Title: Acts of Worship.
Author: Yukio Mishima (translation by John Bester).
Genre: Fiction, literature, short stories.
Publication Date: 1946-1965 (this collection 1989).
Summary: A collection of 7 stories. In Fountains in the Rain (1963), a young man named Akio reaches his long-awaited goal of being the one to break off a relationship with a girl, but it doesn't quite meet his glorious expectations. In Raisin Bread (1963), Mishima paints a typical depressed personality in Jack, a failed suicide who has an odd and disconnected relationship with his equally discontented peers. Sword (1963) deals with a college kendo club and the betrayals and conflicts circling around its captain, a young man single-mindedly striving for complete purity and virtue. Sun and Sunset (1955) takes place in the 13th century, and has a monk recount a dark story of his boyhood in France, when he had a fantastic vision of Jesus Christ and set out for the Holy Land. In Cigarette (1946), an adolescent boy has his first cigarette, which slowly brings on a realization of homosexuality. In Martyrdom (1948), a group leader and a bullied boy's relationship goes from violence to sex, and then back to horrific violence. In Acts of Worship (1965), a novella, a loyal, self-effacing housemaid of a solitary professor-poet ferrets out the secret of his lifelong sadness when he asks her to accompany him on a pilgrimage to three Buddhist shrines.
My rating: 7.5/10.
♥ The first time in his life that he'd broken with a woman!
It was something he had long dreamed of; it had at last become a reality.
It was for this alone that he had loved her, or pretended to love her; for this alone he had assiduously undermined her defenses; for this alone he'd furiously sought the chance to sleep with her, slept with her—till lo, the preparations were complete and it only remained to pronounce the phrase he had longed just once to pronounce with his own lips, with due authority, like the edict of a king:
"It's time to break it off!"
Those words, the mere enunciation of which would be enough to rend the sky asunder... Those words that he had cherished so passionately even while half-resigned to the impossibility of the fact... That phrase, more heroic, more glorious than any other in the world, which would fly in a straight line through the heavens like an arrow released from its bow... That spell which only the most human of humans, the most manly of men, might utter... In short:
"It's time to break it off!"
♥ It was the same when he watched the central column.
At first glance, it seemed as neat, as motionless, as a sculpture fashioned out of water. Yet watching closely he could see a transparent ghost of movement moving upward from bottom to top. With furious speed it climbed, steadily filling a slender cylinder of space from base to summit, replacing each moment what had been lost the moment before, in a kind of perpetual replenishment. It was plain that at heaven's height it would be finally frustrated; yet the unwaning power that supported unceasing failure was magnificent.
The fountains he had brought the girl to see had ended by completely fascinating the boy himself. He was still dwelling on their virtues when his gaze, lifted higher, met the sky from which the all-enveloping rain was falling.
He got rain on his eyelashes.
The sky, hemmed in by dense clouds, hung low over his head; the rain fell copiously and without cease. The whole scene was filled with rain. The rain descending on his face was exactly the same as that falling on the roofs of the red-brick buildings and hotel in the distance. His own almost beardless face, smooth and shiny, and the rough concrete that floored the deserted roof of one of those buildings were no more than two surfaces exposed, unresisting, to the same rain. From the rain's point of view, his cheeks and the dirty concrete roof were quite identical.
Immediately, the image of the fountains there before his eyes was wiped from his mind. Quite suddenly, fountains in the rain seemed to represent no more than the endless repetition of a stupid and pointless process.
Before long, he had forgotten both his joke of a while ago and the anger that had followed it, and felt his mind steadily becoming empty.
Empty, save for the falling rain...
~~Fountains in the Rain.
♥ Someone, somewhere, had tied up the darkness, he thought as he went: the bag of darkness had been tied at the mouth, enclosing within it a host of smaller bags. The stars were tiny, almost imperceptible perforations; otherwise, there wasn't a single hole through which light could pass.
The darkness in which he walked immersed was gradually pervading him. His own footfall was utterly remote, his presence barely rippled the air. His being had been compressed to the utmost—to the point where it had no need to forge a path for itself through the night, but could weave its way through the gaps between the particles of which the darkness was composed.
To become transparent, to be free of all things, Jack retained nothing unnecessary: no muscles, no fat, only a beating heart and the idea, like a white sugared candy, of an "angel"...
