Yukio Mishima, “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea” (1963) (translated from the Japanese by John Nathan) – I’m pretty opposite-day from Yukio Mishima. White, straight, fat, socialist, given to thinking in moral-cum-political terms versus Asian, gay, jacked, fascist, given to thinking in aesthetics and gestures. He’s an icon of world literature where I’m a lowly scribbler, but then again I haven’t bungled any auto-disembowelments in my life, so that’s something.
All that is to say I read Mishima in many respects to get into an alien mindset. It’s not a race or nationality thing, either, I don’t think- there are plenty of other Asian writers I can relate to just fine. I think it comes down to the role that aesthetics play in our respective lives. I’ll be the first to admit I’m aesthetically impoverished. I think I get how to avoid embarrassment under lax standards of judgment — whether the sartorial standards of schlubby intellectual-political types or the prose standards of genre fiction and criticism — and that’s about it. For Mishima, and for a lot of other writers and I think at least a few people in my life, aesthetics are a whole independent realm of experience and judgment, free (or, at any rate, detached) from the bits of the world that make more sense to me, the world of material and lexicographical conflict and compromise.
So sometimes I struggle with writers like Mishima. Certainly, I think little of his interventions in my world, the world of politics, where he embraced extreme right-wing Japanese imperialism… but then again, how much that was a political intervention versus an aesthetic one is open to debate (and so is the question of whether that matters, at bottom, or where the bottom is, etc etc). But I do try to understand literature on its own terms, and even an aesthetic goldfish like me can see something in Mishima’s writings, even in translation.
Out of the Mishimas I’ve read, this one is probably the most straightforward in terms of laying out what it’s about. Noburu is a thirteen-year-old boy in then-contemporary Japan. Raised by a widowed mother, he’s part of a gang of adolescents furious in their hatred of the adult world of compromise and sentimentality in favor of teenaged nihilism and transgression. One of the few things this gang can be said to approve of is the sea, so when Noburu’s mom gets together with a sailor, Noburu is tentatively pleased. A sailor represents connection with the high aesthetic ideal of the sea, of storms and death, of women left behind, etc. etc. Mishima’s not so didactic as to lay out a system of aesthetics, of what counts as worthy and what doesn’t- one of my problems with aesthetic types more generally is they don’t come clear about these things. But we do know the sea is cool and sailors are all right.
They’re all right, that is, until the sailor tries to be that worst of all adult things- a father. From where I sit he tried to be a pretty good one- if anything, a little too lax and understanding when he discovered Noburu had been spying on him and the mom having sex. But that, if anything, makes things worse from the point of view of Noburu and the gang. The last scenes are of the gang luring the sailor out to a cave where they plan on poisoning and dismembering him, which they had already practiced in a grueling earlier sequence involving a kitten. The sailor keeps joking and telling stories, trying to ingratiate himself with the boys and making them all the surer they’ll do the deed in the end.
This is a short book and wastes nothing in presenting a hermetic world of the boy Noburu, pierced by a fleeting glimpse into the adventure of the unknown and moments of transgression. I think of the cliches of amazon-review criticism- no likeable characters. That’s true enough, though even a goody-goody like me can recognize some of the thought process behind the adolescent nihilists. In all, this is an aesthetically sound, interesting, and at times disturbing artifact of the sort of mind I can only as yet grasp from a distance. ****’