Stuff I’m Reading: Spring Snow, by Yukio Mishima

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08/22/2008 12:15 PM |

You can tell by the way he describes a sunset that Yukio Mishima was a bodybuilder:

The sunsets were especially beautiful. He imagined that as each one approached, every cloud knew in advance what color it would take on — scarlet, purple, orange light green, or something else — and then, under the strain of the moment, that it paled just before turning to its new shade.

What Mishima is talking about here, and what he was demonstrating (along with mere narcissism) with his body sculpting, is the conflict between individual agency and the course of nature — the “he” here, young Kiyoaki Matsugae, is imagining that individual will can shape the course of events.

It’s a theme discussed throughout Spring Snow, in long, in dialogue and monologue, and in the language of Western rationalism and Eastern spirituality, about will and chance, and the nature of the flowing of time and karma. (The passage immediately preceding the sunset is about clouds, which seem consistent from moment to moment but look — it’s sort of a foreshadowing of the vision of the universe put forth in the final pages.) The book, about Kiyoaki’s love for a childhood friend betrothed to an Imperial Prince, is written in ornate, heavily descriptive, prose, creating a sense of an ordered world (Michael Gallagher’s translation seems to carry the sculpted space between each word over to English intact.) Kiyoaki is disrupting this world — shaping this sunset — with his pursuit of his desires; when his lover becomes (spoiler, sorry) a nun in a Buddhist order, he loses her. In other words, he can disrupt manmade but not cosmic order. (Because the descriptions are so lovely and the love story so ultimately tragic, I wonder if readers don’t overlook the essential emotional violence and roughness of Kiyoaki’s singlemindedness.) This is the first book in a tetralogy, in which Kiyoaki’s best friend grapples with notions of time’s continuity — do we move the clouds, do the clouds move randomly, or do the clouds move us? — and the philosophical conversation Mishima is conducting is present in every sentence of his prose.

I should say, too, that partly my reading of Mishima’s philosophy of self-fashioning is informed by Paul Schrader’s fantastic 1985 biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, recently out on a gorgeous Criterion Collection DVD.

I should also also say that Yukio Mishima is the subject of the best entry in all wikipedia. And yes, that picture is of him.

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