I imagine that the discussion between novelist Yukio Mishima and philosopher Roger Scruton takes place at the Yumeji Café in Kyoto, just down the hill from the celebrated Kiyomizudera Temple. The café is perfect for such a meeting: it serves French coffee along with tofu doughnuts and cheesecake and the walls are lined with framed reproductions of Yumeji Takehisa’s paintings, whose work strikes that Norman Rockwell-chord among the Japanese — loved by the masses, while disdained by the elite.

The café is also ideal for another reason: the staff and regular patrons rub elbows with celebrities now and again, and are unlikely to bother the deceased Mishima as he sips café au lait and munches doughnuts. This isn’t to say, however, that the staff won’t steal a few glances at this uncommon pairing. First, you have Scruton: the conservative English philosopher with five novels and three libretti under his belt, along with over 35 nonfiction books on topics as variegated as sexual desire, hunting, Spinoza and wine — and then there is Mishima. What does one say about Mishima? Can I restrict myself to his three nominations for the Nobel Prize, the fact that he was Japan’s greatest 20th-century writer and oh, by the way, he was also an ultra-nationalist who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1970 while staging a coup d’état at a Japanese army base?

Both men would arrive at the café alone, and after exchanging pleasantries about Takehisa’s paintings and the crush of Japanese schoolchildren surrounding the temple, Scruton would ask the Japanese novelist about Kiyomizudera’s famed wooden stage, and Mishima — as pugnacious and theatrical as ever — would thump a copy of The Temple of The Golden Pavilion on the table. “You wish to speak about beauty and the modern world,” he’d say while lighting a hand-rolled cigarette. “I wrote about this back in ’59 . . . Surely, Professor Scruton, you’ve read my book?”

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Six miles from the Yumeji Café sits the Zen temple of Kinkakuji (Golden Temple) in the north of Kyoto. It’s a replica of the 500-year-old structure a deranged Buddhist monk burned to the ground in 1950. The rebuilt temple sits astride the mirror-like Kyoko Pond in a traditional garden setting; it stands three stories tall, with the two top floors covered in a brilliant gold leaf. Its cultural importance can’t be overstated: the Japanese — even after the atomic bombings and the deaths of millions during the war — still found space in their hearts to mourn the senseless destruction of the Golden Temple.

Mishima followed the monk’s trial and recognized both the philosophical and dramatic possibilities of writing a novel in the voice of the troubled monk. In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1959) Mishima gives us not the flesh-and-blood monk of the famed trial, but the more complex person of his refined imagination: a stammering, dispassionate boy who is at once enraptured by, as well as under judgment from, the temple’s spectral beauty.

The son of a Buddhist priest with a “changeable disposition,” the boy grows up socially marginalized in a seaside village. His father, aware of his own rapidly declining health, decides to take the boy to Kyoto and introduce him to the Superior of the Golden Temple. The promise of visiting the famed temple fires the boy’s imagination, yet as the trip draws near he becomes uncertain: “It was essential that the Golden Temple be beautiful,” he tells us. “I therefore staked everything not so much on the objective beauty of the temple itself as on my own power to imagine its beauty.”

When the boy arrives in Kyoto and approaches the temple grounds, his heart pounds in the manner of a pilgrim. His father hurries him up to the Golden Temple, but when he glimpses it, he experiences a disappointment that is rife with disharmony and restlessness. The boy — in the anthropomorphic interplay that defines his relationship to the temple — decides the Golden Temple has veiled its beauty from him. In time, however, the temple “acts” on him, reviving his imagination, and in doing so, resuscitates its beauty within him:

“In the end it became a more beautiful Golden Temple than it had been before I saw it. I could not say wherein this beauty lay. It seemed that what had been nurtured in my dreams had become real and could now, in turn, serve as an impulse for further dreams.”

In a mere 29 pages Mishima begins exploring a wild landscape that Scruton seeks to map and settle in his new book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011). In this slim volume, Scruton inquires whether one’s subjective imagination is relevant, or even worth considering, when evaluating a work of art. He lays out six platitudes about beauty, with the fifth touching upon the quandary of Mishima’s stammering monk:

“The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me.”

One can’t do justice to the whole of Western thought on beauty in such a thin volume, but Scruton provides useful snippets of the grand ideas from Plato to Aquinas and from Kant to the modernists. And while Scruton doesn’t sample religious thought on the subject, he is evangelical in the belief that some things are objectively more beautiful than others and that “beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgment of taste.” In this era of diminished faith — by which I mean the historical decline of orthodox Christian belief in the West since the Enlightenment — Scruton contends that beautiful art, music, literature and architecture are the world’s last pathway to the transcendent.

Scruton cites cultural relativism as the primary obstacle to taste and objective criticism in our day. In the abandonment of taste, Scruton sees the “familiar relativism that has led some people to dismiss judgments of beauty as purely ‘subjective.’ No tastes can be criticized, they argue, since to criticize one taste is simply to give voice to another.” Scruton goes on to argue that “freed from the discipline of aesthetic judgment” there is no longer a firm anchor for formal criticism.

