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Book Review: Temple of the Golden Pavilion

February 25th, 2008

temple-golden-pavilion-book.jpgToday I managed to find an unusually long article by Kathleen Notestein in the form of a book review posted at Constant Content. The subject of the review is Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima, a classical Japanese novel based on the burning of the Kinkaku-ji reliquary in Kyoto by a Buddhist acolyte in 1950. The story ends up being mostly a psychological study of the infamous arsonist, who was believed to have suffered from schizophrenia and eventually died in 1956.

Occasionally, I think we all need to be challenged; to be forced to exercise our minds in ways beyond the everyday and to take a critical look at the core assumptions that govern our lives. Without this type of challenge, we run the risk of falling into a complacency both intellectual and ethical/moral which is a kind of general anesthetic for the soul. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into more times than I can count in the past few years, and which scares me to death. The prospect of turning into the kind of small town drone who never thinks about anything more deeply than the kind of glib letter-to-the-editor writing pseudo-politics and philosophy is terrifying. So, whenever something comes along which forces me back out of the trap of intellectual inertia, I value it immeasurably. Reading the book Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima dragged me out of my thought-coma by my hair.

At first, I had a hard time getting into the book, and it took me longer to read it than most novels. I think it was both because it was asking me to read slowly and think things through, and also because I found the main character so distasteful. He’s not a particularly likeable fellow, and it’s always harder for me to wrap myself up in stories where I don’t empathize with the narrator/main character. Don’t get me wrong, at the beginning of the book I wanted to empathize with Mizoguchi, and certain statements he made about feeling different and isolated were things to which I could relate. I could even relate to his longing for perfect beauty and transcendence. It was his attitude which made him less than sympathetic.

Now that I’ve gone back and read the introduction to the book, I realize that one of the things “scholars” concentrate on in the text is Mizoguchi’s “pathology”. That is, they analyze the symptoms of psychological problems which he exhibits and attempt to analyze those mental disorders so as to explain his final break-down. But as complex as his psychology might be, I don’t think that anything as complex as his “pathology” was fueling my inability to fully empathize with him. It was much shallower on my part - I tend not to like people with grandiose ideas of their own importance or superiority and a sense of false modesty. I’m much more drawn to people who have a healthy dose of self-deprecation.

Mizoguchi continually remarked on his faults, but it was obvious that he did not believe his own self-criticisms. His contempt for everyone else in the world was glaring and incredibly unattractive. He reminded me of the geeky kid your heart goes out to in high school and who you try to befriend, only to be rudely rebuffed. Eventually, you realize that he’s a loner not because other kids are cruel and he’s misunderstood, but because he’s just an ass.

The one relationship that didn’t seem completely tainted by this attitude was Mizoguchi’s relationship with his father, but as the chapters progressed, even that deteriorated. By the point at which his father died I think Mizoguchi found even his father lacking and beneath him.

And yet, despite this rather intense dislike for Mizoguchi, the book kept putting compelling ideas and questions into his mouth which drew me in. I found myself wondering if this rather horrid main character couldn’t be redeemed. Reading his thoughts was, for me, rather like reading Camille Paglia. For the most part I find that her books and philosophy are irritating and somewhat facile, but once in a while she says something so shockingly true that I start to wonder how much of the crap is real and how much is a contrived image. How can someone so shallow come up with such blindingly clear ideas in the midst of all the trash which flows from her mouth (or pen)? This is, of course, a question that occurs with regularity in first-person narratives: How much of what the narrator says is one supposed to believe, and how much does the author believe?

It’s the classic problem of Catcher In the Rye. When you read it at age 13 as a disaffected youth, you think Holden is the smartest, most insightful guy ever to have lived. You believe his pronouncements about phonies and the world whole-heartedly. But then you live some, grow up a bit and re-read the book as an adult and think that at least half of what Holden says is self-indulgent schlock and juvenile rationalization. In fact, the very things that you most fervently agreed with as an adolescent are the very things that now seem infantile and possibly even self-destructive.

