Tuesday, April 24, 2007

TWO MEN, TWO LEGACIES
Voltaire and Mishima

Yukio Mishima, one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, is perhaps unique in that more has been written about the manner of his spectacular death than on his literature.

In 1970, Mishima committed seppuku or hara-kiri, the Japanese tradition of suicide by disemboweling. Over the years, there have been many speculations and theories on why Mishima did what he did; no clear answer emerged. Now Christopher Ross who set out to understand Mishima, his life and experiences, may with Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend have shed light on the author's death. Says Ross,

Nihilism was, for Mishima, both a personal issue, an insight or even simply a nagging doubt that his life had meaning, and a more general concern, a manifestation of yukoku, a state of regret about the decline of spirituality of Japan. In Mishima's view nihilism was the inevitable result of abandoning the Emperor as a divinity, and hence as a centre of ultimate value, a source of immutable otherness: a focus of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world of transitory things. I began to wonder whether by his death Mishima hoped to stimulate a return to the values of a Cultural Emperor.

Ross, a travel writer clearly fascinated and awed by Japanese tradition starts his quest for the metaphysical and spiritual with the material and tangible: Mishima's sword, that which was used by his assistant to decapitate him (in hara-kiri, the man disembowels himself while a follower cuts off the head in a single stroke).

This journey takes him from Buddhist temples and press archives (for news clippings of the suicide) to museums and through history and the legacies of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meiji emperor, and the fierce Samurai class. Interspersed are stories of Ross' own childhood and his love for Eastern martial arts, as are delvings into Mishima's life, his delicate health in his childhood, his homosexuality and his ultimate decision to end his life.

Ross does not find the sword easily, and when he does it is rusted and somewhat damaged. He is a bit disillusioned until realization dawns:

Mishima's sword, was, I realised, more real to me as an idea., an archetype for some quixotic grasp at a fantasy part, and didn't seem to need to exist as two feet or so of decaying edged steel.

The last thing that Yukio Mishima wrote before leaving his home to commit suicide was a short note : Human life is limited, but I want to live forever. Perhaps in these words more than in the sword lies the answer to the mystery of his death.


Voltaire

Born Francois Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694 in Paris, Voltaire’s extraordinary intelligence, talent, wit and style made him one of Europe’s most famous thinkers. Much has been written about his contribution to the Renaissance in Europe, but there has not until now existed a detailed documentation of his last years. With Voltaire in Exile, Ian Davidson, a former Paris correspondent for the Financial Times, gives us a portrait of Voltaire's final years spent in exile.
These years are particularly significant, as it was during this time that his writings championed the causes of equality, justice and democracy. Voltaire published most of these inflammatory writings anonymously, prompting castigation from many of his critics. But it is easy to see that the harsh punitive measured adoptive by the French monarchy toward dissidents may have been the cause for his silence. What is less known about Voltaire is that he was also a prolific litterateur, but his dramatic works, plays and volumes on history have been overshadowed by his treatises on justice and equality and his passion, later in life, to see justice delivered to ordinary Frenchmen.

Davidson's narrative begins with Voltaire's birth and his ascent to wealth, riches and fame in Parisian society. In 1734, his Lettres Philosophiques caused a furor in Paris as his praise of English tolerance was construed as an attack on French absolutism. Voltaire fled Paris and from thence on would spend his time in Versailles or in eastern France, returning but intermittently to the French capital. In 1754, after several years in Prussia, he left for Geneva. It would be here that he would live out the last twenty-five years of his life.

Davidson’s description of these years is based largely on the enormous correspondence that Voltaire maintained with other famous figures of the time. One of his masterpieces, Candide, written in his Geneva years, reveals his commitment toward justice, his concern for the oppressed, and his fight to reform the penal system. To ordinary Frenchmen, Voltaire’s name became synonymous with the struggle against the absolutism of the French monarchy. Later, revolutionaries saw him as the harbinger of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, the slogan that marked one of the most bloody and tumultuous periods of European history. Through Davidson’s prose, we ultimately see Voltaire not just as a great thinker and intellectual but also as immensely compassionate and practical, one who used his years in exile to launch a vociferous attack on injustice.

It is no coincidence that the French revolution followed his death (in 1778). His principles became the guiding force behind the Revolution and eventually behind the dawn of enlightenment in Europe and the rest of the world.

Originally published at Curled Up With a Good Book (link 1,2)

6 Comments:

Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Has Ross considered the possibility that Mishima was just a crazy weirded-out oik?

J.A.P.

11:57 PM  
Blogger shampa said...

If he did, he doesnt talk about it in the book...well ok he does very indirectly when he mentions mishima's desire to be remembered via a spectacular death; that obviously is a crazy and weird thought.
From what I got, Mishima had a tough time being a homosexual (plus he was teased in his youth for being effeminate) in post 50s Japan. And hara kiri is the ultimate show of manhood. Then there was the concept of self sacrifice of the old order of Japan which Mishima was a follower of. And yet he believed in individualism, in the concept of free space. Very complex character, Yukio Mishima.

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