Confessions of a mask, p.1
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       Confessions of a Mask, p.1

           Yukio Mishima
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Confessions of a Mask


  By Yukio Mishima




  Confessions of a Mask





  . . . Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it never has and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Within beauty both shores meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I'm not a cultivated man, brother, but I've thought a lot about this. Truly there are mysteries without end! Too many riddles weigh man down on earth. We guess them as we can, and come out of the water dry. Beauty! I cannot bear the thought that a man of noble heart and lofty mind sets out with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What's still more awful is that the man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and in the bottom of his heart he may still be on fire, sincerely on fire, with longing for the beautiful ideal, just as in the days of his youthful innocence. Yes, man's heart is wide, too wide indeed. I'd have it narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! but what the intellect regards as shameful often appears splendidly beautiful to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, most men find their beauty in Sodom. Did you know this secret? The dreadful thing is that beauty is not only terrifying but also mysterious. God and the Devil are fighting there, and their battlefield is the heart of man. But a man's heart wants to speak only of its own ache. Listen, now I'll tell you what it says. . . .


  Copyright © 1958 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 58-12637

  Originally entitled Kamen No Kokuhaku

  Design by Stefan Salter

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  New Directions Books are published for James Laughlin by New Directions Publishing Corporation, 333 Sixth Avenue, New York 50054.



  For many years I claimed I could remember things seen at the time of my own birth. Whenever I said so, the grownups would laugh at first, but then, wondering if they were not being tricked, they would look distastefully at the pallid face of that unchildlike child. Sometimes I happened to say so in the presence of callers who were not close friends of the family; then my grandmother, fearing I would be taken for an idiot, would interrupt in a sharp voice and tell me to go somewhere else and play.

  While they were still smiling from their laughter, the grownups would usually set about trying to confute me with some sort of scientific explanation. Trying to devise explanations that a child's mind could grasp, they would always start babbling with no little dramatic zeal, saying that a baby's eyes are not yet open at birth, or that even if his eyes are completely open, a newborn baby could not possibly see things clearly enough to remember them.

  "Isn't that right?" they would say, shaking the small shoulder of the still-unconvinced child. But just then they would seem to be struck by the idea that they were on the point of being taken in by the child's tricks: Even if we think he's a child, we mustn't let our guard down. The little rascal is surely trying to trick us into telling him about "that," and then what is to keep him from asking, with still more childlike innocence: "Where did I come from? How was I born?" And in the end they would look me over again, silently, with a thin smile frozen on their lips, showing that for some reason, which I could never understand, their feelings had been deeply hurt.

  But their fears were groundless. I had not the slightest desire to ask about "that." Even if I had wanted to ask, I was so fearful of hurting adult feelings that the thought of using trickery would never have occurred to me.

  No matter how they explained, no matter how they laughed me away, I could not but believe I remembered my own birth. Perhaps the basis for my memory was something I had heard from someone who had been present at the time, or perhaps it was only my own willful imagination. However that may have been, there was one thing I was convinced I had seen clearly, with my own eyes. That was the brim of the basin in which I received my first bath. It was a brand-new basin, its wooden surface planed to a fresh and silken smoothness; and when I looked from inside, a ray of light was striking one spot on its brim. The wood gleamed only in that one spot and seemed to be made of gold. Tongue-tips of water lapped up waveringly as though they would lick the spot, but never quite reached it. And, whether because of a reflection or because the ray of light streamed on into the basin as well, the water beneath that spot on the brim gleamed softly, and tiny shining waves seemed to be forever bumping their heads together there. . . .

  The strongest disproof of this memory was the fact that I had been born, not in the daytime, but at nine in the evening: There could have been no streaming sunlight. Even though teased with a "So then, it must have been an electric light," without any great difficulty I could still walk into the absurdity of believing that no matter if it had been midnight, a ray of sunlight had surely been striking at least that one spot on the basin.

  In this way the brim of that basin and its flickering light lingered on in my memory as something I had surely seen at the time of my first bath.

  I was born two years after the Great Earthquake. Ten years earlier, as a result of a scandal that occurred while he was serving as a colonial governor, my grandfather had taken the blame for a subordinate's misdeeds and resigned his post. (I am not speaking euphemistically: until now I have never seen such a totality of foolish trust in human beings as that my grandfather possessed.) Thereafter my family had begun sliding down an incline with a speed so happy-go-lucky that I could almost say they hummed merrily as they went—huge debts, foreclosure, sale of the family estate, and then, as financial difficulties multiplied, a morbid vanity blazing higher and higher like some evil impulse. . . .

  As a result I was born in not too good a section of Tokyo, in an old rented house. It was a pretentious house on a corner, with a rather jumbled appearance and a dingy, charred feeling. It had an imposing iron gate, an entry garden, and a Western-style reception room as large as the interior of a suburban church. There were two stories on the upper slope and three on the lower, numerous gloomy rooms, and six housemaids. In this house, which creaked like an old chest of drawers, ten persons were getting up and lying down morning and evening—my grandfather and grandmother, father and mother, and the servants.

