Review – Mishima, “The Decay of the Angel”

Yukio Mishima, “The Decay of the Angel” (translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker) (1971) – Mishima — forty five years old and a highly respected and popular, if somewhat controversial, writer at the time — finished the manuscript of “The Decay of the Angel,” the final book in the “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, and then went off to die. With a small handful of followers, he walked on to a Japanese Self-Defense Force base and took the commanding officer — with whom he had a friendly relationship, previously — hostage with samurai swords. They forced him to call the troops to assemble, and there, Mishima harangued them, demanding that they follow him in restoring Japan’s imperial glory. They all laughed at him. Mishima then disembowled himself.

There’s a big “spoiler” at the end of “The Decay of the Angel” that I won’t reveal. What I will say is, it provides a certain degree of credence to the argument that Mishima’s final gesture was more an act of depression and self-loathing than of hateful nationalistic fervor. I say “a certain amount,” and moreover, don’t see the two as necessarily mutually exclusive. People want to see Mishima as a tragic figure as opposed to a fascist, much like they wanted to see Heidegger as a sage rather than a Nazi, and have been revising their apologies downwards ever since. There’s any number of ways to express loathing for self and world that don’t involve embracing fascism.

If anything, Mishima was something of an expert on loathing by the time his life was over, Many registers of disgust with the world characterize the “Sea of Fertility” series and its last volume especially. Viewpoint character Honda is now an old man. He lives with an old lesbian who trolls him all the time. They stumble upon one last reincarnation of Honda’s friend from adolescence, who has been reincarnation roughly every twenty years (because they keep dying young)- a teenage lighthouse keeper named Tōru. Honda adopts him, which apparently you can just do with random youths in 1960s Japan, and sets about trying to help the boy live past twenty, which none of the previous incarnations have yet managed.

I know I should say more about, like, Mishima’s aesthetic and philosophical meditations in this, his final work, but I can’t help but focus on how often Honda just gets owned in this book. Tōru is an asshole, basically a feral human, and makes Honda’s life hell. He steals Honda’s money. He makes fun of Honda all the time. He sabotages Honda’s efforts to teach him how to get along in society. He cruelly persecutes various women who like him. He outs Honda as a voyeur, ruining his reputation at the end of the life. He is, in general, a dick. And moreover, various clues start to lead Honda to believe that maybe he got mixed up about the whole reincarnation business.

More than the particulars of reincarnation, I think the story is about beauty, decay, and the point of existence. What both drove Mishima to fascism and also limited his effective expression of the ideology was the same thing that drove his creative efforts and his life generally- an amoral aesthetic vision where beauty is the only thing that matters, and it’s defined by youth, purity, and violence. In this volume, Mishima rubs our nose in both ends of what sucks about that. It sucks to get old, because old = decay and ugliness in his world, and there’s no values that can redeem your old stinky ugly hide. It also sucks to be, or be around, beautiful youth, because they’re amoral, stupid pricks who will suck you dry.

So what are you left with? Along with whatever else both the book and its aftermath were, they were also manifestations of Mishima’s panic of growing old. He was never particularly emotionally stable to begin with — artists, you know? — and, like the Japanese imperialists he idolized, he was willing to go that extra mile to make a point… the extra mile usually meaning spilling blood, though at least in this case it was only his own. One wonders if he would have been pleased with his posthumous reputation. He seems like a hard guy to keep happy but objectively speaking he seems to have done pretty well dead.

Still and all… one wonders if this would have come off as this sad tragedy to so many people if it had been undertaken by someone from the part of humanity who actually has good reasons to obsess over aesthetic judgment of their bodies, i.e., a woman. If a literary woman in her forties had an extended freakout about the decay of her body, ending in tetralogies, hostage taking, and suicide, well- probably some people would see that as tragic and symbolic but I tend to think more people would find it pathetic and funny.

But expecting fairness from literature is a bit like expecting justice from the weather. Mishima might have been the last one who could really put over the modernist literary enfant terrible thing in a way that didn’t come off as cheap trolling to cover up a lack of talent (cf Bret Easton Ellis). We tend to equate “saying something” in literature with some didactic “message” — Mishima had something to say but more faith in the aesthetic whole than its educational payload. ****

Review – Mishima, “The Decay of the Angel”

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