Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Confessions of a Mask
by Yukio Mishima
translated by Meredith Weatherby
John Ashbery once said that to be a famous poet is still a far cry from actually being famous. With a few exceptions, Ashbery’s statement proves itself very true. Allen Ginsberg is an obvious exception; he is deservedly famous outside the closed circle poetry often, unfortunately, languishes in. Yet, I still can’t help feeling the wide coverage given Ginsberg’s ties to novelists Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs in some way downplays his affinity with the contemporary poetic community of the time – Gary Snyder, late period William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley and others. This acts to distance Ginsberg from a poetic tradition of rich and exciting activity. Ashbery’s statement, though, certainly does not extend to novelists. Look at the notoriety of the recently deceased Norman Mailer, or the stupendous fame Stephen King enjoys as an indication. This celebrity, of course, brings with it a potentially negative hubris. We shall explore that later as we investigate Yukio Mishima and his early novel, “Confessions of a Mask.”
Let us first return to the broader notion of writing and celebrity. What does it mean, then, to not simply be famous, but to represent a cultural moment in time, to possess a charged national identity? Allen Ginsberg, again, comes to mind as exactly such a writer, though so far this discussion has focused upon the intersection of American celebrity and literature. Looking abroad to Japan, we encounter Mishima, a prolific writer and international celebrity who negotiated a unique and fascinating relationship to his country. But Mishima’s fame extends beyond Japan into the arena of world literature. This international recognition hinges very much on Mishima’s “Japan-ness.” But despite his own emphasis on traditional Imperial values, Mishima is himself a bizarre collision of the East with the West. He manages to encompass both the hermetic and the cosmopolitan.
Born Kimitake Hiraoka, he took the name Yukio Mishima as a gesture – a symbolic act to distance himself from his youth as a self-labeled “weak” child. Mishima’s entire life is replete with just such a transformative rigor. His extensive bodybuilding program represents as deliberate of a personal reinterpretation as his acting career in Japanese cinema. Mishima also trained and oversaw a personal army of young Japanese men who supported him in a public demonstration that culminated in the writer committing ritual seppuku as his lover, acting as second, beheaded him.
So then, when encountering a writer whose life encompasses such pathos, it becomes difficult to parse out the actual writing amidst all the gossip, the debris of a watched life. But look at how the Mishima of “Confessions of a Mask” navigates a hybridized space that incorporates both the fictional and autobiographical, yet neglects to linger within any framed categorization. The book opens with our narrator, “Kochan,” telling us that “For many years I claimed I could remember things seen at my own birth.” This memory, one staunchly debunked by Kochan’s elders as impossible, consists of an image of “…a brand-new basin, it’s wooden surfaced planed to a fresh and silken smoothness; and when [he] looked from inside, a ray of light was striking one spot on its brim. The wood gleamed only in that one spot and seemed to be made of gold.” Mishima writes with a formal severity; the novel is expertly layered with resonating intent. Light and illumination play a great role in Kochan’s personal quest for identity. Over the course of the book, we follow the transformation of a reflected light as it explodes into “…the blazing sunshine…” that inundates a pair of empty chairs at an afternoon dancehall.
Mishima, who shares many of the biographical notes as his narrator, weaves image into memory – imagery is an invocation of the past as it is enacted in the present through cognition. Where Proust uses smell, Mishima relies upon the visual as an agent of recollection. Kochan spends the majority of the novel as an observer paralyzed in his belief that “…from the very beginning, life had oppressed me with a heavy sense of duty [and that] even though I was clearly incapable of performing this duty, life still nagged at me for my dereliction.” Kochan is a gay man, though he is hesitant to label himself, living in a WWII-era Japan where such an identity is a self-nullifying one.
Let’s look at another of Kochan’s earliest memories. He remembers seeing an unidentified young man, “…a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement,” pass by him on the street. Our narrator reckons in hindsight, as so much of the novel is in reflection, that “…he represented my first revelation of a certain power… excrement is a symbol for the earth, and it was doubtlessly the malevolent love of the Earth Mother that was calling to me.” A possible implication is that the “night-soil man” is in fact homosexual and the potent “apart-ness” he flaunts is due to his “deviant” sexuality. There is power, Mishima constantly reminds us, in such a social separation. This is a similar isolation practiced by Kochan’s historical avatars – Gilles de Rais and St. Sebastian.
