Today, more thoughts about the first book in Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “Spring Snow”.
It is difficult to read books by writers such as Édouard Levé, Qiu Miaojin, Sadegh Hedayat, Osamu Dazai or Stig Sæterbakken, all writers who committed suicide, where the characters in their works also contemplate the final act. You bring a pre-conceived thematic notion to their works. Yukio Mishima is no different, his failed coup d’état and ritual suicide – seppuku – always lingering, especially with his final books, the tetralogy being completed in the days prior to his failed attempt to restore the power of the Japanese Emperor.
“Spring Snow”, a slow, contemplative, meditative novel where the narrative arc is simple, also contains a raft of detail about Japanese history, Western influence on their culture and debates about various religious or traditional ceremonies.
It is generally through dialogue that the various opinions and arguments take place.
Early in the novel, Chapter 13, two of the main characters, Kiyoaki and Honda, discuss time, the style of an era (“I’d be more inclined to say that the style of the Meiji era is still dying.”), history and their individual roles in such;
“Europeans believe that a man like Napoleon can impose his will on history. We Japanese think the same of the men like your grandfather and his contemporaries who brought about the Meiji Restoration. But is that really true? Does history ever obey the will of men? Looking at you always makes me ponder that question. You’re not a great man and you’re not a genius either. But, nonetheless, you have one characteristic that sets you quite apart: you have no trace whatever of willpower. And so I am always fascinated to think of you in relation to history.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No, not a bit. I’m thinking in terms of unconscious participation in history. For example, let’s say that I have willpower –”
“You certainly have.”
“Say that I want to alter the course of history. I devote all my energies and resources to this end. I use every ounce of strength I possess to bend history to my will. Say I possess the prestige and authority so necessary to bring this about. None of this would ensure that history proceeded according to my wishes. Then, on the other hand, perhaps a hundred or two hundred, even three hundred years later, history might veer abruptly to take a course that was constant with my vision and ideals – and this without my having had anything whatever to do with it. Perhaps society would assume a form that was the exact replica of my dreams of a hundred or two hundred years before; history, enjoying the new glory that had been my vision, would smile at me with cool condescension and mock my ambition. And people would say : ‘Well, that’s history.’”
The whole chapter is a debate between the two characters about an era that has passed, about their potential roles in history and ability to influence change. The sceptre of the author’s demands for the restoration of the Emperor in 1970 leaving a shadow over the whole debate.
Another ongoing theme is the influence of the English on Japanese culture, there are many minor references to the Westernisation of ceremonies, or the furnishings, or even somebody preferring billiards to mahjong, there are references to “carefully nurtured “English” absentmindedness” or the keeping of rodents as pets. The triviality of the English influence can be seen in the following conversation that takes place during the blossom festival, between Baron Shinkawa and Count Ayakura, the Baron modelling himself on English culture;
“They tell me, Baron, that you spent a good deal of time in London.”
“Yes, and in London at tea time the hostess makes a great point of asking everyone: ‘Milk or tea first?’ Though it all comes to the same in the end, tea and milk mixed together in the cup, the English place enormous importance on one’s preference as to which should be poured first. With them it seems to be an affair of greater gravity than the latest government crisis.”
In later chapters two Siamese (Thai) Princes spend some time at a summer house with Kiyoaki and Honda and discuss the transmigration of souls, this opens up to Buddhist tales from the Jataka Sutra and then further debate and opinions by Honda on reincarnation;
“There is an abundance of death in our lives. We never lack reminders – funerals, cemeteries, withered commemorative bouquets, memories of the dead, deaths of friends, and then the anticipation of our own death. Who knows? Perhaps in their own way the dead make a great deal of life. Perhaps they’re always looking in our direction from their own land – at our towns, our schools, the smokestacks of our factories, at each of us who has passed one by one back from death into the land of the living.”
“What I want to say is that perhaps reincarnation is nothing more than a concept that reverses the way that we, the living, ordinarily view death, a concept that expresses life as seen from the viewpoint of the dead. Do you see?”
This is a complex work, whole chapters spent on the structure and beauty of blades of grass, large sections dedicated to the motion of waves, the natural world at times being more of an influence than the main human characters.
I can understand why a number of readers find his works “difficult” as the self-reflection, the contemplation is a major feature of the characters. It is a work that I am thoroughly enjoying, even if I cannot help having a pre-conceived set of thoughts about the author’s motivations.