I’m coming across a number of fascinating types of guys in my book research. The internet has gotten so much better at enabling these light-speed jumps from one galaxy to another. I pull an academic paper that references an essay in a book, which references an essay in a 1991 edition of a magazine, which references a book from the 1950s whose author became the subject of Paul Schrader’s favorite film he ever directed, and now here we are: Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s most legendary modern writers who wrote about, among other things, lifting weights.
Mishima seems to have a complicated legacy, made even more complicated by the fact that there seem to be aspects of his life people don’t want to talk about. But he is one of Japan’s most highly acclaimed and important novelists. One of his most cherished works, Confessions of a Mask, centers on a gay main character. Confessions is a novel, though it is canonically considered “semi-autobiographical,” specifically a culturally Japanese type of “realist confessional literature” called the I-novel. This feels very similar to what we’d call “autofiction” today; a man ahead of his time! Mishima was also extremely interested in the male form and bodybuilding (not unlike our man, doctor and author Oliver Sacks).
Mishima also was a member of the Japan Flying Saucer Research Association, wanted to blow up a bank to destroy capitalism (good lad), but wanted to do it in order to reinforce his extremist, nationalist, right-wing political views that Japan should give all the power back to the emperor (uhhh…). He died by suicide in 1970 after a failed attempt at inciting a coup.
Anyway, I am no expert on the legacy of Mishima, nor do I want to pretend to be.[^1] But today, I just wanted to share some words from Mishima’s Sun and Steel, [^2] a book-length essay he wrote about bodybuilding and martial arts. We don’t get many artists who are lifters, and we get even fewer of them who actually write about it, so I collect them like precious little figurines.
On the misguided separation of body and soul:
The theme of the estrangement of body and spirit, born of the craving I have described, persisted for a long time as a principal theme in my work… the body, too, might have its own logic, possibly even its own thought; when I began to feel that the body's special qualities did not lie solely in taciturnity and beauty of form, but that the body too might have its own loquacity.
The estrangement of body and spirit in modern society is an almost universal phenomenon, and there is nobody—the reader may feel—who would fail to deplore it; so that to prate emotionally about the body "thinking" or the "loquacity" of the flesh is going too far, and by using such phrases I am merely covering up my own confusion.
And yet, in remote recesses invisible to the eye, the body slowly creates and regulates its own thought. With the surface, on the other hand, which is visible to everybody, training of the body must take precedence over training of thought if it is to create and supervise its own ideas.
On the the apathetic-gym-class-participant to adult-onset-jock-syndrome to mortality-confrontation pipeline:
As a middle-school boy, a forced march from Gora to Sengoku-bara, then over Otome Pass to the plain at the foot of Mt. Fuji, was an undoubted trial, but all I extracted from my tribulations was a passive, mental type of suffering. I lacked the physical courage to seek out suffering for myself, to take pain unto myself.
Men have by now forgotten the profound hidden struggle between consciousness and the body that exists in courage, and physical courage in particular. Consciousness is generally considered to be passive, and the active body to constitute the essence of all that is bold and daring; yet in the drama of physical courage the roles are, in fact, reversed…
It is the ultimate in clarity of consciousness that constitutes one of the strongest contributing factors in self-abandonment. To embrace suffering is the constant role of physical courage; and physical courage is, as it were, the source of that taste for understanding and appreciating death that, more than anything else, is a prime condition for making true awareness of death possible.
However much the closeted philosopher mulls over the idea of death, so long as he remains divorced from the physical courage that is a prerequisite for an awareness of it, he will remain unable even to begin to grasp it.
I believe that just as physical training will transform supposedly involuntary muscles into voluntary ones, so a similar transformation can be achieved through training the mind. Both body and mind, through an inevitable tendency that one might almost call a natural law, are inclined to lapse into automatism, but I have found by experience that a large stream may be deflected by digging a small channel…
It is true enough that when I lifted a certain weight of steel, I was able to believe in my own strength. I sweated and panted, struggling to obtain certain proof of my strength. At such times, the strength was mine, and equally it was the steel's. My sense of existence was feeding on itself.
