I started lifting weights at seventeen, the same age at which I began studying martial arts. Within a year or two, I had largely abandoned kung fu but taken up vinyasa yoga; a year later, I made the college rowing team. Since then, physical training of some kind has been a constant. I have hit the gym before unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning, have gone running in hundred-degree heat and new-fallen snow. While feverish, on zero sleep, in concussed recovery from a hit-and-run collision that could have killed me. I grow more tolerant of limits as I get older, but accept few wholesale excuses. My body felt inadequate in my early teens: growing up in Florida, I remember the discomfort I felt at pool parties, remember being shy about my height, my inadequate chest, my skinny arms. Physical development, building a liquid fluency in the body’s language, felt like a vindication of my existence.
Later, as I read my way through libraries and English literature syllabuses, I found few writers who were kindred spirits in this regard. Perhaps I should say: kindred bodies. Fashionable intellectuals often speak these days not of people being harmed, exploited, killed, but of bodies. Despite this rhetoric, there remains in such circles a deep suspicion of physical culture. I am met with stares of incomprehension, skepticism, even scorn when the subject of exercise comes up, as though firm biceps were a sign of brainlessness, cultivation of the body an eccentric, vaguely disreputable pastime, like taxidermy.
One author who did seem to share my passion was the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, most plainly in his nonfiction book Sun and Steel. In this long essay, he confesses his erstwhile estrangement from the body, boasts of reconciling himself to it and outlines the aesthetic philosophy his fitness program fulfills.
He poses on the cover of my old Grove Press edition in the aspect of a warrior, stripped to the waist, forehead bound in a hachimaki, looking out from under heavy brows. His shadowed gaze is intent, unnerving. His left cheekbone and the strong bridge of his nose catch the light. (A humanizing touch: his ears stick out slightly too far.) In a suit he might seem ordinary, at best of average build, but shirtless he is a panther ready to spring. His forearms are unusually furry for a Japanese man, his concave stomach bifurcated by a line of black hair. His triceps resemble warm marble. Superimposed on this fierce portrait are the concentric rings of a red target, as though Mishima were about to be feathered with arrows like St. Sebastian—a picture of whose “white and matchless nudity” moves the frail narrator of Mishima’s novel Confessions of a Mask to his first ejaculation. In the center of this target, his grim mouth forms the bull’s-eye; the outer rings drape his shoulders and pectoral muscles like a mantle of blood. His right hand is drawing out of its sheath, upward into the frame, the naked blade of a samurai sword.
Studying this portrait, you can see why university students of a certain stripe looked up to him, why they joined the militia he founded late in life and went as far as the slopes of Mount Fuji to train with him. Why for some disaffected young men, moved by his romantic and imperialist ideals, his sculpted body might have served as the archaic torso of Apollo, declaring, “You must change your life.”
Mishima’s own capacity for change was marvelous. Novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, polemicist and eventual leader of a private militia—throughout his life, the bisexual aesthete was ever protean: existence was for him a “momentary shadow,” sustained first by words and later by muscle. From a young age, according to one of his contemporaries, Mishima “believed that he could become whatever he liked—the Emperor of Japan, a literary genius, even the kamikaze of beauty. He thought his potential unlimited.”
Blame the Tokyo Olympics. The international hoopla, the spectacle of all those athletes running and jumping and swimming, carving through air and water alike with bodies like blades, so fully and fantastically inhabiting their corporeal forms—that was what got me thinking again about Mishima, at once the most international and the most fervently nationalist of major twentieth-century Japanese authors. Specifically, it got me thinking about Sun and Steel, surely the most intellectual account of bodybuilding ever written. Finished in 1968, it was published in English in 1970, the year of Mishima’s death by ritual suicide. As a confession and a manifesto, I suspect that only the gathering foreknowledge of his own premature end—a riddle to which Sun and Steel holds the key—made it possible to write.
For Mishima, language came first. Words, he tells us, preceded things, the opposite of ordinary child development. This identification with words had the effect of divorcing him from physical reality. From the depths of his inner world, he recalled with difficulty the body—poor, put-upon, harassed and harried, borne about as whim and work duties dictated. His concern was that interior space through which thoughts and memories came and went like so many comets, where imagination and experience could be used to adorn an identity relentlessly rehearsing itself. Bearing this acute consciousness, for its first three decades, was his body’s thankless task. Well into maturity, and long after the advent of literary fame, the “orchard” of his flesh went untended, ran to ruin, even as he sought to imitate physical beauty in prose. The renowned author was a man divided against himself.
