Why Writers Are Miserable, and Often Cowardly


Yukio Mishima
“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality…”
T.S Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
“Words are processed life, the detritus of living: the existential equivalent of shit.”

Life is always in motion.   The world is spinning.   The body is pumping blood.   Dead things may be decaying but then they are not really dead, are they?  The universe, I suppose, is expanding.   This state of movement can be overwhelming.  Nothing is certain in movement.    Nothing can be coerced into permanence or self-containment.   Nothing can be possessed, only rented.   This is scary because oftentimes what we want most in this life is certainty.   We want stillness.  Because stillness –– the state of calmness and understanding –– is bliss.   But this is not how life is.   Life is moving, and moving means speed, blurriness, uncertainty.

It is for this reason that writers (also computer programmers, lawyers, collectors, historians, photographers, pornographers, archivists, gamers etc.) are often wretched people.  Writing is the art of structuring the existential world, of trying to slow it down, sharpen its focus, and take the edge off uncertainty.   In many ways, then, writing is a task for the neurotic and moronic; the writer is a coward, a coward in the face of reality — and consequently he flees into the stable, plastic world of words.   Socrates bemoaned writing because he considered it a bastardization of speech. You can go further and bemoan it because it is a bastardization of life itself. Words are processed life, the detritus of living: the existential equivalent of shit. (Writers and their writing can sometimes be healthy, but the underlying impulse stems from disease and castration. The best writers, few and far between, are aware of this or suffer from it to such an intense degree that their work becomes fantastical and jaw-droppingly exotic.)

This is the message of the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima’s memoir Sun and Steel. Traditional writing, Mishima says, “holds chaos in check” and offers the writer a bunker from the violence of ceaseless change.   Mishima, a full on writer (and reject), courageously set out to shed his “sickly” writerly self.   He did this through weightlifting and tanning: the strain of steel and the burn of the sun.    In these activities, he found real living, for strong muscles and lustrous skin “perish with blossom.”  Thus they confront (rather than shun) the tyranny of change, death, and instability.

Finally, Mishima formed his own private army with several young men and staged an assault on the Japanese government.   He committed seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment.    A very writely thing to do.

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