Further reflections on Yukio Mishima’s final books, “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy. The four books that make up the tetralogy are:
Spring Snow translated by Michael Gallagher
Runaway Horses translated by Michael Gallagher
The Temple of Dawn translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle
The Decay of the Angel translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
I have now completed reading the first three, with the shortest of the four books remaining. The allegory, metaphor and symbolism continues in The Temple of Dawn, sky, clouds, dawn and the evening sky the prominent subjects.
Of the three volumes read to date, I found this one a lot harder to engage with, it could be the change in translators, although the subject matter was less focused on character development and action, with significant portions dedicated to musing on Buddhist and Hindu theory.
The work opens with our protagonist, Honda again as the main thread throughout the tetralogy, travelling to Thailand and India. A slight hint of travelogue style allows Mishima to present a detached view of Nationalism;
Traveling through a country like Thailand, Honda realized more clearly than ever the simplicity and purity of things Japanese, like transparent stream water through which one could glimpse pebbles below, or the probity of Shinto rites. Honda’s life was not imbued with such spirit. Like the majority of Japanese he ignored it, behaving as though it did not exist and surviving by escaping from it. All his life he had dodged things fundamental and artless: white silk, clear cold water, the zigzag white paper of the exorciser’s staff fluttering in the breeze, the sacred precinct marked by a torii, the gods’ dwelling in the sea, the mountains, the vast ocean, the Japanese sword with its glistening blade so pure and sharp. Not only Honda, but the vast majority of Westernized Japanese, could no longer stand such intensely native elements. (P26)
Early in the novel we are introduced to the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun in Thailand;
The pagoda had long served as a morning bell tolled by its rich hues, resonant colors responding to the dawn. They were created so as to evoke beauty, a power, an explosiveness like the dawn itself.
In the eerie, yellowish brown morning light reflecting ruddily in the Menam River, the pagoda cast its shining reflection, presaging the coming of still another sweltering day. (pp14-15)
However later the temple becomes Mount Fuji, this is post WWII Japan now and Honda is shifting from ignoring “the mountains”, he can “stand such intensely native elements”;
The next morning Honda awoke alone in the villa, and for protection against the cold, donned a woollen scarf, a cardigan, and a thick winter coat. He crossed the lawn and walked to the arbor at the west end of the garden. More than anything else he had been anticipating watching Fuji at dawn.
The mountain was tinted crimson in the sunrise. Its tip glowed the color of a brilliant rose stone, and to his eyes it was a dreamlike illusion, a classical cathedral roof, a Japanese Temple of Dawn. (P157)
The references to reaching for the divine, whether in Thailand, Japan or India (Honda travels to India too), add to the spiritual angle of this work, and whilst the thread of Honda’s interactions with reincarnated characters continues here it is a less prominent element to the novel. The references to architecture showing an ageing Honda is adding structure and order to his life. Although dawn is representing newness, freshness, the potential for a brighter future, there is also the foreboding of twilight;
There is a time of day immediately before dusk when the outline of every object becomes sharply delineated. It was just that moment. The lacerated edges of wooden beams in the wreckage, the freshness of the rents in the shredded trees, and the curled zinc sheets with their puddles of rain water – everything appeared almost unpleasantly vivid. In the extreme west only a horizontal line of scarlet was to be seen in the sky between two or three towering black burned-out buildings. Flecks of scarlet were also visible through the windows of the ruined structures. It was as if someone had turned on a red light in a deserted and uninhabited house. (p140)
We had already been forewarned;
“Art is a colossal evening glow,” he repeated. “It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky; even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile. Before the brilliance of evening, before the surging evening clouds, all rot about some ‘better future’ immediately fades away. The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending. (p12)
It is this luminescence just prior to the “ending” that fascinates Mishima;
The evening sky was already casting its gentle rose color over the river; passing sails dropped dusky shadows on the water.
It was a time of opulent, mysterious luminescence before the dusk of evening. A time controlled by light, when the contours of all things were perfect, every dove painted in detail, when everything was dyed a faded yellow-rose, when a languid harmony reigned with the exquisiteness of an etching between the reflection on the river and the glow in the sky. (p61)
In my previous posts I also referred to the moon references, well the tetralogy IS called the Sea of Fertility and in the Vintage edition notes on the author, Mishima is reported to have said, “The title, The Sea of Fertility…is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name. Or I might say that it superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea.”
I’ll finish this post with two pertinent quotes about the sea of fertility, keeping in mind Mishima’s failed coup d’état and subsequent ritual suicide immediately after finishing the tetralogy;
But the feeling of disillusion and despair – as if one had seen the other side of the moon – which overtakes the successful revolutionary makes death merely an escape from a wilderness worse than death itself. (p87)
He was certain that unless the moon were permitted to stay clear, the emptiness and disgust that flooded his heart would expand and expand, and the dark turmoil would be transformed into sexual desire. It astonished him to discover that it was just such a landscape that awaited him at the end of his life’s journey. (p183)
I will continue to slow methodical march of our protagonist Honda (and Mishima) to his death, as I’m sure that is what awaits me in the final novel.