Acting Our Age

Having finished reading Edmund Burke’s reflections as a break from reading Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, I returned to the final novel in that group and was immediately struck by a remarkable paragraph. The hero of the series of novels, Shigekuni Honda, is now an old man and the author reflects on aging and the complications that go along with it. The series of four novels is a careful and critical examination of the deterioration of Japanese civilization due to the powerful influence of Western values (especially capitalism) and — obviously — the devastation of the Second World War. In the fourth novel, after Honda’s wife died, the author paired the old man with an equally old woman who has become his close friend. They spend a great deal of time together and enjoy telling one another anecdotes about their early years — neither one listening to the other, of course. But they have discovered in their friendship something very precious. In one brief aside, the narrator has this stunning reflection on the relationship between Honda and his friend Keiko:

“If old age was the reality most unpleasant to have to accept and most continuously to be lived with, then Honda and Keiko had each made the other a refuge from the reality. Their intimacy was not juxtaposition but a brushing past in the rush for a refuge. They exchanged empty houses and hurried to lock the doors behind them. Alone inside the other, each of them could breathe easily.”

There is so much in these few sentences to learn from, regardless of our age, that one hardly knows where to start. It is certainly the case that we could all benefit from the narrator’s wise advice to find solace and true happiness not within the self that closes itself off from others, but “inside the other.” This is especially the case in a culture like ours where the self has become the focal point of one’s entire existence. Honda’s and Keiko’s “intimacy” is not sexual, given their ages and the fact that Keiko is homosexual; it is spiritual and allows each of them to find in the other a “refuge from reality.”

But as an old fart myself who “lives continuously” with old age, waking each day with new aches and pains and no longer able to do the things he took for granted only a few years ago, like playing the game of tennis he enjoyed for more than 50 years, or simply running or kneeling down (and struggling to get up again!), and one who resents deeply the sentiments evoked by public pronouncements about aging that have brought about the cultural urge to turn back the clock, color the hair, eliminate wrinkles, look and act like a foolish teen-ager, I find Mishima’s words profound and profoundly true. Our culture does not teach us to age gracefully — or to do much of anything gracefully, for that matter. It resents old age, unlike those cultures that not only respect, but revere old age, as the Japanese culture did once upon a time — though not recently, as we are told by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki who noted in his Praise of Shadows that in increasingly Westernized Japan “the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to youth. . .the times grow increasingly inconsiderate of old people.”

We turn away from the elderly, put them away in homes, and dismiss their words based on years of experience as the muttering of old fools. It is a part of our cultural malaise that we cannot act our age, that we prolong adolescence as long as possible and regard maturity as something to be avoided at all costs. We have certainly done a good job of that as middle-aged men still act like frat brothers, telling crude jokes and slapping one another on the butt; and middle-aged women get their faces lifted or their tummies tucked, always checking the mirror. But, in the process we have become lost within ourselves, not sure who we are, and unable to find our way — which, as Mishima reminds us, can only be discovered by forgetting ourselves and becoming intimate with another. It begins with a look at the world outside ourselves and the realization that our own happiness is predicated on “finding refuge” in others.

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.

Dollars and Sense

I have been reading the third novel of the four that comprise Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy titled The Temple of Dawn. The four novels in the group focus on the life of Shigekuni Honda before during and after the Second World War. The third volume is written around the years of the war, especially the final years when Japan was being fire-bombed relentlessly by B-29’s and Honda picks his way through the ruins of his beautiful homeland trying to make sense of a world in chaos.

The Japanese signed an agreement known as “Comintern” with Germany and Italy, late in the 1930s in order to unite against the threat of the Soviet Union and Communism, which was sweeping Europe and the Far East at a time when the world economies were in serious trouble. But the old line Japanese worried as much, if not more, about capitalism than they did Communism, according to Mishima. They saw capitalism as an insidious force that was gradually destroying the ancient values that made Japan a unique culture — and it was undermining the ancient religion as well.

Early in 1932 there had been an abortive attempt to establish a military dictatorship in Japan by a group of young idealists who were intent on restoring the ancient values. This attempt included the intent to murder of several leading bankers and industrialists. Mishima deals with that revolution in his second volume. But in this third volume his hero, Honda, comes across a poem written by one of the young men who had been involved in the failed attempt to bring down the existing government. “The poet expressed the disillusionment that followed the revolution for which he had been so ready to give up his life.” In that poem, Honda reads the following couplet: “Yesterday’s wisdom is beclouded in luxurious baths of profit.” That thought alone justifies the reading of this fine novel, which is full of insights and profound observations about the world at that time, not only in Japan, but elsewhere as well.