These two memories mentioned above, one an image of light and the other an encounter with a night-laborer, are bestowed weight not due to their empirical heft, but rather through a reflection. It is by thinking over the past that Kochan orders his experiences in a form recognizable to some notion of identity. Reflection is a key word as it emphasizes the importance of duality within “Confessions of a Mask.” Reflection refers both to mental deliberation and to a mirror image. In the book’s final scene, Kochan, sits in a corner of a dancehall with Sonoko, a young woman he unsuccessfully attempted to “go straight” with. Kochan ignores Sonoko as he stares at a young man sitting with his friends on the other side of the room. The young man removes his shirt, and our narrator takes in “…the sight of a peony tattooed on his hard chest, [causing him to be] beset by sexual desire.” Our narrator compares this man to a sailor – remember how Kathy Acker in “Empire of the Senseless” discusses the connection between the identity of a sailor with social and sexual freedom.
The gaze is here important, as it separates Kochan both spatially and psychologically from the external world. It is a distance engendered by Kochan’s alienation. The young man with his “…rough and savage, but incomparably beautiful body…” then goes off to dance, Tellingly, Kochan tellingly does not dance, he watches. He gets up to leave as well, but not before he steals “…one more glance toward those chairs in the sun. The group had apparently gone to dance, and the chairs stood empty in the blazing sunshine. Some sort of beverage had been spilled on the table top and was throwing back glittering, threatening reflections.” The light of the reflection is threatening because even though Kochan devotes the span of the novel to an inverted interrogation, he constantly diverts himself from any true appraisal of selfhood. The illuminating light of actual self-awareness is frightening for all its intensity. There is no revelation, only reflection.
“Confessions of a Mask,” more than simply being a novel of interior space, is a novel of memory. The book investigates self-perception as it affects an internal selfhood, in addition to how it reconfigures external space. As mentioned earlier, Proust is a reference point, as is the Huysmans of “La Bas” and “A rebours.” Proust specter threatens our narrator though. Late in the novel, Kochan asks his friend to lend him a book by the French writer. His friend, referred to only as ‘T.,’ responds “I’ll say it’s interesting. Proust was a sodomite…He had affairs with footmen.” Here we see the twin poles of attraction and revulsion that disrupt Kochan throughout the novel. Even at the book’s close, we find our narrator conflicted, as we are left with a malevolent reflection in the final sentence.
This simultaneous attraction and revulsion indicates a greater duality within Mishima beyond this single novel - one that reflects upon the Japanese writer within his context as a national emblem, as was discussed earlier. Mishima’s severity is displayed in Kochan’s mediation on beauty. “In the woodblocks of the Genroku period,” he writes, “one often finds the features of a pair of lovers to be surprisingly similar, with little to distinguish the man from the woman. The universal ideal of beauty in Greek sculpture likewise approaches a close resemblance between the male and female. Might this not be one of the secrets of love?” Mishima’s philosophy, severe and deliberate as it is, is also a holistic one, and he cannot help but incorporate ruminations on St. Sebastian and the Roman emperor Heliogabalus within his depiction of WWII-era Japan. Mishima’s holistic generosity rings true, as one can see modern instances either within West in the androgyny of David Bowie and later the pan-sexuality of Genesis P-Orridge, or in the East in the yaoi genre of manga, where androgynous males dally in youthful boy-love.
It should be mentioned that the novel is narrated entirely in a passive past tense. The narrative is propelled not so much by experience, but through the reflection on an experience. “Confessions of a Mask” is a hermetic novel, though I would refrain from labeling it as personal in the “confessional” sense, despite the title. The “confession” is instead a subterfuge. Kochan is a mask, a simulacrum, and thus cannot engage in catharsis. It is not a novel of empowerment or sexual identity, instead we are left with a play of light that hints at meaning’s contours, while eluding the tactile fact. Mishima himself, his fame and his life, escapes the novel, what we are left with is the novel itself – the flickering of light.