The Sea of Fertility
The virtuous die young, or cling to life and putrefy. This is the philosophy that undergirds The Sea of Fertility, the master work of accomplished Japanese playwright and novelist Yukio Mishima. It's an aphorism you’ve heard before, but the tetralogy’s feat is not proposing the idea for the first time, rather tearing it open and showing you its insides, the vast and fractal-like machine of philosophical understanding it contains.
Classical Japanese literature in general has a “thing” for noble, gory deaths in young adulthood, but Mishima is the canonical example. In WWII he worked in factories manufacturing equipment for kamikaze planesa, and wrote to friends about how much he admired the pilotsb. After that he wrote plays and novels which entangled beauty, moral integrity, and suicide as if they were not three ideas but one. He ended his life with thematic consistency, committing politically motivated seppukuc in healthy middle age, leaving behind a fit, toned corpse. I don't agree with his political goals—he wanted to return control of Japan to the emperor, among other absurdities—but lifelong faith in an ideal and then martyrdom for that same ideal commands respect, inspires curiosity.
Let me reintroduce the philosophy we're here to talk about, in its western clothes. The most popular form comes from The Dark Knight (2008).
You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.d
Its second most popular form is the inspiration for that Batman line, from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil.
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.e
All articulations of the idea propose that green and well-intentioned people are unadulterated, and that nature's ugliness will assimilate them if given sufficient time. If we want to avoid moral decay, we must face the world head-on, which of course will get us dead because against the oppressive power of nature or society we are impotent. When this austerity seems otiose and we relax our ideals for expedience, we become less of ourselves and more of the world. The world can end us in our idealistic youth or our complicit senescence. These are the two paths.
As a naturalist I want to pause and disclaim the mysticism in this essay. When viewed through a secular, medical-materialist lens, all this talk of purity and souls and adulteration is nonsense. But as unscientific as these mystic terms are, they abstract over difficult-to-articulate aspects of subjective human experience. To read this piece and get value from it, I ask that you set aside your microscope and pipette and depart from the empirical so we can discuss the kind of knowledge that's—today, for practical reasons—beyond the reach of rigorous science.
The Sea of Fertility consists of four novels following Honda Shigekuni through his entire life. Starring alongside him, in one book each, are his childhood friend Kiyoaki Matsuge and Kiyo’s reincarnations. Honda spends his life watching other people live theirs, making safe choices, studying law, entering a passionless marriage with a submissive spouse, and otherwise avoiding all risk factors for emotional turbulence. In contrast Kiyo and all his reincarnations in later books are drawn to turbulence. This excerpt depicts Kiyo processing that his all-but sister Satoko, who he is in love with but also resents, is engaged to Prince Toin, the son of the Emperor:
Long ago he had resolved to recognize his emotions as his only guiding truth and to live his life accordingly, even if this meant a deliberate aimlessness. That principle had now brought him to his present sinister feelings of joy, which seemed to be the brink of a racing, plunging whirlpool. There seemed to be nothing left but to throw himself into it. (Spring Snow, p. 185)
Once it is taboo to love her, doomed no matter what he does, Kiyo cedes himself to his powerful lust. Kiyo and Satoko arrange trysts with the help of Honda and their respective family’s staff. What follows is of course complicated and messy, but all you need to know is that while Honda was trying to study for exams, Kiyo was literally (literally) killing himself to touch Satoko. He dies young and beautiful in the attempt.
It repeats in the next novel: a young impetuous character named Isao Linuma who knows what they want runs up against Honda’s admonition and society’s obstacles. At the end of line when Isao has to choose between conformity and death, Isao chooses death. Contrast this again with Honda, who is now in middle age, and whose mind is full of ruminations like this one:
Honda had once enjoyed talking about the days that he had shared with Kiyoaki. But as a man grows older the memory of his youth begins to act as nothing less than an immunization against further experience. And he was thirty-eight. It was an age when one felt strangely unready to say that one had lived and yet reluctant to acknowledge the death of youth. An age when the savor of one’s experiences turned ever so slightly sour, and when, day by day, one took less pleasure in new things. An age when the charm of every diverting foolishness quickly faded. But Honda’s devotion to his work shielded him from emotion. He had fallen in love with his oddly abstract vocation. (Runaway Horses, p. 13)
In short Honda is bored, lost in the midlife ennui of people who follow rules and think more about what actions are fit for their environment than what they themselves want or believe in. The world and its demands have encroached well beyond the borders of his mind and he’s combing around for what little internal life survives his self-oppression.