♥ Who would have thought that here, not far from that tawdry beach where the boring jostled each other in the water, they would find an untouched spot like this? For the ideal site they had pictured to themselves was, whatever else, no ordinary place, but one where their own frayed jeans would take on the luster of damask.
The site: it must be chosen, made clean, sanctified.... They were young people for whom neon signs, tatty movie posters, exhaust fumes, and car headlights had always served as substitutes for the light of the countryside, the scent of the fields, moss, domestic animals, wild flowers; so it was natural enough now that the stretch of sandy ground they envisaged should be like a carpet of the finest workmanship, that their ultimate starry sky should resemble a piece of jewelry of the utmost artifice.
To cure the world of its stupidity, the first requirement was a process of purification through stupidity: a thorough exaltation of what the bourgeoisie saw a stupid, even if it meant aping the bourgeois creed and its single-minded, tradesman's energy...
♥ He went in for body-building, and was vain about his physique. He was almost aggressively muscular, the slightest movement of his limbs sending quick quivers of movement through chains of linked tendons. On the meaninglessness of life and the stupidity of human beings he and the rest were in theory agreed, but unlike the others he had gone to such lengths in building up a screen of muscles against the winds of despair that he had ended up fast asleep, asleep in that darkness of blind strength which is, essentially, what muscles are all about.
♥ Either way, Jack was cured by now. He'd been mistaken in thinking that if he killed himself the sordid bourgeois world would perish with him. He'd lost consciousness and been taken to a hospital, and when he came to and surveyed his surroundings, the same world had been all around him, alive and kicking as ever. So, since the world seemed irremediable, he'd resigned himself to getting better....
♥ Jack failed to understand Peter's excitement. Why, exactly, was he dancing? Because he was dissatisfied about something? Because he was happy? Or because it was at least better than killing himself?...
What exactly did Peter believe in, wondered Jack in his transparency, watching Peter's body dancing, glinting, in the light of the bonfire. Had it all been lies, then—what Peter had once told him of the misery that settled on him every night like a heavy, sodden wad of cotton? Why, when solitude howling like the sea bestrode the gaudy lights of the nocturnal city, should one proceed to dance?
That was the point, Jack himself was convinced, at which everything stopped. He, at least, had stopped. And then, little by little, he had become transparent....
♥ By now, his brawny arm was forcing the chicken against a rock. The chicken struggled, scattering white down that swiftly, as in a dream, was caught up in the draft of the fire and whirled high into the air. The soaring of those feathers! How well Jack knew it, that weightless flight of the emotions at the moment of the body's agony....
Thus it happened without his seeing it. The callous sound came of the knife descending, and there on there on the stone, deaf to the cries, blind to the blood, the chicken lay twisted, its head and body parted.
Wildly plucking up the head, Peter rolled about on the sand: now, at last, Jack could appreciate his rapture. When he finally stood up again, a trickle of blood was clearly visible on the flat, boyish chest.
The head itself must have been puzzled to find things ending like this, in such a frivolous death, as part of a stunt. Its eyes no doubt, earnestly open, were full of inquiry... but Jack didn't look. This jesting beatification, this chance glory that had befallen the chicken crowned with its red comb, had cast a faint, scarlet reflection within his own cold, utterly uncruel heart.
And yet—he told himself—I feel nothing. Nothing at all.
♥ The alarm clock placed by his pillow, undaunted by the humming of the fan, was marking off the time with a dull tocking. The clock was a sardonic embellishment to his daily life, for he had never once used it to wake him. His consciousness flowed on, day and night, like a murmuring brook; he was long used at night to maintaining himself transparent like crystal within it, and the alarm clock was the friend, the Sancho Panza, that turned the custom into a comedy on his behalf. The cheap sound of its mechanism was a splendid source of comfort: it made a farce of any continuity in him.
♥ In the sea where wrecked ships lay sunk—in some sea, surely, lay that ship wrecked with its full cargo of the world's wealth, and love, and meaning of every kind.... Glass scales, tilting in the distant sky.... The gentle panting of three dogs along the sandy shore.... Just before his attempted suicide, Jack had felt that he held the world like a dice in the palm of his hand, shaking it. Was there any reason why a dice shouldn't be round? A single, round dice, turning up every number in rapid succession, so that decision was suspended and the game never consummated....