So, the reader has to ask what Salinger believed and what he intended the reader to get out of it. Did he actually intend Holden to be speaking truth to power, or is there a good dose of irony in the book and Holden isn’t so much a hero as an anti-hero? Or is he neither, but simply an accurate portrayal of a disturbed young man? It’s the same with Mishima. I found myself wondering how much of his theories of beauty and life Mishima wanted the reader to see as true and valid, and how much of them are symptoms of Mizoguchi’s disturbed personality.

I don’t think there are any easy answers to those questions because I think the author’s perspective shifts throughout the book. In the beginning, it seems that some of Mizoguchi’s views on the Golden Temple as an idea of perfect beauty which transcends the actual structure are meant to be seen as valid. But as the book progresses and Mizoguchi begins to think that beauty actually inhibits him from living and feeling, I think the reader is supposed to see that something in Mizoguchi has twisted so that his logic is skewed. But is that true or am I merely projecting my values onto the author? Do I agree with the critics who see Mizoguchi’s logic as a pathological symptom only because of my personal beliefs about beauty, or because that’s what the author intended? And does such a distinction even matter?

One of the things I found the most distasteful in the novel was Mizoguchi’s relationship to his mother. While I can understand that seeing her having adulterous sex probably did have a negative affect on him, I think that he carried his hatred and disgust to an extreme. And his inability to even attempt to empathize, understand or forgive show how rigid a personality he had and again demonstrate the idea that throughout the book Mizoguchi holds himself above all other mortals with delusions of grandeur. I found the passage wherein he returns from his little run-away jaunt and she is waiting for him particularly telling. He decides that the thing he finds most ugly about her is that she is filled with hope and cannot give it up. Part of the reason I find that passage so revolting is, I’m sure, that I personally see despair and the absence of hope as much weaker and more pathetic traits than clinging to hope. Although under certain circumstances I think utter despair can be pitied and understood, I’m not sure I could ever see it as a positive thing. And I don’t see circumstances of such a degree that I think Mizoguchi had any right to totally reject hope in his life.

But besides that personal revulsion, I also think it explains more about Mizguchi’s inability to live or connect with the world around him than what he blames on the Golden Temple and beauty. What I mean to say is, it’s not beauty holding him back; it’s his own total inability to feel empathy. And the conclusion I am led to is that an appreciation of beauty is not holding him back from empathy, it’s the very opposite. He does not understand that the true nature of beauty and of the Golden Temple is that it is imperfect and filled with humanity. He cannot understand beauty because he cannot empathize. What he thinks of as beauty is not beauty at all. It’s a rigid structure that has none of beauty’s complexity, contradiction, or emotional power. He sees only image and construct, not actual beauty.

For example, when Mizoguchi says, “When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world. That, I suppose, is how human beings are made…” I think Mishima is being tricky by putting something utterly true in Mizoguchi’s mouth, but having him totally misunderstand the concept. Beauty is not filled with darkness as he envisions the Golden Temple filled with darkness, it is dark because it comes from human principles. Beauty is only beautiful through the human lens. That is, nothing is innately beautiful; it is beautiful because we judge it so.

The darkness that exists in true beauty is the dark side of the human experience which cannot be denied. Beauty embraces the totality - the bright exterior of the Golden Temple and the interior shadows. But Mizoguchi is flawed because he dwells on the inner shadow and thinks it is all that is real, powerful and relevant. He continually denigrates the shining gilt coverings just as he denigrates the beauty of everyday life and sensual pleasure. He senses half of the truth, but because of his inability to connect with others, he misses the other half.

Take his decision to embrace evil. It’s another example of how he cannot fathom humanity and views himself as superior to it. He says, “‘If the people of this world,’ I thought, ‘are going to taste evil through their lives and their deeds, then I shall plunge as deep as I can into the evil of the world.’” He recognizes that evil exists, and even that ordinary people can take joy in some aspects of it. But he feels he must force himself into it. He believes that unlike ordinary people he will make a conscious choice to do evil and that because his choice is conscious it is superior. This shows his disdain for life and living all over again.

