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Mishima

In response to:

Mr. Japan from the June 17, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

…Lest any reader assume that an article about a famous Japanese writer written by a famous American man of letters and published in a famous literary review [NYR, June 17] may be taken seriously, he should be warned that accurate facts and sound interpretation are the first victims of Mr. Vidal’s merry, clever approach to life and art.

Of the dozen or so mistakes I noticed at first reading here are a few typical samples. Mishima, we are told, had a “temperamental lack of interest in words.” In fact he was a consummate word-smith, obsessed with the rich potentialities of the Japanese vocabulary; and one of the things that often make him so hard to understand (even for his compatriots) is that he delighted in resurrecting words, phrases, and Chinese characters that had become unfamiliar in the simplified postwar language. Later Mr. Vidal informs us that there was little variety in Mishima’s novels and “no particular development over the years.” On the contrary, Mishima is the most varied novelist in Japan, not only in subject matter but in style and point of view. What two novels could be more different than a simple idyl like The Sound of the Waves and a tortuous psychological exploration like The Temple of the Golden Pavilion written only a few years later? His development during the twenty-five years of his protean career is almost frightening in its rapidity and scope.

Mishima dreamed—or so Mr. Vidal would have us believe—of a revival of the Heian ideal, “that extraordinary culture which insisted that physical strength and aesthetic sense ought to be united in the same man.” A strange dream indeed! Never in the history of the human race can there have been a culture that gave so little importance to physical strength as Heian Japan. Finally Mr. Vidal describes Mishima’s suicide (which he incorrectly places in the office of “Japan’s commanding general”) as a piece of showmanship “more Western than Japanese in its romanticism.” Not so. The timing and execution of Mishima’s death fit squarely into the pattern of Japan’s failed heroes, belonging to a tradition that goes back to the country’s earliest history.

With characteristic elegance Mr. Vidal ends his sally into literary criticism by regretting that he never met Mishima who (according to his information) was “fun to cruise with.” I suggest that he console himself for this deprivation by actually reading some of Mishima’s novels (of which at least half a dozen have been translated) and, more important, actually thinking about them. It may not be as much fun as “cruising” and jesting; but Mishima happens to be one of the few great writers of our time and his books are worth knowing even if, as Mr. Vidal tells us, “literature is no longer of very great interest even to the makers.”

Ivan Morris

New York City

Gore Vidal replies:

Of the dozen or so mistakes I noticed at first reading here are a few typical samples.” Beware of those offering a “few typical examples” instead of the full “dozen or so mistakes.” And typical of what? And are there really a dozen errors or only eleven? But then Mr. Morris is not a literary critic and so not bound by the requirements of our sullen craft to prove a case. He is, however, a busy commentator on Japanese matters and any remarks he cares to make about Mishima are relevant—with the obvious warning to the unwary that Mr. Morris has an interest. Like so many other Nipponophiles, Mr. Morris has—how shall I put it?—bought shares in Mishima when they were quite low and now, like the yen, the shares are worth a good deal. Suddenly, his investment is threatened with—oh, ironic metaphor!—a 10 percent surcharge. Put bluntly, if Mishima is not one of your all-time greats, Mr. Morris has lost on the transaction. This is a common situation even in our own land where the academic who got his PhD in Hemingway is damned if anyone is ever going to question—much less devalue—a life’s investment.

Now for Mr. Morris’s objections. Out of context, he quotes me as saying that Mishima had “a temperamental lack of interest in words.” He assures us that Mishima was a “consummate word-smith” (elegant phrase), fascinated with the Japanese language, etc. No doubt. But what I actually wrote was “I suspect that much of his boredom with words had to do with a temperamental lack of interest in them. The novels show no particular development over the years and little variety.”

The second sentence I did my best to prove by an analysis of five novels. The first sentence, to which Mr. Morris takes exception, is rooted in Mishima’s own statement from Sun and Steel (a work Mr. Morris would do well to read). In this valedictory essay, Mishima wrote that he had always been torn “by two contradictory tendencies within myself. One was the determination to press ahead loyally with the corrosive function of words, to make that my life’s work. The other was the desire to encounter reality in some field where words should play no part.” I quoted this passage (which Mr. Morris apparently skipped) and went on to make the obvious point that at the end Mishima did not serve words “loyally”; he betrayed them for the ultimate romantic pose, suicide. Since Mishima’s interest in words was not enough to keep him from death, it was my speculation (on the evidence of the novels) that he was far more disposed temperamentally to romantic action than to the serious hard work of making literature. Any contest?

Next Mr. Morris tells us that Mishima is the most “varied” of Japan’s novelists. I will take Mr. Morris’s word for it; after all, I don’t read Japanese. But I have read those works in English attributed to Mishima and at the risk of depressing further Mishima’s shares during a time when Japanese-American relations are so strained, let me say that whatever Mishima’s virtues in his native language and relative importance among the writers of his own country, he is a third-rate novelist in English and I do not think his translators can be held entirely responsible for the old-fashioned Somerset Maughamisn storytelling (Maugham, incidentally, is considered by the Japanese to be one of the greatest of world novelists a consummate word-smith, in fact—and no doubt Mr. Morris is at this moment presiding over a new skeleton key to Ashendon.)

Mr. Morris says that I incorrectly place Mishima’s suicide “in the office of ‘Japan’s commanding general.’ ” Racing from a hasty first reading to letterwriting (fear that the market might close on bad news?), Mr. Morris again misquotes me. Contrasting Mishima’s showmanship with the homegrown variety, I wrote, “Telling Bobby Kennedy to go fuck himself at the White House is trivial indeed when compared to the high drama of cutting oneself open with a dagger and then submitting to decapitation before the army’s chief of staff.” Mr. Morris had better start sharpening up his own knives and contemplate seppuku: the minimal requirement of a letter-to-the-editor is to get the quotations straight. His unstated objection is that the chief of staff of the Japanese Army is called Chief of the Ground Staff. But I was deliberately translating the scene into American terms.

As for Mr. Morris’s defense of the way Mishima killed himself, he had best take that matter up with those Japanese traditionalists who maintain that the whole thing was a ghastly travesty of a proper seppuku. The newspapers were full of their complaints when I was in Tokyo. Finally, I cannot believe that this silly, slapdash, self-serving letter is the work of the same man who wrote the distinguished “World of the Shining Prince.”

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