In November 1970, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, along with four companions, seized a commandant’s office on a Japanese army base. After a brief speech to assembled soldiers below, Mishima and another man committed ritual suicide—Mishima disemboweled himself and, after some ructions and missteps, was decapitated. The event is often described as a coup attempt, although this is a misstatement: there was no genuine effort on Mishima’s part to use the military to overthrow the Japanese government; for sure, he would have liked to do so—yet he knew full well that four men, a kidnapped commandant, and a speech would be insufficient to achieve such a feat.
Rather, Mishima staged a psychic coup: he intended to undertake a final act that would serve to awaken his fellow Japanese to their bondage to America and, more importantly, to their nation’s spiritual decline. The writer William S. Burroughs was once asked what he wanted to do to the reader with his books; “Kill them,” Burroughs replied. Similarly, Mishima wanted to get inside people’s heads in one final and absolute way.
To understand Mishima’s stature and his act’s valence, imagine if the American author David Foster Wallace—who eventually self-murdered in a private way—had, at the height of his fame, around 1998, gone to the Lincoln Memorial, delivered a brief speech to the bemused visitors and tourists that described how the republic had become irredeemably corrupt and must return, immediately, to the austere values embodied by Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, and then doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Even in the ultra-ironic ‘90s this might have raised more than a cursory, “Like, whatever.” Well, maybe.
“Hang on, though” says the cynic, “Mishima was a somewhat flamboyant gay guy, known to nip on a trans-Pacific flight on a whim to the Great Satan itself, the United States, for a hamburger and fresh white meat (the forbidden fruit is the sweetest)—and, in the lead up to his ritual suicide, he pumped himself up at the gym to become an ambulatory Greek statue. The man was a primping preening narcissist, so self-deluded and self-important that he killed himself in a bizarre and pointless act that was not so different to some Hollywood starlet who takes too many Xanax washed down with vodka in a fit of self-pity. His personal entourage couldn’t even chop his head off right, much samurai spirit, the whole thing was farcical and…”
Well, maybe. However, there was a bit more commitment to Mishima’s act than that. In particular, you must understand that Mishima was not a very Japanese writer; and this makes a certain sense, the man most interested in Japan as Japan—her physical and spiritual security—was also the man who most looked to the West. So, for example, Mishima was heavily influenced by Somerset Maugham and other Western writers; as such, Mishima also understood certain aspects in Western philosophy—indeed, perhaps he even thought there was common lost tradition, an Indo-Aryan tradition, that united the most archaic Western outlook and Japan’s samurai virtue.
So the way to understand Mishima’s death is not to read about the Bushido code—or even to watch anime, for the low rent among you. The way to understand Mishima’s death is to look to the Greeks; and, in particular, to the famous expression: “No man can be considered happy until he is dead.” Superficially, this expression, already a cliché when Caesar trod the forum in his sandals, can be taken to mean that since you may suffer reversals at any time you can only be assured no more misfortune in death; and, ergo, be “happy” then. The story that usually goes with the expression tells of a king who has a peaceful kingdom, wealth, health, children, and grandchildren—and then, in a series of setbacks, loses first his grandchildren, then his children, then his wealth, and sees his kingdom fall into civil war; finally, his health fails and he dies. From this perspective “no man can be considered happy until he is dead” is another way to say “don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched.” You thought you had it all, called yourself happy—and then watched it all wither away before your eyes. So real happiness is in the grave, where nothing can be subtracted from or added to your lot—when you have had your fill, and the curtain has fallen.
However, this does not quite capture the idea contained within the expression fully. The above explanation is too much like base happiness, animal happiness—whereas the “happiness” in the expression is really eudaimonia; and while this is often translated as “happiness”, the term is actually much more than that. As is so often the case, the devil is in the details; or, to be precise, the daimon is in the details: eu-daimonia. The daimon is personal, everyone has a daimon; famously, Socrates had a daimon to inspire him—and so eudaimonia is more like beatitude. It is beatitude without the Christian implication that it is achieved in another place, in Heaven—though it is eternal. Eudaimonia is the supreme blessedness; and so this is not quite like health, wealth, and family—it is more like sainthood; and, indeed, Mishima depicted himself as St. Sebastian shot with arrows in various photographs—once again he orientated himself to the West in how he conceptualised blessedness.