♥ At that moment, as he called to his opponent, there was a chink in Kagawa's mental armor: the merest instant of self-indulgent fantasy, of hedonistic interest in the feeble prey before his eyes, of almost prurient pleasure in his own strength....
It was the greedy, animal kind of pleasure that cannot be experienced fully when alone nor savored at leisure face to face with another. A pleasure unrelated either to memory or hope, a dangerous pleasure of the present moment, akin to that of riding a bicycle no-hands....
♥ Kinouchi felt an affection for the youthfulness thus challenging him. Youth came to the attack courteously yet brutally, while age awaited it, a smile on its lips, without stirring and with confidence. Courtesy without violence was displeasing in a young man, less acceptable even than violence without courtesy.
Youth would come lunging at him—lunging only, inevitably, to submit. Youth and he shared the same training clothes, the same protective armor, the same sweat.... For Kinouchi, the fencing hall afforded an interval of pure beauty, of time that had stopped forever. Within that time, the black breastplate gleamed, the purple cords of the face guard flew, the sweat scattered—exactly as he had experienced it thirty years earlier, here in his old school.
In that shared context, age concealing its gray hairs in a face guard, and youth concealing its ruddy cheeks in similar armor, confronted each other as adversaries, unequivocally, with the simplicity of an allegory. It was as though life and its welter of extraneous matter had been reduced to the clean simplicity of a chessboard. Filter everything else away and this, surely, was all that was left: this once-and-for-all confrontation, sword tip to sword tip, one day in a strong sunset light, between age and youth.
♥ Kinouchi's style of swordsmanship was unemphatic; the tip of his weapon always maintained a distance, feeling its way softly, light as a feather: it was his most dangerous aspect. Surveying him, Jiro saw only a seamless perfection. Yet it was not like gazing at, say, a closed door of steel; rather, it suggested a Japanese-style room flung open to a summer's day, deserted, nothing there but the tatami in their simple purity. It was that kind of perfection.
Kinouchi seemed to have no point of support, but to float, almost, in the air.
♥ As he spoke—to forty club members, in the presence of his predecessors—Jiro had come to a decision.
He had long since felt that on this occasion he would speak to this effect, and he had done so. It was the fulfillment of a presentiment. For years the words had remained furled within his mind, and at the right moment they had spread their wings and taken flight.
With them, he had finally put aside the ordinary, boyish qualities still lurking inside him. Mental softness and impressionability—rebelling, scorning, lapsing occasionally into self-disgust—were to be discarded entirely. A sense of shame was to be retained, but bashful hesitation was to go.
Any feelings of "I want to" must be done away with, to be replaced, as a basic principle, by "I should."
Yes—that was what he would do. He would focus the whole of his daily life on fencing. The sword was a sharp-pointed crystal of concentrated, unsullied power, the natural form taken by the spirit and the flesh when they were honed into a single shaft of pure light.... The rest was mere trivia.
♥ Once, as a boy, he had tried to outstare the sun. But before he could tell whether he had really looked at it or not, changes had occurred: the blazing red ball that had been there at first began to whirl, then suddenly dimmed, till it became a cold, bluish-black, flattened disk of iron. He felt he had seen the very essence of the sun....
For a while, wherever he looked he saw the sun's pale afterimage: in the undergrowth; in the shade beneath the trees; even, when he gazed up, in every part of the sky.
The truth was something too dazzling to be looked at directly. And yet, once it had come into one's field of vision, one saw patches of light in all kinds of places: the afterimages of virtue.
Thus he would gird himself in strength and clothe himself in righteousness.
♥ He had been born, he felt, into a peculiar age, one in which to devote himself to one thing, to be able to resist the lure of the trivial, to have simple, uncomplicated aims—such perfectly ordinary qualities—had become something rare and isolating for the individual.
♥ Thus all unconsciously he had come unscathed through the several snares of poetry—the bloodied pigeon, and the sun shining among the trees; the blood that had splashed the victor's cheek; the deep blue of the training clothes, and the faded white lily—through all the snares that these things had conspired to set in his path.
