Friday, March 18, 2011

Living Your Myth 1: Mishima And Dying For Your Convictions

By James Curcio
Living Your Myth series.

To die for an idea is stupid, people say. Ideas aren't real.

Nowadays, the posture of choice is disengagement. Sure, we'll discuss ideas. Especially if it has any hope of getting us laid. But commitment to an idea or an ideal is so... passe. That was something that died with the 20th century, along with a lot of things that we can happily say we've left to rot in the past. Intellectual is a synonym with ineffectual. Art is a pretense by definition. The highest art now is art that makes fun of itself, or so says the co-creator of just such a piece.

Well, I've talked a great deal on this site about the ways that ideas-as-myths are living as much as we are. The ways that they enter into the world, enter into "reality," especially through our actions. The ways they real-ize ideas, and how we re-ify the world through them.

Sounds like a lot of bullshit ideas to me.

A writer deals in words. Words symbolize ideas. They can evoke emotions. But what's in a word, really? When is it time for action, and what is that action?

What is the greatest act a person can make? Is it the greatest sacrifice? And how many of you think your ideas are worth dying for? Certainly the suicide bomber has been convinced of this. We look away in discomfort or snub our noses at such fanatics. Mostly, I'd say, rightly so. They've been duped. They've been sold a unicorn and paid for it with flesh blood and mortar, and not all of it was theirs to sacrifice.

But there's another side to this posture of disengagement and apathy. It turns us to good cattle, good consumers. Good slaves who do our master's bidding because it is easier that way, easier than challenging and possibly facing death as the repercussion of our actions. Maybe this was the future that Yukio Mishima saw for his dying Empire; a future so bereft of honor and dignity that the only thing he could do in response was shove a blade through his innards. The death of a warrior, not a writer. His suicide could then be seen as a final transformation: writer into warrior. Thinker into actor. But this transformation is only complete when it resonates with a culture. When those ripples reach outwards across the years, transform entire civilizations. We all know the power of a martyr.

This was not Mishima's fate. He was a man in so many ways out of step with his time, a relic. To mix metaphors, if a man can become a metaphor, he was the final gasp of a dying mythology. The modern narrative on suicide, even in Japan, is not what it was. To the West, his was the death of a coward. We even sigh sadly at the thought of Hunter S Thompson blowing his brains out, a sound not unlike a book dropping heavily to the floor, or so said his son Juan. What poetry, the final sound for a writer to make. A book falling to the floor. Or perhaps Juan was doing a little myth-making of his own.

We say: they did it before their time. We say: they had no right. And how possessive of us, to think that we own a person that it is their duty to stick around and churn out material for us until our absentee landlord God finally pulls the plug? Maybe Hunter's wife or son gets to say he had no right, or at least, you son of a bitch. You left us here because you were selfish.
Does she feel she failed him? “Oh, I did. The job of a wife is to protect your husband when there are dark forces around, or when he is feeling dark and depressed. I failed at it.”
The biggest problem was his health; after an operation on his back, Thompson fell over and broke a leg while on a faintly improbable assignment to cover the Honolulu marathon. This reignited the back problems and raised the spectre of yet another operation – which he dreaded.
“But he had so much more work ahead of him. He was so much fun,” says Anita. Still in thrall to him, despite all the arguments, she has just written a book called The Gonzo Way – a thoroughly readable account of Thompson’s philosophy and final years.
“The best thing about our marriage was that it was like being married to a teenage girl trapped in the body of an elderly dope fiend,” says Anita. “Which was also the hardest thing about our marriage.”
She sighs and wells up again: “As of January 1 this year, I thought I’d start dating again. But I miss him. I’ve realised it’s going to be a challenge finding anything interesting in life after his death. But the last thing he would want me to do is to spend the rest of my days simply mourning.”
She’s right. It’s not the Gonzo Way. (Article)
I could be wrong myself, but I think they got it wrong. I think this was masking the fact that he didn't have much left in him, that his story was over. That his story had been done for a little while. He alluded to it in the note he left. He could've stuck around for his wife. Maybe he should have. But for us, the public? We have no fucking right to ask that of him. Hunter, Mishima, anyone that said: it is time. Let them be the author of their lives. And let them realize that when you hit return on that final sentence, there are no do-overs. There is no editorial review. That. Is. It.

Let's listen to Mishima speak on some of this in his own words:

What right do any of us have, if not to choose how and when we leave this life? We did not choose to come here. So many things in our lives - most things - appear to be in our control but actually are not. It is one of the most predominant myths of the West, these days. Self empowerment. You control your destiny!

Here's a little wakeup call. We control nearly nothing. We are links in a chain, cells in a body, accidents in a cosmic equation. Gods of our inner worlds, yes, but when we sit down at the table with the board of directors, do we get to make demands? No. We don't. Because reality is that which does not go away when we cease to believe in it. (Or so said Phillip K. Dick.)

I'd like to turn back to Yukio Mishima. Are you familiar with him? He was, by the time of his death, a celebrated, famous author. I've only read fragments of his writing. It is full of emotionally reserved or stunted men. The characters are, frankly, less interesting than he himself was, although his protagonists all seem to be foils for himself anyhow, as if often the case. At least Hunter made us laugh.

