima’s case, his life is as much a part of his oeuvre as any of his books.

Yourcenar makes this clear at the opening of her essay: in Mishima, she says, the forms of ancient Japanese culture conflict with his own superficially Westernized life style. Ultimately, they rise to the surface and explode in the dramatic form of his death. She finds that when the life of a writer is as rich, varied, and sometimes as consciously calculated as his work, then they well may be considered together.

Mishima’s childhood was spent in the Proustian atmosphere of his grandmother’s house. He was not himself an only child, but his family turned him over to the care of this invalid and neurotic woman. This lady represented the ancient Japanese aristocracy to which the family no longer belonged. The child shared her seclusion and her nervous crises; he even slept in her bedroom. “At age eight,” he said, “I had a lover of sixty.” If not literally true, it was nonetheless psychologically crippling. In Yourcenar’s words, “it impressed him with the strangeness of the outer world.”

Among these early impressions was his exposure to the nude in Western art. Before a photograph of Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian that shows the saint prostrated in an almost voluptuous agony, the boy experienced his first ejaculation. The heroes of ancient Japan had loved and died fully clothed, in their suits of silk and armor. To the boy emerging into manhood, a Westernized Japan seemed not only strange, but frightening, and often evil. Opposed to this, but perhaps equally terrifying, was the wild image of a religious procession seen in childhood. Such processions occur and recur in the novels that follow, and even in the author’s own life. At Rio de Janeiro he tells us that he hesitated for two days before committing himself to that abandoned festival.

How does this young man proceed to cope with a life for which he has been so ill prepared? Naturally, he will wear that very Japanese accessory, a mask. He must pretend, at all costs he must present a “normal” face to the world. Just beneath the surface lurks the great green snake, symbol of the principle of evil, waiting to strike. It is the social aspect which interests Yourcenar. She tends to underplay the personal conflict noted by Mishima himself, precisely the conflict between his hero’s homosexual impulses and the ideal of normality. Mishima has prefaced this book with a quotation from Dostoevsky: “What’s still more awful is that the man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna.”

Yourcenar also appears to pass over lightly those bloody and sadistic fantasies that obsess the minds of so many of Mishima’s characters. The fantasy in which the beloved becomes the victim of a bloody sacrificial meal she calls “not a pleasant image.” At the same time it can be explained, or extenuated, by noting that such atavistic rituals remain floating somewhere in every human subconscious. It is not a point obviously on which she wishes to dwell.

It is enough for her to tell us that Confessions of a Mask is a black masterpiece, from which we may proceed to that crimson masterpiece, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. We will follow Yourcenar’s example in skipping much in between; in a writer as prolific as Mishima many books were purely commercial, and, even when serious, often lacked the vision of the acknowledged masterpieces. In her study of The Golden Pavilion, Yourcenar focuses our attention on the Pavilion itself and on the philosophic role it plays in the course of the book. Once again Mishima’s protagonist is alienated from the life around him, not this time by his sexual tastes, but by physical ugliness and a crippling stutter. One is tempted to ask, Is not this repeated alienation something willed, even chosen, by the author himself? But now something new is introduced: the Golden Pavilion is a vision of other worldly beauty. By using this term we mark the difference, the chasm, in fact, that opens between the philosophies of West and East. In the first spirit, God, if one wills, is seen as transcendent, “other worldly”; in the latter it is immanent, dwelling in the things of this earth.

It is a conflict, Yourcenar points out, that exists sharply in Mishima himself. For a time the novice monk, the “I” of the novel, is possessed by a vision of absolute beauty: “Is it I who am the Golden Pavilion, or is it the Golden Pavilion that is myself?” This mystic identification of one with the other is not, in this case, to be the end of the story. “How could I possibly stretch out my hands toward life,” the young monk asks himself, “when I am thus totally absorbed in beauty?” Clearly it is impossible to touch eternity with one hand and life with the other. The Pavilion, still serenely beautiful, has become the enemy.

