Friday, August 07, 2015

Fascinating Lives

There is something, I think, admirable in a quiet life: care for family, constructive participation in community, hard work. But there are times and places (perhaps all times, but not all places?) where simply attending to the simple things of life becomes a kind of impossibility: whether for psychological or moral reasons. I was reflecting on two persons recently who have struck me by not only their intellectual genius but also by the sheer force by which they pushed against the norm, one for reasons of psychology and one for reasons of morality.

Yukio Mishima: narcissist, political fanatic, suicide. And one of Japan's greatest novelists. I recently completed the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which traces the life of Shigekuni Honda from youth to retirement as a wealthy attorney, centered around what Honda believes are the successive reincarnations of his friend Kiyoaki Matsugae: as a young rightist, a Thai princess and an orphan. The most powerful of the four novels, in my opinion is the second: Runaway Horses. The book seems to rebuke the militant nationalism of Japanese reactionaries, though ironically enough Mishima himself ends his own life under the banner of a similar ideology. Mishima's fascinating portrait of an inherent dark side of youth - a taming of a deep inhumanism - so to speak, comes through almost all the novels, but most strongly in the last. This echoes a theme he developed in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, though I can think of few works that more strongly explore this theme than the Lord of the Flies. In any case, Mishima is masterful in exploring aberrant developmental psychology - even as he, himself, seems to have been stricken with his own disordered personality.

Maria Skobtsova: atheist, symbolist poet, Bolshevik revolutionary - and a renegade nun arrested for helping Jews in Paris by the Gestapo, she allegedly died by taking the place of a Jewish woman being sent to death. Jim Forrest provides a useful overview of her life - unlikely most lives of a Christian saints, this is no hagiography: it is a straightforward story of life. At the same time, we see a life transformed by a dawning realization that self-denial is a path to transformation -

"The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I': ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe."

And despite a life dedicated to service, she remained an acute intellectual, a characteristic of so many Russian emigres in Paris. This too reflected her view that redemption and suffering where intertwined - my favorite piece On the Imitation of the Mother of God
- draws this out beautifully.


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