But Mishima was also a genius, and it wasn't just because of his craftsmanship with the pen. It was because, in his own way, he faced this conflict between the word and reality, and when it came to it, he didn't back down. It was an unyielding, possibly obsessive commitment to the narrative he had build that eventually guided the blade that killed him.

The comedy in this tragedy was that it meant nothing. He killed himself because the soldiers, who were meant to be roused by the speech he made after barricading himself in with the Tatenokai, merely laughed at him. Their laughter must have rung in his ears like the jests of the schoolboys who called him "poet," who teased him so mercilessly that he had to hide his aspirations as a writer. Later in life, nominated to be a Nobel Laureate, and still the punchline of a joke. He spent years weight training, focusing on his body. Sun and Steel. Still he was just the poet. There was nothing to do but die honorably, and that too was a failure. His second could not perform his deed, and Koga had to step in and behead them both.

Here's a trailer for the Paul Schreider film about Mishima, which I recommend, despite the absurd voice-over, (and I'm sure he'd be really happy to be described as "flamboyant"):

John-Ivan Palmer began a search, years after their ritual suicide, to track down Koga. To ask the questions that no one was asking, beginning with: why did no one speak to Koga? Why was the speculation about Mishima's death so fixated on odd miscellanea like his sublimated (or not so sublimated) homosexuality? Can we look past our bias about suicide and see how, at least as an author, an author of his own life, he concluded the story in the only way, ultimately, that it could be concluded? This too is a part of living our myth.

In the end, John-Ivan Palmer never reached Koga directly. This may have been because he didn't ultimately follow the right channels. But it could also be for a more poetic reason. All he got was a phone call, signifying silence. Read this:
"That night my phone rang at 3 a.m., but when I picked it up I heard only background noise, like traffic. Otherwise silence. Twenty minutes later the phone rang a second time, and there was a different kind of background noise in the silence. Twenty minutes after that the phone rang a third time and there was yet a third kind of silence. Now insomnia kicked in as my mind came up with more questions.
In Japanese, unlike English, there exists an onomatopoeic sound for absolute silence. You sometimes see it in Japanese comic books (manga) where there are so many words that resemble the sound they denote that special English translators have been hired separately to translate them. The Japanese word for silence is "sin," pronounced more or less like "sheeeen....." with the sound trailing off at the end. Like "whoosh" is the sound of a sword cutting through the air, and "gurgle" is the sound of blood spurting out the neck hole, "sin" is the "sound" afterward, when all is done, the bodies removed, everyone gone home, and only the silence remains.
Did the silence of those phone calls represent a Zen answer, one each from Hiroyasu Koga, Masayoshi Koga, and Masahiro Ogawa, or did all three calls come from Koga himself? Or was it merely three different wrong numbers in the middle of the night that just happened to be spaced exactly 20 minutes apart, disturbing my sleep by reminding me, reminding me, reminding me?"
That silence could be the sound of our resignation. Not blood spurting from a wound. Just the whimper of a world sucking sustenence though tubes. No bang. No surprises.

Are there ideas that are so tightly wound into your myth that you are willing to die for them? If not, does that make you stronger, for carrying out the story past the final chapter, or does it simply make you like the actor who, after the final curtain call, stands on the stage, and repeats his lines over and over in some delusional hope that the curtain will rise again?

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

1 comment:

  1. [Tangent] Relating to the beginning of the post: there is always a difference between what should be possible (or reasonable) and what is actually a good idea. Can is not the same as should, and while the realm of things we CAN do should probably be maximized, those things we SHOULD do generally remain fairly few. Suicide (and especially suicide for an ideological purpose) is something that generally strikes me as a good example of this: it's something that is occasionally extremely useful, so it is best for it to remain possible, but it is also frequently misused, so discouraging it in most cases is justified. This is also a topic where trying to determine the 'legitimacy' of such a thing is extremely delicate both socially-emotionally and logically, and wherein neither the person doing it nor any other person on the outside can be expected to have enough information to determine whether or not it was good 'in the long run' (i.e., whether it meets the utilitarian standard of goodness). It is, furthermore, something permanent, and something wherein one of the major agents in the act's execution has his or her opinion lost. In other words, even if we assume that the person who does such a thing is acting based on unclouded reasoning rather than sudden passions (or temporary insanity, or the charisma of some Jim Jones type, or the pressure of a temporary situation that because of its intensity seems intractable), we cannot determine whether or not the axioms from which the reasoning sprung were accurate (or perhaps more importantly, whether the axioms were, intentionally or unintentionally, manufactured and distributed).

    Even the 'good' examples are in question. Someone who writes a long, clear, manifesto about their ideals and then dies for them, apparently effectively, may or may not have considered h{im,er}self justified in retrospect because of the unforseen impacts of these ideals. The dead of the American Revolution might have become disgusted by the misuse of fillibusters (or, hell, by the elimination of slavery -- we're talking about a time period with values fairly alien to our own). Marx (though I don't think he could be said to have martyred himself to communism) probably did not forsee Stalinism, nor do I imagine he would have forseen the effect of McCarthyism on the standards of comic book content, nor do I imagine he foresaw the impact of his own works on literary criticism.

    People often assume that it's possible to know all the factors in a decision, and although this is (as far as I can tell) always false, it probably was at one time a survival trait. Now, this sense of certainty (and this sense of helplessness when one is aware of certainty) is arguably the cause of many major mistakes. That said, one cannot estimate one's level of uncertainty without some uncertainty...



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