My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Of this classic 1949 autobiographical novel, which brought the young Mishima to fame, an online reviewer pronounces that a reader who is not queer cannot understand what it portrays. If we leave aside the potential inapplicability of the word “queer,” with all its contemporary political connotations, to a reactionary midcentury Japanese writer who based his sexual identity on fin-de-siècle Decadent literature and modernist sexual science and who accordingly defined himself as an “invert,” is this true?
To find out, we first have to consider the novel as a whole. While I don’t know how much Confessions reflects Mishima’s actual life, the novel is at least its narrator’s unsparing and fearless self-examination. It is the story of a young man named Kochan, from his childhood to his early adulthood, as he discovers his sexuality and what it means for his relation to the world, all amid the backdrop of Imperial Japan and then the Second World War.
Mishima’s opening is a brilliant metacommentary on the possibility of truly confessional writing: “For many years I claimed I could remember things seen at the time of my own birth,” he begins. He goes on to relate that his family teased him for this claim, because they believed he was trying to trick them into telling him “about ‘that'”—i.e., where babies come from. Then he recounts a detailed memory of being bathed as a newborn while “a ray of light” struck one spot of the wooden basin:
Tongue-tips of water lapped up waveringly as though they would lick the spot, but never quite reached it. And, whether because of a reflection or because the ray of light streamed on into the basin as well, the water beneath that spot on the brim gleamed softly, and tiny shining waves seemed to be forever bumping their heads together there.
The motifs of water and reflection will be delicately picked up in the novel’s closing pages: the threat and promise both of stable identity (reflection) and of dissolution in desire (water). Kochan’s inability to satisfy his desire, due to social proscription and to aspects of his own psychology, is the keystone of his character. In the very next paragraph, Kochan admits that he had been born at midnight and so could not possibly remember sunlight during his first bath—a mixture of precision and falsification, candor and dissimulation, that offers the perfect point of departure for a fictionalized life.
Confessions is plotless by the standards of the well-made novel; it simply follows Kochan through his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, with a focus on his developing sexuality. He characterizes his earliest years by the tyranny of his imperious grandmother, who took over his rearing from his parents, and by his own sickliness, as he struggles with bouts of the suggestively-named illness autointoxication. His autointoxication takes a more symbolic form with the first stirrings of eros, which occur in several instances: when he sees a man hauling night soil, when he becomes obsessed with a picture in a book of Joan of Arc (whom he’s mistaken for a man), and when he sees the actress Shokoyokusai Tenkatsu, “her body veiled in garments like those of the Great Harlot of the Apocalypse,” which inspires him to cross-dressing emulation. These early intimations give the affective parameters of Mishima’s sexuality: excrement, violence, artifice, apocalypse. He considered himself an “invert,” in the language of the early sexology he uses throughout the novel, which means that he might like to play the woman or act out the woman in himself, but he could never have women as his sexual object choice; he might like to be Joan of Arc, or the Harlot of the Apocalypse, but cannot desire her.
If Mishima’s homosexuality was enough to bother the novel’s early reviewers when it was eloquently translated by Meredith Weatherby in the Eisenhower era (“This book will increase American awareness of [Mishima’s] skill; but it will also, I imagine, arouse in many readers as much distaste as respect,” sniffed the New York Times reviewer), the sadism of his desire, exemplified in his childhood “love” for “any youth who had been killed,” will strike today’s readers: “my heart’s leaning toward Death and Night and Blood would not be denied.” This “leaning” is also exemplified in perhaps the novel’s most famous passage: Kochan’s first masturbation over Guido Reni’s painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian:
The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy. But there is no flowing blood, nor yet the host of arrows seen in other pictures of Sebastian’s martyrdom. Instead, two lone arrows cast their tranquil and graceful shadows upon the smoothness of his skin, like the shadows of a bough falling upon a marble stairway.
But all these observations and interpretations came later.
That day, the instant I looked upon the picture, my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath. The monstrous part of me that was on the point of bursting awaited my use of it with unprecedented ardor, upbraiding me for my ignorance, panting indignantly.
My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never before been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me.
Suddenly it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication.
I quote at length to demonstrate Mishima’s radical honesty, though presented to the reader (if Weatherby’s beautiful translation is faithful) in highly stylized and elevated prose. The mask Kochan wears in the novel is the social one that forces him to conceal his desire for men—and the sadistic scenarios of destroying or consuming the male body that excite his lust—in a martial culture that denies all such longings even as it arguably sublimates them as militarism and imperialism. But the high artifice of the novel’s stately and imagistic style is the necessary mask that allows any truth to be told at all: the real can only be apprehended through the aesthetic, just as Kochan’s innermost passion is literally drawn out by a work of art. And given Mishima’s literary touchstones—he cites many writers throughout the book, most (but not all) western, most (but not all) aesthetes: Huysmans, Wilde, Whitman, Proust, Tanizaki—he was conscious of this truth as he composed the novel.
The alternative to constructing the self as stable artifice is, again, dissolution in the sea of desire, an image that comes to its first fruition in another scene of youthful masturbation, this one provoked by the auto-attractions of his own body (he describes his Reni-derived fetish for armpits) and achieved near the surging ocean that cleanses its spilled issue:
I knelt down in the water and surrendered myself to a wave that broke at this moment and came rushing toward me with a violent roar. It struck me in the chest, almost burying me in its crushing whitecap.