Then, laboriously, the muteness of the body gave way to speech. Beginning in 1955, at age thirty, Mishima committed himself to intensive physical training—weightlifting, running, boxing and kendo, Japanese fencing with bamboo swords. He compares it to acquiring a second language, the process being “an aspect of my spiritual development.” From his thin, undersized frame he raised muscle, as though animating a golem. The slow discovery of his body, its aesthetic beauty and practical power, opened a new domain of knowledge to him. “Little by little, the orchard began to bear fruit, and thoughts of the body came to occupy a large part of my consciousness.”
Mishima’s first thought was to assimilate the body to the mind, construct it as symbol or synecdoche: “to extend the scope of an idea from the spirit to the flesh until the whole physical being became a suit of armor forged from the metal of that concept.” He discarded this notion, and thereafter pursued a union between the two, between “powerful, sensitively-rippling muscles” and an active imagination. His great theme in Sun and Steel is the interpenetration of flesh and consciousness. Most of us, once our body stops growing, take it for granted, except in the throes of pleasure or pain. Mishima saw it, no less than the realm of ideas, as an unplumbed abyss. In her book Mishima: A Vision of the Void, Marguerite Yourcenar calls Sun and Steel “almost delirious,” and she is right—there are passages here in which the author is drunk on the revelation that the body, like literature, has its own difficult sublime.
It wasn’t always so. Of his early manhood, Mishima reports elsewhere, “I had been dissatisfied for quite some time by the fact that my invisible spirit alone could create tangible visions of beauty. Why could not I myself be something visibly beautiful and worthy of being looked at?” On the surface this is sheer narcissism. But the primacy of words for Mishima means that flesh cannot be mindless, a mere lump of matter: physical attributes are “outward, bodily tokens” of spiritual values. There is a brief catalog of distaste: “I had always felt that such signs of physical individuality as a bulging belly (sign of spiritual sloth) or a flat chest with protruding ribs (sign of an unduly nervous sensibility) were excessively ugly.” What Mishima wants is “classical balance,” like a Greek statue. By frequenting the boxing gym, by lifting steel weights, he is “reinstating [my body] in its natural form, the form that it should have had all along.”
There is a note of chastisement here, even self-loathing. Mishima himself was once a thin, pallid, flat-chested youth, addicted to “Novalis’s night and Yeatsian Irish twilights,” so meagerly muscled that he failed a test of strength during his army medical exam. When he proved unable to lift a hay bale (something the more robust recruits could do easily), the army doctors laughed. Mishima barely made the cut for military service. That was in May 1944. “The goal of my life,” he later wrote, “was to acquire all the various attributes of the warrior.”
By his mid-twenties, Mishima was in emotional crisis. At the time, he was writing two or three novels a year, as well as short stories and plays. His persona was that of a decadent romantic, pouring out dreams in “fevered darkness,” languishing under the spell of words that also kept him alive. As a writer he was already acclaimed, yet in some confounding way he was unable to climb all the way inside his life. (Years later, Sun and Steel would provide a record of that strenuous climb, in which muscles do the pulling and hauling and “lumps of steel” serve as tools of ascent, standing in for crampons, ice axe, belayed rope.)
A solution came in the form of Mishima’s first trip abroad. Picture the prodigy departing from Yokohama on Christmas Day, 1951, his parents waving to him from the pier. A confident yet emotionally confused young man, solitary and sensitive above all. He loves cats, with their
“delicate psychology,” and sometimes works for hours with a feline companion sitting on his lap; during his months of travel, he sends postcards urging his father to treat the household pets more kindly. Aboard ship, Mishima gradually comes out of his shell. He mingles with Americans at New Year’s parties. He passes the time by socializing, reading on deck and sunbathing. He loves sunbathing. Poor health as a boy kept him confined to his “dusky room,” but now he and the sun share a “reconciliatory handshake.” In fact, he can’t get enough. With the zeal of a recent convert, he cultivates a deep tan, like a badge of identity, “branding me as a member of the other race.”
