Nothing forced me to read Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask in secret. This essay would probably be more exciting if I were a bookish dissident blazing a trail for freedom.
I suppose it is about the responsibilities that come with having freedom.
I have always been free. I only encountered censorship in primary school. It was a Church of England school. Although my mum is a committed atheist, I had not thought to question any of the Church’s teachings until, one day, my teacher crossed out every instance of the word ‘Devil’ in a story I’d written and replaced it with ‘Demon.’ Even then, I sensed the pedantry in going to all that effort when the subject matter itself – an artist-murderer who painted his victims – was left untouched. Warped priorities undermined would-be censors’ credibility; free thinking should have no limits.
I was raised according to such strict liberal principles. Censorship bred ignorance. Violent people watched violent films because they were violent, not the other way around. As for books, I was free to read what I wanted. More or less, I did. Until I came out at sixteen, I probably wouldn’t have been seen reading ‘gay literature’ but that was not my taste anyway.
If anything, I got – still get – a kick out of being seen with a provocative read. At fourteen, I was handed a book prize on stage by our MP. I chose Carrie. There she stood on the cover, surrounded by flames, dripping with pig’s blood. Looking fearfully between her and me, the Conservative MP for What Am I Doing Here muttered politely, “Interesting choice…”
If I am reading a book, I am reading it at home, on the tube, at work, and (afraid so) at social functions. A good book should be an item of clothing fit for all weather.
Even freak storms.
I first heard of Confessions in an old BBC Arena documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima. I was ordering my copy while the credits rolled.
What arrived was a novel I found impossible to read in public. I tried it only once, on the Tube home, with sweaty and paranoid results. I felt naked.
The story itself is very simple. Kochan narrates his uneventful childhood and sexual awakening (in the form of violent fairy tales, later projected onto the school jock). He feigns illness to avoid military service in WWII, something he later regrets. He trains himself to find women sexually attractive, without success. His sweetheart Sonoko marries someone else. It ends ambiguously, with them trying to be friends.
But according to the preface to my edition, its real substance is, ‘the unstoppable development…of a sexual disposition oddly and powerfully certain of itself…progressing stubbornly in the face of all conventions.’ Written from a claustrophobic first-person perspective, Paul Binding calls it ‘a work of biological insistence.’ That’s putting it mildly.
Consider this lyrical description of the martyred St. Sebastian, which prompts Kochan’s first orgasm:
‘His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk. […] It is not pain that hovers about his straining chest, his tense abdomen, his slightly contorted hips, but some flicker of melancholy pleasure like music. […] 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. […]
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.’
Despite the subject matter and context, it reads elegantly, almost poetically, yet progresses by stages into a Sade-inspired fantasy:
‘There, in my murder theatre, young Roman gladiators offered up their lives for my amusement; and all the deaths that took place there not only had to overflow with blood but also had to be performed with all due ceremony. […] I chose primitive and savage weapons – arrows, daggers, spears. And in order to prolong the agony, it was the belly that must be aimed at. […] I would kiss the lips of those who had fallen to the ground and were still moving spasmodically.’
This isn’t even the worst. What makes these descriptions linger is the tragic amount of intellectual labour Kochan expends trying to rationalise and justify – beatify – his obsession with mutilation. Satisfying these desires, if only in the mind, becomes the only way he can feel ‘normal’:
‘The pleasure you experience at this moment is a genuine human feeling. I say this because at this precise moment you possess the normality that is your obsession.’
If these were mere excesses of imagination, I could have read them with the usual detachment. In one sense, they are that. But not only that.
What did I know about Mishima?
That he married and had children despite being gay (not so unusual in the 1950s) and despite having described his Confessions, a novel about a gay man who marries for show, as semi-autobiographical (bit harder to explain).
That he was organised an armed opposition to the post-war democracy that had supplanted Japan’s centuries-old imperial order.
That he revered the Samurai code and made a short film glorifying seppuku (ritual suicide).
That he flaunted his bodybuilder physique on a St. Sebastian martyrdom photoshoot.
That Mishima started work on Confessions on November 25th 1949, exactly twenty-one years before his public death by hara-kiri following a doomed coup attempt.
He was, to the end, an anachronism.