  At the root of the family troubles was my grandfather's passion for enterprises and my grandmother's illness and extravagant ways. My grandfather, tempted by the schemes that dubious cronies came bringing, often went traveling to distant places, dreaming dreams of gold. My grandmother came of an old family; she hated and scorned my grandfather. Hers was a narrow-minded, indomitable, and rather wildly poetic spirit. A chronic case of cranial neuralgia was indirectly but steadily gnawing away her nerves and at the same time adding an unavailing sharpness to her intellect. Who knows but what those fits of depression she continued having until her death were a memento of vices in which my grandfather had indulged in his prime?

  Into this house my father had brought my mother, a frail and beautiful bride.

  On the morning of January 4, 1925, my mother was attacked by labor pains. At nine that evening she gave birth to a small baby weighing five pounds and six ounces.

  On the evening of the seventh day the infant was clothed in undergarments of flannel and cream-colored silk and a kimono of silk crepe with a splashed pattern. In the presence of the assembled household my grandfather drew my name on a strip of ceremonial paper and placed it on an offertory stand in the tokono

  My hair was blondish for a long time, but they kept putting olive oil on it until it finally turned black.

  My parents lived on the second floor of the house. On the pretext that it was hazardous to raise a child on an upper floor, my grandmother snatched me from my mother's arms on my forty-ninth day. My bed was placed in my grandmother's sickroom, perpetually closed and stifling with odors of sickness and old age, and I was raised there beside her sickbed.

  When about one year old I fell from the third step of the stairway and injured my forehead. My grandmother had gone to the theater, and my father's cousins and my mother were noisily enjoying the respite. My mother had had occasion to take something up to the second floor. Following her, I had become entangled in the trailing skirt of her kimono and had fallen.

  My grandmother was summoned by telephone from the Kabuki Theater. When she arrived, my grandfather went out to meet her. She stood in the entryway without taking her shoes off, leaning on the cane that she carried in her right hand, and stared fixedly at my grandfather. When she spoke, it was in a strangely calm tone of voice, as though carving out each word:

  "Is he dead?"


  Then, taking off her shoes and stepping up from the entryway, she walked down the corridor with steps as confident as those of a priestess. . . .

  On the New Year's morning just prior to my fourth birthday I vomited something the color of coffee. The family doctor was called. After examining me, he said he was not sure I would recover. I was given injections of camphor and glucose until I was like a pincushion. The pulses of both my wrist and upper arm became imperceptible.Two hours passed. They stood looking down at my corpse.

  A shroud was made ready, my favorite toys collected, and all the relatives gathered. Almost another hour passed, and then suddenly urine appeared. My mother's brother, who was a doctor, said, "He's alive!" He said it showed that the heart had resumed beating.

  A little later urine appeared again. Gradually the vague light of life revived in my cheeks.

  That illness—autointoxication—became chronic with me. It struck about once a month, now lightly, now seriously. I encountered many crises. By the sound of the disease's footsteps as it drew near I came to be able to sense whether an attack was likely to approach death or not.

  My earliest memory, an unquestionable one, haunting me with a strangely vivid image, dates from about that time.

  I do not know whether it was my mother, a nurse, a maid, or an aunt who was leading me by the hand. Nor is the season of the year distinct. Afternoon sunshine was falling dimly on the houses along the slope. Led by the hand of the unremembered woman, I was climbing the slope toward home. Someone was coming down the slope, and the woman jerked my hand. We got out of the way and stood waiting at one side.

  There is no doubt that the image of what I saw then has taken on meaning anew each of the countless times it has been reviewed, intensified, focused upon. Because within the hazy perimeter of the scene nothing but the figure of that "someone coming down the slope" stands out with disproportionate clarity. And not without reason: this very image is the earliest of those that have kept tormenting and frightening me all my life.

  It was a young man who was coming down toward us, with handsome, ruddy cheeks and shining eyes, wearing a dirty roll of cloth around his head for a sweatband. He came down the slope carrying a yoke of night-soil buckets over one shoulder, balancing their heaviness expertly with his footsteps. He was a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement. He was dressed as a laborer, wearing split-toed shoes with rubber soles and black-canvas tops, and dark-blue cotton trousers of the close-fitting kind called "thigh-pullers."

  The scrutiny I gave the youth was unusually close for a child of four. Although I did not clearly perceive it at the time, for me he represented my first revelation of a certain power, my first summons by a certain strange and secret voice. It is significant that this was first manifested to me in the form of a night-soil man: excrement is a symbol for the earth, and it was doubtlessly the malevolent love of the Earth Mother that was calling to me.