♥ At fifty, he blended the experienced and the childlike in just the right proportions.
Beneath his loyalty to the college, his nostalgia, his indifference to worldly reputation, festered longstanding memories of an inability to adjust to, of discontent with, the everyday world. He couldn't understand why society in general wasn't uncomplicated and beautiful, like the world of sport, why its conflicts weren't resolvable through contests whose outcome was evident to anyone. Over the years, he had elevated this resentment, common to most sportsmen, into a kind of poetry.
Why?... Each repetition of the profitless inquiry enhanced still further the beauty of sport and youth. Every comparison with the mire of society only made the hallowed ground of sport seem more attractive....
♥ "But when all's said and done, everything in fencing depends on your grip. That's the one thing I've learned from thirty-five years of it. The important thing for a human being is to learn and master one thing in his life—one thing, however small. That's enough.
"It all depends on your grip whether you make that little bit of shaped bamboo come to life or let it stay dead. It's fascinating. And in a way, as I see it, getting the knack of dealing with the world is just the same.
"People always say that you should grip with your right hand as though you were carrying an open umbrella, and with your left as though you were holding an egg. But how long do you think you can keep an umbrella up or hold an egg in your hand? Just try it—I'll bet that in thirty minutes or so at the most you'll want to throw the umbrella down and crush the egg in your fist...."
♥ Once the talk turned to fencing, there was no question any longer of failure of communication, whether verbal or emotional, between Kinouchi and Kagawa. The words flew to and fro, and they could talk to themselves without being alone, since every word corresponded to a remembered excitement in matches and training sessions.
♥ "I'd no idea things were so bad." Kagawa spoke in surprise, but immediately reflected that there was no call to waste any sympathy on Kokubu: Kokubu was an adult who was making a life for himself in his own way.
♥ "Then you'd better drop it. Stop thinking about things in the future. You're too young for it."
♥ Great irregular waves rose and fell, enfolding within them the fencers' desperate breathing. It was a dark maelstrom of yells and leaping bodies, the whole resolving itself into on single call of the blood.
Jiro alone was aloof and untouched. Alone in this murky world he remained clear as crystal, so that the activity around him seemed almost a defilement.
Through the midst of this dark, thudding tumult he moved, too swift for the eye to notice, yet silent. And when he came to a sudden halt he was an ominous, dark blue, untouchable force temporarily held in check.
♥ The sword was held poised high above him at an angle. The strength supporting it bore it up buoyantly, so that it resembled the moon floating oblique in the early evening sky. He faced his opponent motionless, his body twisted, left foot advanced, right foot to the rear. As the black-lacquered breastplate inched around to meet the foe, it had a subdued luster and the light glinted on the sharp golden leaves that the gentian crest stretched out to right and left.
Thus did Kokubu Jiro become the embodiment of all that might or might not happen in the next moment, of all that unpredictable, tension-filled, silent world. It was at this point more than any other that he truly existed. He had become so because he had believed it should be so.
How could he bear, wondered Mibu with a sort of shudder, to live only in such isolated moments? Did he have anything to link them together?
♥ He would watch the sunset, and the reflection on the waves; and irresistibly he would find himself recalling the wondrous things that just once—he was sure—had befallen him in the days when his life was still new. Once more, he would rehearse them to himself: the miracle; the yearning for the unknown; the strange force that had driven them to Marseilles. And, last of all, he would think of the sea and how, when he had prayed on the quayside of Marseilles in a crowd of children, it had not parted to let them pass but had gone on sending in its placid waves, glittering beneath the setting sun.
Just when he had lost his faith Anri could not remember. The one thing he could recall, vividly even now, was the mystery of the sea, aglow in the sunset, whose waters had failed to give way however much they prayed: a fact more incomprehensible than any miraculous vision. The mystery of that encounter between a boyish mind that saw nothing strange in a vision of Christ, and a sunset sea that refused absolutely to divide....
If at any time in his life the sea had been going to part, it should have done so at that moment, yet even then it had stretched silent, fiery still in the sunset: there lay the mystery....
..He remembered the past, remembered the scenes and the people of his home. But now there was no desire to go back; for all of them—the Cévennes, the sheep, his native land—had vanished into the sunset sea. They had vanished, one and all, when the waves had refused to give way.
