Mishima: A Vision of the Void, by Marguerite Yourcenar


Mishima: A Vision of the Void
by Marguerite Yourcenar
151 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $18

As a friend once noted, humanity has excelled in one thing over the past thousand years: producing alienated geniuses who articulate elaborate visions of our path as a steady walk to soulless doom.

Yukio Mishima was one such person. Born sickly, homosexual and into a family that thoroughly alienated him, Mishima became a prolific voice for criticism of the modern era. In particular, he resisted “Westernization” of Japan with its modern conveniences and consequently, an amnesia concerning how to strive for beauty and live with honor.

Marguerite Yourcenar writes of Mishima both through his art and as an object of art. Part biography and part literary criticism, Mishima: A Vision of the Void attempts to create a double helix that pairs Mishima’s ideas and expressions in life with his literary visions. It succeeds at times, sometimes with great insight, but for the most part this book moves slowly through somewhat airy analysis.

Where this author shows her power as a writer is in understanding the highlights of Mishima’s life as expressed in his books, plays and essays. Were this a 20-page thesis paper, it would be startlingly brilliant with twists and turns revealing greater depth at each moment. That content is still here, but afloat in introductory material and conjecture that while it may in part be an artifact of translation, burns so much space on the obvious that it leaves the reader wondering whether any purpose to it exists.

Then again Yourcenar does not have the easiest task. From a brief reading of Mishima, he is both dense with symbolism and conceptually inextricable from the world the author has created, and so any analysis of his books involves somewhat of a retelling of the story while saturating the reader in foreshadowing of its concepts. The idea of an introductory book to Mishima could well be entirely apocryphal.

However, it would be hard to criticize this book for not taking its subject seriously. Mishima is treated seriously, even reverently, with a compassionate analysis that brings out the most meaningful and powerful moments in his work and life. Biographical data is thin in part because of this, since it does not enhance our understanding of him other than a few pivotal moments, which are highlighted in their intensity.

For someone who wanted a revival of traditional Japanese culture, Yukio Mishima (a pen name that conjures up imagery of a snowy forest at the base of a mountain) thoroughly Westernized himself, both in lifestyle and in literature. He took inspiration from Western Romantics and the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, who was killed by Emperor Diocletian for his refusal to disclaim his Christianity.

Yourcenar finds in Mishima a person of intense expression of will: a sickly boy who made himself into a bodybuilder and martial arts expert, the son of a civil servant who became a literary wunderkind, and most importantly (perhaps) a celebrity who opted for a violent and painful suicide instead of a fawning public life.

In her view, Mishima’s suicide is essential to an understanding of his life, which expressed the same beliefs he developed in his writing. For Mishima, the Idea shone above the daily entanglements of mortal life and even love, much as his characters are all incarnations of ideas, with vital identifying markers (such as patterns of birthmarks) passing between characters who he identifies as reincarnated versions not of one another, but of the same idea, much like the avatara of ancient Vedic faiths.

It is not believable that Mishima, who for six years had been preparing his ritual death, should have mounted this complicated scenario of speaking to the troops and making a public announcement prior to his death with the sole intention of setting the stage for a double departure. Simply — and he explained this point in his debate with the communist students — he had come to believe that love itself had become impossible in a world bereft of faith, and compared two lovers to the two angles at the base of a triangle; the Emperor whom they reverse is the third. Replace the word Emperor with the word cause, or God, and you will arrive at the notion of a belief in transcendence necessary to passionate human love… (142)

It is the quality of such literary analysis that makes this book worth reading. For every ten pages that wax too literary for the practical reader, or seem flights of fancy departing in flocks, there are insights that only another writer of fiction from the same era could understand, and Yourcenar shines in these areas.

Better biographies of Mishima, and more extensive analyses of his works, may exist elsewhere. This book however is intriguing for its short length and breadth of attempt, which is not to tell us the details of his life or cover every possibility, but to explain Yukio Mishima to those of us from a time that would not understand his sacrifice, or the love or beauty that motivated it.

