Sun and Steel: What I Learned

2020-12-09


Yukio Mishima was a Japanese novelist and playwright widely considered to be the greatest Japanese author of the 20th century. As a Japanese nationalist, he abhorred postwar Japan's loss of national essence due to the influences of materialism, communism, globalism, and democracy. He founded the Tatenokai, a private militia that in 1970 attempted a coup to restore imperial rule. Upon the coup's failure, Mishima ended his life by seppuku and earned the early romantic death which he desired. He was 45 years old.

Mishima's 1968 essay Sun and Steel describes the philosophy he developed after embarking on a weight training regimen at the age of 30. Mishima deplores the importance given by modern Japanese society to words over body. As Mishima states right at the beginning of the essay, Sun and Steel is a new form of literary work. It is simultaneously the story of a weak boy discovering the importance of a muscular body, a treatise on the relative merits of art and action, and a personal journey into Mishima's identity. Mishima calls this literary form "confidential criticism" as it is a hybrid between confession and criticism.

The following is a collection of personal notes, summarized points, and quotes to encapsulate what I learned. I read the English translation by John Bester.


Part 1

Mishima's body is the orchard that surrounds the dwelling that is his self. This orchard is referred to by many as destiny, but Mishima decides to cultivate his orchard using sun and steel.

Mishima deplores the importance given to words (language) over body (action), decrying the former as a corrosive force:

Words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words themselves will be corroded too.

He notes two contradictions in himself: the desire to press ahead as a writer and the desire to leave words for reality. Not being able to distinguish between the two, words and reality blended together so that he considered himself "devoid of the flesh, of reality, of action". As a novelist, he straddled the two contradictions by hypothesizing of the ideal physical existence devoid of any corrosion by words. This in itself is a contradiction and a "godlike" attempt to manipulate existence.

Part 2

Mishima recalls an episode in which he took part in a group carrying a portable shrine and gazed up at the sky. In that blue sky he percieves a truth about tragedy:

Tragedy calls for an anti-tragic vitality and ignorance, and above all for a certain innapropriateness. If a person is at times to draw close to the divine, then under normal conditions he must be neither divine nor anything approaching it.

Due to this realization, he starts considering the idea of intellectualizing the flesh, that is, of extending the domain of the spirit to make the body a suit of armor forged from the metal of an idea.

He recalls the image of the sun beating down upon the ruins of postwar Japan in the summer of 1945 which led him to create in his own mind an association between the sun and death. Hence, he rejected the sun and instead retreated into his dark and dusky room, into his piles of books, and into introspection. In this act he followed the herd of men of "nocturnal thought" who "had without exception dry, lusterless skins and sagging stomachs", who "rejected both life and death...for in both of these the sun had had a hand." These men rejected the flesh, but as Mishima now questions:

Why must it be that men always seek out the depths, the abyss ? Why must thought, like a plumb line, concern itself exclusively with vertical descent? Why was it not feasible for thought to change direction and climb vertically up, ever up, towards the surface? Why should the area of the skin, which guarantees a human being’s existence in space, be most despised and left to the tender mercies of the senses?

Part 3

Mishima talks about the development of his relationship with steel. He asserts that all the emblems of moral character must manifest themselves outward. He notes the tendency of words to falsely glorify individualism:

Nothing, in fact, is so strange as the glorification of the verbal arts. Seeming at first glance to strive after universality, in fact they concern themselves with subtle ways of betraying the fundamental function of words, which is to be universally applicable. The glorification of individual style in literature signifies precisely that.

On the other hand, he found that by exerting his body, his muscles came to resemble steel and were "gradually fashioned by the world" into a universal form.

Part 4

Mishima decries the path toward limitless imagination and mystery created by words:

How many lazy men’s truths have been admitted in the name of imagination! How often has the term imagination been used to prettify the unhealthy tendency of the soul to soar off in a boundless quest after truth, leaving the body where it always was! How often have men escaped from the pains of their own bodies with the aid of that sentimental aspect of the imagination that feels the ills of others’ flesh as its own! And how often has the imagination unquestioningly exalted spiritual sufferings whose relative value was in fact excessively difficult to gauge!