Maybe my quote from a Batman movie earlier has you wondering when Honda will become a hero or fight monsters, so I’ll clarify. For this clarification I’m going to introduce two diversions and lead you back to Honda with a better understanding. Buckle in because we're taking a hard left.
Diversion one. Cells are small. There are no cow-sized amoeba for sociopathic teenagers to tip over. Even if we make some generous assumptions about how an enlargement ray would work, scaling an amoeba up would just kill it. Its limitation is the way it moves resources into itself and garbage out of itself: diffusion. When there is more oxygen outside itself than inside, pressure forces it through the cell membrane into the cell. When there is more carbon dioxide inside the cell than outside, the same process runs in reverse to clean the cell out. This only works because all of its insides are near the cell membrane. Were amoeba large, there would be nothing to move needed resources to and fro their center. Your lungs work under the same constraints. They’re more like a network of caves to maximize surface area than balloons. The idea of separation between cells and their environment is a valuable abstraction, but the cell membrane is not a barrier between worlds. If you’re not doing anything practical with cell membranes, you can set aside the useful abstraction and see it in other ways, such as as a linking component within one system, analogous to a vein in your body or a highway.
Diversion two. It takes three generations for families who immigrate to the United States to lose their native tonguef. You can be certain this is not for lack of trying to preserve it. Find me someone who wants to forfeit their native tongue to better assimilate and I’ll find you an astroturfer. If you are reading this, the odds are your native tongue is either English or French, the world’s Titan-status languages (I’m aware of East Asia and South America, but native speaker count is a less meaningful metric for language power than non-native speaker count). It is impossible to explain how dominant these languages are. Today there are thousands of human languages, and most of them are on track to die by the century’s end due to pressure from all directions to learn a Titan language instead, to assimilate into an expanding culture that speaks it.g You will never hear the other side of this issue. Anyone who learns English exposes themselves to the culture of English, and so the perspectives which are fading away, in part defined by their separateness from the global culture, can never be communicated to us.
What I mean with these diversions is that all parts of the human are violable by environment, from the cell up to our most elevated anatomy: language. These facts are obvious, but philosophers prefer to work with models like free will and moral agency which assume the continuity and apartness of the “self” as a prior. Deviating from that is what makes Yukio's perspective so interesting.
Now, Honda. At every fork in the road Honda genuflects to his environment, denies himself and shrinks his internal life to better satisfy the expectations of his society. This perspective I've outlined, where the individual is not individual at all but a part of a continuous system, is the way Honda perceives the world. Honda's life is the generalization of the quote about heroes and villains. Hang out with villains, become a villain. Hang out in the world, become worldly.
In the third novel Honda’s coping mechanism of watching other people’s lives, first Kiyo’s and later defendants’ from his judge’s bench, takes a turn for the literal. Kiyo’s second reincarnation is a Siamese princess named Ying Chan, of course much younger than Honda, and Honda concocts an elaborate scheme to watch her undress and have sex through a peep-hole. He arranges a suitor to seduce her, invites her up to his Villa which he may or may not have built for just this purpose, and stands at the ready in front of a small hole in the wall separating the guest room from his office. In the end he does watch Ying undress, though not as planned. Here’s an excerpt to give you the general thirsty vibe we’re dealing with:
Watching the lights on the second floor, Honda suddenly became warm as he thought of Ying Chan disrobing. Did bones take on heat? Had the red flowers in his joints developed hay fever? Honda quickly locked the doors, turned out the lights in the living room, and stealthily went upstairs. He entered from the bedroom door so that he could proceed noiselessly to the study. He felt his way to the bookcases in the darkness. His hands trembled as he removed one after the other the thick foreign volumes. At last he put his eye to the peephole in the back of the case. (Temple at Dawn, p. 235)
Voyuerism—the real thing and not the consensual imitation of it—is a grotesque surrender of one’s internal life. Lots of us want to self-forget. Some of us drink, some of us drop acid, and some of us drill peepholes into our Villa walls and invite nineteen-year-old girls over to watch them undress. What’s so gross about the latter to readers, in addition to the violation of privacy and manipulation of vulnerable youth, is that because we've been at Honda's side his whole life and understand him, it bespeaks how a human can lose its grip on even what we consider the most load-bearing rules of society.
I bet when we discussed living long enough to become the villain you imagined a competent Machiavellian version of yourself as your integrity’s failure mode. But that’s only if you’re lucky, only if you keep getting to win.
Consider a few contemporary koans:
After failing to work through the issue together, a man divorces his wife whom he loves because her libido is too low for his needs. Once the divorce is finalized his (ex-)wife rediscovers her ravenous appetite for performing oral sex, and turns to her friends and strangers to sate it. The man learns of this through gossip at a house party.