(Historical) thoughts on objectification of masculine qualities:
For me, beauty is always retreating from one's grasp: the only thing I consider important is what existed once, or ought to have existed… The groups of muscles that have become virtually unnecessary in modern life, though still a vital element of a man's body, are obviously pointless from a practical point of view, and bulging muscles are as unnecessary as a classical education is to the majority of practical men. Muscles have gradually become something akin to classical Greek…
Why should a man be associated with beauty only through a heroic, violent death? In ordinary life, society maintains a careful surveillance to ensure that men shall have no part in beauty; physical beauty in the male, when considered as an "object" in itself without any intermediate agent, is despised, and the profession of the male actor—which involves constantly being "seen"—is far from being accorded true respect. A strict rule is imposed where men are concerned. It is this: a man must under normal circumstances never permit his own objectivization; he can only be objectified through the supreme action—which is, I suppose, the moment of death, the moment when, even without being seen, the fiction of being seen and the beauty of the object are permitted.
The whole book is fairly short. But Mishima was so articulate on these subjects and able to put into words a fundamentally difficult-to-put-into-words aspect of life, it’s worth a read.
~Discord Pick of the Week: Jack LaLanne’s widow, Elaine, is 97 and still kicking, how? She’s doing her body work. ~
Look—no one hates hearing about how good isolateral leg work is more than me, and especially not when you bring up my nemesis, the Bulgarian split squat. But I want you to look at these two men right here, one of whom is Saquon Barkley. These are quad gods, and what are they doing? That’s right—their damn isolateral home-work. No one is angrier than I! The facts are the facts. Those step-downs, those Nordic curls, they matter!
The quest to pick up the lost lifting stones of Ireland. (The writer of this article, Alyssa Ages, has a book coming out soon called Secrets of Giants! She interviewed yours truly for it, and you know what that means 😊)
This guy dug a jerk hole, for science.
Lucy Underdown set a new strongman world record in her weight class for deadlifts at 700 lbs.
Roll for your workout (D20 required).
Local clown Joey Swoll “wishes he never had to do another single video” about people’s ridiculous gym behavior. Zero self-awareness that he perpetuates the cycle of people doing ridiculous stuff in the gym by “actually”ing them.
Do vegan diets negatively impact bone health? Fascinatingly—if you lift, no, they work about as well (with supplements) as an omnivore diet. Without lifting—yes they do. Vegans should lift, even more so than the rest of us!
I happened across this three-year-old Strategist article on “the best lifting belts” and, as I do, I feel an overwhelming need to correct it, because everything about it is wrong. You will regret getting a double-prong belt, like the Best Belts one in here. “Weightlifting” belts, especially Velcro ones, are for if you do Olympic weightlifting (clean and jerk, snatch), not squats or deadlifts. I really like my Inzer lever belt (the only good one in here) because I don’t have to take it off and put it on fully between sets in order to be comfortable. However, changing the size is a bit of a task, so if you, for instance, retain a lot of fluid after eating, get a single-prong belt.
Those of us on not on the cosmetic procedure train get precious few W’s; at present I’m taking solace in the fact that it’s possible to become desensitized to Botox.
Paper coffee cups: bad (lined with plastic, not really recyclable).
A man after my own heart: a lawyer who is beet-red in the face about the lies on food packaging (“pure and simple,” “real fruit,” “lemon” vs. “lemon flavor”). Words mean things!
Tiny forests (though I can’t believe we have branded “just letting stuff grow”).
In addition to Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, I rewatched Kill Bill 2 this week. It holds up!
That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—
[F1] Though if any readers here happen to be Mishima scholars, I’d love to hear from you! I can’t quite tell if he’s Nabokov controversial or Christopher Hitchens controversial.
[F2] I was admitted to Bookshop’s affiliate program, so I may earn a small commission from these two book links in here. Just trying something new!