Mishima notes the beginnings of his interest in stretching his body to its extreme limits in order to push his consciousness through physical suffering. He perceives a truth about the concept of skin in the game, that without the threat of death the body would be a joke as it could face no demise:

The thing that ultimately saves the flesh from being ridiculous is the element of death that resides in the healthy, vigorous body; it is this, I realized, that sustains the dignity of the flesh. How comic would one find the gaiety and elegance of the bullfighter were his trade entirely divorced from associations of death!

Acceptance of suffering is a proof of courage. Without suffering only passive consciousness remains.

Part 5

Mishima sought to develop a "process of diplomatic selection within the spirit" that ignored ugly truths and avoided the indulgence of imagination. Emphasizing body-spirit connection, he detested defeat coming from within. His style sought to embrace letters and martial arts, art and action, the flower that wilts and the flower that lasts forever, death and life. He apportioned action to reality and relegated art to falsehood:

When action views itself as reality and art as falsehood, it entrusts this falsehood with authority for giving final endorsement to its own truth and, hoping to take advantage of the falsehood, sets it in charge of its dreams. It is thus that epic poems came to be written. On the other hand, when art considers itself as the reality and action as the falsehood, it once more envisages that falsehood as the peak of its own ultimate fictional world; it has been forced to realize that its own death is no longer backed up by the falsehood, that hard on the heels of the reality of its own work came the reality of death.

Contrast the era of the composition of epic poems to the current day, when artificial intelligence and virtual reality run rampant to recursively generate a world that considers art, or imagination, as reality and action as falsehood that can be spun up imaginatively in a fictional world. I shudder to think what Mishima's opinions would be on modern day Japan.

After building muscle, Mishima attests that fantasy, boredom, and imagination vanished. Having achieved a fine physique, previously unintelligible mysteries were solved and "morbid imagination" was thrown off. He prefers a self-evident, unoriginal from of duty:

No moment is so dazzling as when everyday imaginings concerning death and danger and world destruction are transformed into duty. To do this, however, required the nurturing of the body, of the strength and will to fight, and the techniques to fight with.

Part 6

Mishima fondly recalls an episode of parachute training during his short stint in the military. That day his experiences consisted of the army, physical training, summer, clouds, sunset, grass, a whiff of death, and a tinge of nostalgia. He "overflowed with the infinite joy of being one with the world" and attests to the complexity of all the concepts and procedures necessary to attain such an existence.

Part 7

Mishima has realized that he achieved the happiness after which he set out, but the tragedy is that he is now in his forties and cannot properly enjoy his gains. Time, alas, is not reversible and self-awareness cannot disappear. All people have the desire to undergo spiritual development, that is, to fashion their body and spirit alike in the image of the absolute. This invariably leads to failure because the body will decay and the spirit will not know a true end.

Part 8

Mishima now begins to connect the concepts of duty and death:

Nothing gives the armed forces so much attraction as the fact that even the most trivial duty is ultimately an emanation of something far loftier and more glorious, and is linked, somewhere, with the idea of death. The man of letters, on the other hand, must scratch together his own glory from the rubbish within himself, already overfamiliar in every detail, and refurbish it for the public eye.

He thirsts for ceaseless motion in the form of fencing, lifting weights, or running and finds in each of these actions "a small imitation of death."

Part 9

Mishima recalls an episode when he read some letters written by soldiers of a suicide squad shortly before their deaths. In the letters he recognized ready-made slogan-like phrases that summoned glory and superhuman behavior. These words "demanded the strict elimination of individuality and spurned the construction of monuments based on personal action." That episode made him question whether words could be used to memorialize men. He criticizes himself for holding in contempt "a life that coult be ended by words". He wishes he could go back to the age of 17 to bask once more in his "boyhood omniscience" at a time when he had already perceived "the freedom that comes through words" which he had let slip later in life.

Part 10

Connecting his commentary back to the episode of the shrine-bearers, Mishima realizes that "the use of strength and the ensuing fatigue, the sweat and the blood" could confer that same sense of glorious belongingness to the group which he felt at a previous age. "The group is a concept of uncommunicable shared suffering, a concept that ultimately rejects the agency of words." Words can convey pleasure or grief, but only bodies can convey shared pain and common suffering.