Tagged: Literature

Purity and the Desire for Death

I’ve finished reading Runaway Horses, the second book in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy by Yukio Mishima; it is astonishing in its beauty and has sparked the thoughts below. If, after reading its Wikipedia entry, you feel like you may want to read the first novel, you should stop reading this (spoiler alert).

Purity is the central concept of Runaway Horses and the overriding concern of its main character, a young man of twenty in 1930s Japan. Isao Iinuma is obsessed with reverting the westernization of his country and steering it back to a mythical time when the God-like Emperor ruled the Japanese people entirely and benevolently.

Isao is possessed by the need to be a servant of the emperor – completely. Since by creating unrest and attacking the status quo (the emperor is nominally in power at that time) he is acting against the laws sanctioned by the emperor, Isao feels he must commit suicide immediately after his coup. The plot of the book throws many challenges at Isao’s pure vision of perfect service to the emperor – money and material interests, the morally ambiguous history of his family, the realpolitik of navigating modern society, his underlying personal motivations. Life, in short.

Ultimately, Isao attains purity by committing ritual suicide in a startingly beautiful scene.

Purity – the absence of any blemish, from a particular perspective – is thus intrinsically linked with death in the novel. I think this is more generally true.

Purity is just the catch-all term for the maximum expression of any virtue; the linear projection of certain things encountered in the real world to their logical conclusion. Take loyalty, Runaway Horses‘ key form of Purity, as an example: at some point our ancestors found that it was helpful (or natural) for all members of the tribe to follow the instructions of another (better at hunting, better at war) and the concept of loyalty was born. It didn’t take long for us to extrapolate this into absolute loyalty, codified in many societal rituals which often times are fairly counter-productive to common welfare.

I don’t know why human beings have this need to extrapolate things to their logical conclusion in such a narrow, linear way. I remember hearing that linear projection is a useful mental skill for animals because they need to estimate where other animals in motion will be in the future – so they can eat them. Maybe we’re just using the same “software” but at a more abstract level. No idea.

At some point, we forget that these concepts are just that – abstractions. These are human mental models and tools, not goals, and should be evaluated on the basis of their utility towards more fundamental goals. Goals should be stated in as fundamental a manner as possible, so that we’re not baking in assumptions of potential solutions into the definition of our problem. In short, goals should be stated as first principles.

In the case of Runaway Horses, Isao is so focused on maximizing the idea of loyalty – presumably something intended to lead to a good society – that he fails to notice anything around him. No such idea of how society should work can stand the test of reality, and so to avoid this lack of consistency Isao seeks death. Rather than discard and replace his mental model of reality – which is failing badly to explain any of what he encounters – Isao chooses to discard reality.

I’m left with the impression that human beings’ tendency to linearly project concepts, coupled with a desperate need to avoid cognitive dissonance is at the root of fanaticism. This also seems to explain what I see as a correlation between fanaticism and the wish for death.