Remembering Names

I have mentioned in previous posts the remarkable novels of Yukio Mishima that form the “masterful tetralogy,”  The Sea of Fertility. I am still working my way through the third of the four novels and it is tough going: it incorporates a great deal of information about Eastern religious beliefs regarding reincarnation. Upon completing the four novels Mishima committed seppuku and I am beginning to understand why. He is fascinated with the question of death and the possibilities of lives being transmigrated into other bodies after death. His central character continues to meet the same person in different bodies throughout his own long life.

In any event, Mishima has extraordinary descriptive powers and waxes poetic from time to time. This makes for delightful reading and his characters jump from the pages and stand before the reader in sharp detail. One such character is “Former Baron Shinkawa” who appears at a party late in the third novel and is described as  “seventy-two, grumbling and complaining without fail whenever he left home” — which he did whenever he could, since he loved to attend parties and social gatherings of all sorts. Unfortunately, he was becoming boring, telling the same anecdotes but beginning to lose his ability to recall the names of the central characters who made up those stories. “His sarcasm had lost its bite, and his epigrammatic expressions had become long-winded and shallow. He was never able to recall people’s names.” Mishima then introduces a wonderful paragraph describing in metaphorical terms the problems the good Baron seems to be having:

“His listener could not help but recognize Shinkawa’s losing battle with the invisible monster of forgetfulness. This quiet, but tenacious animal would occasionally withdraw only to reappear at once, clinging to Shinkawa, brushing his forehead with its shaggy tail.”

Believe me, I know that feeling. I have known it all my life. And the fact that I have difficulty in remembering names (and dates) has always plagued me. I am a terrible joke-teller since I often forget the punchline. But as I grow older (and older) and may finally experience dementia I find solace in the fact that the people around me will never know! (Which raises an interesting question: how would doctors ever determine that a Tea-Party Republican who suffers from chronic dementia has Alzheimer’s?) Anyway, I have always been like Baron Shinkawa and know well the feeling of the quiet animal “brushing his forehead with its tail.” I suppose, however, that if and when dementia does visit the “quiet but tenacious animal” will not withdraw. He becomes a permanent visitor. Sad, indeed.

One reads fine literature in order to deepen one’s understanding of the  human condition. If the work is also beautifully written — even in translation — then this raises the work from the level of “good” literature to “great” literature. Such is the case with the novels of Yukio Mishima.


Good Books

There is an ongoing quarrel in academia about whether or not a book can be called “great.” The postmodern critics who have taken control of the academy and now edit the journals and determine the curricula insist that so-called “great” books are simply books written by dead, white, European, males and as evidence of pervasive male hegemony the same books are continually selected to be read by captive college audiences of young people who don’t know any better, thereby assuring that they will think like those who went before them.  Since there is clearly a political agenda involved, it is said, let the agenda be one that is approved by the postmodernists themselves. So it goes. I have argued in print against this point of view and, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn any more. I think it is tiresome, academic exercise and the result is that young people no longer read the classics.  In any event, perhaps we can at least agree that there are “good” books.

One such book is part of the “masterful tetralogy” The Sea of Fertility written by Yukio Mishima. In the second of these books, the hero, young Isao Iinuma, is an idealistic ultra-conservative in Japan prior to the Second World War at a time when Japan is in a depression and the hero is convinced the nation — and especially the Emperor — can only be saved by people like himself from the “barbarians” from the West who are busily imposing their materialism on Japan. He forms a group of like-minded young men and they target a number of leading figures who, Isao is convinced, are determined to bring Japan to ruin in the name of industrial capitalism and higher profits for themselves. As I read this bells were going off all over the place, and especially when I read Isao’s assessment of the man he regarded as enemy #1, Kurahara, an immensely wealthy capitalist who is described by the narrator as “”the unmistakable incarnation of a capitalism devoid of national allegiance. If one wanted to portray the frightening image of a man who loved nothing, there was no better model than Kurahara.”

I pondered the descriptive phrase “capitalism devoid of national interest” and thought of the many wealthy Americans who think only of themselves and not of their fellow citizens. Their attitude works its insidious way through society by way of those wealthy few who have bought themselves politicians who answer to their every whim. I have had a problem with capitalism ever since I read R.H. Tawney’s classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in college. I was struck by Tawney’s conviction that there is an inherent contradiction between capitalism and Christianity, and have for years wondered how on earth this country, which insists that it has its roots in Christianity could embrace free-market capitalism — an economic system that stresses selfishness finding a home in the bosom of a religion that stresses selflessness. But Mishima’s point does not focus on capitalism, per se, it focuses on “capitalism devoid of national interest.” That is, Isao’s target is a man who “loves nothing,” who embodies the ideal of capitalist selfishness, who has no interest whatever in the well-being of his country or the people who live there.

Is it only me, or does this ring bells with you as well?