Anri, though, kept his eyes on the sunset as it changed color from moment to moment, consuming itself little by little and turning to ash.
~~Sea and Sunset.
♥ Day follows day, nothing is ever really resolved: in adolescence, even this perfectly ordinary fact of life can seem intolerable. The adolescent has abandoned the clever ambiguity, the self-serving compromises of the very young. He finds them distasteful, and is disposed to start afresh, from the beginning. Yet how coldly the world views this fresh start! Not a soul is there to see him off when he sets sail. Again and again, people handle him the wrong way. One moment he's treated as an adult, the next as a child. Is it because there's nothing about him he can truly call his own? Now—as I see it, adolescence has its own certainties which one would seek in vain elsewhere, and which the adolescent struggles to give a name to.
One day, however, he at last finds a name for them: "growing up." This achievement settles him, makes him proud. Yet the minute he identifies them, the certainties change into something different from what they were when they had no name. What's more, he becomes unable even to perceive this fact. In short, he comes an adult....
Held in the custody of childhood is a locked chest; the adolescent, by one means or another, tries to open it. The chest is opened: inside, there is nothing. So he reaches a conclusion: the treasure chest is always like this, empty. From this point on, he gives priority to this assumption of his rather than to reality. In other words, he is now a "grown-up." Yet was the chest really empty? Wasn't there something vital, something invisible to the eye, that got away at the very moment it was opened?
♥ We were condemned to spend the greater part of our daylight hours at school—a stupid organization that obliged us to select friends from among a few dozen predetermined, boring boys of the same age. Within those confining walls, teachers—a bunch of men all armed with the same information—gave the same lectures every year from the same notebooks and every year at the same point in the textbooks made the same jokes.... (I and a friend in form B arranged between us to see how long after the start of a class it took a certain chemistry teacher to make his joke. In my class, it came in twenty-five minutes. In his, it came at 11:35, which was precisely the same amount of time.) What was I supposed to learn in this sort of framework?
Worse still, the adults demanded that everything we absorbed within those confines should be "worthwhile." So, quite naturally, we learned the alchemist's way of faking things, creating from lead a spurious substance which we persuaded our patrons was gold till, in the end, we were convinced ourselves that we'd produced the precious metal. It was the school's cleverest alchemist who earned the label of model student. The "model student," indeed, is one of the most accomplished frauds in any field.
♥ They rarely read books, and seemed almost proud of their extraordinary ignorance. They gave the impression of being immune to anything even remotely tragic, Immature though they were, they had the knack of steering clear of suffering, strong excitement, or any of the more overwhelming emotions. If, unavoidably, they'd been thrust into the midst of suffering, their very inertness would promptly have overcome it, and quite effortlessly they would have settled down to a life of indifference. They were the scions of a certain breed of men: men who have succeeded in subjecting large numbers of humanity not through intimidation or violence but by the sheer paralyzing power of inaction.
♥ The stiff blades of the grass pricked at my back through the thinnish material of my school uniform. Lifting my first cigarette high in the air, my eyes half-closed, I gazed avidly at the smoke trailing into the shadowy blue of the afternoon sky. It rose gracefully; it lingered, wavered in an almost imperceptible cloud; like a dream just before waking, it took shape only, ineffectually, to dissolve again.
♥ The members of any one year had all been to the same primary school, so that their training in mischief had taken thorough effect in the six years before entering the dormitory, and facilitated an astonishing degree of collaboration among them. A "graveyard" would be arranged n a corner of the classroom with a row of markers bearing the teachers' names; a trap would be set so that when an elderly, bald teacher came into the room a blackboard duster fell precisely onto his bald patch, coating it with white; on a winter morning, a lump of snow would be flung to stick on the ceiling, bright in the morning sun, so that it dripped steadily onto the teacher's platform; the matches in the teachers' room would be mysteriously transformed into things that spouted sparks like fireworks when struck; a dozen drawing pins would be introduced into the chair where the teacher sat, with their points just showing above the surface—these and a host of other schemes that seemed the work of unseen elves were all in fact carried out by two or three masterminds and a band of well-trained terrorists.