How much of this disdain for life is caused by his Buddhism/culture and how much by something internal to Mizoguchi? Certainly, the other monks do not seem burdened with the same ideas that they are higher than ordinary men. The Superior is shown to be a man who loves sensual pleasures and engages in petty, grasping behavior. Yet he is also shown as a man who is a true penitent and embodies the principle of modest reflection.

Mizoguchi rejects this notion, but to me it was obvious that the Superior was not a character to be hated. The passage wherein he is shown in a traditional supplicant’s posture in a dark corner of the temple reinforced this for me. The Superior was a good but erring man. I could recognize it even though Mizoguchi could not. Mizoguchi was so wrapped up in his own opinions and feeling of superiority that he could not acknowledge being wrong even when confronted with direct evidence. He went through the steps of (il)logic necessary to disabuse himself of any such notions as an understanding of the Superior as a conflicted, but not evil, person.

I feel sorry Mizoguchi in that he obviously yearns for relationships, but feels compelled to sabotage them. His friendship with Tsurukawa was touching in that he obviously wanted very much to be loved by the other boy. But yet it was disturbing in that, rather than allowing such friendship to help him become a part of the world, it only emphasized to him how apart he was. Rather than learning and sharing with the other boy, he sees Tsurukawa as his opposite — the light to his dark. This separates him from his friend and reinforces his idea that he is special and above all others.

Similarly, he makes friends with Kashiwagi not only because he feels a kinship with him because of their disabilities, but because (even if he has not admitted this to himself) he can feel superior to him. When it turns out that Kashiwagi’s logic is as twisted as his own, this fuels Mizguchi’s world view and confirms his opinion that others are inherently evil. Because he thinks that humanity is inherently evil he thinks that the only way to be a part of it is to embrace that evil. But this cannot make him human because he does not see the corresponding need to embrace love even though it is presented to him many times.

The geisha offering her white breast to her American lover is the most powerful instance in the book of the beauty of love. Even Mizoguchi can recognize the incomparable beauty of the gesture, but he cannot fathom the emotion behind it even when the story is explained to him. Rather than feeling empathy for the woman who had lost her child and sharing her sense of loss as she lost her lover too, when he learns the back-story he merely thinks, oh, so that’s what that was. It makes no difference to him and even detracts from the beauty in his eyes. In order to appreciate the beauty of the scene or of a woman’s breast or of his sexual experience, he has to depersonalize it. Because he cannot feel emotion, he has to rationalize away the fact that beauty has an emotional aspect.

The notion that all cruelty originates from beauty or from sunny afternoons as opposed to from war and destruction is another one of those notions on which I think Mishima wants us to have two differing opinions. He puts the words in Kashiwagi’s mouth so that we suspect them from the very beginning as being twisted or untrue, and yet no reader can deny that sometimes cruelty does emanate from beauty and from sunny afternoons. What the author is doing is showing that there can be truth to the statement, but it is only a partial truth.

In the book, Kashiwagi often says things that are true to a point, but leave out significant facts. The reader knows that Kashiwagi’s flippant rejection of war and destruction as catalysts of cruelty is simply wrong. Cruelty begets cruelty and war provides the ripest conditions for the expansion of cruelty. Yet Kashiwagi is also offering us a valuable insight because war does not have to be present for cruelty to come into the world. Human nature is more complex than that. Cruelty CAN spring from a sunny afternoon or from beauty. But just as most people refuse to see this truth, Kashiwagi refuses to see the truth of the opposite.

The central idea of Mizoguchi’s world view, that beauty can be destructive and cruel, is yet another double edged sword in the book. On the one hand, we see that it is not some organic concept of beauty that destroys Mizoguchi, it is how he interprets it and how he blames it for his own inadequacies. It is not the beauty that destroys him; he destroys himself.

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