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If there is a villain in Scruton’s book it is undoubtedly the French artist Marchel Duchamp, who in 1917 “signed a urinal with the name ‘R. Mutt,’ entitled it ‘La Fontaine’ and exhibited it as a work of art.” Scruton understands “La Fontaine” as a prank that has slowly metamorphosed over the decades into a disease plaguing formal criticism:

“If anything can count as art, what is the point or the merit in achieving that label? All that is left is the curious but unfounded fact that some people look at some things, others look at others.”

One senses that Duchamp’s break with modernism still keeps Scruton up at night. In contrast with postmodernism, Scruton argues that modernism was not a transgressive movement, but a “recuperation: an arduous path back to a hard-won inheritance of meaning, in which beauty would again be honored.” He cites Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) as a seminal modernist text, because it describes depravity and soullessness in “words so resonant of the opposite, so replete with the capacity to feel, to sympathize and to understand, that life in its lower forms is vindicated by our response to it.” Scruton is unabashedly a “redemption-through-art” kind of guy and he places Eliot’s poem in a tradition that begins with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and James’ The Golden Bowl.

Susan Sontag does not appear in Scruton’s book, but her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” in which she outlines the qualities of the “camp aesthetic,” should have. Her essay reads like the formal codification of the aesthetic Duchamp introduced 50 years earlier with his urinal:

“Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.”

Sontag adds — in a statement Scruton would agree with — that many of the great works of twentieth century art are not concerned with “creating harmonies, but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable subject matter.”

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One of Scruton’s few forays into non-Western thought is a brief description of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. He reminds us that certain cultures — Japan’s, most famously — have cultivated an aesthetic of transience, where “the aesthetics of everyday life focuses on what is fleeting, allusive and animated by a poignant regret.”

Mishima draws on the tea ceremony for his own thematic purposes in his novel, and the result is a scene that is as sublime as it is surprising. The boy, now a monk at the Golden Temple, happens upon a private tea ceremony at a secluded hermitage. He spies on a young woman wearing a brilliant long-sleeved kimono. She is conducting a tea ceremony for a Japanese Army officer and Mishima describes the scene with exquisite care, noting the bright-scarlet carpet and the woman’s “vermillion sash glittering with gold thread.” As the ceremony proceeds, the woman unexpectedly loosens her kimono and exposes her breasts for the purpose of rubbing milk into the frothy green drink. The Army officer is unperturbed by this unorthodox gesture and proceeds to drink “the mysterious tea” presented before him. The monk correctly assumes the two are married and the officer is bound for the front. In addition, he rightly reasons that this modification to the ceremony was in remembrance of a miscarried child. In the hands of a master like Mishima, the scene is not kitsch irreverence or a lewd incursion into a traditional ritual, but a liturgical act of the highest order.

Later in the book, the monk’s sociopathic descent is hastened by a friendship with a heartless, club-footed boy named Kashiwagi, who acts out his nihilism by seducing women and then cruelly abandoning them. From Kashiwagi, the monk learns the woman at the tea ceremony is now a war widow and also one of his recent conquests. In an instant, the mysterious woman and the erotic-tinged beauty of that tea ceremony is dethroned and defiled in his imagination:

“Hitherto I had viewed this woman’s tragedy with a bright look of mystery; but from now on I would see it with the dark look of someone who believes in nothing . . . For the stark reality was that her breast, which I had seen in the distance like a white moon in the daylight had been touched by Kashiwagi’s hands . . . The reality was that she had already been defiled by Kashiwagi . . .”

Scruton believes we are living in a time of postmodern desecration, not just of the arts, but also of what it means to be human. “We seem to be caught between two forms of sacrilege,” he writes. “The one dealing in sugary dreams, the other in savage fantasies. Both are forms of falsehood, ways of reducing and demeaning our humanity.” It’s impossible to know precisely what Mishima would have thought of such a statement, yet echoes of Scruton’s concerns are present in The Temple of The Golden Pavilion, albeit with a Buddhist philosophical slant that resists neat professorial theories.

In the end Scruton suspects our discomfort with beauty comes down to unease with judgment itself. Although the “the old religion,” as Scruton calls it, has little influence over people’s lives nowadays, he suspects many move through our world with an uneasy conscience.  “Aesthetic judgment is experienced as an affliction to us,” Scruton writes. “It imposes an intolerable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness of our improved lives.”

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“Yes, I read your book while at Cambridge in the 1960s,” Scruton would have said in response to Mishima’s question. “And surely, Mishima-san, your monk projected his own tawdriness and disharmony on the Golden Temple. Its beauty stood in judgment of him. It had to be subjectified, and finally destroyed. A suicide if you will.”

“A suicide?” Mishima would say, bowing slightly in appreciation of the learned man’s enthusiasm. “Do you recall, by the way, the last line of my book, Professor Scruton?”

“Forgive me, but it’s been over 40 years. Would you please refresh my memory?”

Mishima would pause slightly, as if recalling the actual moment when he put pen to paper and wrote the words:

“I wanted to live.”

 

Robert Fay is a writer and frequent visitor to Japan who is currently working on a memoir. His website is robertfay.com.