♥ He gave the impression of looking disapprovingly on the tendency, common to all boys, to worship toughness as a way of making up for their awareness of the vulnerability peculiar to their age. If anything, Watari sought to preserve the vulnerability. The young man who seeks to be himself is respected by his fellows; the boy who tries to do the same is persecuted by other boys, it being a boy's business to become something else just as soon as he can.
♥ "These aren't your own feelings," the Professor had once declared with severe sarcasm in front of the others. "You're simply borrowing the container of someone else's sorrow and putting yourself into it. It's like going to someone else's house to take a bath."
♥ She recalled the sensation as the Professor's fingers had momentarily touched her own. There was nothing really unusual about what had happened; much the same thing must have occurred often enough back at home, at breakfast, on ordinary ways. The incident in the hotel, however, had taken place in a large, deserted dining room, before the eyes of several loitering waiters, and the sensation had impressed itself on her with corresponding keenness. It had been—it occurred to her now—like touching the damp petals of a large white magnolia flower, with the cloying scent of a bloom just past its prime.
♥ For example, it was often said that young girls working in department stores nowadays would quit if they were told off, however mildly. For her, though, provided she kept her pride and her confidence in the idea that she was indispensable, to be scolded was if anything a pleasure....
♥ It had suddenly seemed to her as if the boat, with the Professor and herself on board, was bearing them toward some utopian land—was approaching, after long adversity and suffering, a world in which ugliness no longer had any part. Where appearances were concerned, she had always been sensitive to the Professor's and her own shortcomings. They would never be taken for a handsome pair: to link them erotically in the mind was to make imagination look the other way. In bringing her along, the Professor had almost certainly been aware of this. And just as certainly he had had it borne home on him again and again, in the course of his sixty years, that in a love affair the plaudits of the onlookers are almost as important as the sincerer feelings of the principals. Being twice as sensitive as other men, and a lover of beauty into the bargain, he probably felt that the times he spent alone with Tsuneko, seated at the very stern of life, were the only times when he could relax: relax in the knowledge that, having no part in beauty, he was in no danger of doing it any injury.
♥ And there, perhaps—the idea came into her mind, and promptly became a stick for her to cling to, giving her the courage to go on climbing—there, perhaps, it was fated that the Professor and she should vast off restraint and come together in all their purity. For ten years, although the hope had never once been consciously acknowledged, she had dreamed of mutual respect exalted into no ordinary love, but a sublime love that dwelt in the shade of old cedars deep in the mountains. It would not be the commonplace love of ordinary men and women; nor would it be the mutual vaunting of good looks that sometimes passed for love. The Professor and she would come to each other as two transparent pillars of light, in some spot where they could look down with scorn on the people on earth below. And perhaps that spot lay at the top of these very steps up which she was now toiling.
♥ "Eifuku Mon'in reveals nothing directly in her work, but—" He turned the pages of the book that Tsuneko had put on the table for him, searching for something. "Ah, here we are. Take this poem, for instance, from the thirtieth poetry party in the second year of Kagen:
The night sky
Is moonless, raining;
A firefly's light
Glimmers in the eaves.
"It's an exact description, yet it has an indefinable pathos that effectively conveys the personal sadness underlying the outward splendor of her life. Precisely because she was so sensitive and vulnerable, she rigorously trained herself to conceal her emotions, with the result that these descriptive poems, so emotionally restrained, have a subtle power to suggest feeling. Don't you think so?"
♥ While sympathizing with the Kyogoku school in its decline, he worked hard to acquire an increasing mystic stature of his own; and while devoting his life to studies suggesting that most academic and artistic disputes involved the simple pursuit of self-interest, he was himself an artist, the author of a large number of graceful, poignant poems.
Thus, while Tsuneko was deeply impressed by the Professor's persistence in handling objects that emitted the strange radio-activity known as beauty, to the point where he was weirdly transformed by exposure of it, she could only conclude that to do the same was completely beyond her own abilities. Quite possibly, that was what had given him such an unusually solitary, chilly personality—the suspicion that the beauty distilled from the ugly struggles provoked by man's greed appeared, not on the victorious side but more stealthily, amongst those who were defeated or doomed t extinction; whereas he personally, hoping to establish (albeit in provisional form) his own lasting authority, disliked any hint of such extinction.
~~Act of Worship.