In some respects Mishima was merely being au courant: witness the cult of the suntan in photographs by Slim Aarons, all those bronzed bodies lounging in St. Tropez and on the French Riviera throughout midcentury. But Mishima went deeper. His gaze dissolves physical phenomena and leaves elemental symbols behind, like a fine grit of salt on skin where sweat has dried. The sun of the book’s title is a threefold symbol: the healthful sun that browns his skin, imparting a sense of well-being; the rising sun of Imperial Japan, a corrupt symbol “leading youth in droves to its death in tropical seas and countrysides”; and a kind of alchemical sun, the catalyst for personal growth: “All day long, sunbathing on deck, I wondered how I should change myself. What did I have in excess? What did I lack?”
In how many authors through the ages have extreme sensitivity and physical toughness been combined? You might name Cervantes, who fought a duel in Madrid—an arrest warrant was issued—and who was later wounded in the Battle of Lepanto, but there is a cruelty to Don Quixote; black laughter sweeps its narrative along. Go back to the Greek Bronze Age and you find the warrior-poet Archilochus, second in esteem only to Homer, but he too was hard-bitten, unsentimental about love as well as “the hot work of slaughtering.” Lord Byron makes a better paragon: swimming the Hellespont, training revolutionary troops in Greece. The immediate American example is Hemingway, another cat fancier, with his sweaty love of boxing and bullfighting, or that miniature Hemingway, Norman Mailer, who says in his book The Fight of Muhammad Ali that “the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man.” (In Zaire, before Ali’s fight with George Foreman, Mailer joined him for a training run.)
Though he loved Greece, Mishima’s chief model was thoroughly Japanese. After the war, he tells us,
I often thought and remarked to others that now if ever was the time for reviving the old Japanese ideal of a combination of letters and the martial arts, of art and action. For a while after that, my interest strayed from that particular ideal; then, as I gradually learned from the sun and the steel the secret of how to pursue words with the body (and not merely pursue the body with words), the two poles within me began to maintain a balance … [This] gave the appearance of inducing an ever wider split in the personality, yet in practice created at each moment a living balance that was constantly being destroyed and brought back to life again.
He has in mind the feudal practice of Bunburyōdō, the conjoined paths of literature (bun) and the sword (bu). To walk this dual way was the samurai ideal. “My aim,” wrote Mishima near the end of his life, “is to revive the soul of the samurai within myself.” Imagine a towering American writer, the most gifted novelist of his generation, seeking to embody the soul of a gunslinger, and you will have some idea of how quixotic this sounded. His mature prose has a muscular, ornamented style, like a mailed fist arranging flowers. In his final interview, Mishima admitted that the dualism of pen and sword “is an extremely difficult dualism to put into practice.”
At the time he began Sun and Steel, in 1965, Mishima was hard at work on Spring Snow, the first novel in his four-volume masterpiece, The Sea of Fertility. But after training his body for ten years, he was beginning to see the writer’s role as terribly limited. “He who dabbles in words can create tragedy, but cannot participate in it.” Who could? The man of action, who possessed the “powerful, tragic frame and sculpturesque muscles … indispensable in a romantically noble death.” In his scrawny youth, when countless boys of his generation were being annihilated in the Pacific, Mishima had been too weak to join them. “And it deeply offended my romantic pride that it should be this unsuitability that had permitted me to survive the war.”
Henry Scott Stokes, one of Mishima’s biographers, remarks that though Sun and Steel is “central to an understanding of his suicide,” it was hard to take the author’s “dire threats” seriously while he was alive. As with Plath’s histrionic poems, death dignifies what might otherwise be taken as a flight of fancy, mere verbal excess. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the parable of the apple. Imagine a healthy, ordinary apple, Mishima says, and the dilemma—“the subtle contradiction between self-awareness and existence”—posed by its core:
The inside of the apple is naturally quite invisible. Thus at the heart of that apple, shut up within the flesh of the fruit, the core lurks in its wan darkness, tremblingly anxious to find some way to reassure itself that it is a perfect apple. The apple certainly exists, but to the core this existence as yet seems inadequate … Indeed, for the core the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light … Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls into fragments; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.
