In the Fascist Weight Room

HALF A CENTURY AGO, when Yukio Mishima’s Sun and Steel was published, reasonable people the world over were entertaining the possibility that a global Marxist revolution really was at hand. Naturally, not everyone was enthused about the prospect. In Japan, where the upheaval was massive, campus demonstrators were regularly attacked by gangs of right-wing phys-ed majors wielding sports equipment. Administrators at Tokyo’s Nihon University at one point publicly requested the help of these reactionary jocks in quelling student unrest. Mishima (1925–70), a reactionary jock himself, was appalled by the demonstrations and by the New Left in general, but bashing people on the head with golf clubs was not his style. Sun and Steel—billed by the author as a “personal history,” but really more of a philosophical tract—has the unhurried cadences of the long game. Mishima was dreaming of imperial restoration, a rewinding not only of the 1960s but also of Bretton Woods, the whole postwar geopolitical order, and, possibly, political modernity tout court. Many contemporary readers of Sun and Steel harbor analogous ambitions. A minor work in the context of world literature, it is a major one in the bizarro universe of white-supremacist arts and letters. You’ll find it on a Stormfront syllabus of “Must Read WN [White Nationalist] Books,” right between Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West and Andrew Carrington Hitchcock’s Synagogue of Satan. At the digital emporium Phalanx Europa, seven euros will get you a poster featuring the inspirational quote “To be a man was to forge ever upward toward the peak of manhood, there to die amid the white snows of that peak” superimposed on a photo of Mishima, who stands shirtless, sword upraised, en garde.

Mishima would no doubt be horrified to find himself sailing into the third decade of the twenty-first century on a garbage barge of racist kitsch, but his cult status on the far right appears to be entrenched. That’s partly because of Sun and Steel, which distills a complete metaphysics of fascism into a hundred unnervingly compelling pages. Its succinctness is perfect for the tl;dr generation of neo-Nazis, and while it is not Mishima’s best work, it still runs rings around Synagogue of Satan. However, Mishima’s extremist fan base would surely not be so large were it not for certain details of his eclectic CV. In addition to being an actor, model, filmmaker, author of canonical works of modernist fiction, Nobel Prize nominee, and one of only two people Paul Schrader has ever made a biopic about, Mishima was a hyper-nationalist who founded a militia called the Shield Society, led it in an attempted coup d’état, and committed seppuku when the Japanese government failed to topple. His paramilitary exploits and gruesome suicide (a mere two years after Sun and Steel was published) have earned him enough esteem in WN circles to compensate for the fact that he was conspicuously nonwhite, and almost as conspicuously non-straight. Sun and Steel includes virtually no concrete autobiographical details, but can nevertheless be read as an elliptical bildungsroman in which an artsy wimp transforms himself into a jacked-up warrior. Or, depending on your political views, it can be read as an austerely creepy horror story in which an intelligent and thoughtful young man wrestles with the existential temptations of fascism and loses.

“Thanks to the sun and the steel, I was to learn the language of the flesh,” Mishima announces in the book’s opening pages. Here, steel is a reference to body-building equipment and weapons. The sun has a more complicated significance. It is a metonym for the Japanese flag, object of Mishima’s nationalist ardor, and a blazing light that cauterizes decadence, but it is also a malign energy. “In the summer of the defeat, in the year 1945,” says Mishima, the sun “had become associated with a pervasive corruption and destruction.” Its radiance is at once deceitful and sadistically revelatory.

It was the way it gleamed so encouragingly on the wings of planes leaving on missions, on forests of bayonets, on the badges of military caps . . . but still more, far more, it was the way it glistened on the blood flowing ceaselessly from the flesh, and on the silver bodies of flies clustering on wounds. Holding sway over corruption, leading youth in droves to its death in tropical seas and countrysides, the sun lorded it over that vast rusty-red ruin that stretched away to the distant horizon.

Mishima, twenty years old in the summer of defeat, has been exempted from military service because of a respiratory ailment. He settles into life as a literary prodigy and Tokyo scenester, resolved to commit “every possible heresy.” Shunning the sun, he turns to shadow: “I loved my pit, my dusky room. . . . I enjoyed introspection. . . . I hankered after Novalis’s night.” However, his instincts alert him that the brooding beatnik lifestyle is about to go mainstream: “An era was approaching in which to treat the sun as an enemy would be tantamount to following the herd. The literary works written or put before the public around that time were dominated by night thoughts.” Writing such literature has unfortunate physical consequences. “The men who indulged in nocturnal thought, it seemed to me, had without exception dry, lusterless skins and sagging stomachs.”

In 1952, on a ship bound for Greece, Mishima realizes he does not want to be a nocturnal schlump anymore. “Why must it be that men always seek out the depths, the abyss?” he wonders. He suspects that it’s possible to “discover depths of a kind in the ‘surface,’ [in] that vital borderline that endorses our separateness and our form, dividing our exterior from our interior.” He seems to be committing himself to what Susan Sontag in “Against Interpretation” called the “pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy” of art, although for him, the elevation of “sensuous immediacy” over interpretation (and, by extension, intellection in general) applies not only to art but to everything. He doesn’t say what prompted his epiphany, but indicates that it entails a rapprochement with his solar nemesis. The sun “was commanding me to construct a new and sturdy dwelling. . . . That dwelling was a tanned, lustrous skin and powerful, sensitively rippling muscles.”

Mishima takes up weight training, running, and kendo (Japanese fencing): “The goal of my life was to acquire all the various attributes of the warrior.”Eventually, this martial regimen produces a “pure sense of power” that is “a true antithesis of words.” “I had absolutely no need of any others. . . . The world I was in was made up of conceptual elements that were as pure as angels; all foreign elements had been temporarily swept aside.” His newfound “transparent, peerless power . . . required no object at all.” No need of others, no object at all: This is what you might call a highly subject-oriented ontology. But unlike the Kantian subject—the individualist “I”—the fascist subject is plural, as Mishima will eventually discover.

Yukio Mishima, ca. 1967. Tamotsu Yatō, from Young Samurai: Bodybuilders of Japan (Grove Press, 1967); Wikicommons.
Yukio Mishima, ca. 1967. Tamotsu Yatō, from Young Samurai: Bodybuilders of Japan (Grove Press, 1967); Wikicommons.

Meanwhile, he is pursuing an impossible holy grail: a sensorium without a brain. “Oh, the fierce longing simply to see, without words!” Perception without thought is the necessary precursor to the “ultimate sensation,” “the essence of something extremely concrete, the essence, even, of reality.” Representation in any form, including language, is a “dubious” diversion from sensory experience. As for expression—the representation of emotions, individual consciousness, interiority—it’s “a crime of the imagination.” Originally, Mishima decides, words were not vehicles of expression or individuality. Authored literature is degenerate art: “The epic poems of ancient times are, perhaps, an exception, but every literary work with its author’s name standing at its head is no more than a beautiful ‘perversion of words.’”

Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” had been published the year before. Mishima puts a more literal spin on the idea. His belief in the primacy of raw, unmediated experience leads him to embrace an age-old trope of hawkish propaganda, namely, the notion that combat is the quickest way to drill down to the quiddity of existence. To see without words requires an “enemy,” who “must deal a blow to the realm of the senses fierce enough to silence the querulous complaints of self-awareness.” In war, “blood flows, existence is destroyed, and the shattered senses” finally float free of language and cognition. “This is death,” Mishima clarifies. It is also, of course, the ultimate sensation. Like the Dionysian rite of sparagmos, in which a person was killed by being torn apart, the warrior’s ultraviolent, shattering demise is a kind of negative ecstasy.

But not everyone can die a warrior’s death, because not everyone has the attributes of the warrior—masculine physical perfection foremost among these. Mishima’s weight training “restored the classical balance that the body had begun to lose, reinstating it in its natural form, the form that it should have had all along.” Vitruvian man is primordial man; a male body in its originary state will have the same architectonic beauty as the Athenian ideal. Like primitive language, this prelapsarian physique is generic rather than individuated.