In any event, in reflecting on that particular thought I find it remarkable that Japan was fighting at that time against the very same capitalistic forces the Roman Church was fighting against during the European Middle Ages. Capitalism won out and the battle was over between the love of money — which is condemned in both Christianity and Buddhism — and the love of God and our fellow humans. In both cases, the fight was lost and lofty spiritual ideals were replaced by the most crass, materialistic values humans have ever come to espouse. One really must sympathize with those young Japanese men who were willing to die in order to preserve a culture that was in so many ways superior to the one they knew would inevitably replace it. Just consider Japan today, with its Western dress and ideals — and especially its commitment to capitalist objectives. And consider the insidious influence of great wealth on the government in this country which is virtually crippled because those who govern are determined not to pass any laws that might infringe on the right of a few wealthy men to become even wealthier. In both cultures, Japanese and American, it is now all about money.

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?

Chance And Greatness

One of the reasons I like reading literature from other cultures is because it demonstrates the universality of human experience. I am currently reading Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, the first of four books he wrote “in his masterful tetralogy The Sea of Fertility.” It is a marvelous book and a discussion between two of the major characters in the novel struck me as worthy of reflection. The young hero Shigekuni Honda is discussing “chance” with his friend Kiyoaki Matsugae. As the discussion draws to a close,  Honda tells his friend

For if chance ceases to exist, the Will becomes meaningless — no more significant than a speck of rust on a huge chain of cause and effect that we only glimpse from time to time. Then there’s only one way to participate in history, and that’s to have no will at all — to function solely as a shining, beautiful atom, eternal and unchanging. No one should have to look for any other meaning in human existence.

This, of course, is the doctrine of determinism which the West has struggled against in its defense of free will since the Middle Ages. After all, if the human will is not free than we cannot be regarded as responsible for our actions and morality goes out the window. Kant, for one, spent most of his intellectual life struggling with this conundrum. What interests me in this context is the question of what we do with the notion of “greatness” if free will is a fiction. We assume that great men and women determine their own actions which then translate into extraordinary events in the world. But if, as Honda suggests in this passage, all actions are determined then no one can be regarded as truly great, since their accomplishments are not a function of their free will. In the end, however, I think a case can be made for chance and therefore for free will. But I’m not sure it helps us rescue the notion of greatness.

Let me take a famous historical example: the crossing of the Delaware River by the colonists in the American Revolution. It is an event that is supposed to have turned the war around and paved the way for eventual victory by the young colonists against the mighty British. And it made George Washington famous, surely one of the greatest generals ever to lead his troops into battle. A close reading of the circumstances surrounding that event demonstrates the significant role played by chance in the victory by the colonists, however. Indeed, the victory is in itself a demonstration of the role chance plays in the affairs of men.

To begin with, Washington broke his small contingent of troops into three groups. He took the first group across the river above Trenton; a second group was to have crossed at Trenton while a third group was to cross below Trenton and  attack from the South. Neither of the other two groups made it across because of ice jams! Furthermore, there were loyalists everywhere and yet no word of the crossing ever reached the ears of the Hessians who were, admittedly, a bit hung over after a night of celebrating Christmas. To make matters worse, Washington’s crossing with a few thousand men, horses, and cannons took several hours longer than anticipated and instead of a dawn attack, his out-manned and exhausted troops were faced with a late morning attack against seasoned troops who were sure to win. But fog moved in and covered the movement of troops until it was too late and the victory was assured.

Washington knew the Hessians would be celebrating Christmas and their guard would be down. That much he knew. But all of those other factors, the fog, the silence of the loyalists who might have shouted a warning, the inability of two of the three  contingents to cross the river — all of these factors were clearly a matter of chance — they were completely unpredictable — especially the sudden and unexpected appearance of  the fog which was the real life-saver. One might say the American victory was a fluke. It could have so easily gone the other way and it would have meant the end of the American Revolution and, probably, the end of this country as a nation. In a word, Washington’s greatness can perhaps be reduced to chance (luck?) as can the greatness of many of the men throughout history who have led troops into battle. And the consequences of those victories or losses can also be chalked up to chance in many cases. So if we can say that events are often the result of chance, then, contrary to what Honda suggests, our lives have meaning and  men and women are free and therefore responsible for their actions. Morality is saved — though the notion of “greatness” is somewhat questionable.