Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

This is the second book I’ve read by Mishima and it’s as dense and complex as the first. It’s also just as brutal and unpleasant: Mishima’s characters are instinctive intellectuals but they are also abject. What’s surprising here is that their obsessions develop into an extended and extremely discursive meditation on beauty.

Images of Beauty

The principal image of beauty and of the problems beauty creates is the Golden Temple. Over and over the pavilion and its grounds are described in long passages. Each passage is organized in roughly the same way and each focuses on similar details. The repetitions register the main character’s entrapment while the slight variations between them track his intellectual and emotional development.

Beauty is compared at various moments to a decayed tooth, a breast, a vagina, and a deranged man who must be taken seriously. This is only a partial list but it suggests the way the novel is continually grasping for some way of expressing the truth of beauty.

Temporal Beauty

Mishima’s book insists that art is order consciously imposed on a fecund world in an attempt to reveal its essence even if only for a moment. Music and flower arrangement are his exemplary arts. But in flower arrangement for example, when the arranging is done, the beauty achieved (“what people call art“) offers no consolation and does not last (cf. the temple reflected in a pool of water).

What the protagonist fears is that beauty as perfect and as eternal as that of the temple will cut him off from life completely. Worse he knows that no beauty is in fact eternal; however permanent it seems, beauty cannot last. The harmony will dissipate or crack and the world will come crashing in on him. Better, he thinks, to live without any beauty at all.

Mishima does not fear beauty’s collapse; he yearns for it and writes as if beauty is the cracks. Art is temporal rather than spatial, and his moments of beauty don’t read as narrative scenes and are beautiful precisely because they are broken off from their surroundings and inexplicable. The most emblematic of these involves a woman, seen from above, dripping breast milk into her departing lover’s tea.

Cruel Art

Mishima notes that a skilled hand is often cruel and approaches beauty unbound by morality, and many of the novel’s striking, essential moments are horrific or cruel. The brutal attack on the pregnant woman in the temple garden, for example, or perhaps more obviously, the brilliant final scene in which the centuries-old temple is burnt to the ground. Are these moments beautiful?

I think Mishima would say, “Yes. If you live and are not dead, then yes.” But I need to read more and more carefully to know for sure.

Posted June 9, 2014