I had always felt that such signs of physical individuality as a bulging belly (sign of spiritual sloth) or a flat chest with protruding ribs (sign of an unduly nervous sensibility) were excessively ugly. . . . To me, these could only seem acts of shameless indecency, as though the owner were exposing his spiritual pudenda on the outside of his body. They represented one type of narcissism that I could never forgive.

Narcissism with a penis is fine, as Mishima’s relentless self-obsession attests. Every one of the beautiful bodies he imagines or admires is a mirror reflecting his own “powerful, tragic frame and sculpturesque muscles.” Only men who have achieved this aesthetic condition may embody the most exalted of identities: hero. “The cult of the hero and a mighty nihilism are always related to a mighty body and well-tempered muscles.” The spectacle at the core of fascism’s aestheticized politics—uniformed bodies marching in formation—is atomized in Sun and Steel, the phalanx broken down to its basic unit. The uniform is stripped away to reveal the real uniform underneath, the inhumanly perfect, sculpturesque skin that is the paradigm of all of fascism’s sensuous surfaces, from the lacquered sheen of Nazi Moderne to the precisely machined weaponry that will roll down Pennsylvania Avenue if Donald Trump gets his military parade. In another one of her best-known essays, “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag notes the fascist predilection for “congealed, static, ‘virile’ posing.” Mishima’s own prose, at times incantatory, fluid, and brilliant, keeps congealing into these campy images of classical, implicitly nude virility. “How, though, could something personal ever become a monument?” he demands. The hero’s body is not personal; it is already monumental. The male gaze may indulge its desire for that body, but only when it’s too late for consummation.

A man must under normal circumstances never permit his own objectivization; he can only be objectified through the supreme action—which is, I suppose, the moment of death. . . . Of such is the beauty of the suicide squad, which is recognized as beauty not only in the spiritual sense but, by men in general, in an ultra-erotic sense also.

Finally, when Mishima enlists for a brief stint in the Japanese military, he discovers the toxic holism of the fascist “we,” achieving mind meld with his comrades during an exhausting run. “Self-awareness by now was as remote as [a] distant rumor. . . . I belonged to them, they belonged to me; the two formed an unmistakable ‘us.’ To belong—what more intense form of existence could there be?” He adds a telling caveat: “The group must be open to death—which meant, of course, that it must be a community of warriors.”

Mishima at last appreciates that “the kind of words I dealt in”—i.e., literature, authored words—“constantly rejected the significance of the group.” His real beef with individual expression, it becomes clear, is that it keeps you from being one of the guys. “The group was concerned with all those things that could never emerge from words—sweat, and tears, and cries of joy or pain.”

There is no racism or hate in Sun and Steel. The only group toward which Mishima expresses any animus are his erstwhile peers, the sad young literary men of postwar Tokyo. But the heady intensity of the kind of belonging he describes is never just about belonging—it’s about excluding, too. Mishima’s joyous reference to a reality devoid of “all foreign elements” suggests an existential xenophobia. Foreign elements are banished from his personal history, relegated to absolute invisibility. A Martian could read Sun and Steel and have no clue that humanity comes in more than one gender; the one bizarre reference to “spiritual pudendas” is the only acknowledgment that women exist. But his group also excludes lots of people who are not female. It excludes everyone who fails to exhibit the attributes of a warrior.

Thanks to his hard-won lack of self-awareness, Mishima is oblivious to the conceptual fissures within Sun and Steel, such as the unresolved tension, if not hopeless contradiction, between “seeing without words,” on the one hand, and fetishizing the ultra-erotic beauty of the doomed hero, on the other. The gaze is not a vector of pure libido; it cannot select its targets without language, culture, ideas about what makes something fuckable. You cannot immortalize a hero without representing him, whether in Homeric epic or in a maladroitly Photoshopped poster. Your body cannot disappear into the black hole of ecstatic annihilation and crystallize into an eternal monument at the same time. But Mishima’s peerless power is so totalizing that it apparently neutralizes contradictions by fiat, so that, for example, the most decadent vice of all—the aestheticization and eroticization of deadly violence—can be proposed as a manly virtue, and a philosophy that prizes experience above all else can enfold a vision of sex as the static communion of a calcified body and a desiring gaze. Who wouldn’t be tempted by the promise of a power that simply cuts through the Gordian knots of confusion, ambivalence, cognitive dissonance, all the things that might impel us to consult our self-critical consciences?

