Sun and Steel

These words are highly evocative and it is no surprise that the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima used them as the title of his meditation on the power and value of the human body over that of the written word.

Mishima’s arrival at this point in his life where he embarked upon started in a world quite removed from both sun and steel. He was raised until his teenage years primarily by his grandmother, being forced to sleep in her room and not being allowed to play with boys his age. He avoided conscription in World War II by feigning illness (although I would think that he actually just failed to pass the health exam) and held on to that guilt long after the war was over.

However, this allowed him to avoid an unnecessary death and he went on to become one of modern Japan’s greatest writers, writing many novels, short stories, plays, and film scripts. Mishima was also an acknowledged expert in Noh dramas; thanks in part to his grandmother’s influence as she raised him on these plays and contributed to his classical education.

Given his history, it seems quite shocking that he would perform an about face and become an enthusiastic weight-lifter and martial arts practitioner but Mishima explains it in Sun and Steel as realization that his words were like acid, eating away at his body and soul, essentially making him a coward for removing his body from the world and its reality.

As I read his book and reflect on the world around me, I see how technology is removing many of us from physical reality. Whether it be immersion in the world of an MMO, spending hours playing Farmville and watching ones friends on Facebook, or just being glued to a phone while outside in the real world, I have to agree with Mishima that many of us are lacking that necessary component that truly awakens our inner selves. The hard work and physical sensations that only come from training and competition.

Mishima’s life ended in a spectacular suicide, in the traditional samurai method of cutting his belly and having his head removed by a companion. Some felt that this invalidated his work and made any association with his ideas as dangerous. However, I feel that he just chose the time and method of his death and it just happened to be in this most dramatic way. Many people die in a hospital bed of a lingering illness, surrounded by strangers and Mishima chose another path.

He did leave the world though with a call to action (though I do believe that, had he chosen to live, he would have contributed so much more to literature and the world around him). As we plan our days and our lives, it is critically important that we make room for both sides of human existence: the body as well as the soul.

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