I have read Yukio Mishima's classic, Sun and Steel. Below are some interesting insights I found in the book. This is the first book by Mishima I read, and thus, these are only my first impressions of his writings. Should I read more of his books, I might return to the subject with a deeper analysis. With that being said, let us delve into the book!
The Body as a Garden
Mishima refers to the body as a garden surrounding the self. It is common to hear references to the body as a temple, but this is the first time I heard it referred to as a garden. In the opening page of the book, he observes that he could either cultivate the garden (sculpt a glorious physique), or leave it for the weeds to take over (accept physical decadence). It is a quite aesthetically pleasing mental image!
Cynicism and Hero Worship
The most profound quote found in the book is one I have stumbled upon before (or at least the first part of it).
The cynicism that regards hero worship as comical is always shadowed by a sense of physical inferiority. Invariably, it is the man who believes himself to be physically lacking in heroic attributes who speaks mockingly of the hero.Yukio Mishima
Anyone who has, in some capacity, been involved in political or philosophical discussions will know the truth of this statement. Irony is often used as a shield to hide behind for those without the guts to truly stand for something (except for whatever the mainstream culture tells them). Perhaps hero worship per se is not as common today, but the same can be said about the bugman's criticism of traditional values.
My own personal experiences are congruent with this. My supporters are, in basically all cases, jacked and good looking. My detractors (whenever I have seen how they look) are, in basically all cases, deformed in some way. This might sound a bit arrogant, but it is simply the truth.
Romantic Death and a Heroic Physique
A powerful, tragic frame and sculpturesque muscles were indispensable in a romantically noble death. Any confrontation between weak, flabby flesh and death seemed to me absurdly inappropriate.Yukio Mishima
This is an important quote to understand Mishima's view of the importance of a heroic physique. In regard to death, there is an interesting interview (Yukio Mishima on WWII and Death) where he expresses his fear of dying an unromantic death by disease. Mishima would not die of disease, but would commit ritual suicide (seppuku) after a failed coup in 1970.
As I mentioned in my Podcast Episode 11. Demigod Mentality (which I highly recommend listening to, either before or after reading this article), my own perspective when it comes to an aesthetic physique is that it should be suitable to represent the ancient European ideals of the classical hero (or even a Nordic or Greek god). It is quite simple, if I (in this case) am to extoll the virtues of training hard and living a healthy life, I simply must be healthy myself. So, just as Mishima viewed it absurdly inappropriate to meet a romantically noble death with an un-aesthetic physique, so do I view it inappropriate to champion a certain lifestyle without emulating it myself.
Mishima on Action and Art
Mishima talks about action and art, and the balance between the two. He refers to the sword as the flower of physical perfection, and the literary principle as its opposite. The flower of action perishes with the blossom, whereas literature is an imperishable flower. This is connected to the aforementioned romantic death.
These thoughts reminded me of two things. First and foremost, about the destiny of Achilles, who had the choice of a short, but glorious life, or a long life without renown.
Secondly, they remind me of what Jonathan Bowden referred to as Lord Byron's Cultured Thug, which is an ideal of someone who possesses both cognitive and physical prowess.
Mishima describes his own ideal style (in terms of personal aesthetics) in a poetically beautiful way.
My ideal style would have had the grave beauty of polished wood in the entrance hall of a samurai mansion on a winter's day.Yukio Mishima
Sun and Night
Mishima contrasts the day versus the night. He mentions his own dusky and dark room full of books, and that his mental starting position was one of the night. But, as he contemplated the matter further, he came to the conclusion that those who indulged in nocturnal thought were physically unimpressive, lacking the power and vitality he craved. Thus, he gravitated to the sun (as opposed to the night).
This reminds me of the contrast (popularised by Nietzsche) between Apollo (god of light) and Dionysus (god of wine). Apollo, in this sense, represents order, discipline, and the sun. Dionysus, in this sense, represents chaos, debauchery, and the night. Much more can be said about the relationship between the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of men. A wise man I met in America a few years back said that he was Apollo every day of the month except one. On that one day, he let his Dionysian spirit come to life (in celebrations with his social group). It stuck with me, especially since the man who shared it with me is an impressive individual.
I mention this since most readers of this article might be more in tune with Apollo (I certainly am), but even for us, it might be good to not completely neglect Dionysus. This will be a topic for a coming podcast.
It is easier to understand that Mishima's starting position was one closer to the night when keeping in mind that he was, first and foremost, an author and a poet. The sun and the steel came to him later in life. One could argue that many artists are closer to nocturnal Dionysus than to daybreak Apollo.
The Teachings of the Steel
Mishima connects the physical attributes of the body to the metaphysical attributes of the spirit. Feeble emotions correspond with flaccid muscles. And a muscular and fit body corresponds with an intrepid fighting spirit. Although this is, generally speaking, true, I must point out that there are plenty of muscular, strong, and fit guys who are, when push comes to shove, cowards. That being said, a healthy soul exists in a healthy body.
A certain body allows for a certain way of thinking. The way you view yourself influences the way you view the world (as I talked in the previously mentioned Podcast episode). Politics is biology, changing people's political views is easier if they have a corresponding biology. A man lacking in the necessary physical requirements will be harder to convert to a righteous way of thinking. Adequate levels of testosterone are related to a stronger sense of justice (to give one example). A low-testosterone man might thus gravitate more towards left-wing thought. It is well known that right-wing men possess more physical strength than left-wing men.
Mishima also notes that the teachings of the steel are akin to a classical education, with the focus on progressively adding weight (or knowledge in the case of an education).
My own thoughts on the teachings of the steel (or in my case iron) will be familiar for those who have read Dauntless.
The Iron is truth in its purest form; it cannot lie. 200 kg will always be 200 kg. If you are weak; if you have failed to prepare properly, the Iron will not show any sympathy. If you are strong; if you have taken adequate measures of preparation, you will be rewarded accordingly.Dauntless - Marcus Follin
In my work, I have always used Iron to refer to weight-training (The Temple of Iron = the gym), Mishima is using Steel for the same purpose. In purely aesthetic terms, Sun and Steel sounds better than Sun and Iron. So, I endorse the use of steel in this context. Moreover, it might be worth pointing out that I am currently rewriting Dauntless (as mentioned in this video).
At 100 pages, Sun and Steel is a quick, albeit complex, read. Certain passages might have to be re-read to capture the essence of Mishima's thoughts. It bears pointing out that the book was originally written in Japanese, thus, certain nuances might have been lost when it was translated into English. It should also be pointed out that the book is beautifully written, as one would except from a true poet, with many immersive passages. I enjoyed reading it, and can recommend it to anyone interested in the topics mentioned above.
Below are two videos which Mishima might have looked upon approvingly! I thought to include them should you be unaware of my own artistic work.