The Kawabata-Mishima Letters

…which, unless you read Japanese, or Spanish, or French, you will not read, start out with long worshipful letters from young Mishima to the elder Kawabata whom he calls his master.  The “master” is at first polite but noncommittal.  He sends back short thank you notes with occasional best wishes for the upcoming holiday, etc.  But eventually the correspondence grows, becomes two-way and quite personal.  The two men discover that they have two important things in common.  First, they are both immensely cultured — being not only deeply knowledgeable in Japanese traditional arts but also, a rarity among “westernizing” Japanese (like Tanizaki), in western art and literature, also.  (Among Mishima’s many odd writings is an essay on…  the St Sebastian theme in western painting.  Which is, of course, when you think about it, kind of… funny).

And, second, an immense dissatisfaction with modernity.

The causes of this dissatisfaction aren’t easily identified:  the two authors themselves struggled to say just what the problem was.  The answer at which Mishima finally arrived — and the one that pushed him into his theatrical self-destruction — that modernity emasculated us by taking away from us the opportunity to be manly, heroic and — martyred — the invigorating danger of having at any moment our bodies pierced like St Sebastian — which ought to concentrate the mind most wonderfully — betrayed perhaps something of his thrill-seeking (some may say, sado-masochism) but perhaps also something of his impetuosity.  Had he lived beyond his 45 years, would he have found that his testosterone cooled, yet his dissatisfaction with modernity remained unchanged?  Would he have been obliged to seek other interpretations of his alienation?

The closest analysis of the problem that I can find in Kawabata comes in chapter 12 of The Master of Go.  “It begins to seem inevitable in championship tournaments”, he writes, “that the title of “Master” will become a mark of strength and no more, and that the position will become a sort of victory banner and a commercial asset for the competitive performer”.  In that chapter Kawabata discusses the fact that the hero of the book appeared to many to abuse his privileged position as reigning master (and teacher of the challenger) in order to manipulate the game to his advantage (by arbitrarily changing what seemed to some previously set out rules of protocol).  Kawabata:

“It may be said that the Master was plagued in his last match by modern rationalism, to which fussy rules were everything, from which all the grace and elegance of Go as art had disappeared, which quite dispensed with respect for elders and attached no importance to mutual respect as human beings.  From the game of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled.  Everything had become science and regulation.  The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system.  One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no room for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art.  The modern rule was to do battle under conditions of abstract justice, even when challenging the Master himself.”

These words do not strike me as especially good analysis. But they do seem to me to be an important finding in my search for diagnosis of the ailment from which the two men have suffered and — died, Kawabata eventually taking his own life as well.

The search is personally important because their ailment is also mine.

(to be continued)

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