This is existentialism of an especially violent kind, the phenomenology of self-slaughter. The self-regarding apple anxious to confirm its existence is Mishima himself. Time and again in his work, the desire for beauty and the attainment of classical perfection lead inexorably to their destruction. Just as “the only physical proof of the existence of consciousness [is] suffering,” he writes in Sun and Steel, so his momentary happiness can “be finally endorsed only by death.”
The closing of this gap between seeing and existing comes in the story “Patriotism.” A Japanese army lieutenant commits ritual suicide, along with his wife, rather than betray his honor. Having committed themselves to the end, the young couple enjoys a night of superhuman passion, after which, having donned his uniform and written a brief farewell note, the lieutenant plunges his sword into his stomach:
Was this seppuku?—he was thinking. It was a sensation of utter chaos, as if the sky had fallen on his head and the world was reeling drunkenly. His will power and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel, and he was assailed by the uneasy feeling that he must advance along this thread, clinging to it with desperation. His clenched fist had grown moist. Looking down, he saw that both his hand and the cloth about the blade were drenched in blood. … It struck him as incredible that, amidst this terrible agony, things which could be seen could still be seen, and existing things existed still.
Death, claimed Mishima, was “the only truly vivid and erotic idea for me.” If you want, you can confirm his sincerity by tracking down lurid stories of his erotic adventures, in which roleplaying ritual suicide—a piece of red cloth standing in for the blood and intestines—reportedly allowed him to reach orgasm without even touching himself. Or, for that matter, touching anyone else.
Even party to a suicide pact, we die alone, and Mishima’s deepest fantasies were a closed loop, however much he acted them out or explored them in fiction. But a closed loop can be a kind of wholeness. He argued for “the totality of culture—which must embrace lightness and darkness equally.” At every point he was divided; at every point he craved absolute unity. He was conflicted, but not a hypocrite. If abundant physical health is pure being, oblivion is the ground of being. From this belief arose a haunting conviction, one familiar to the ancient Greeks but with potentially unsavory implications: “Tragedy calls for an anti-tragic vitality”—such as that of the sailor Ryuji in his novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, who dreams of unspecified glory. Being buff, it seems, is a precondition for a hero’s death.
And so the famous novelist begins to dream of himself as a fighting man. In the army, even the smallest task is part of a larger war machine, linked with the idea of death. Emergency duty for a soldier represents a summons that no force in bourgeois life can rival. Just so, in the hard clarity of boxing and fencing, he “glimpsed from time to time another sun quite different from that by which I had been so long blessed, a sun full of the fierce dark flames of feeling, a sun of death that would never burn the skin yet gave forth a still stranger glow.” Eventually this dark star became his guiding light.
On November 25, 1970, Mishima addressed an envelope containing the final section of The Sea of Fertility to the magazine Shinchō, which was publishing it in installments, and then, with four handpicked members of his militia, the Tatenokai—“the world’s least armed, most spiritual army,” he called it, formed to uphold the old nationalist ideals—entered the Tokyo headquarters of Japan’s Eastern Army, tied up the commanding general in his office, and gave orders for the soldiers of the base to assemble on the parade ground over which the office balcony looked out. Refuse, and the general would be killed. (Mishima first had to fight off two groups of officers who broke into the room, wounding them with his beautiful seventeenth-century sword.) At midday, he emerged, wearing the sharply waisted, yellow-brown Tatenokai uniform he had personally designed, and jumped nimbly onto the balustrade. He exhorted the assembly, about a thousand men, to rise up, amend the 1947 Constitution forced on Japan by the Allied Powers and restore the “spiritual foundation” of Japan. But the troops below grew restless, even derisive; they swore at him; thanks to news helicopters overhead, many of them couldn’t make out his words. When his speech failed to inspire them, Mishima retreated into the general’s office and committed seppuku as planned. His instructions to his right-hand man were simple: “Please don’t leave me in agony too long.”
There is a way of inhabiting the body so completely that it transports you beyond itself. For all that Mishima regarded his ripped physique like a child with a new toy, a middle-aged man with a gleaming sports car, the body, in his metaphysics, is finally a stepping-stone: “Even the muscles themselves no longer existed. I was enveloped in a sense of power as transparent as light.” He wanted to reach the end of himself, and go beyond, as moths refuse to end their hunger in the cocoon.
