Book review

The Way of All Flesh

Written by Prof. Jan Baetens

I have no idea whether Yukio Mishima is (still) a key figure in queer and LGBTQ studies, but his lesser known 1963 novel The School of Flesh would be a good starting point of a broad and stimulating cultural analysis (original title: Nikutai no gakkō; I read the book in French, for as far as I know there exists no English translation, unless of course one considers the US/UK release of Benoît Jacquot’s movie adaptation a case of intermedial and interlinguistic translation).

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

However, like all great works, the novel is not only of interest for one specific perspective or target group. The School of Flesh can also be read from other angles, such as for instance the reflection on the permanently shifting models of what the words “modern”, “contemporary” or “fashionable” may mean in specific yet simultaneously very diverse communities. Mishima highlights the fundamentally relative character of these references while at the same time bringing to the fore the no less fundamentally stable structure of some underlying cultural tropes.

At first sight, this love story between an “older” upper class fashion retailer (she is in her late thirties) and a young and wild (he is twenty-one) but poor and lower middle-class student exclusively interested in “money” and “getting rich” (when they meet he works as a barkeeper/prostitute in a gay night club), is also a superb case study in the ephemerality of cultural canons –and I am taking here the position of a 2021 Belgian reader, intrigued by the way in which Mishima describes cultural change in Tokyo in the early sixties. Published in 1963, that is only some years after the great Ozu movies observing the destruction of traditional Japanese family structures due to the American occupation, Mishima’s novel foregrounds the French craze, all cultural referents of modern life having turned French: the luxury industry (special perfumes by Patou), cuisine (precooked French fries), fashion (the turning point in the book is a show with the latest creations of Yves Saint-Laurent, himself present behind and before the curtains and ridiculed by Mishima as a narcissistic pussy), and above all French literature. The reading of French literature is a must. Business men are scorned for speaking English (as we know, Mishima was extremely nationalist) and not-reading books, that is French books. The female protagonist has strong opinions on Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the half-savage half-dropout student has less books then clothes (and all he reads are economy textbooks).

Mishima analysis is sharp: fashion, cuisine, luxury, and linguistic snootiness (Belgians visiting Tokyo share the same astonishment caused by the great number of French words in the public domain), are still there, and what happened in Tokyo has now become a universal phenomenon in almost all parts of the world. But what about the item that the novel presents as the heart of the matter, namely the prestige of French writing? For today’s readers of The School of Flesh, the literary references of the novel’s world will have become quite exotic (did you ever read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter? or did you ever feel guilty for not being well read in recent French writing?), and that fading away of literature as the pillar of art and culture is of course not a detail in a book obsessed with the clash between traditional and modern, that is Japanese and Western ways of life. Mishima’s treatment of French literature is complex and ambivalent: French writing is at the same presented as an instrument against Americanization and a tool in the hands of those eager to abandon traditional Japanese culture. Yet as the very acme of culture, it also represents a kind of indirect survival of traditional Japanese culture, and its disappearance from the field of French culture, soon to be reduced to luxury and life style items, also hints at the devastation of “real” culture.

However, the changing status of French “signs”, which both aggressively emerge (food, fashion, logos, icons) and ineluctably withdraw from the center of culture (to be on the page does no longer suppose the reading of the latest French works, as shown by the attitude of all those wanting to make money), is only one layer of Mishima’s cultural work. Underneath, his novel also displays the ruthless return and stability of the mechanism of social distinction and the social comedy and agency through the manipulation of cultural signs. Today, Mishima would undoubtedly have used other cultural frameworks, but the vital link of “school” and “flesh” would definitely return. Culture is a something that has to be learned and whose learning does not come for free, while the mastery of signs and codes is something that is not just used for “Bildung” but also and perhaps even chiefly for sex.

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