Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Glossing Scripts and Scripting Pleasure in Mishima's Confessions of a Mask

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Glossing Scripts and Scripting Pleasure in Mishima's Confessions of a Mask

Article excerpt

Yukio Mishima's first novel Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask) not only catapulted him into prominence as one of the top writers of postwar Japan when it was published in 1949, but also remains one of the most popular and most often taught and discussed of his novels today, more than twenty-five years after his spectacular death by ritual suicide in 1970. Most critics, however, have focused their attention only on the first half of the novel, in which an I-narrator retrospectively describes his childhood and adolescent experiences in an attempt to isolate early signs of his homosexuality, ostensibly to aid and abet his "rhetoric of confession."(1) I argue here that it is only through careful attention to the later chapters, which describe a strategic attempt to mask homosexual desires through courtship with a young woman, that the complicated structure of this novel can be fully appreciated. With the help of Judith Butler's theory that gender is best understood as a performance played out within available social scripts (rather than as the result of a biologically-determined "essence"), we can see that the overt staging of this heterosexual "plot" reveals that the confessional pose of the narrator is just as theatrical: he is really neither apologetic nor interested in repressing his homosexual desires. In fact, it is precisely through writing his supposed confessions that he creates an opportunity to manipulate or outwit the social scripts which might otherwise dictate or direct his performances. He finds an escape from the strictures of heterosexuality (particularly acute in the wartime setting of the novel) because a confessional stance allows him the opportunity to linger over male bodies, devoting his descriptive energy to their curves or muscles. He also creates a small space--the scene of writing or fantasy--in which he can imaginatively escape what Deleuze and Guattari have described as "oedipalized territoriality," in this case, that of a nation set on war.(2) In the midst of a vast war machine in which every male body must be marked as visibly heroic or pathetically unfit, the narrator subversively focuses on other machines: the body as a system of hydraulics and plumbing (erection and ejaculation) and the construction and maintenance of an elaborate "machine of falsehood" to mask his homosexual desires.

The narrator himself describes his construction of a heterosexual identity or mask as a disciplinary task. For example, when he is pressured into visiting a brothel with some suspicious college friends, he prepares for the venture through an exercise of sexual discipline:

   I devised a pathetic secret exercise [renshu]. It consisted of testing my
   desire by staring fixedly at pictures of naked women ... As may be easily
   imagined, my desire answered neither yes or no. Upon indulging in that bad
   habit [akushu] of mine, I would try to discipline my desire, first by
   refraining from my usual daydreams, and later by forcibly calling up mental
   images of women in the most obscene poses. At times it seemed my efforts
   were successful. But there was a falseness about this success that seemed
   to grind my heart into powder.(3)

The repetition of the ideogram read phonetically as "shu" in the two Japanese words that I have signaled out in this passage suggests an early displacement of writing as discipline (the renshu of school exercise) to (a type of) writing as pleasure, the bad habit or exercise (akushu) of masturbating. However, the narrator's attempts to exercise or discipline his sexual performance so that he can pass as heterosexual prove futile. He is unable to get an erection during this visit to the brothel, and his friends suspect as much. Yet his emphasis that he can sustain a fabricated heterosexual performance by training his corporeal self to act the "right" way comes surprisingly close to recent theorizing about gender as performance. For example, Judith Butler argues that gender identification is fashioned by an idealized coherence which is, in turn,

   an effect of a corporeal signification. … 
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