My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of the 20th century’s most renowned stories or novellas, Mishima’s Patriotism of 1960 narrates the ritual suicide of Lieutenant Takeyama and his wife Reiko following a mutiny in the Japanese Imperial Army in 1936. The lieutenant’s friends are the rebellion’s leaders, though they have excluded him from their plans, because, he speculates, of his recent marriage to the young Reiko. But Takeyama concludes that he can neither fight against his comrades nor join their rebellion—his last act before suicide is to write a note affirming loyalty: “Long live the Imperial Forces”—and so he chooses seppuku, and his wife chooses to accompany him.
The paragraph above gives nothing away: the entire plot is told in the story’s own first paragraph, a journalistic recitation of the facts in the case. The remaining pages elaborate on those facts, and it is the manner of Mishima’s elaboration that discloses his values and sensibility. Biographically speaking, Mishima was a nationalist and reactionary; he himself committed seppuku following a failed rebellion in 1970, echoing this story’s events. Though I have long known him by reputation, this is the first work of his that I’ve read, and I am extremely impressed.
It might be considered strange than this story is so popular and renowned. I didn’t read it in this particular edition, as listed on Goodreads; I read the same translation (Sargent’s apparently is the only English version) in an old 1980s intro-to-lit-style textbook that I pulled from the free shelf at the college where I teach. Aside from Yeats, Pound, and one or two others, Mishima is the only author of the extreme political right in the book—and Yeats and Pound are represented by superficially apolitical poems, whereas Patriotism is a song of self-annihilating ecstasy, an entranced prose-poem in favor of nationalist love-death, of the subsumption of woman in man and man in nation (or, failing that, in oblivion). Why should Mishima have fared better, especially with this story, than most other artists of reaction, who have largely been marginalized by liberal civilization?
First and most importantly, Patriotism is beautifully written, a quality that comes through even in the translation’s slightly stiff English. Mishima writes with grace and control as he leads us through the lieutenant and Reiko’s preparations for death. After the opening chapter’s recitation of events and the second chapter’s similarly summary style, which gives us the history of the couple’s brief marriage, the story proceeds essentially in real time—it doesn’t take much longer to read than its events would take to accomplish. The lieutenant and Reiko bathe, and then, at the center of the story, they make passionate love, love made all the more ecstatic due to death’s proximity. Mishima’s prose is precise, metaphorical, and elevated in register:
The natural hollow curving between the bosom and the stomach carried in its lines a suggestion not only of softness but of resilient strength, and while it gave forewarning to the rich curves spreading outward from here to the hips it had, in itself, an appearance only of restraint and proper discipline. The whiteness and richness of the stomach and hips was like milk brimming in a great bowl, and the sharply shadowed dip of the navel could have been the fresh impress of a raindrop, fallen there that very moment.
The long scene of the lieutenant’s suicide is even more remarkable, as Mishima, without ever breaking the story’s heightened tone, depicts the scatological horror involved in slicing through one’s own midsection:
But, suddenly stricken by a fit of vomiting, the lieutenant cried out hoarsely. The vomiting made the fierce pain even fiercer still, and the stomach, which had thus far remained firm and compact, now abruptly heaved, opening wide its wound, and the entrails burst through, as if the wound too were vomiting. Seemingly ignoarnt of their master’s suffering, the entrails gave an impression of robust health and almost disagreeable vitality as they slipped smoothly out and spilled over the crotch. The lieutenant’s head dropped, his shoulders heaved, his eyes opened to narrow slits, and a thin trickle of saliva dribbled from his mouth. The gold markings on his epaulettes caught the light and glinted.
Mishima may write best from Reiko’s viewpoint, however. Patriotism is of course noxious to the gender ideology of liberal capitalism, but Mishima’s sympathy with the young wife is nevertheless absolute, enabling postmodern readers to understand her self-conception (or lack thereof) even as they recoil from it:
Ever since her marriage her husband’s existence had been her own existence, and every breath of his had been a breath drawn by herself. But now, while her husband’s existence in pain was a vivid reality, Reiko could find in this grief of hers no certain proof of her own existence.
This brings me to the second reason to value Patriotism: the thoroughness and clarity of Mishima’s writing has a conceptual dimension. The dominant view of the arts in America today is that any given work should promote some kind of communal, pro-social values, whether those of the left or the right. But another argument says that art is a way to explore with sympathy every potential of human nature, necessarily including those we may have rejected for perfectly good reasons. To read Patriotism is to understand not only what a man of Mishima’s sensibility believed, but why and how he lived that belief. This is literature’s contribution to knowledge, and Patriotism contributes richly.
Finally, though, literature must have some irony or ambivalence—otherwise it is disposable, mere propaganda or pornography. Patriotism dances with both propaganda and pornography, but the hesitations are there to be read too. (This kind of observation is liberal criticism’s revenge on fascist art.) I will end with the story’s chief ambiguity. Perhaps the nuances of the political context are insufficiently clear to me, but doesn’t the main situation of the story call into question the title? Despite the lieutenant’s loyalty to the Imperial Army, professed as his dying declaration, his suicide is not straightforwardly patriotic; straightforward patriotism would involve making a decision and acting on it, choosing either the Imperial Army’s or the mutineers’ vision of what Japan should be and trying to realize it. Patriotism may secretly avow a different devotion: Death may be the patria to which the lieutenant—and Reiko; and Mishima—are most loyal.