Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Mishima: Decay of the Angel

So this is how it feels to be held and then released from a great story --- I'm stunned ---the parade of images is over (all my own creation - as the author himself would testify)-- the story like a skein of silk threads -- some -- actually many -- I could delicately pick up and follow -- and some that just sat there -- mysterious -- incomprehensible -- maybe tedious -- maybe brilliant -- I'll never know.

How could a story about such loathsome people be so lovely ? I hear the cicadas -- I see the bright skies and dark shadows -- it was all so beautiful--- and I'm guessing that when I die -- if I get a a few last days to think it over -- I'll probably be remembering this final book and the wretched hero's final, painful climb -- following the uncertain path of a white butterfly through the cryptomeria grove -- up to the Gesshuji monastary to receive his final puzzle/revelation.

(And yes -- the angel actually did display the five signs of death/decay: soiled garments, heavy sweating, body odor, loss of self -- plus a few more alternative options)

The precise -- triumphant -- merciless -- near-fatal --- explanation of story offered by the hero's convenient, congenial neighbor --- what a way to draw a conclusion -- and what a way to dress her for this event:

"sleeves trailing to the hem of the skirt, her evening dress was beaded over its entire surface. The shifting colors and patterns of the beads from the neck down over the skirt were such as to dazzle the eye. At the bosom, the wings of a peacock in green on a gold ground, waves of purple over the sleeves, a continuous wine colored pattern down over the waist,purple waves and gold clouds on the skirt, the several boundaries marked in gold -- the white of the organdy ground set off by a threefold western pattern in silver net -- from the skirt emerging the toe of a purple satin slipper -- and at the always proud neck, an emerald Georgette stole, draped down over the shoulders and reaching to the floor -- below her hair -- cut shorter than usual -- hung earrings of gold -- her face with the frozen look of one who had more than once been served by plastic surgeons -- but the parts that still remained under her control seemed to assert themselves all the more haughtily -- the awesome eyes -- the grand nose - the lips like red-black bits of apple beginning to rot -- tortured into a yet more shining red."

Could it be that I actually empathized with the miserable protagonist ? The one who does absolutely nothing good with his life -- priveleged by health, intellligence, social position, and education ? who enables two (almost three) young men to kill themselves ? Who haunts public parks to spy on couples making love ? Who builds his house to have peep-holes ? Who has romantic feelings for only one person -- a woman a third his age -- whom he connives to have seduced (or is it raped ?)

I don't think so -- I think I'm empathizing with how the story is told --- aware of clever devices that never seem to be repeated -- aware of brisk economy in depicting action -- yet tedious redundancy in reflection --- which seems to be the way my own life proceeds.

When I began reading Mishima -- with the story of his dramatic suicide and all --- I would have said something like "what a waste" --- but now that I know him --- I'm quite sure that this strangely gifted man knew that he was never going to write any better -- or look any better -- or feel any better -- or care about anyone or anything else --- so why not sacrifice himself as the last casualty of WWII ? (i.e. Japan's final transition into the modern, Americanized world )

Sayonara -- good buddy ! Thanks for the ride.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Temple of Dawn

Whew! What an exciting conclusion! Almost makes me forget all the tedious, redundant speculations/reflections of the our wretched, middle-aged, middle-class hero.
I'd like to see a statistical study of Mishima novels -- how many times the word 'death' is used -- and just as Eskimos have 20 different words for 'snow' -- I would guess that Japanese has multiple words that English translates as 'contempt'

Is it any wonder suicide is so popular in that culture of death and loathing ?

There seems to be -- what I guess -- is an accurate presentation of the Yuishiki school of Mahayana Buddhism -- where "the world is presented in the form of a waterfall - that lives and dies every moment -- it's continuity being what is called "alaya consciousness" -- that flows eternally -" in order to make the world exist" -- "so that man may find enlightenment."