Mishima, in fact, has used an actual event, the burning of such a pavilion by a young monk attached to a temple. In the book as in real life the monk had meant to end his life with that of the pavilion, but resolution fails him. He describes himself in the last words of the novel: “I wanted to live.” It is a step in Mishima’s own psychic pilgrimage. At this point in her author’s career Yourcenar finds him passing through changes similar to those found in Japan itself. During the postwar years, Japan went from the heroism of battle to the passive acceptance of the Occupation, moving from there to Westernization without limit and to economic development, cost what it may. This course is paralleled in Mishima’s personal life: we see him in a tuxedo at Tokyo’s International House, or turned out in a business suit, persuaded that a writer should be the equal of a banker.

The final tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, is treated as a whole, directed toward a single end. The theme is reincarnation; the story is told over a period of four generations seen through the eyes of a single character. In the first volume, Spring Snow, Honda is depicted as a youth, sympathetic friend of Kiyoaki who is the first of those fated to die young. Kiyoaki’s various reincarnations are the subject of subsequent volumes, as the youth Isao in Runaway Horses and as the little Siamese Princess Ying Chan in The Temple of Dawn. The sequence ends with the false candidate, the despicable Toru, in The Decay of the Angel. Through all four volumes Honda remains a two-dimensional figure, believable in his role of voyeur and narrator, but hardly as an individual exploring his own relationship to the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation. Perhaps Mishima himself has used it, frankly, as only a tool, as though, Yourcenar suggests, he had been in a hurry to finish this book, and then, his work completed, to take his own life.

We have been waiting all this time for the reappearance of Satoko, once Kiyoaki’s young love and now abbess in an Order of cloistered nuns. Their love affair, as described in Spring Snow, is one of the most beautiful passages in the four volumes. Honda finds Satoko at last in those famous pages that Mishima is said to have completed on the very morning of his suicide. The now aged Satoko denies ever having known anyone named Kiyoaki. Honda feels utterly bewildered; he is groping in a fog. “If there was no Kiyoaki, then there was no Isao. There was no Ying Chan, and who knows, perhaps there has been no I.”

Where does this leave us? Surely with the sense of the futility, the sheer unreality of modern life in postwar Japan, and, by extension, throughout our modern world.

Ritual suicide, the terrible and bloody self-disembowelment of seppuku is something else again. Yourcenar fully describes the course of such an act, taken indeed from a film in which Mishima played the leading part. Here again art depicts life, and life echoes art. For most of his life, Mishima did not really confront the shock of Japan’s defeat; he dealt with it only obliquely through his novels. Now, in a more or less valedictory essay, Sun and Steel, he cries out that words are not enough: “I have come to sense within myself an accumulation of all kinds of things that cannot find adequate expression in an objective artistic form such as the novel.” After all the shock of defeat, even when intellectually suppressed, has been basically physical. Yourcenar makes its magnitude clear to the Western reader by comparing the effect of the Emperor’s announcement over the radio that he no longer represents a dynasty descended from the sun to the shock that would be felt throughout the Catholic world should the Pope renounce his infallibility as the Vicar of God on earth. Allied to this is Mishima’s long submerged feeling of physical guilt as one declared unfit for military service. The answer, he tells us in Sun and Steel, must be physical; the body must experience a redemption impossible in an abstract form. He goes on to describe vividly the intensity of physical and military training to which he now submits himself. The result is intoxicating, a triumph. He is enveloped by a sensation of power as by a transparent light.

The restoration of an Emperor, both effective and symbolic, protector of the humble and oppressed, has long been a goal of Japanese idealism. So it appeared to Isao in Runaway Horses; preparing his own death, he sees the image of the Emperor in the face of the setting sun. It is almost impossible, remarks Yourcenar, that the man who described Isao seeking accomplices for a coup d’état, should not have had something of the same sort in view for himself. “In any case it was at this time that Mishima formed a paramilitary group of young supporters that he called the Shield-Society, that is to say the Shield of the Emperor. He was not unaware of the significance of these initials.”

