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Book Review: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima

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Shakespeare was a Master when it came to crafting great melodrama. Just look at some of his tragedies, ones like Hamlet where everyone literally ends up dead. And with that bad ass sword fight at the end, how could anyone accuse old Willy of being floral and frilly? He was, like many male writers, charged with the testosterone that played out ever so well in his best work.

Yukio Mishima is sort of like that, in that, there is no doubt his books are filled with melodrama, yet unfortunately, when people claim something to be “melodramatic,” their implication is usually a negative one, but this is not always the case. There’s a difference between the High Melodrama present in the best of Shakespeare and Mishima, for example, from the melodrama you’ll find on a soap opera or Oprah novel. So plenty of great artists toyed with melodrama. Bergman did it. Kurosawa did it at times. So does Yukio Mishima in his 1959 Knopf published novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. (Translation by Ivan Morris).

I am leaning towards calling this a great novel, but one reason that keeps me from calling it a flat out great novel is that there are a few moments where the melodrama becomes a bit tiresome and doesn’t always work in the narrative’s favor. The story is that of a young man named Mizoguchi who has developed a horrible stuttering problem due to witnessing his mother’s infidelity with another man while his father was dying. Mizoguchi is obsessed with what he calls the Golden Temple, because he believes it to be an object of supreme beauty. \

The novel thus evolves into a philosophical meditation on beauty, and Mishima’s well-crafted prose is beauty in and of itself. While the lead character is not particularly likable, Mishima crafts this narrative voice very well, so that even if we readers don’t always agree with the character’s motives, Mishima has made the character’s logical arguments very plausible and realistic within this obsessive universe.

The philosophical digressions alone that fill this book make it worth reading. And just like with one of his earlier novels, Confessions of a Mask, Mishima hints at his own future suicide: “What is so ghastly about exposed intestines? Why, when we see the insides of a human being, do we have to cover our eyes in terror? …Why are a man’s intestines ugly? Is it not exactly the same in quality as the beauty of youthful, glossy skin?”

Eventually, while in school, Mizoguchi meets the son of a Zen priest named Kashiwagi, who happens to have been born clubfooted. So just like Mizoguchi and his stutter, Kashiwagi shares an imperfection that makes them both “tainted” in the eyes of beauty. At one point Kashiwagi discloses a sexual experience with an attractive girl, but how then he became repulsed by his own clubfeet touching her. Eventually, Mizoguchi learns that beauty can be attained through skill. He learns this after listening to Kashiwagi play the flute, and his ability to create something of beauty triumphs, despite the imperfection of his clubfeet. He actually notes: “Kashiwagi’s playing…sounded so beautiful not only because of the lovely moonlit background, but because of his hideous clubfeet.”

Kashiwagi then admits to disliking anything of lasting beauty, and how his likings “were limited to things such as music, which vanished instantly, or flower arrangements, which faded in a matter of days; he loathed architecture and literature.”

Contrasting this is Mizoguchi’s obsession with the Golden Temple, and the fact that he associates all parts of beauty as being a part of it. At one point, he is shown a woman’s breast, which he finds beautiful. This beauty he then associates with the Golden Temple. Not only does the Golden Temple appear before him, the woman’s breast transforms into the Golden Temple. Other questions are also addressed, such as beauty existing in a world with evil, and how can the two share the same planet? There are, then, moments of the very large and cosmic contrasting against that of the very small, such as the physical placement of a single blade of grass.

Eventually Mizoguchi comes to the realization that he must set fire to the Golden Temple, and his motives build throughout the book. Since the Golden Temple had been declared a National Treasure in 1897, he rationalizes that it is something destructible. And by setting fire to it, thus committing an act of “pure destruction,” he realizes that the amount of beauty in the world will thereby decrease. Also, he is convinced that the burning of the Temple will be something with “great educational value,” in the fact that despite the Temple’s longevity five hundred years thus far, such a fixture in time does not carry any guarantee for its survival.

This novel is so philosophically rich that there are many angles one can approach when examining it. Is this a mere mediation on beauty and how it relates to humans and art? Or is mortal man more than that, with his destructive power, as he able to eradicate something from existence just by a single fire alone? On another hand, these arguments question time and ask: if everything is merely built around it, including the beauty we see and the humans that fill our lives, what then, is our relation to it?

The book ends with the lead deciding to live, rather than suicide himself, and though he manages to set the fire, here we are left with a mere mortal who holds all the power of that around him: destruction and his own desire not to end himself. He calls the shots, in other words. All this plays an impact against the crux of the novel, in that is beauty something that simply is, or does man need to be there to declare it so? And what to say of the mortal man who by the same declaration can also destroy it?

In an online documentary, Mishima comments that the act of seppuku has to be done on a body that is “beautiful” (so I guess no sumo wrestlers participated). Mishima himself spent years bodybuilding and crafting his physique into something of physical beauty, all with the intention of someday gutting his stomach. Many of these themes are present in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, albeit indirectly: the idea of the death and destruction of beauty, where the act is performed by a mortal, granting him the utmost power simply by being able to destroy this beauty. I hate to be the one to read an author’s life so closely into his work, but it’s just unavoidable in some cases.

This is a highly philosophical and at times, complex novel. And although the character is compulsive, he is believable and well crafted. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, for all its destruction and angst, is without a doubt a work of beauty in itself. And it is for this reason why I will allow it to continue living on my shelf, rather than setting fire to it.

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About Jessica Schneider