It's an idea that gets repeated again -- and again --- and again --- to the utter fascination of the writer and his hero --- and the utter boredom of the reader. (a feeling I share with Kat Craft -- who loaned me these novels in the first place)

But then --- there are these moments of sheer thrill -- where the story picks up and races downhill at breakneck speed -- with each detail and point-of-view perfectly chosen and connected to on-going motifs -- and I admit -- that I found nothing so thrilling as joining the author and his hero as all three of us carefully removed the law books from the shelf in his study, and looked through that little (carefully planned) peep-hole in the wall to watch the bizarre erotic behavior in the adjoining bedroom -- my "eyes" straining -- along with that other middle-aged voyeur -- to see the convulsing flesh in the dim light against the far wall.

What's absent here are the social ideals that inform European novels -- and the idea of growth and maturity of people and social institutions. But there's also something missing from Mishima's Buddhism: compassion -- so rather than developing interest in the variety of human destinies (as Cao did in 'Red Chamber) -- Mishima only has contempt for everyone -- and his world shrinks so that none of the characters in his novels feel real -- other than himself: the great arrogant, but pathetic,

And yet ---- yes, I am dying to read the final installment in the tetralogy -- the last thing he wrote before plunging the knife deep into his own abdomen, and spilling his guts on the freshly polished floor.

I guess I'm as a bad a voyeur as he was.

One last thing: I just realized that, other than the protagonist, this novel is peopled more with women than men - reversing the trend of the previous two novels. The protagonist has no male friends - but he does have a wife, the conspiratory neighbor, and that poor Thai girl he's continually pursuing. The time spent with other males in the story is mercifully brief: they are so loathsome (the artsy Bangkok guide, the creepy intellectual, the brutish nephew).

Friday, May 05, 2006

Mishima: Spring Snow and Runaway Horses

Tateishi Harumi, Boston Museum

Two things facinate me about these books -- First -- the subject matter - the Modernization of Japan -- an incredible event in Japanese as well as world history -- as that small country caught up with Western Europe in the space of one generation -- while China, the predominant society of east Asia if not the world -- fell into a hundred-year-nightmare of colonialism/civil war/revolution/totalitarianism. So many issues are involved : economic, internal-political, geo-political,religious, moral, spiritual, aesthetic --- and Mishima tackles them all.

The second is the sincerity of the author himself -- and what could be a better proof than seppuku -- i.e. ritual self-disembowelment -- a suicide requiring too much determination to be anything but sincere.

And maybe there's a third cause for fascination as well: the traditional obsession with craft/aesthetic that informs all the Japanese arts. Mishima is a perfectionist -- and so many scenes sparkle like a well made tea cup.

And yet ---- so much is problematical.

The characters are so shallow/self-absorbed -- there are some wonderful soliloquies (exclusively of self disgust) -- but when characters interact with each other -- it doesn't seem real -- and the novelist usually turns the reader's attention to something visual that surrounds them.

And there are really only two characters: the self-destructive hero who repeatedly kills himself from one Buddhist incarnation to another --- and his childhood friend who repeatedly enables him to do it. It feels like the novelist wants us to buy the purity, tradtional nobility, and beauty of the one -- and the modern, European rationality of the other --- but I don't. Sincere --- alright -- they and the author are sincere -- but so is a psychotic -- and why should I care about psychotics (except perhaps to admire the therapy that heals them)

And maybe most troubling: the steady decline of narrative quality -- where the
first book, Spring Snow, is utterly absorbing -- with the joys of calculated drama, accumulated tensions, revelations - and perfect dream-like images -- like the island on the lake in Matsugae park - with it's tiny waterfall and snapping turtles.

"Runaway Horses" continues the parade of images -- with a spectacular Shinto ceremony and that uber-dramatic moment under a grander waterfall - -- when the enabler identifies the reincarnation of his self-destructive friend. But then the narrative flow is destroyed by a 48-page digression into the text of the "League of the Divine Wind" --- a tract said to have been written 30 years earlier to commemorate the abortive rebellion of some Shinto priests and their idealistic young followers against the (modernist) Meiji restoration -- but obviously written in the author's (Mishima's) own voice. And following that the characters stopped being exotic/strange -- and began to appear shallow/tiresome/unreal --- as they became more precisely drawn as elements of the author's ideology -- rather than as characters that could have actually drawn breath.