What lay beyond? Only the splendor—as he saw it—of self-immolation. At 45, he was still in his prime, and a leading contender for the Nobel Prize—he’d missed it by a hair in 1968; the prize had gone instead to an older Japanese novelist, Yasunari Kawabata, the committee reportedly reasoning that Mishima was young enough to wait a few more years. Unbeknownst to them, he had set his mind on an early death. Dreading the moment when his body would break down, he had written, “I for one do not, will not, accept such a doom. This means that I do not accept the course of Nature. I know I am going against Nature; I know I have forced my body onto the most destructive path of all.”
Call it craziness or coup d’état, piece of theater or failed putsch: in retrospect, Mishima’s end seems inevitable. It was a death endlessly rehearsed—in “Patriotism” and the novel Runaway Horses, in which an idealistic terrorist takes his own life after murdering a businessman; in a series of photographs for which Mishima had posed two months earlier, and in which he is depicted both committing seppuku and as a car-crash victim, covered in blood; most clearly perhaps in the confessional pages of Sun and Steel. The book ends with a poem called “Icarus.” The tragic youth of Greek myth speaks of being torn between heaven and earth, between his impulse to ascend and the irresistible pull of a fatal crash. Indeed, he has crashed already:
Or do I then
Belong, after all, to the earth?
Why, if not so, should the earth
Show such swiftness to encompass my fall?
Granting no space to think or feel,
Why did the soft, indolent earth thus
Greet me with the shock of steel plate?
Did the soft earth thus turn to steel
Only to show me my own softness?
That Nature might bring home to me
That to fall, not to fly, is in the order of things,
More natural by far than that imponderable passion?
Gravity is a merciless god; falling, by divine decree, forever remains the more natural thing. That is how the story ends, but it’s not the whole narrative. Mishima once rode in an F-104 fighter jet. It was, unquestionably, one of the supreme experiences of his life; an account of it furnishes Sun and Steel with an epilogue. Forty-five thousand feet up, at Mach 1.3, he discovers that “intellectual adventure and physical adventure could join hands without the slightest difficulty. This was the point that I had always been striving towards.” Icarus, as the line by Jack Gilbert goes, also flew.
Last fall, amid a global pandemic, the fiftieth anniversary of Mishima’s death slipped by. In the end, his body was bearing him where ours are bearing us, every one of us. Death comes without warning for many of its victims, comes too early or too late, but for Mishima it was every bit as consciously conceived and stage-managed as the climax of one of his modern Noh plays. “To choose the place where one dies is also the greatest joy in life.” To him it was not mere tragedy, but apotheosis.
Here is what it is: we are each of us falling like space junk toward the unfathomable heart of the sun, but in the meantime it irradiates with meaning every atom of our bodies, every moment of our lives. See it as the sun of death, sure, the blood-red sun that symbolizes corruption and destruction, but also as the black sun of the alchemists, in the light of which we are changed—this heavy lead we lug around transmuted into gold. While we live, we are called to beauty, beauty and strenuous effort and self-discipline, a living balance of art and action. As for consciousness, what we call “I” may be only a shadow cast backward by the radiance of our impending demise.
Is this too grandiose? Possibly. I have been reading a lot of Yukio Mishima, and he has a way of getting inside you, kamikaze of beauty that he is, a way of enlisting you, like a Tatenokai youth, in his aesthetic program, his reality hunger, his world-destruction. Annexing you to his sword-bright consciousness. From that privileged vantage, the white-hot center of his life and art, you behold the flesh as a second language, intellection’s opposite pole, a vehicle of transcendence and a means of encountering—even glorying in—fundamental reality. You stand also on the brink of depression, despair, disastrous ideological commitments. Half a century hasn’t diminished the fascination of Mishima’s life and death, nor the feeling of existential risk when you read him: contemplating “the beauty of the body going to its doom,” you half fear that you might be dragged to doom yourself. To this day, I feel the same frisson when listening to Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3—the Mishima quartet, the movements of which have names like “1962: Body Building” and “Blood Oath.”
In The Decay of the Angel, 81-year-old Shigekuni Honda is tormented by a television shot of young people frolicking in a swimming pool. “Honda would end his life without having known the feelings of the owner of beautiful flesh. If for a single month he could live in it! He should have had a try … What Honda had missed had been the dark, narrow path through the flesh to holiness.” It’s too late for him, as the saying goes. But save yourself.