Yukio Mishima: Confessions of a Mask,1949

Guido Reni_St SebastianOne day, taking advantage of having been kept from school by a slight cold, I got out some volumes of art reproductions, which my father had bought back as a souvenir of his foreign travels, and took them to my room, where I looked through them attentively. I was particularly enchanted by the photogravures of Grecian sculptures in the guidebooks to various Italian museums. When it came to depictions of the nude, among the many reproductions of masterpieces, it was these plates, in black and white, that best suited my fancy. This was probably due to the simple fact that, even in reproductions, the sculpture seemed the more lifelike.

This was the first time I had seen these books. My miserly father, hating to have the pictures touched and stained by children’s hands, and also fearing – how mistakenly! – that I might be attracted by the nude women of the masterpieces, had kept the books hidden away deep in the recesses of a cupboard. And for my part, until that day I had never dreamed they could be more interesting than the pictures in adventure story magazines.

I began turning a page toward the end of a volume. Suddenly there came into view from one corner of the next page a picture that I had to believe had been lying in wait there for me, for my sake.

It was a reproduction of Guido Reni’s ‘St Sebastian’, which hangs in the collection of the Palazzo Rosso at Genoa.

The black and slightly oblique trunk of the tree of execution was seen against a Titian-like background of gloomy forest and evening sky, sombre and distant. A remarkably handsome youth was bound naked to the trunk of the tree. His crossed hands were raised high, and the thongs binding his wrists were tied to the tree. No other bonds were visible, and the only covering for the youth’s nakedness was a coarse white cloth knotted loosely about his loins.

I guessed it must be a depiction of a Christian martydom. But, as it was painted by an aesthetic painter of the eclectic school that derived from the Renaissance, even this painting of the death of a Christian saint has about it a strong flavour of paganism. The youth’s body – it might even be likened to that of Antoninus, beloved of Hadrian, whose beauty has been so often immortalized in sculpture – shows none of the traces of missionary hardship or decrepitude that are to be found in depictions of other saints; instead, there is only the springtime of youth, only light and beauty and pleasure.

His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk. His muscular arms, the arms of a praetorian guard accustomed to bending of bow and wielding of sword, are raised at a graceful angle, and his bound wrists are crossed directly over his head. His face is turned slightly upward and his eyes are open wide, gazing with profound tranquility upon the glory of heaven. It is not pain that hovers about his straining chest, his tense abdomen, his slightly contorted hips, but some flicker of melancholy pleasure like music. Were it not for the arrows with their shafts deeply sunk into his left armpit and right side, he would seem more a Roman athlete resting from fatigue, leaning against a dusky tree in a garden.

The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy. But there is no flowing blood, nor yet the host of arrows seen in other pictures of Sebastian’s martyrdom. Instead, two lone arrows cast their tranquil and graceful shadows upon the smoothness of his skin, like the shadows of a bough falling upon a marble stairway.

But all these interpretations and observations came later.

That day, the instant I looked upon the picture, my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath. The monstrous part of me that was on the point of bursting awaited my use of it with unprecedented ardour, upbraiding me for my ignorance, panting indignantly. My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me. Suddenly it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication . . .

Some time passed, and then, with miserable feelings, I looked around the desk I was facing. A maple tree at the window was casting a bright reflection over everything – over the ink bottle, my schoolbooks and notes, the dictionary, the picture of St Sebastian. There were cloudy-white splashes about – on the gold-imprinted title of a textbook, on a shoulder of the ink bottle, on one corner of the dictionary. Some objects were dripping lazily, leadenly, and others gleamed dully, like the eyes of a dead fish. Fortunately, a reflex motion of my hand to protect the picture had saved the book from being soiled.

This was my first ejaculation. It was also the beginning, clumsy and completely unpremeditated, of my ‘bad habit’.

(It is an interesting coincidence that Hirschfield should place ‘pictures of St Sebastian’ in the first rank of those kinds of art works in which the invert takes special delight. This observation of Hirschfield’s leads easily to the conjecture that in the overwhelming majority of cases of inversion, especially of congenital inversion, the inverted and the sadistic impulses are inextricably linked with each other.)

Yukio Mishima, 1925-1970                       Confessions of a Mask,1949  (仮面の告白 Kamen no Kokuhaku)

Translated by Meredith Weatherby, first published in English, 1958

Image: Guido Reni, 1575-1642. St Sebastian, c.1615-16, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa. Oil on canvas, 146 x 113 cm

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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