If nobody has enough to lose from a revolution to bother plotting its reversal, then it’s not a revolution at all—which means that any year of revolution is necessarily a year of counterrevolution, too. Sun and Steel is a transmission from the dark side of the moon, an artifact of that other 1968, the one Apple never tried to co-opt. That’s what everyone was worried about on the fortieth anniversary of ’68—co-optation, the neoliberal appropriation of the counterculture ethos, the commodification of dissent, the new spirit of capitalism. But all the while, this other beast was slouching along, knowing its time was not yet at hand but would be, in due course, and that a few more years of trickle-up economics would help pave the way. As the historian Timothy Snyder recently observed, with respect to the contemporary recycling of political ideas from the ’20s and ’30s: “Fascism is becoming a story oligarchy tells about itself.” Mishima, like the Italian Futurists before him, reminds us that sometimes, fascism is also a story that the avant-garde tells about itself.

And vice versa. In a 2016 BuzzFeed article, alt-right guru Richard Spencer told journalist Rosie Gray that he found mainstream-press coverage a bit jarring because “I’m so used to being an avant-garde bohemian intellectual.” Or consider these quotes from a recent interview with a guy named Paul Waggener: “I mostly listen to the really classic, incredibly depressing country music. And I listen to a lot of black metal. . . . Everything is moving rapidly more and more towards a corporate monoculture. . . . It mediates all activity through television, through the internet. Everything has become mediated like pornography.” Waggener is a founder of the Wolves of Vinland, a “folkish pagan” group, and of Operation Werewolf, a sort of far-right bohemian men’s movement that counts plenty of Mishima fans in its ranks. A white supremacist who complains about corporate monoculture, whose musical taste would win the approval of all the rock snobs I went to college with, and whose views on porn are more progressive than theirs? It seems odd, though I guess it’s just an update of punk/skinhead hybridity. The docudrama series NSU German History X (2016) does a brilliant job of depicting the moment, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when East German adolescents were choosing subcultural affiliations in an atmosphere of cultural ferment. Neo-Nazis and Marxist anarchists are living in the same abandoned buildings, wearing the same clothes (with different slogans), and listening to bands that are musically indistinguishable. For some kids, the choice of which group to join seems almost arbitrary. Counterrevolution can be as much fun as revolution, because it’s the same thing, only in reverse.

Relatedly, the mythology of the mighty nihilist exerts its appeal across the political spectrum, informing archetypes of subversion and rebellion that can be repurposed for any ideological program. The term avant-garde is borrowed from the military lexicon; the modernist avant-gardes conceptualized the artist as, essentially, a guerilla fighting an asymmetrical war against bourgeois culture and norms as such. That’s who Mishima was when he was writing his night thoughts and committing every possible heresy. Morally, the segue from metaphorical combat to actual violence is momentous, but perhaps psychologically it’s less of a leap than we might assume, when the ground has been prepared by deeply ingrained ideas about heroism, extreme risk, and the kinds of experience worth having.

Waggener professes to identify with the language and social structures of “motorcycle gangs.” The ’60s counterculture, too, had a thing for motorcycle gangs, romanticizing them all the way up until Altamont, the Dionysian death rite of the 1960s, when a bunch of Hell’s Angels who were doing security for the Rolling Stones—just as bikers have been doing for white-supremacist demonstrators in the past couple of years—killed Meredith Hunter, an eighteen-year-old black man. Fascists aren’t the only people who go looking for the essence of reality in their own grandiose and potentially lethal fantasies. If the counterculture’s search for the ultimate sensation usually entailed a peaceful hippie pilgrimage, it might also take the form of the kind of hypermasculine death trip that Mishima renders so vividly, and that he lived out. He fits right in among the easy riders and raging bulls in New Hollywood’s pantheon of heroes. If he had never existed, the alt-right wouldn’t have needed to invent him, because Paul Schrader already would have.

Elizabeth Schambelan is the deputy editor of Artforum.