Sunday, March 29, 2009

No matter which way I fly, I myself...

One of the benefits of living in a society where it is very hard (especially in poetry, where nobody is watching, Amiri Baraka notwithstanding) to write anything resulting in censorship is... well, not being able to write anything worthy of censorship.

So transgression was on my mind this morning, and I don’t seem to be alone. Apparently Satanism is making a comeback inside the ivory tower. For my money, you just can’t have too many stories about fifth century monks trying to avoid a twelve-year lap dance by a succubus. I mean, if you haven’t wandered naked into a hyena’s den, only to be licked clean by them, and then tried to apply a recalcitrant asp to sensitive areas, then you haven’t really lived (or really tried to die, as the case may be). While such exploits seem rather sad, it strikes me that at least they got the glamour of The Adversary, as opposed to Buddhist monks, who, after keeping one hand closed for so many years that their fingernails grew through the back of their hands, could say they did it because... they serenely accepted the emptiness of existence. Doesn’t quite have the same snap, does it?

Yes, we Westerners really know how to repress with verve. Witness the lamentable Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) dreaming up mathematical “pillow puzzlers” to distract himself late at night from impure thoughts. Seems rather tame next to therapy-by-predator, but Victorians had to make do with what they had, I suppose. Any culture that could explain away epic levels of prostitution as an inexplicable epidemic of nymphomania could do serious violence in the world of ideas. Yet, as Victor Sonkin points out in an article about the popularity of Alice in Wonderland in the Soviet Union, Carroll’s fairy tales are unique in one crucial way: "Traditional fairy tales of that era--be they British, German or Russian--were rather fearsome, and the children in them were often afraid. Alice is different; there's no fear in it. I think that's very important."

Yet who could leave out the notorious Yukio Mishima (Kimitake Hiraoka in his civilian alter-ego)? His personal surgical theatre pretty much puts others repression strategies to shame (and whose drug of choice was nationalism, rather than religion or logic). And I’ve noticed that he tends to cause a singular amount of discomfort among writers and academics. Perhaps because of his John Brown-esque guerrilla take-over of a Japanese military barracks, perhaps because "Patriotism" (his short story about a couple committing ritual suicide) is exquisitely lyrical and flawlessly executed, and as such, thus fairly immune to the usual method of taking down troubling authors (i.e. looking for deficiencies in the text and ascribing them to the psyche of the author). Which is not to say that one has to look very hard beyond his final act for disquieting discoveries. According to quasi-biographer Christopher Ross, the closeted and married Mishima also derived a great deal of enjoyment from rehearsing sepukku, especially in the presence of attentive male witnesses.

It’s odd how quickly the desire comes over the reader to find a better reason for his suicide than Japan’s declining military might. Such motivation seems absurdly abstract (the way moving a sword through your vitals does not seem abstract). Yet scholarship, biography, and writing itself (even at its most transgressive) tends to become a normalizing act, in that it seeks to include the whole universe of concerns around a person or idea. The thought that something could be left out is what really terrifies anyone who tries to make a text or a life complete.

No comments: