Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "Confessions of a Mask"

Last winter I forayed into the works of arguably the greatest Japanese author of the 20th century, Yukio Mishima. I was not unscathed; you might say I'm still "working through it". In any case, I can't put this fascist bastard's books down.

I've already blogged about how Mishima's fiction, singularly crafted and aesthetically interesting on its own, makes much more sense - or in any case, gains considerably in depth - when one is familiar with his biography, psyche, political ventures, etc. In fact, there's good reason to suspect that Mishima cannot be divorced from his literary work, or vice versa; rather, since he lived his life as a work of art, to read his novels is only to scratch the surface. Whereas other authors I've recently blogged about, such as Cormac McCarthy, for the most part cultivate themselves as impersonal and remote with respect to their works, Mishima seems at all times to be engaged in creating the work of art that is Mishima; hence, each novel must be read in the context of the larger creation (less charitably, the larger spectacle).

For this reason, "Confessions of a Mask" is a particularly interesting Mishima novel. It's the closest he gives us to a straight-up, confessional autobiography, and although his surviving family would apparently still be (somehow) reticent with respect to this interpretation, it chronicles in a very literal way his own changing and largely painful relationship to his queerness. It's widely known that Mishima had affairs with men and trans-women throughout his adult life; "Confessions of a Mask" provides his own take on this, executed with incomparably violent and flowery prose.

It would be tempting, perhaps, to read the novel as in some way exemplary of postwar Japanese queerness. I suspect however that Mishima is too rare a bird for this to be true. His homosexual desire is to some extent polymorphous (armpits!), and is deeply tangled with a desire for images of violence, destruction and death; case in point, his description of erotic fantasies wherein his schoolmates are tortured to death, and his vivid description of masturbating to an image of St Sebastian bristling with arrows. Perhaps something about this sheds light on coming of age at the height of Japanese militarism and imperialism; Mishima did seem to regret faking his way out of military service, having missed his chance to die a "beautiful death" like so many other young Japanese men. I hesitate to make such sweeping generalizations, however. At best, I might agree that Mishima, as always seems the case, is something like the canary in the mineshaft: if something bizarre is going on in Japan, however buried, his prose and his gestures seem sure to reflect it in spectacular fashion.

Larger questions surrounding a "Queer Canon" can be posed in light of this novel. It strikes me that Mishima, like William S. Burroughs, presents something of an enigma, if not an outright problem, for constructions of queerness as somehow inherently liberal (if not radical). Let's not forget his cartoonish ultra-nationalism, his problematic celebrations of "manliness", and what is - arguably? - his gross misogyny. If Mishima belongs in a canon of any kind, I would suggest that it's as a liminal figure. The questions that can be spun from his confession are legion, and in my mind they suggest that the simplistic notion of a "queer author" is deeply troubled.

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