Lost in Translation
I was in Japan in 1958, and much later I wrote about it; I’m going to take little passages from that book. In Tokyo, I spent an evening with Yukio Mishima . . . we got on. The memory must affect what I write here. But that alone does not entitle me to brood on his life and works. His death, however, was a public act, and the work a public offering. The world is invited, commanded, to brood. Place his suicide in a Western context, or in the Japanese one, or in both, where I think it most significantly belongs. Trace his progression toward it. Hear in every book its pure sound. True, only his last act has given us this after-event wisdom. But has he succeeded in that final coincidence of flesh and mind he hoped for?
We had met once before, in New York, at a Gotham Book Mart party for James Baldwin, where Mishima had looked as anyone does under such circumstances: tentative, interestedly afloat on a sea of foreign context. This second time, we did not really talk of literature. He was a handsome man, I thought, with a coherence of face and form. Though I felt very tall in Japan, and he was shorter, he did not appear small. I couldn’t tell whether his face seemed as guarded to other Japanese as it seemed to me. Some triangular proportion in it, broad at the brows, made one look at eyes and mouth separately. Hindsight sees how such a face might empathize alternately, as his work did, with the ugly and the beautiful.
We laughed a lot that evening, and most of it was laughter over intramural jokes, not embarrassment or Occidental misinterpretation. Reading the glinting humor of After the Banquet five years later, I remember this laughter. When he and his friend kept saying how Oriental I looked, I told them how my daughter’s boarding school had surreptitiously asked her if I was Eurasian. We sat, bright-eyed, sympathetically comfortable, and language-hampered. He told me with utter seriousness that he was building a Dutch colonial house. This had its pertinence.
Shortly afterwards, as my journal shows, I was to be sick with what was glibly called “cultural shock.” At the time, I knew what it was but hadn’t the wit to say. I was smelling the sweat of the dragon-flight, that odor of burnt ideologies, smoked-out shrines, commingled loins, and potsherds, which down the ages must hang invisibly wherever two civilizations are trying to engorge one another. I was seeing how a nation under occupation was dealing with its “conqueror.” Mishima, born in 1925, educated at the Peers School, where the Spartan fires of militarism still burned, graduating as its highest honor student, mid-war, spent half his life under the clang of historical glory and all his manhood with the American conqueror standing sentinel at every street corner of Japan’s culture.
Grounded deeply in his own literature, Mishima was widely read in Western thought, classical and modern. I told him that in my own country I had never heard a colleague mention the poet Novalis or Amiel, the author of Journal intime. But I met their names in his works—particularly, I think, in that strange book called Sun and Steel, Mishima’s account of a child who refuses to perceive the body and is led into reality through words. In time, words, however useful, become the corrosive evil, and ideas become foreign to that romantic ideality of the body which he craves. In his attempt to straddle and manipulate the two, he becomes the novelist, only increasing further his thirst for reality and the flesh.
In this small book, most certainly a classic of self-revelation, his pursuit of that second language is examined with such dispassion and self-insight that paraphrase would only distort. We are in the range now of a metaphysics where every sentence counts and delivers its poignant message with a shock. “As a personal history, it will, I suspect, be unlike anything seen before,” he says, and he is right. In his journey from the black Styx of the inner life to the blue sky of the outer as reflected in ordinary man’s eyes, he sees at every point the parable of his own life. He’s taking us down that psychic canal in very nearly complete consciousness. In Sun and Steel, as in all Mishima’s work, one is encountering a mind of the utmost subtlety, broadly educated. The range of that mind may appear terrifying, or cynical, to those who demand of a writer steadily apparent or even monolithically built views. These are there, indeed touchable, at every point in his work; but the variation of surface and seeming reversals of heart, or statement, sometimes obscure this.
Mishima’s Western scholarship is touching, all the more so for the possibility that as he rejected words for body, dead literature for live action, or tried to bring the two down to the average coherence, he was also denying the Western impurities that had early ensnared him. For everywhere, his references to our literature, our martyrs, are hallowed, reverent. He takes our classics as seriously as we did once, as a matter offor life and death. And death he does illuminate and widen for us, but in a paradox we might well have anticipated,: only when he takes his own unique path of learning and experience, not ours. For though he makes analogies with the martyrs of the Christianized West, in the end, the once proud grail of Western existence, addled and dusty as this has come to be, eludes him. What does not occur to him is that the sought death may be as artificial as imagination against the sought life.
Still, he is telling us that death is one of life’s satisfactions. We may not be able to believe it, and I wish that death had not so enhanced itself for him. But he tells us how he came to this pass with a sanity that ought to be exquisite enough for our own, and crosses cultures to do it, to tell us how a man bent on seppuku might come to it by way of Saint Sebastian. Can Westerners understand such a death, or accept the artist who tosses his life in the balance as easily as they do those who jerk to the very end of the galvanizing money stream, or distill their life knowledge only in teaspoonsful for the applause of a coterie?
Mishima is explaining his life and death in admirable style, in words that hold their breath, so that the meaning may breathe, and in a low voice, just short of the humble. Our souls may not be cognate, but he makes us feel again what it is to have one, and understand the persuasion of his. If he had been otherwise in his youth—a porter, a woman, a dancer—the tower of his symbols might have been built another way. But to ask him to break out of the mystic cage of his logic is like asking it of Thomas à Kempis, or Augustine, or to be a Catholic praying for the conversion of the Jews. He is telling us that he is a priori this kind of man, and that insofar as we cannot break out of the cage of our bones, so are we. He is telling us how he was made. To paraphrase him in words not his or with muscles not his is to try to build a China pagoda with a peck of nails. Sun and Steel’s power is that it is a book one must experience step by step, led as if by a monk or a great film master, from inner tissue to outer, and back again, along his way. It is not necessary to accept that way, but only the frivolous will not empathize with what is going on here. This is a being for whom life and death too must be exigent, and were.