A woman hides her obsession with rock climbing from a man she’s seeing and instead pretends to be passionate about paddle boarding and suggests they do it often, because he likes to paddle board. He breaks up with her because there’s something eerie and opaque about how she always wants to do what he wants to do. She later runs into him at the climbing gym because he discovered with some friends that he loves to solve bouldering puzzles.
An ambitious new grad at a cut-throat corporate job declines the opportunity to work on a project they’re interested in because a different one has better odds of landing them a promotion. A year in it’s clear the project they chose is a dead end, meanwhile the project they declined is about to launch and has earned the rival new grad high visibility and prestige.
What’s constant across all these stories is not that the protagonist makes a mistake. You can make good arguments for their decisions, depending on the details. What’s constant in them is that their decisions are outcome-oriented, the kind that hurts us most when they don’t work out. To make them we offer something we love to the universe, a part of us, maybe our relationship, or our self respect, or our temporary fulfillment, in the hopes that the universe will repay us with something worthwhile. When the universe doesn’t uphold its side of the deal, we are left reduced, left without whatever part of ourselves we sacrificed.
I want to be clear that we must do this. The only alternatives to compromise on our principles are suicide and terrorism, à la Yukio. And that’s because all this talk about ceding yourself to nature is about learning. The truth is as we said earlier, that we and our environment are not separate, that we are components of the same continuous system. The concept of purity refers to not knowing this, to the illusion of the independent continuous self remaining intact. Learning about non-dual, system-type ways to perceive one’s own life turns idealists into something else, a pragmatist, cynic, or absurdist. The invariant of learning is the death of youthful idealism. If the body outlives it something else must take idealism's place in the skull.
In his final moribund chapter, Honda visits Satoko, who after the tribulations of the first novel (her affair with Kiyo while betrothed to the imperial family) committed to an ascetic and spiritual path. By this point Honda has nothing left to do but wander around in a malaise, isolated and apart from the people of the present, the lone survivor of his past. Satoko is the final loose end in his life.
Before I clip Hondas interaction with Satoko below, I should emphasize that this is the most important and charged moment in the entire series, the conclusion to Yukio Mishima’s self-proclaimed magnum opus after building a masterful oeuvre of fiction over four decades. Honda has been fixated on Kiyo since his childhood sixty years ago, and Kiyo died begging Satoko to speak with her at the door of the same nunnery Honda visits her at in this chapter. Satoko has since become the Abbess of the place, Gesshūji, and she acceded to it because of her affair with Kiyo. It is Honda’s first time returning to the site of his friend’s death. He and Satoko (the Abbess) have the following conversation after he arranges a meeting by letter:
The Abbess laughed and seemed to sway gently. “Your interesting letter seemed almost too earnest.” Like the steward, she spoke the West Country dialect. “I thought there must be some holy bond between us.”
The last drops of youth leaped up within Honda. He had returned to that day sixty years before, when he had pleaded youthful ardor to the Abbess’s predecessor. He discarded his reserve.
“Your revered predecessor would not let me see you when I came with Kiyoaki’s last request. It had to be so, but I was angry. Kiyoaki Matsugae was after all my dearest friend.”
“Kiyoaki Matsugae. Who might he have been?”
Honda looked at her in astonishment.
She might be hard of hearing, but she could not have failed to hear him. Yet her words were so wide of the mark that he could only believe he had been misunderstood.
“I beg your pardon?” He wanted her to say it again.
There was no trace of dissimulation as she repeated the words. There was instead a sort of girlish curiosity in her eyes, and below them a quiet smile. “Who might he have been?” (Decay of The Angel, p. 214)
Reading this chapter was one of the most profound moments in my literary life. If the meaning of it could be reduced to something communicable through expository prose, I would explain it for you here now.
Though Honda had believed that he was wandering, moving through life in a daze, he had in truth devoted himself to Kiyo absolutely, even after his death. He tasted life only through the passions of Kiyo and his reincarnations Isao Linuma and Ying Chan. They were his entire life, and Satoko dismissed that entire life out of hand. Kiyo was not even significant enough for her to remember. All Honda's assumptions about the unquestionable importance of his devotion crumble, leaving behind a willingness to question everything, least of all his memory and most of all his own existence.
This is the last level of depth in unfolding the aphorisms we began with. There is always pressure pushing us towards one devotion or another, and if we don’t pay attention to that pressure, it may pull us into something arbitrary. It may not be bad or self-destructive, but just arbitrary. Realizing after the fact that we have devoted ourselves to something arbitrary is a unique, moving sorrow, but most devotions that permit a long life are just that.