Patriotism

In 1960 the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote the horribly beautiful story “Patriotism.” There is no possibility of ‘spoilers’ in this review, because it is announced on the first page that this is the story of the ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) of one lieutenant Shinji Takeyama (and we are also told, almost as an afterthought, of the accompanying suicide of his wife Reiko). The action of the story takes place in 1936. In a nutshell, the lieutenant has just been informed of a failed mutiny against the Emperor, to whom he is loyal, that was perpetrated by men to whom he is also loyal. He knows he will be called upon to suppress the mutiny and fight and kill his erstwhile comrades, an untenable situation. Fortunately, his culture provides him with a way to deal honorably with untenable situations—seppuku.

The entire story takes place in Takeyama’s home, and involves the preparations he and his wife make to end their lives; their rather intense relations leading up to the act, in which everything is done by the book, as it were, but there is still plenty of room for passion and steamy sex; and, of course, the grisly act itself, which is described unflinchingly, without romanticizing the mechanics of the thing or the necessary human frailty involved in carrying it out. The story has been quite aptly described by a friend of mine as “fascist pornography.” It is told without any irony or attempts to undermine the motives or honor of its characters; in fact, Mishima was to commit seppuku himself ten years after writing the story. The general feeling conveyed is a sort of grim exaltation in the face of fate.

In 1960 the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote the horribly beautiful story “Patriotism.” There is no possibility of ‘spoilers’ in this review, because it is announced on the first page that this is the story of the ritual suicide (‘seppuku’) of one lieutenant Shinji Takeyama (and we are also told, almost as an afterthought, of the accompanying suicide of his wife Reiko). The action of the story takes place in 1936. In a nutshell, the lieutenant has just been informed of a failed mutiny against the Emperor, to whom he is loyal, that was perpetrated by men to whom he is also loyal. He knows he will be called upon to suppress the mutiny and fight and kill his erstwhile comrades, an untenable situation. Fortunately, his culture provides him with a way to deal honorably with untenable situations—seppuku.

The entire story takes place in Takeyama’s home, and involves the preparations he and his wife make to end their lives; their rather intense relations leading up to the act, in which everything is done by the book, as it were, but there is still plenty of room for passion and steamy sex; and, of course, the grisly act itself, which is described unflinchingly, without romanticizing the mechanics of the thing or the necessary human frailty involved in carrying it out. The story has been quite aptly described by a friend of mine as “fascist pornography.” It is told without any irony or attempts to undermine the motives or honor of its characters; in fact, Mishima was to commit seppuku himself ten years after writing the story. The general feeling conveyed is a sort of grim exaltation in the face of fate.

The title in Japanese is “Yukoku,” which apparently means something like care or anxiety for one’s country. In any case, “Patriotism” is a perfect title for the story, with its connotations of homeland, loyalty, and even patriarchy. The essence of the story is expressed quite clearly in the following passage; Takeyama and his wife have just finished having sex for the final time, and a calm and dreadful certainty settles over them:

They had both sensed at that moment—though not, of course, in any clear and conscious way—that those permissible pleasures were once more beneath the protection of Righteousness and Divine Power, and of a complete and unassailable morality. On looking into each other eyes and discovering there an honorable death, they had felt themselves safe once more behind steel walls which none could destroy, encased in an impenetrable armor of Beauty and Truth.

Morality, honor, steel, armor, power, truth—this is a sort of fascist pornography indeed, although, if it is nothing if not consistently earnest, it manages to avoid any hint of kitsch.

In fact, if there is hint of nostalgia or doubt, or any sense that the domain of truth and beauty is less of an impregnable fortress than it may appear to be in the quoted passage, it does not appear within the story itself, but rather in the fact that the story was written at all. Although the story is about a sort of patriotism, few words are wasted extolling Japan, its emperor, or its soldiers; instead, the patriotic connection is more with honor, loyalty, and patriotism itself than with any specific object of fealty. Partly, no doubt, this is because any code of honor is in some sense self-regarding, holding honor itself higher than any mundane imperatives. Nevertheless, a declaration such as this one inevitably comes with a question mark or two, whether or not these are actually inscribed within the text. It is not simply that this affirmation of honor and truth comes against the backdrop of global capitalism and is thus politically coded in a certain way, which I have followed my friend in calling ‘fascist.’ The issue isn’t simply what is being affirmed here, but when and why. Mishima is defending the fort against the incursion of a global culture of monetary, rather then moral, values, and this means the central paradox of the story is that a putatively impregnable fortress must be defended at all.

There are several reasons why “Patriotism” is such an aesthetically satisfying story, not least because it describes a way of life that doesn’t distinguish between ethical and aesthetic considerations but recognizes their deep, underlying unity; furthermore, it’s written in lapidary, gripping prose that displays a very high degree of both sincere commitment and masterful artistry, all of which keeps it from stumbling into the sort of hilariously didactic tar pit in which the bones of Ayn Rand are perfectly preserved. And it’s hard not to feel a yearning pang for the sense of meaningful belonging expressed in Mishima’s story. However, the sort of question I am interested in here is less personal and ethical than social and historical. This question is one of belonging, of some sort of homeland and what and where it may be. This is precisely the question put most succinctly by Heidegger when he asks: “What is the nature of dwelling in our precarious time?”

It is no coincidence, of course, that Heidegger himself was attracted to fascism, infamously joining the Nazi party in 1933. Fascism is one possible reaction to the relentless razing of every homeland that goes by the name of global capital. But Heidegger’s thought cannot be reduced to an apologia for his execrable political decision, although it is clearly not unrelated to the latter either. But he came to see the only type of authentic dwelling available to contemporary humanity as a sort of becoming at home in homelessness. Heidegger himself was able to maintain a very fervent kind of patriotism for the nebulous homeland of human homelessness, which (along with his period of allegiance to Nazism) has led many to see him as embracing a sort of parochial localism, without noticing that his patriotism was for a ground that is groundless and uproots as much as it grounds. But this kind of patriotism is much harder to muster than the type that impels Takeyama and Reiko to gut themselves in Mishima’s story.

If fascism is partly a reaction to capitalism that tries to violently reaffirm local and national ties, at least rhetorically, then communism insists that the wasteland itself can be made a home, seeing in capitalism an unpleasant precursor to a social form that is global and universal, but that nevertheless shucks off the traces of value production and the institutions that secure the dominance of capital. In that case, in some ways Heidegger is closer to communism than he is to fascism, and indeed although he cravenly joined the party and mouthed some of its more deplorable slogans, in the end he was never able to accommodate his thinking to a regime that held him in deep suspicion by the time of its final years in power.

In any case, critics of capitalism, when seeking to envision an alternative, are faced with a decision: not a simple choice between Nazism and communism, of course, but a choice that is not as easy, or as clear. This is the alternative between locating a homeland in the old way, on a smaller scale and with a group that is, in whatever way, clearly identifiable and distinguished from its neighbors, and a global social entity of whatever kind, however loosely defined or held together. The situation that any social critic is faced with, in other words, is homelessness and the meaning of the home. Posed more concretely, this is the question as to whether the liquidation of fixed meanings, rituals, and social hierarchies that capital brings is a lamentable obstacle to a healthy social body, or whether it in some way lays the ground for something new. This does not have to be posed as a choice between nationalism and internationalism, and thus can be separated from the question of whether the productive structures and institutions of capitalism can be adapted to a socialist framework, or whether they must be somehow abolished. No matter the answer, it is Heidegger’s question that must be addressed: “What is the nature of dwelling in our precarious time?”