This, of course, was a political act, and Yourcenar finds it not without political significance to our situation today. “If a reactionary national revolution should ever triumph, no matter how briefly, in Japan, as it has today in certain Islamic countries, the Shield Society would be a precursor.” However she points out that such a revolution would effect no real change in the forces dominant in a modern state. She has said elsewhere, in that enlightening book of interviews, With Open Eyes, that she is no believer in revolution. “They ultimately provoke reactions more virulent than the disease that caused them.” Reform, rather than revolution, is what is needed.

It remains then to explain Yourcenar’s use of the word Void (Vide) in the title of this long, explicit, and carefully reasoned essay. Where does it exist? What is it really? Is it in the depth of the sky seen at sunset by Isao, or is it in that moment of heightened awareness when the plane in which Mishima is a passenger breaks the barrier of sound? Or is it, Mishima asks himself in that “quasi-delirious” essay Sun and Steel, that union of body and spirit experienced only in death? Here on earth, even in that eminently peaceful garden where the Abbess Satoko no longer remembers Kiyoaki, there is nothing: Rien. The garden is empty.

Mishima, who desires so ardently the void as the only heightened form of life, flings himself upon death. He has left a suicide note: “Human life is short, but I want to live forever.” Yourcenar follows the final hours, so far as possible, through a record left by a series of photographs. Political to the end Mishima goes to harangue the troops that he has caused to be assembled, to witness, as it were, the final act. The bloody rite of seppuku, ritual self-disembowelment, takes place on the floor of the commandant’s office. Mishima is beheaded by his companion in death, who in his turn is beheaded by another member of the group.

The image that Yourcenar leaves with us is less bloody, but more final. Two severed heads stand side by side upon a carpet, two objects already quasi-inorganic. An immense wave seems to have deposited them here, for a moment they lie upon dry sand. They will be returned to earth, and to the sea.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

As this essay should have made clear, Mishima and the Vision of the Void breaks new ground. In an extraordinarily subtle way this study has enabled Yourcenar to compare two cultures, that of the West and of Japan. Two Lives and a Dream, now also translated and issued by her American publishers, is of quite a different sort. It consists of three pieces of short fiction, the first totally different in feeling and style from the last two.

The first, Anna Soror, is an early work, in the great tradition of her Coup de Grâce. Yourcenar, with her custom of rewriting, rescuing, as it were, early efforts that she feels to be no longer viable, has wisely changed barely a word of this suberb story of love between brother and sister. It could, of course, stand alone, and the author might well have permitted it to do so. She has, however, added a postscript of considerable literary interest, including a very honest admission of her doubt that she would have been able today so completely to enter these characters of her own creation.

The two pieces which conclude, although virtually totally rewritten in the present version, had contained from the beginning the germ of later work. Nathaniel is the forerunner of the Zeno of The Abyss. To be sure, Nathaniel is a lower keyed, less interesting Zeno, but his life, like Zeno’s, takes us on a fine tour of the 17th-century mise en scène, even as far as the New World, represented here by Yourcenar’s own Mount Desert Island, the author’s present home. Nathaniel’s death scene, in this story of a plain man, is a beautiful evocation of the tranquillity of an island beach after a storm.

All three pieces have been put together to illustrate the flow of time. The last is a brief account of Nathaniel’s son Lazarus; it leans heavily on the boy actor’s total immersion in Shakespeare. What better way, we may ask, to deploy the seven ages of man? That the voice we hear may be Yourcenar’s rather than that of the boy Lazarus perhaps does not matter.

Finally, in connection with her study of Mishima, one should note Yourcenar’s own view of those repetitions of character that the Japanese writer interprets as reincarnations. In her postscript to Anna Soror she wonders that at age 22, before she herself had experienced passion, she had been able to enter so fully into the love of Anna and Miguel. “The phenomenon,” she says, “is really quite simple. All has been lived and relived thousands of times by those forerunners who exist still in our genes, just as we carry the thousands who one day will follow us.” In the course of this essay, at least, East and West may not be so terribly far apart.


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