When the wave receded, my corruption had been washed away. Together with that receding wave, together with the countless living organisms it contained—microbes, seeds of marine plants, fish eggs—my myriad spermatozoa had been engulfed in the foaming sea and carried away.
After a description of his schooldays and youthful crushes on young men, Mishima devotes the second half of the novel to his abortive and never-consummated relationship with a young woman named Sonoko, for whom he seems to feel a genuine love, a love crossed and contorted by his absence of sexual interest in her and by his knowledge that his wish to marry her is partially just a wish to lead a normatively respectable life. The narrator’s analysis of his own mixed motives and confusions is incisive: his conclusion—that he idealizes women, or indeed the woman in himself, his female soul, his anima, which is precisely why he can never feel bloody, excremental lust for them—makes this novel perhaps exemplary not just of modern gay male sexuality, but of modern male sexuality tout court:
To give a superficial explanation, my soul still belonged to Sonoko. Although it does not mean that I accept the concept outright, I can conveniently use the medieval diagram of the struggle between soul and body to make my meaning clear: in me there was a cleavage, pure and simple, between spirit and flesh. To me Sonoko appeared the incarnation of my love of normality itself, my love of things of the spirit, my love of everlasting things.
The novel ends when Kochan tries to pick up his relationship with a now-married Sonoko where they left off when he rebuffed her marriage hopes just after the War. They meet in a restaurant—he symbolically spills water all over the table—and then he impulsively takes her to a low-end dance hall, where he finds himself gazing at a young man’s muscular torso and dreamily imagining the muscles stabbed with a knife in a street fight. Sonoko might be his love, but death and blood remain his longing. The final sentences, as Kochan looks back to the table where he saw the shirtless youth among his friends, brings us back where we started in the sunstruck basin:
The group had apparently gone to dance, and the chairs stood empty in the blazing sunshine. Some sort of beverage had been spilled on the table top and was throwing back glittering, threatening reflections.
I hope my précis of Confessions of a Mask suggests why I was hesitant to apply the word “queer” at all. “Queer” is not just an identity word; it’s also a word of political commitment. It is the progressive word par excellence, and Mishima was not a progressive; he yearned, to the point of an attempted paramilitary coup, for the restoration of his nation’s lost imperial patrimony. He doesn’t shy from his own bloodlust, from his own ephebophilia, from his own death-wish. While all literary connoisseurs appreciate his work in that bloodless way we literary connoisseurs have, his actual online fans are radical right-wing youth, mourning what they regard as their dispossessed manhood.
Which observation returns us to the question with which we began: can a non-queer reader understand this novel? In part, I reject the premise, as I reject the fundamental premise of contemporary identity politics that certain ascriptive characteristics wholly determine consciousness. But for the sake of this essay, I’ll play the game: who can comprehend Confessions of a Mask?
Consider that Philip Roth, generally thought of as heterosexual to a fault, admired Mishima, and consider the similarities in everything but tone between Confessions of a Mask and Portnoy’s Complaint. Isn’t Roth’s autobiographical and eponymous complaint the same one that afflicts Kochan: a mismatch between idealizing love and debasing eros? Don’t we find the same, by the way, in Dostoevsky, in Joyce, in Mann, in Kafka?
Or consider Luke Brown’s recent article about sexual representation in contemporary fiction, “Emasculated”. The project of telling the dirty truth about sex once belonged to men like Roth, Brown observes, but is now almost entirely in the hands of female authors. Older male authors avoid the subject or moralize over it; as for younger male authors, there aren’t any. Brown notes that a major publisher’s catalogue for the first half of 2020 advertised only one debut novel by a male author—literary fiction is now almost a wholly female preserve, a redress of prior injustice, but perhaps one with unintended and perverse consequences. See, for instance, Alex Perez’s brilliant essay on loving Roth as a young Cuban-American man for a sorrowful prophecy about what may happen to a culture that excludes men from the arts: in short, such a culture may produce more Mishimas, and more of Mishima’s online fandom.
Discussing Garth Greenwell, however, Brown argues that the work of gay men may still present unvarnished, unmoralized male sexuality, male sexuality as such. Gay fiction, in the textual absence of women, owns up to otherwise unspeakable hungers:
Greenwell provides an illuminating comparison with Lerner and Rooney in the way he writes about desire as a gay man—there is much less anxiety in this space without women. In Cleanness the narrator admits his lust for younger men; the novel ends with an account of a fleeting obsession with his former sixth-form student, who is still a teenager when he gets drunk with him on a night out a year after he has left school. “I had leered at him. I had touched him” he thinks with shame, but also “I had been myself without impediment”. The specifics of homosexuality—the pressure he has felt from his father and society to suppress his identity—make this more sympathetic than an account of a heterosexual man lusting after a teenager.
Insofar as Brown’s point is that women and gay men now publish acclaimed books as erotically provocative as those heralded by the straight men of yore, can’t we consider this as evidence that all readers appreciate a reflection of sexuality’s insurgent and eruptive quality, the way it confronts us with parts of ourselves—our aggression or submissiveness, our inexplicable fetishes, even our obscure fantastical wish to harm or be harmed or look upon harm—that we’d rather not show to the world, that we keep behind the mask of propriety or the mask of art? Might it not be possible that if we were more honest about this, our literary culture might have fewer outcasts from its ostensible but so often hypocritical festival of inclusion? So, answering the question even as I reject it, here is my provisional and deliberately provocative verdict—perhaps my own confession—on who will or will not comprehend Mishima’s testament: everyone should understand this book.