Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "Runaway Horses"

(Vintage International, 1990)

Runaway Horses is the second book of Mishima's "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy, in which a single character, over the course of his life, is confronted with three incarnations of a dead school friend. Mishima is generally regarded as one of twentieth century Japan's greatest authors, but his legacy has been troubled. It's well known that he formed a cartoonish ultranationalist militia bent on protecting the emperor, and that he met his end committing seppuku after a failed attempt to rouse a military garrison into a rightist coup. It's also well known that he practiced kendo, lifted weights, frequented gay bars, and liked to have glamour shots of himself taken in which, among other things, he posed as St. Sebastien. When Runaway Horses was written in 1969, Mishima was increasingly viewed as an embarrassing anachronism, if not a dangerous figure of the extreme right.

Let's call a spade a spade: Mishima was a fascist author, or at least he would have liked to have been one. In this respect, Runaway Horses reads at times as Mishima's political manifesto. The context of the novel is Japan in 1931-32. The main character is a young kendoist who forms an ultrnationalist league with his schoolmates. They plot to assassinate the country's leading capitalists and then commit seppuku, in a bid to restore full legislative and executive powers to the emperor. The young men are very "pure". In fact the word "purity" appears so many times in the novel that it becomes annoying and almost meaningless (though it's interesting to note that at times it seems to mean something like Dostoevsky's Underground Man's notion of gratuitousness). In fact, purity in the hands of the league seems to pass over into pure vanity. I never realized how boring, mincing and petty fascism can be.

The novel is still somewhat interesting, however, because in the end the main character passes over from ultranationalism to nihilism. I won't ruin it for you, but anyone with an interest in Mishima's own bizarre biography can look to Runaway Horses for a clue. As I've already suggested, Mishima would have liked to have been a fascist. But one senses that when marching around in military garb he was not being honest with himself, that there's really something else going on. Though the novel is long and largely boring, it does speak to the possibility of believing in things, of purity even, in late modernity. And I think its assessment is profoundly negative.

Happy reading?


GMoney said...

I generally agree with comments made about the book, however a few points are a bit misleading about Mishima.

1) He did not commit seppuku because of a failed attempt to rouse a military garrison (I don't believe you meant to say it that way, but from the reading that is how it sounded).

2) You use the word "fascist," and though I am not defending Mishima goals, I do want to point out that he wanted Japan to return to its pride of pre-WWII, not necessarily have a fascist movement (look up the history of samurai to get an understanding of what Mishima's nationalist desires are); using the word fascist here with respect to Japan's history would be an oversimplification.

3) "[A] dangerous figure of the extreme right"? Mishima is hardly even spoken about in the mainstream of Japan because there is no consensus on Mishima till this day in Japan (this is how unsettled events are dealt with in Japan, they ae simply ignored). Yes he had dealings with the Right, but to call him an extremist figure of the right, is simply incorrect. In fact, I would go so far to say that he is more in the middle than anything (look up interviews with Mishima dealing with his politics).

Matthew R. McLennan said...

Thanks for your interest and your comments, GMoney. To respond:

1) You are right to point out that the failure of the coup was not the cause of his suicide; rather, my understanding is that he intended to commit suicide anyway and the coup was something of a spectacular pretext. The way I put it here is indeed misleading.

2) I disagree that the use of the term "fascist" is an oversimplification, on the grounds that it is a flexible enough term to cover any kind of reactionary /corporatist / middle-class-based movement to arrest simultaneously monopoly capitalism and revolution from below. For instance, it is generally agreed that Franco can be called a fascist even though strictly speaking he was more of an authoritarian Catholic conservative.

3) It depends on the use of the term "right". Mishima was an economic centrist if I am not mistaken, but one can be an economic centrist while being culturally/socially right wing (I am not comparing Mishima to Hitler in any sense, but Hitler is a good example of what I mean here). Economic centrism wedded to samurai values is, to return to point number 2, a variant of fascism as I understand it. Finally, my claim about how Mishima was perceived concerns the context of the novel's publication, when the far Left had more clout, at least in the universities. I'm willing to concede that his legacy is an open question in Japan today.

Ensign Beavis said...

I'd hardly call this a book review. It's more a review of the author himself, and one based upon a rudimentary understanding of his life. Your oversimplification of the Sea of Fertility's design and purpose leads me to believe you have not read all four of the books at the time this post was submitted. I feel that a reading of Spring Snow is somewhat necessary, in that this book's protagonist is so purposely constructed to be all that the first's is not. The two almost seem to represent caricatures of Mishima himself, at two stages of his life, the Confessions of a Mask stage, and the Sun & Steel stage.

You spit the word "fascist" out multiple times, in the way a bourgeois historian would, the way in which it should be an instant signal to flee without turning back. Fascism is almost never contextually the same, especially in its roots, and even as a Marxist I find that Mishima's keen awareness of the deterioration caused by the rapid capitalization of Japan is worth a lot, especially considering how much worse it has grown since his death.

Reading Yukio Mishima's entire oeuvre may not be appealing to you, since your academia-induced stiffness seems to prevent you from enjoying the works even for what they are on surface-level: Achingly beautiful pieces of prose. But I'd recommend at least Sun & Steel, which would greatly clue you in on Mishima's thought processes and ideals. I will make no claims that he was rational, nor that his ways were the correct ways, but he was a beautifully tragic soul, and was far from malignant. At his core he was nothing but a man overtaken with passion in a time when passion could breed nothing but anguish.

Matt McLennan said...

Comrade Beavis!

Thanks for taking the time to read this review, and for your reading suggestions. I have in point of fact read all of the books you suggest, but evidently that's not coming through. A few comments to extend the discussion then.

Re: complete readings and reading in context, I wholeheartedly agree. In this vein I refer to my many other posts about Mishima, where I touch upon the aesthetic value of his works, his analysis of capitalism's liquidation of Japanese values, etc. You may find these similarly irreverent, but there you go.

Re: "fascism" again: the fact that fascism is a historically complex and differentiated phenomenon, which I most cheerfully grant, does not make it an analytically useless category. It's actually quite funny to hear that the usage of the term strikes you as bourgeois, since the quintessential contemporary bourgeois attitude is, rather, to insist that things are always too complex and problematic to ever call a spade a spade. I'll add that calling someone a fascist does not entail that they were unable to diagnose the corrosive effects of capitalism. Fascism is, after all, a middle-class ideology and movement with anticapitalist tendencies. Mishima certainly produced a compelling reflection and diagnosis of his times; his error was to become a silly reactionary.

Finally, we may grant that Mishima was a tragic soul, a great artist out of step with his times, while reviling his politics and making light of individual novels on the grounds that they are repetitive, melodramatic, and effectively an aestheticization of political impotence. There is no contradiction in that.