Knowing all this, I found myself confronted with two simple yet unanswerable questions:
What exactly was I reading – memoir? confessional disguised as fiction? thought experiment?
How could I respond ‘appropriately’ to this ambiguity?
Since these scenes of depravity are confined to the narrator’s mind, I was left with the discomforting possibility that perhaps none of it is fictional. Any or all of it may have fuelled Mishima’s self-destruction in ways that none of us can understand.
The implied blurring of fact and fiction forced me to read it in secret. I felt implicated in its macabre flights of fancy. It was as if the mere act of my being seen reading it would be my endorsing a personality cult.
Of course, I still read it. Insofar as the veneer of fiction placed a comfortable distance between its content and its author’s reality, his transgressions were an illicit thrill. Reading Confessions was like driving past the scene of a car crash. It triggered my morbid curiosity yet I would have been ashamed to be seen to be curious. It’s why the 1960 classic Peeping Tom is doubly unsettling: by making voyeurs of its audience with a lens-eye view, it prompts us to sympathise with the killer. Perhaps it is our instinct to self-preservation, misappropriated.
As I’m feeling generous, here is another metaphor. Reading its more lurid passages is like crossing a tightrope. Questioning how much of it is ‘real’ and how much made-up would be equivalent to looking down mid-walk. Even though, as a rule, I try to judge art separately from its artist, Mishima pushed me to my limit.
Our minds seem uniquely unsettled by the grey area between fact and fiction. Often, not knowing what is real from what is fake is worse than not knowing at all. Wherever moral judgement is demanded, that ontological imperative becomes acute.
Here’s how I describe reading Confessions. Imagine you’re in a cinema, watching a character dying on screen and later you discover that the actor had really died while filming that scene. It’s an uncomfortable thought but it gets worse. Imagine sitting down to an action film, during which many characters will die, knowing that one of the actors’ actual deaths will be shown, but not knowing which deaths you’re watching are pretend and which are real. For added moral confusion, let’s suppose that there’s a 50:50 chance that none of the actors died, and that the manner of the characters’ deaths exhibit varying degrees of pathos (right up to comical), requiring different ‘appropriate’ reactions.
You might object to watching such a film at all. Nevertheless, it appears to be virtually impossible to react appropriately to it once there.
This is how I felt reading Confessions: that at any moment I might be called upon to state what I thought of the book, or of Kochan, or the page I was reading, and might be judged for failing to give a ‘normal’ human response. This was paranoia, obviously – how often do other people notice what I’m reading? – but books can do strange things to a person.
Throughout, Kochan has bouts of guilt and shame about his sexual perversions. Wedded to the ‘Augustinian theory of predetermination’, however, he sees his desires as outside of his control:
‘I had been handed what might be called a full menu of all the troubles in my life while still too young to read it. But all I had to do was spread my napkin and face the table.’
This seems at odds with modern ideas of personal integrity. He segregates his public and private lives, and is mostly successful.
But he doesn’t regard his private persona as any more authentic than the heterosexual ‘masks’ he wears in public. Instead, both are impositions, whether from genetics, fate, or social norms. In which case, I’m left wondering, where is the ‘real’ Kochan? Does he exist?
I’m not sure that he does. What frightens and disturbs me more than any graphic description of imagined brutality is the emptiness at Kochan’s centre. Like his creator, he represents an imagination unleashed from any sense of moral responsibility attaching to personhood. It’s a cautionary tale for readers, writers, and anyone who habitually flies the kite of their imagination in strong winds. Kochan thinks he can keep the private and public apart while allowing maximum freedom to the former. I’m not so sure. When our desires start to consume us, our sense of personal responsibility suffers. That often has real-world consequences.
Here is a deeply disturbing, all too plausible model: someone who, internally, has totally inverted all values – life is death, destruction is beautiful – yet succeeds in presenting himself as the opposite of everything he really feels. In a world of Kochans, you would never know anyone, not even yourself. In the end, you wouldn’t know the difference between your authentic and contrived emotions:
‘I was tormented by vain doubts…but I regarded such doubts as only another sort of temptation to sin, and remained unshaken in my deterministic views.
Confessions exposes the fragility of barriers between our private and public selves.