  I had a presentiment then that there is in this world a kind of desire like stinging pain. Looking up at that dirty youth, I was choked by desire, thinking, "I want to change into him," thinking, "I want to be him." I can remember clearly that my desire had two focal points. The first was his dark-blue "thigh-pullers," the other his occupation. The close-fitting jeans plainly outlined the lower half of his body, which moved lithely and seemed to be walking directly toward me. An inexpressible adoration for those trousers was born in me. I did not understand why.

  His occupation . . . At that instant, in the same way that other children, as soon as they attain the faculty of memory, want to become generals, I became possessed with the ambition to become a night-soil man. The origin of this ambition might have been partly in the dark-blue jeans, but certainly not exclusively so. In time this ambition became still stronger and, expanding within me, saw a strange development.

  What I mean is that toward his occupation I felt something like a yearning for a piercing sorrow, a body-wrenching sorrow. His occupation gave me the feeling of "tragedy" in the most sensuous meaning of the word. A certain feeling as it were of "self-renunciation," a certain feeling of indifference, a certain feeling of intimacy with danger, a feeling like a remarkable mixture of nothingness and vital power—all these feelings swarmed forth from his calling, bore down upon me, and took me captive, at the age of four. Probably I had a misconception of the work of a night-soil man.Probably I had been told of some different occupation and, misled by his costume, was forcibly fitting his job into the pattern of what I had heard. I cannot otherwise explain it.

  Such must have been the case because presently my ambition was transferred with those same emotions to the operators of hana-densha—those streetcars decorated so gaily with flowers for festival days—or again to subway ticket-punchers. Both occupations gave me a strong impression of "tragic lives" of which I was ignorant and from which it seemed I was forever excluded. This was particularly true in the case of the ticket-punchers: the rows of gold buttons on the tunics of their blue uniforms became fused in my mind with the odor which floated through the subways in those days—it was like the smell of rubber, or of peppermint and readily called up mental associations of "tragic things." I somehow felt it was "tragic" for a person to make his living in the midst of such an odor. Existences and events occurring without any relationship to myself, occurring at places that not only appealed to my senses but were moreover denied to me—these, together with the people involved in them, constituted my definition of "tragic things." It seemed that my grief at being eternally excluded was always transformed in my' dreaming into grief for those persons and their ways of life, and that solely through my own grief I was trying to share in their existences.If such were the case, the so-called "tragic things" of which I was becoming aware were probably only shadows cast by a flashing presentiment of grief still greater in the future, of a lonelier exclusion still to come. . . .

  There is another early memory, involving a picture book. Although I learned to read and write when I was five, I could not yet read the words in the book. So this memory also must date from the age of four.

  I had several picture books about that time, but my fancy was captured, completely and exclusively, only by this one—and only by one eye-opening picture in it. I could dream away long and boring afternoons gazing at it, and yet when anyone came along, I would feel guilty without reason and would turn in a flurry to a different page. The watchfulness of a sicknurse or a maid vexed me beyond endurance. I longed for a life that would allow me to gaze at that picture all the day through. Whenever I turned to that page my heart beat fast. No other page meant anything to me.

  The picture showed a knight mounted on a white horse, holding a sword aloft. The horse, nostrils flaring, was pawing the ground with powerful forelegs. There was a beautiful coat of arms on the silver armor the knight was wearing. Th
e knight's beautiful face peeped through the visor, and he brandished his drawn sword awesomely in the blue sky, confronting either Death or, at the very least, some hurtling object full of evil power. I believed he would be killed the next instant: if I turn the page quickly, surely I can see him being killed. Surely there is some arrangement whereby, before one knows it, the pictures in a picture book can be changed into "the next instant." . . .

  But one day my sicknurse happened to open the book to that page. While I was stealing a quick sideways glance at it, she said:

  "Does little master know this picture's story?"

  "No, I don't."

  "This looks like a man, but it's a woman. Honestly. Her name was Joan of Arc. The story is that she went to war wearing a man's clothes and served her country."

  "A woman . . .?"

  I felt as though I had been knocked flat. The person I had thought a he was a she. If this beautiful knight was a woman and not a man, what was there left? (Even. today I feel a repugnance, deep rooted and hard to explain, toward women in male attire.) This was the first "revenge by reality" that I had met in life, and it seemed a cruel one, particularly upon the sweet fantasies I had cherished concerning his death. From that day on I turned my back on that picture book. I would never so much as take it in my hands again. Years later I was to discover a glorification of the death of a beautiful knight in a verse by Oscar Wilde:

  Fair is the knight who lieth slain

  Amid the rush and reed. . . .

  In his novel Là-Bas, Huysmans discusses the character of Gilles de Rais, bodyguard to Joan of Arc by royal command of Charles VII, saying that even though soon to be perverted to "the most sophisticated of cruelties, the most exquisite of crimes," the original impulse for his mysticism came from seeing with his own eyes all manner of miraculous deeds performed by Joan of Arc. Although she had a contrary effect upon me, arousing in me a feeling of repugnance, in my case also the Maid of Orleans played an important role. . . .

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