Mishima's Last Words: The Sea of Fertility Part II

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 22, 2004 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

It is now 1940. Honda is middle-aged and Japan is on the brink of war with the United States. Later he will look upon the ruins of Tokyo after the American firebombing, which is said to have killed some 100,000 civilians. Hiroshima and Nagasaki pass notice. But Honda doesn't much care. He is still brooding over reincarnation and his lack of children. Genetically speaking he is already dead.

Isao's prophecy has come true and he has been reincarnated as a Thai princess named Ying Chan, who is named after a Thai princess that died in Spring Snow. "Chan" is an abbreviation of her full name, "Chantrapa" -- chantra being a Sanskrit word meaning "moon" or "moonlight."

Honda's attraction to the Princess is immediate. It is part sexual, part paternal, part something else. His desires assume some strange forms --- "he wished," for example, "it was possible for him to hold the Princess's smooth brown thighs in his hands as she urinated" - and some not so strange - "he visualized the hollow between her breasts under the brassiere perspiring as if in a steamroom."

In his introduction to Kawabata's House of the Sleeping Beauties, Mishima makes a distinction between "exoteric" and "esoteric" literary works. "In an esoteric masterpiece, a writer's most secret, deeply hidden themes make their appearance.... The spirit of the author, flinging away all inhibitions, shows itself in its boldest form." The Temple of Dawn may be Mishima's esoteric masterpiece, and not simply because it is about taboo subjects like voyeurism or Princesses on potties. One has the feeling that Mishima and his mouthpiece Honda have become bored with the game of telling fanciful lies and of weaving fictions. It is time to bare all. After all, Mishima's time is running out. In death, truth.

Most if not all men occasionally lust after beautiful but not very interesting women. This lust is not merely (and in old age, not at all) a desire for coitus, but a desire for the peace of death, for the loss of self-consciousness that sex provides. "If 'not knowing' was the first factor in eroticism," muses Honda, "the ultimate had to be the eternally unknowable." Mishima makes a similar connection: "the 'radiance of life' can only appear in the realm where death and eroticism are together."

Honda never consummates his desire for Ying Chan. As I wrote in an earlier essay about The Temple of Dawn, Honda

"runs his eyes over every inch and crevice and pore of the young bronze princess, but he never once has the opportunity to touch her body. As readers, we are glad of it: odes on the beauty of the human body will always win out over the often goofy and messy act of love. Ultimately Honda resolves to hold her in his imagination rather than hold her in his hands. But like all resolutions, this one does not last. Honda finds himself standing beneath his beloved's window, a Romeo wearing orthopedic shoes."

Like her predecessors, Ying Chan dies at the age of twenty. The culprit this time is, thanks be to Freud, a cobra. But her death is just as gruesome, just as inelegant. It is as ugly as Ying Chan was fair to look upon.

*In 1971 Vidal found the Japanese to be "bored with their new prosperity, their ugly cities, their half-Western, half-Japanese culture, their small polluted islands." The final novel The Decay of the Angel exudes this boredom, and it suggests that boredom was Mishima's ultimate undoing: boredom with writing, with aging, with his debased country. The word "vulgarity" gets repeated often.

It is now the late 1960s. The Americans are dumping bombs on Cambodia to make the world safe for the Coca-Cola stands and filling stations they are dumping all over Japan, which increasingly resembles "Main Street in an American country town." Manners are in decline; materialism is on the rise. "Spoiled, Westernized" women no longer cover their mouths when they laugh. The general population is old and adrift, so many youths and cultural assumptions having died during the war. "The paper is filled with stories of the industrial wastes that floated ashore at Tago."

In the first three books of the cycle, Mishima's prose is energetic, precise, and technically perfect. In Decay it starts to decay. Sentences become short, become fragments, become non-sequiturs. The prose is Kawabataesque, tired, like the ticking of a slowing clock.

Honda, now 76, grimly awaits the end. But in the meantime he adopts a boy, Toru, whom he believes to be the new Kiyoaki-Isao-Chantrapa. The belief turns out to be premature: Toru does not die at age twenty. Instead he blinds himself by drinking grain alcohol. He marries an insane woman. He attacks Honda with a fire poker. Anomie is on rampage.

More than ever Honda looks on life as nothing but a swindle, as cheap entertainment for the grim reaper waiting at the end. Listening to people make plans and discuss trivia, Honda concludes, "Foxes all, walking the path of foxes. The hunter had only to wait in the thicket." Or: "We are fodder to stuff some craw." But he never gets beyond these sour ruminations. Life is a swindle. So what? Here Honda and his creator begin to part ways. Through Honda, Mishima is convincing himself that it is time to die, while Honda continues feebly to live. Using the same data they make different decisions. Having dragged poor Honda into senility, Mishima sees what it is like and respectfully declines.

"There are as many ways" to live, wrote Thoreau, "as there can be drawn radii from one center." It would be nice to believe that this is still true, and indeed that it grows truer by the day. Let freedom ring. But the ring has grown rather hollow of late. Freedom is increasingly a matter of being able to choose between bad television channels, identical brands of deodorant, uniform travel destinations - between "ugly cities" and "polluted islands." Choice has become consumer choice, and somewhere along the way we seers and samurais have become shoppers after new and different clothes to belie our awful sameness.

Mishima, in choosing a life of art and an artistic death, may be among the last of a dying kind. The new kind contains the new man, Honda, who is scarcely a man at all. He is a man, as Mishima writes, of "passionate apathy," of "indubitable mediocrity," whose wreck of a body contains a spirit long dead. Mishima's own athleticism and atavism and showmanship may not represent a better man to be. But there is something about his life and his work that cries out for a hearing before our world becomes a Brave New World; before man, as C.S. Lewis once put it, is abolished.

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Note: Vintage International published each book of the Sea of Fertility cycle in 1990.

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