Monday, April 26, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "The Temple of Dawn"

(Vintage, 1990)

Back for round three of Mishima's "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy. The story takes place in the lead-up to the war with the US, and in the reconstruction years following. Action takes place in Japan, Thailand and India. Main character / observer Honda is now middle aged. Kiyoaki / Isao is reborn as a Thai princess who, as a child of six, seems to know all about her two past lives. As she gets older, however, these memories seem to fade altogether. Honda goes through a mid-life crisis, but in a very out of the ordinary form: if he can determine that Princess Ying Chan is indeed the reincarnation of Kiyoaki / Isao, then he will not fall in love with her; if he can determine that she is not his friend reincarnated, then he will love her madly. Honda spends most of the novel poised on this uncanny borderline, trying to devise ways to see the princess naked (so as to see if she has the tell-tale pattern of moles shared by Kiyoaki / Isao).

My interest in the tetralogy, flagging significantly during Runaway Horses, was in large part revived here. I'll explain why by isolating some important themes:

  • Orientalism: The Temple of Dawn illustrates perfectly why orientalism is above all an othering rather than a strictly spatializing discourse. In a sense, the novel "de-naturalizes" orientalism by showing it at work in a Japanese character. Main character Honda, from "the far East", goes south to Thailand and India and there filters his experiences through familiar orientalist tropes. Thailand is listless, hot, sensual, poisonous, languid, etc; India is filthy, pestilential, gory, excremental, beatific, anarchical, and so on. While travelling in the oppressive, "irrational" south, Honda yearns for the cold, pure air of Japanese Buddhism and Japanese reason. If nothing else, this gives the reader a sense of Japanese self-understanding in the lead-up to the Second World War. Also notable on this count is Mishima's / Honda's rendering of princess Ying Chan, whose very body stands in for the unreason of the south (i.e. the Orient).
  • Middle age: Mishima wrote the novel in his forties, well after determining to kill himself upon the tetralogy's completion; one gets a sense that his rendering of middle age in Honda and Honda's wife Rie is part howl of despair, part indictment of weakness and decline. Honda's rationality, profoundly disturbed by his experiences in India, gives way to a late-blooming sensualism rooted in idle perception, while his wife's obedience gives way to a seething hatred. Both of these changes are rooted in the body in profound ways. There's something here like a phenomenology of the middle-aged body that's well worth pondering.
  • Eroticism: The usual Mishima tropes are present: armpits, urine, peeping through holes in the wall, public masturbation, sexual odours, and so on. And as usual, eroticism is tied firmly to death. However, if I'm not mistaken there's also a more explicit connection between eroticism, death and the senses (mostly the gaze) than usual. It's worth asking why, as soon as Kiyoaki / Isao is reborn as a woman, her perspective is virtually left out of the account, and Honda's is emphasized. Perhaps this is reflective of Honda's perceptually based eroticism; his lust is driven by what he can't perceive, and therefore Ying Chan is rendered as opaque to the reader as she is to Honda. (I will also allow that to some degree, Mishima was simply a sexist.)
  • Art and politics: Largely through secondary characters, Mishima explores the relation of art to historical/political upheavals. Left-leaning artists are largely rendered as weak, declining dilettantes uninvolved with and unprepared for the revolution. To be fair, Mishima renders the communist-led, anti-American protests of the time without passing judgment. This is especially interesting given that at the time of writing, he was a laughing-stock among the Japanese ultra-Left.
Obviously there's much to explore in this novel. For prospective readers, I should add the usual proviso that Mishima's prose is plodding, baroque, and self-reflective almost, in places, to the point of meaninglessness. The reader should expect lengthy, narrative-killing discursions on the finer points of transmigration in the different traditions of Buddhism. Despite a seething eroticism throughout, Mishima also manages to render such episodes as a lesbian 69 between two beautiful characters boring and artificial. Finally, the reader will probably wonder why, with so many painstaking descriptions of vines, flowers, skies, temples, mountains and so on, the actual narrative seems to go off a cliff at the end. With these points in mind, patient readers should still find something of value in The Temple of Dawn.

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