In 1968, Yukio Mishima (the pen name of the Japanese author Kimitake Hiraoka, 1925-1970) published a collection of autobiographical essays. In 1970, Grove Press issued a paperback English translation of the pieces by John Bester titled Sun and Steel. Beneath Mishima’s name on the cover of the Grove Press edition of Sun and Steel is a description: “His Personal Testament on Art, Action, and Ritual Death.”
Mishima committed ritual suicide (hara-kiri) on November 25, 1970. At the time, I was a college junior at Belhaven College, now University, in Jackson, Mississippi, fascinated with everything Japanese, especially the history of the Samurai warrior class of ancient Japan and their code of Bushido. Thus, the sensational mode of Mishima’s death grabbed my attention. I began reading English translations of his works, all I could find. My reading, and sometimes rereading, of Mishima, primarily his novels, continues. His books are still the most numerous in my collection of Japanese writers.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, I studied aesthetics at Temple University in Philadelphia as a graduate student in the Philosophy Department. It was then that I read Sun and Steel for the first time. It is a fascinating book, especially if you are interested in writers’ lives. There is a section in the book where Mishima writes about the relationship between the body and the mind, a classical philosophical problem. But Mishima focuses on the relationship’s emotional aspect and purpose, not its ontological nature.
This function of the body and mind in creating for a short while their own miniature universes is, in fact, no more than an illusion; yet the fleeting sense of happiness in human life owes much to precisely this type of “false order.” It is a kind of protective function of life in face of the chaos around it, and resembles the way a hedgehog rolls itself up into a tight round ball.Mishima, Yukio. Sun and Steel (p. 20). Lyle Stuart. Kindle Edition.
For many years I have wholeheartedly believed what Mishima wrote, that illusion is necessary for happiness, that it serves a critical role and brings order out of the ostensibly chaotic world where we live, move, and have our being. Not only did I believe it, I crafted my life around it. And it worked, kind of.
Fast forward ten years, and I ran into a religious studies scholar at the business where I was working as a computer programmer. We spent much time together discussing spiritual topics, a profound source of joy for both of us. And one of our recurring subjects was the part, if any, played by illusion in religious belief. My friend was knowledgeable in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. He suggested a book to me, which I read with incredible difficulty. The hardship was not in the author’s writing, which on the contrary, was quite clear, but rather in the concepts he dealt with, which to me seemed foreign, almost incomprehensible; enlightenment and nibbana are two simple examples. However, I readily understood one of his points, although I disagreed with it, namely that illusion is a problem, always a problem, and it increases suffering. The needed balm to relieve suffering was the truth, facts, and the death of all illusion. Here is an illustrative quote. The book is What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.
Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and of the world. It looks at things objectively (yathābhūtam). It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool’s paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquillity and happiness.Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada (p. 41). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.
Note the last word in the quote, “happiness.” Now recall the Mishima statement about the fleeting sense of happiness in human life. At this point, my education in analytic philosophy joins forces with my thirty-plus years of programming computers, where switches were either on or off, leading my deeply ingrained binary thinking to ask, who got it right, Mishima or Rahula? Is illusion a necessary condition for happiness, or is its absence required for us to be happy? The more I think about it, I wonder if I have not, perhaps, expressed a false dilemma. Maybe the question is not an either/or one but a both/and one. That is, sometimes illusion is necessary and at other times is a problem.
Are there times, events, and situations in life so traumatic that the only way to maintain one’s balance is by illusion, to temporarily delude ourselves? Edgar Allan Poe is one of my favorite authors. In his poem “Annabel Lee,” the narrator suffers an almost unbearable loss. The woman he loved and who loved him in return dies. He tells us that their love was more than love; in truth, it was so strong that even the angels envied it. And following her death, the lover says that nothing above or under the earth will ever separate them. Nothing! So how does this work? In what is, to me, one of the most sublime descriptions of romantic love, he tells us wherein his consolation lies. He says:
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
The lover’s fleeting sense of happiness, which Mishima writes about, is found in the fantasy of dreams and the dark beauty of nature’s night sky. When he looks into the sky, the stars are not stars; they are pointers, reminders of the eyes of his lost lover. So what’s the problem with this? Is there one? I think so. Because of his delusion, he misses the lilt in the voice of the widow who lives next door to him, the sparkling eyes of the person serving him where he dines, or the crystal laughter of a blushing maiden. And heaven’s stars are more than signposts; they are the glories of the night sky. Mishima focuses on this “fleeting sense of happiness,” this patch placed over a near-mortal wound, something one needs from time to time, this living inside an illusion.
Rahula, on the other hand, is talking about “perfect…happiness.” He is concerned with permanent satisfaction, which does not end and does not rely on externals but is the product of ways of perceiving the world. For Rahula, eliminating illusion reduces pain and leads to happiness. A cavity must be treated for the toothache to end. Removing the decay can be painful. But once that’s done, it’s over. Rahula recognizes that no other person, place, or thing controls one’s happiness. I am my refuge.
In the end, both illusion and its elimination bring happiness. A fantasy may be necessary to stop my bleeding and start my healing, like a bandage on a severe wound. But in time, the dressing must be removed, the damage exposed to light, and a scar covers our pain.
The Book of Psalms is my favorite in all Scripture. And within it, the Psalm I love most is Psalm 30. It succinctly states what happens when we are wounded and afterward: Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
I am wishing you much happiness and peace.
All the best,