Enlightenment as Neurosis

by Kenneth Champeon, May 17, 2005 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Once upon a time, men were hunters and warriors out of necessity, rather than for sport. Thus natural selection would have tended to favor the fierce and the physically strong, and life was given purpose by the battle or the hunt. But modern times tend to require of men that they be docile and intellectual; our food comes to us in plastic wrappers and our wars are fought by machines; and life is given purpose by a series of stimulants and entertainments intended to simulate the action that once was. Hence organized sports, shoot-em-up video games, cutthroat capitalism. In the absence of these: boredom, angst, malaise. We simply weren't made to sit in chairs all day and gobble potato chips. So, unsurprisingly, every now and again a man willingly creates some mayhem, simply to remind himself that he is not just a brain or a stomach.

This, at any rate, seems to be a theme of Yukio Mishima's spooky novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which the oracular New York Times believed to have "established Mishima's claim as one of the outstanding writers of the world." It also seems to be a theme of Mishima's life, which was martial, often inscrutable, and brief. Mishima never blew anything up or burned anything down, but he may have been sympathetic to those who did.

One of Mishima's recurring ideas is what he once called "cosmic nihilism," i.e. nothing is universally true, right, intelligible, or communicable. That nothing is communicable is a rather odd idea for an exceedingly prolific writer to have, but Mishima was equally fascinated with the notion of fertility. The cosmos may have no moral order or discernible goal, but it sure does have a lot of what physicists call "stuff." And the stuff keeps changing, combining, reproducing, passing away. A meaningless spectacle is still a spectacle.

Nihilism also refers to the necessity of destroying the old and bad to usher in the new and good. In a peculiar way, the two meanings of the word - henceforth called Nihilism I and Nihilism II -- are incompatible. If there are no universal values, then there is no universal reason to create, destroy, or even wake up in the morning. Instead, whim or instinct prevails.

Temple is a case study in both kinds of nihilism, and is based on a true story withal. As Buddhist scholar Nancy Wilson Ross explains in her introduction to the work:

"In 1950...the ancient Zen temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto was deliberately burned to the ground.... by an unhappy and unbalanced student of Zen Buddhism.... This young acolyte - born with an ugly face and afflicted from childhood with a difficult stammer - became obsessed with 'envy' of the Golden Temple whose beauty daily attracted a throng of admiring visitors."

Mishima, who dubs the student Mizoguchi, complicates this simple case for the prosecution. He suggests that certain tenets of Zen Buddhism justify the destruction of beautiful things. In the Zen story "Nansen Kills a Cat", a Zen priest butchers a fuzzy feline in order to demonstrate his detachment from the allure of beauty. Mizoguchi is also swayed by the notorious Zen commandment, "When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!.... Only then will ye attain deliverance." Mizoguchi's act thus appears as a logical extension of Zen's strain of Nihilism II, Zen itself being a hybrid of Buddhism's Nihilism I and the occasional brutality of Japanese society. If Mishima disapproved of Mizoguchi's act, and it is not clear that he did, then the novel may be seen as a condemnation of Zen's negativity - perhaps in contrast to the relatively affirmative samurai tradition in which Mishima was raised.

Not that the Japanese have cornered the market in brutality. Writing in 1959, before the blood of millions of Vietnamese left a permanent stain on America's self-righteousness, Ross tries to gloss over the novel's unsparing depiction of the American Occupation forces. In one scene, by which Ross is "deeply" shocked, a blotto American soldier compels Mizoguchi to stomp on a pregnant Japanese prostitute, who consequently miscarries. The scene is a perfect instance of what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil" - in which the Japanese hardly needed instruction by that point. Neither in Temple nor in Mishima's Sea of Fertility cycle is any mention made of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and on VJ day the head of Mizoguchi's monastery elides Japanese defeat. The temple aflame was just more of the same banality. What bothers Ross is the possibility that the American's depravity acts as a catalyst to Mizoguchi's own. Prior to the scene, Mizoguchi was already fond of Nihilism II as an idea: he hoped that Kyoto would be obliterated by B-29's. But his maltreatment of the prostitute is his first nihilistic act. And he discovers that it becomes him. Without the American's compulsion, the timid Mizoguchi might never have been dazzled by "the glitter of evil." Now he feels liberated to act out his pyromaniacal fantasies.

The American's sadism is not the only factor contributing to Mizoguchi's decline. Another is the gradual erosion of positive moral influences from his life. His father dies, as does his trustworthy friend Tsurukawa. His new friend Kashiwagi is amoral at best, and his monastic Superior dallies with geishas. Only his mother remains to guide him, but her influence is too little, too late. "I wondered what it was that made Mother so particularly ugly. Then I understood. What made her ugly was - hope. Incurable hope, like an obstinate case of scabies...." Hope returns only as he watches the temple burn, and he rejects his original plan of committing suicide. "I wanted to live," he decides. There the book ends.

Critics are obliged nowadays to identify every writer with some member of the putative Western canon. So, writing in Time (April 30,2001), author Jay McInerney is obliged to call Temple "wholly Dostoyevskian." One wonders if McInerney was thinking at all when he wrote - typed? - this. The comparison is probably intended to elicit awe for his knowledge of literature rather than to create a better understanding of Mishima's novel. Admittedly, both authors were preoccupied with the vacuum created by the collapse of age-old value systems -- Imperial Japan and Christendom. But the tones of the two authors differ greatly. Mishima is elegiac, Dostoyevsky erratic. Mishima plods dolefully through the wasteland; Dostoyevsky gnashes his teeth and complains of cirrhosis.

It would be more accurate to say that Mishima and Dostoyevsky are both existentialist writers, meaning that they dwell on the isolation of the individual in a cosmos indifferent at best. But the Easterner Mishima focuses on the cosmos whereas Dostoyevsky focuses on the individual. The titles of Mishima's works are usually not people; Dostoyevsky's usually are.

Finally, in Dostoyevsky the clergy still acted as an anchor for a world increasingly adrift. But in Mishima the monks seem to be madder than is the common man. The discipline and detachment demanded by Zen is itself a kind of neurosis of which Mizoguchi represents only an extreme case. Put another way, the acts of an enlightened being - and Mizoguchi is enlightened after a fashion - can often be damaging to a world still operating on mundane morals. A common man, accustomed to making simple distinctions between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, would be hard put to raze a temple or gut a cat.

Detachment has its pleasures, in other words, but it also has its perils. One pursues enlightenment at the risk of becoming a loon.

- The End -

Review of Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Vintage International, 1987.

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