Biographical information about the author confirms his progress toward suicide/spectacle with the publication of each of the 4 books in the series. First, he studies martial arts -- then he joins a military self-defense unit --- then he starts his own para-military organization. And biographers also describe his procedure of writing: stories go from his head to the paper -- from first page to last -- without revision -- in perfect penmanship.

I.e. -- as I see it -- his life progressively fails --- as his novels do-- to find a way for a man to live in a modern Japan --- and the sheer insensitivity (to the victims) of his terrorist war-mongering is as chilling as the smug hatred exemplified by the Islamic terrorists of today.

Maybe a man CAN'T live in modern society as a man (in book three, the hero reincarnates as a princess) -- and maybe all men in Confucian society are repulsive in one way or another (a possible conclusion from the "Dream of Red Chamber" -- where the author, though male, is exclusively devoted to the company of women -- with the possible exception of one cross-dressing actor)

Stay tuned for the rest of book three and four -- (as well as for the next hundred years of world hisory)

Prior Readings: other

(to be posted eventually)

Prior readings: China

(to be posted gradually -- as I recall them -- most recent coming first)

Carnal Prayer Mat: (18th Century) (Rou Poutuan) by Li Lu, translated by Patrick Hanan. There's no attempt at believable characters or situations in this strange Buddhist meditiation on carnality: the handsome, financially secure, brilliant young hero has two ambitions in life: to be the world's most famous poet - and to marry the world's most beautiful woman. A genuine but unconventional Buddhist monk (one who fails to either live on a mountain-interpret scripture-or beg for alms) cautions him against such lustful pursuits -- but the young can only learn by experience (how else ?) and he begins a descent into depravity -- consorting with criminals and eventually grafting the penis of a dog onto his own -- to better satisfy his adulturous consorts -- of which he begins to have many -- each more lustful than the other. Finally, his misdeeds catch up with him --- he repents his evil ways -- and castrates himself to terminate his uncontrollable apetitites. Ouch ! There's a kind of whacky hilarity about these procedings -- where the poor hero is at the mercy of his lust as well the desparate housewives who seem to want nothing more than his amazing canine cock. There's no love in this story -- but then, there aren't any ghosts either -- and I think the two go together in Chinese story telling. Perhaps it was intented to be a cautionary tale for adolescent boys.

But there are also some remarks that seem aimed at a more mature audience:

"The way to look at a woman is the same as the way you look at calligraphy or a painting. There is no need to study a scroll brushstroke by brushstroke;all you have to do is hang it up at a distance and judge its power. If it shows adequate power it is a masterpiece. If its power is blocked, and the scroll lacks vitality, it is no better than a print; however fine its brush technique, it is mere hackwork and hence useless. Now if a woman's beauty has to be examined close up to reveal itself, it will be limited at best. The qualities of a truly beautiful woman cannot be obscured, even though seen through a curtain of rain,mist, flowers, or bamboo. Even if she is glimpsed through a crack in the door, or hidden herself in the dark, a sense of her charm will emanate of its own accord, and make the observer marvel "How comes it she is like a heavenly one ? How comes it she is like a god ? If you think these qualities reside in her physical form, you are wrong. But if you think they lie outside her physical form, you are also wrong. They are beyond explanation, hence marvelous. " Was this a widely shared attitude towards quality in painting ?

The differences between this story, and the earlier, more famous erotic novel, "Golden Lotus" should also be noted -- for here the emphasis is on satisfying women, rather than the other way around.

Ssma Chien: Records of the Grand Historian. Imagine if only 2 chapters of Livy's Punic wars were available -- and that's what faces those who rely on English translations of this great historian of the early Han dynasty. Ssma was on site --- at this critical juncture in world civilization when the Chinese Confucian state was born -- and he paid for his frank observations with his manhood (the emperor -- a very competent, important leader -- had him castrated for defending a disgraced general -- and come to think of it -- Socrates nearly lost his life 300 years earlier in similar circumstances) He wrote history -- both ancient/mythological and recent/actual --- and it's his accounts of his own time -- and the triumph of the first Han emperor -- that make the most fascinating reading -- not just about who killed whom --- but also discussion of currency, flood control, and economics.