The daimon is a person’s essence; and this essence is only fully disclosed in their death—for it is at that moment the person can do no more. Our lives as humans are characterised by our ability to do the unexpected; we can aggregate every human act into statistical regularities—and yet, as Jung observed, the statistics tell us nothing about the individual; and it is the singular case, the exception, which endows existence with significance. What makes man is his ability to surprise us—to begin again, to turn against the expected regularity; and it is from such men who do this in dramatic ways, all daimons not being equal, that we draw our heroes and saints. Yet to understand the essence in a life requires it to have ended, precisely because it is man’s nature to always surprise us—we cannot say what he was until he has died, then we can tell a story about him. It is this story, in its most excellent form, that is eudaimonia; it is to tell the story and know it to be excellent.
Imagine if Mishima were still alive today—marginally possible given that the Japanese are long lived and he kept in excellent physical condition. Perhaps he would still publish senescent novels, perhaps he would have won the Nobel Prize at last—as he wanted to do, though he was cheated because another Japanese author had won it and he knew that it would be unlikely to be awarded to a second Japanese in his lifetime. Even if Mishima were still compos mentis, we would not know Mishima; he would not be beatific—whether his work was still excellent or had become drivel that sycophants praised. Yet today, we know Mishima; we know him in his essence.
We know him because Mishima understood eudaimonia. He understood that one way to become heroic—immortal—is to choose the time and place of your death in such a way that your death summarises your essence. Mishima’s death was the closing paragraph in a story—the story of his life, a life, as with all lives of men, like no other. Mishima’s last act told us what he was in essence; there can be no more revelation, because his death was the final revelation. His conscious choice to end his life in this way granted him immortality, not in the Christian sense but as the ancients knew it. For the ancients—for Heraclitus—there was the eternal kosmos with its fixed laws; and within this kosmos lie the stories of men, the stories of the heroes. To become immortal you may either negate your own ego and emulate an immortal life—emulate Hercules, say—or, alternatively, you may do as Mishima did, attempt to create your own immortality for others to wonder at and emulate. To do so you must commission your own death, and you must be relatively young when you do so; only the good—or, more accurately, the blessed—die young.
So Mishima’s act was very well thought out; it was the last paragraph to his life—and to know Mishima, who Mishima was in essence, you only need to know his death. You do not even need to read his novels; it is all there in that final act, the ribbon that ties the life together. It is not about whether he was good or bad, it is about his essential nature—his soul. Similarly, Heidegger observed that when you look at a pair of peasant clogs painted by Van Gogh that there is an essence that persists in the picture—you can see the peasant trudging back from his Belgian field in the afternoon sun; you can imagine the heavy mud on the boots, the woodsmoke in his hut. The boots are long gone, the peasant is long gone, Van Gogh is long gone—the painting itself is composed from various chemicals in decay; and yet the essence of the clogs, the peasant, and Van Gogh remain and are perceived by us. Nothing new can come from the picture—or Van Gogh—and that is why the picture is a complete story.
You have probably heard that Dante was infatuated with this woman Beatrice, a woman whom he supposedly only encountered twice in his life. This was not to do with, as our friends in the PUA community say, “terminal oneitis”—Dante was fortunately ignorant as to the behavioural school, where you electrocute dogs, or women, until you achieve the required results. “Beatrice” means “blessedness”—and its roots derive from “perform; to act”. Dante was infatuated with beatitude—not a mortal woman—and the blessed are those who act in such a way as to reveal their essence; an essence that, even if it is modest, remains completely unique—for no man is exactly like another, although the way in which he is different from other men is only apparent when he is dead. So Beatrice was blessèd action, divine action; and even the Vatican only grants sainthood after you are dead—when the immortal story is apparent because no new event may transpire.
Did Mishima succeed? Well, I am writing about him; and even the banal Australian “moderate” publication The Conversation produced a whole essay on him this year. The narcissistic stars—the James Deans and Marilyn Monroes—fade, whereas Mishima only grows stronger; such is the power in a well-posed death, death at the right time—timely death. Honestly, it is too soon to tell if Mishima is an immortal hero; perhaps if people still reference Mishima in 500 years—as they reference Achilles today—then he will have succeeded. I can say “Achilles” to almost anyone and they will know what I mean by that, you know him in essence; and today you can almost say “Mishima” anywhere and people will know what that means, means in essence—and that is to be blessed.