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“Immortal Longings:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare and Mishima”

 

The ultimate loyalty of these four—and I include Enobarbus, who more than compensates for his momentary defection—to follow a master or mistress even in death, suggests that Antony and Cleopatra are worth dying for.  And the sensitive, hardly jubilant reaction of Caesar, their enemy, to the respective suicides of Antony and Cleopatra adds one final positive element in the evaluation of character. That the basically emotionless Caesar weeps openly at the news of Antony’s suicide indicates how strongly he is affected by the death of his political rival and former brother-in-law, and that he admires Cleopatra’s suicide in spite of his disappointment at losing her for his triumphal procession is clear from his terse comment over her corpse: “Bravest at the last, / She leveled at our purposes and, being royal, / Took her own way.”

 

In the parallel death scenes, in which the Roman general and the Egyptian queen face suicide with the courage valued by the ancient Stoics and by Shakespeare’s audience as well, it is difficult for us to withhold our admiration for two such lovers fleeing a petty, destructively ambitious world that accommodate them for that “better world” at which Cleopatra before her suicide can only hint.

 

The Front Line of the Spirit

 

The third member of the literary trio is Yukio Mishima, a Japanese writer born between the two World Wars who produced most of his important work after World War Two.  Like Seneca and Shakespeare, he might be said to subscribe to the morale nuancée, for not all forms of suicide are equally acceptable to him.  For example, in his 1956 novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (first English translation in 1959), a young Buddhist priest, physically unattractive and afflicted with a speech disability, burns down a beautiful Zen Buddhist temple.  His original intention is to die in the conflagration, but at the last minute he changes his mind and escapes.  The novel is based on a true story, but Mishima adapts the events to concentrate in some detail on the mind of a psychopath.

 

On the other hand, his best-known, frequently anthologized short story, “Patriotism” (1960), deals with what, in Mishima’s opinion, is one of the most heroic ways to die:  the suicide of honor.  Also based on a real-life incident, an unsuccessful 1936 coup against the Japanese government, “Patriotism” is thus grounded in the past but simultaneously foreshadows Mishima’s ritual suicide a decade after the story appeared.

 

“Patriotism” begins with a bare summary of the main events of the story, the double suicide of a young soldier and his wife, married for less than half a year, and the brief contents of their suicide notes.  The summary reads almost like a newspaper story or an extended obituary, but toward the conclusion of the first paragraph the third-person narrator, with less than journalistic objectivity, offers an opinion of these deaths that no doubt represents the view of Mishima himself: “The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep.” 

 

Having given away the plot, the narrator retraces his steps to focus more slowly on his major interests:  the circumstances leading up to the suicides and the nature of those suicides.  The events of the tragedy occur within a three-day period, February 26 -28 1936.  On the morning of the 26th, thirty-one-year-old Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama is awakened by a bugle call, hurriedly puts on his uniform and leaves the house.  Already as her husband rushes out “into the snowy morning, Reiko [his twenty-three-year-old wife] had read the determination to die.”

 

When he returns on the third day, he confirms her suspicion “tonight I shall cut my stomach.”  His wife’s response indicates her worthiness to be soldier’s wife: “ ‘I am ready,’ she said.  ‘I ask permission to accompany you.’ ”

 

The reason for his wish to die—and therefore for hers as well—is an impossible dilemma in which he finds himself, with either alternative to action compromising his honor; hence death is the only way out. Several of his close fellow soldiers have participated in a failed coup d’ état, and he surmises that he was not asked to take part, even though they knew he shared their political views, out of consideration for him as a newlywed.  He believes, “I shall be in command of a unit with orders to attack them. ...I can’t do it.” But that would mean refusing his orders as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army.  Suicide will be for him, to use the Senecan phrase, “a becoming exit.” 

 

Their preparations for death are relatively simple.  The Lieutenant shaves, and he and his wife take baths.  They share some heated sake—she never having had alcohol before—and then engage in passionate lovemaking for the last time.  They dress, he in military uniform, she in a white kimono and write their suicide notes.  Despite their great love for each other and their short time together as a married couple, they face the prospect of death bravely, even happily.  Reiko prepares some appetizers to go with their heated sake, as if she were getting ready for another party to entertain her husband’s friends.

 

 

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