13 Comments

  1. P says:

    Mishima is a person who requires thorough analysis, even introspection. One could ask: “Introspection? You mean self-observation, seeking the answer within one’s self?”. To understand most sincerely(sincerity, as a word which features prominently in his movie “Patriotism” as a vital, and yet subtle backdrop) his being,one has to feel and breathe his way of life, that code of honor, that feeling of being almost at the cliff towards oblivion, yet always standing firm, resolute in the face of defeat. For it is exactly that which provokes his arousal, both sexual and ideological, in the picture of St. Sebastian, a scene featured in his “Confessions of a Mask”. A scene which he would try to relive, if you will, being photographed in Ba-Ra-Kei. And he succeeds in doing so later, with his death. That glorious death for all to see. A death perfect in it’s meticulous planning and ritualization.
    Those are things i find really difficult for a woman to be able to visualize. Mishima is a symbol combining in himself everything that a classic female is not. Therefore any woman, trying to delve into his motives and workings is at loss to begin with. I mean no offence to the writer, yet as i said, reading Mishima is reliving Mishima, i firmly believe that there is no other way around it. All the elaborate nature and wildlife described in his works, that way of his to be absolutely in tune with the inner workings of nature (much like his character Shinji in “The Sound of Waves”) and in conjunction the inner workings of the mind is completely lost to a person who reads Mishima for any other reason that reliving the struggles of an idealist stranded on the island of non-idealism.
    Read “Sun and Steel” – any other way of additional clarification is illusory.
    I got really worked up about all this…

    1. A. Realist says:

      I got the impression that his books are supposed to deliver the reader to a state of mind before deciding to accept idealism, not preaching to the choir.

  2. Avery says:

    “Yukio Mishima (a pen name that conjures up imagery of a snowy forest at the base of a mountain) ”

    Only if you write it with incorrect kanji. Properly it’s 三島由紀夫, last name “three islands”, first name with phonetic values only.

    1. Interesting. M.Y. is careful to say his first name is “evocative” of a word like that for snow, and that his last name hints at a certain region at the base of a rather famous mountain. Since I speak no Japanese, I have no idea what she’s getting at.

      1. Vagus says:

        The word for snow in Japanese is “yuki” (雪), though, as Avery points out, the “yuki” in Yukio is spelled 由紀 (rather than 雪).

        Thank you for the review; I’d be interested in more articles on non-Indo-European traditionalists.

  3. Esotericist says:

    Mishima is an unlikely conservative hero but he is a strong supporter of the idea of conservatism not as the basis for politics, but for a society. His reasoning is not some hide-bound “because it’s right, dog” but a strong and fervent belief that it will benefit the individual by giving their lives meaning again. I think all of us can buy into that at least a little bit…

  4. Alois says:

    http://jisho.org/kanji/details/%E7%94%B1%E7%B4%80%E5%A4%AB

    Not sure if we should read so much into his pen name. You can draw up some interesting theories if you look at the individual meanings of the characters though.

    I have only read Confessions of a Mask, but have dabbled a bit into Kyoko’s House, which has no translations. Mishima was heavily invested in the novel, and was crushed when it proved unsuccessful. I have read that it is quite the unsettling read because it somewhat predicts the direction that his mind was going in leading up to the suicide.

    That said, for the past year and a half of living in Japan I have noticed that people do not talk about Mishima at all, and there are more translations of Stephen King books at the local library then there are books written by Mishima.

  5. Alois says:

    Oh, and your blog is blocked on public internet(schools/local library wifi) with the reason cited being that this site is affiliated with cults and terrorism. Haha, you should have seen the look on my face when I was fumbling to close the window when I clicked a link to here from inmalafide while I was eating lunch at work.

    1. Can you get us the name of the blocking software?

      1. Alois says:

        I think it’s called i-Filter, I’ll have to check again. It’s in Japan mind you, so I have no idea if you are blocked state side.

  6. A. Realist says:

    Are these book reviews going to be a regular feature?

  7. Ted Swanson says:

    I’d never heard of Mishima until this article. This man’s intensity puts Nietzsche to shame. Many people won’t understand it, but a sacrifice on this magnitude is actually an affirmation of life and the will of the universe. Glorious and haunting.

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