The Kinkakuji on fire in the 1950s.

Obsession, Political Theater, and the Ides of March

By Cassandra Farrin | 3.15.2017

Today is the Ides of March, the infamous death-day of Julius Caesar and, this year, the occasion of lots and lots of postcards flooding the White House. As I reflect today on the most disturbing feature of our political situation right now—the blatant, unapologetic lying by public officials even about things that hundreds and thousands of people witnessed, such as the size of crowds at national events—I find myself not nearly as interested in novels like Orwell’s 1984 as I am in novels like Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion because the latter better captures the horror and concern I actually feel.

Temple of the Golden Pavilion is about a young man named Mizoguchi who becomes obsessed with the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) in Kyoto, an obsession that escalates to an attempt to burn it down. Framed around a true story, as many Japanese novels are, it is told as a strangely compelling first-person account of an obsession not unlike Nabokov’s Lolita. If you stop and consider it, the actual behavior of the men in both books is atrocious, yet the narrative invites understanding and empathy on the part of the reader. One begins to relate with and even care about these disturbing narrators only to recoil at their inevitable acts of violence.

I wonder if this is happening to us on the national stage. We find ourselves joining a drama that regularly displays violent language and violent gestures. Then suddenly we experience or witness a local act of violence related to it. A person is deported. A Jewish cemetery is vandalized. Brown children are told callously by their classmates, “Oh, I’ve got nothing to worry about because I’m white.” The political theater seemed distant, until it wasn’t. It becomes too personal to ignore. I wonder if that’s actually truer to people’s experience right now than a 1984-esque state-controlled scenario. So much of what’s happening has to do with our own psychology and self-image and sense of our place in our communities. As long as we’re left juggling our emotions on the terms of the people playing with fire on the national stage, it’s not clear who is overreacting and who is facing a real threat.

Returning to The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mizoguchi’s influences at first are very personal. He witnesses his mother making love to another man in front of his dying father. Then he witnesses the betrayal by a woman of her lover and her subsequent death. These early, formative experiences fold into Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, which forms a key moment in the escalation of Mizoguchi’s obsession: “Please let the evil that is in my heart increase and multiply indefinitely, so that it may correspond in every particular with the vast light [of the city of Kyoto] before my eyes! Let the darkness of my heart, in which that evil is enclosed, equal the darkness of the night, which encloses those countless lights!” Immediately after this scene, Mizoguchi is ordered by an American occupying soldier to kick a Japanese prostitute’s stomach repeatedly, causing her to miscarry. Mizoguchi not only does it; he delights in it. But he also worries obsessively over whether or not he should confess what he has done. Will a confession undo his first act of evil? “My deed had settled like gold dust within my memory and had begun to give off a glittering light that constantly pierced my eyes.” It “hung like some decoration on the inside of my breast.”

I think Mishima would agree with me that there's a connection to be made here. When he was asked what passion drove him, he replied, “Being brought up during the war and being told at the age of 20 that everything until then had been a mistake — that’s all.” This novel, like all the others he wrote, was never intended to be an individual character study but a refracted understanding of how Japan was transformed by war from the early through mid-20th century.

In my article Japan’s 18th-Century Pioneer of Historical Consciousness, I suggested we can avoid rigid, dogmatic thinking by observing Nakamoto Tominaga’s Three Things (san butsu): that particular words are spoken by a particular person at a particular historical moment. I suggested this can be good news: we don’t have to give in to a paralyzing fear of “getting it wrong” just because our values and commitments evolve from one generation to another. However, my comments today reflect the other side of that conversation, that is, what scares me and leaves me sometimes in a state of paralysis: that of obsessions slipping a mask over reality. “I have come to believe that this person or entity is a threat to me. It is such a threat that I have do my part to eradicate it, or at the very least I don’t care what is done to it by others.”

My aim here has simply been to push back against the attempt to read this as a 1984 moment or even, for that matter, a Roman Empire moment. I don’t think the government has that much control over us, but I do think the strategic messaging and blatant lying is an attempt to confuse those who let themselves become drawn too far into the drama. Rather than getting sucked into the disturbing rhetoric, even to the point of emulating it, I hope we can instead keep ourselves off the stage, feet firmly planted on the ground. What is actually happening in our communities, and what words and actions are in our power to handle? By opening our eyes to real people and real places, we can avoid the temptation to play a role cast for us by someone else.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi Cassandra,

    I’m not thinking 1984 or the overwhelming destructiveness of personal evil. I’m thinking “cult” as regards what occurred in Germany in the 1930’s. Yesterday a Trump voter who benefitted from the affordable care act was interviewed. Essentially he said: I’m not worried about Obamacare, I’ll be getting my coal job back. Seared on sensitive minds is the president’s claim during his campaign that he could shoot someone in the streets and not lose one vote. Couple this with the inability to tolerate criticism, and these are the characteristics of a cult and a cult leader. This is the very darkest side of religion which in this form becomes, not the savior, but the enemy of human kind. Salvation can only be found in a free press which is determined never to be suppressed.

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