I Confess

I Confess


The Dictation of Sexuality in Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask

A colorful woodblock print depicting a butterfly that springs from a mask of a man's face
Butterfly and Mask of Yakko (the footman of a samurai) (18th-19th century) by Ayaoka, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To confess is to subject our murky depths to a shared language. A confession is always shared, which is to say, intersubjective; it is always in response to an other. “You already have, haven’t you? Of course you’ve already done that, haven’t you?” questions Sonoko at the end of Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, impelling the narrator Kochan to confess his sexual history.1 The entirety of Mishima’s novel amounts to being a response to this very “incitement to discourse,” as Foucault would term, and hence occasions the title of a Confession.2 Just as St. Augustine confessed his sinful past or Ted Bundy confessed to his string of murders, Confessions of a Mask deploys a particular discourse that aims to identify and expose a particularity of the self, an aberration, in this instance with a focus on that fixation of modernity: sexuality. This self, thus unearthed, becomes available to a corrective system of control. Guided by the systems of bio-power articulated by Foucault in The History of Sexuality, this analysis will probe the anatomy of confession in Mishima’s text in relation to discourse and order, implementing Sonoko’s provocative inquiry as its backbone.

Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask follows the psychosexual development of its narrator Kochan, who recognizes his queerness in childhood and whose desire towards other men continually swells even as he attempts to convince himself of his love for a woman, Sonoko. It is fitting that Confessions of a Mask is bookended by two instances in which Kochan’s sexuality is thrust, so to speak, into the limelight: Sonoko’s question at the end, and the concern of grownups that prepubescent Kochan is “tricking” them into revealing the nature of his conception at the beginning. That the novel positions the meat of Kochan’s confession in a circular relation to the other, as embodied by Sonoko and the grownups, suggests through form that the confession is never satisfactory enough, so that Kochan must endlessly excavate deeper and deeper within himself for an answer. These scenes of interrogation will be further examined later, but first let us consider the nature of confession as an anticipation of such interrogation. Although there are specific moments in which a body comes to harbor and breathe life into the question of sexuality, the presence of the other perseveres beyond its physical embodiments, constituting a system in which it is elusive and yet prone to suddenly interjecting at the corner of any street, “an unrelenting system of confession.”3 This other, who is transmutable and ubiquitous, is what kindles the embers of a sexuality that must be spoken (or in Kochan’s case, written) into existence. Foucault notes that the nature of confession “compels individuals to articulate their sexual peculiarity.”4 He traces this compulsion to the ecclesiastical confession of the Middle Ages, which posited the priest as the other to whom the sinner is obligated to relate trysts and fleshly appetites, down to the passing of an unholy thought. With social transformation during the Enlightenment came the replacement of the priest by a polymorphous array of moralistic figures, ranging from the teacher to the therapist to the judge, all of whom were interchangeable and fluctuating in their respective posts.5 The modern era is characterized by the pervasiveness of obligatory confession, which has been disseminated from the oratory into the whole structure of society. For this reason, Kochan is situated on the precarious precipice of discovery, teased closer and closer along the edge as various bodies come to personify the systematic campaign to assert the supposed hidden truth within him. It is for this reason that the narrative is framed within instances of intrusion, instances in which the other calls forth the notion of Kochan’s sexuality, and these instances, these demands, are replicated over and over throughout the novel, collectively channeling the discourse of the confession.

When we discuss discourse, we are always discussing a recourse to language—the medium by which we come to understand the world—and in accordance, the codification of the self, which externalizes the self so that it may be properly understandable. We may say that the discourse of sexual confession is constructed, broadly, upon two principles: negation and identification. The first principle, negation, is a way of saying by not saying. “There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say,” writes Foucault; “we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things.”6 Frequently it is assumed that silence is a refusal, a casting away of the subject, yet it must be recognized that silence swells around the subject and raises it into the spotlight. Just as inaction is a form of action, unsaying is a form of declaration. In Sonoko’s question, the subject, although unsaid, is obvious: “you’ve already done that, haven’t you?” It is an emphasized unsaying, a reverberant silence; “that” is unquestionably referring to sex, and even though neither Sonoko nor Mishima specifies this outright, both Kochan and the reader register instantly what is the subject at hand. The discourse of negation is so carefully woven into our understanding of sexuality and programmed into our consciousness that sexual terms themselves seem almost arbitrary, for all that is needed is the formation of a space in which they can manifest freely. How this adopted form of negative manifestation comes to so naturally intertwine with our everyday speech is evidenced from the outset of the novel, with the grownups supposing Kochan to be interested in the unnamed yet glaringly suggestive “that.”7

As has been mentioned before, the confessional discourse is replicated incessantly by a shapeshifting other, invested in effectively conduiting itself into the developing child. There is, for instance, the doctor who explains possible causes for Kochan’s anemia, carefully skipping over one particular etiology: “the doctor did not read it aloud . . . But I had seen the phrase that he had omitted. It was ‘self-pollution.’”8 The fact of the doctor choosing to silence masturbation, and of Kochan bearing witness to this, already grants sexuality a special kind of attention. Moreover, the doctor has, in this moment, educated young Kochan on the arithmetic of negation: the subtraction of certain terms from speech equals the reaffirmation of sexuality. This is why, later, when Kochan’s mother says, “You—she—if you’ve—well—,” the matured Kochan immediately catches onto what she is alluding to.9 Mishima skillfully implicates the reader too, for in those gaps, those dashes that have been purposively doled out, the reader must actively draw from their own indoctrinated discourse to glean the mother’s meaning and readily becomes an accomplice in the incitement to discourse. At last, when we get to the final scene, all of the instructions for effortlessly bridging unsaying to sexuality have been appropriately conditioned, and there need not be a second’s hesitation to understand exactly what Sonoko implies when she says “that.” In this way, the discourse of sexuality, which as we will see acts as if to reveal something previously obscured, obscures its own object via its method of not saying; it seeks to uncover by itself creating the cover; by negating, it designates a negated.

The second principle upon which discourse is constructed—identification—points to what has been hidden, i.e., what has been hidden by itself. This is the divination of silence into utterance—even though silence itself has always spoken of sexuality. Identification may be compared to Lacan’s mirror stage, an process in which the self is presented back to the subject through the eyes of the Other; it reveals how the self is represented by the Other, and, because it is represented through discourse, a part of the inarticulable wholeness of the individual is severed from that newly revealed self. Nonetheless, Foucault notes that the revelation of sexuality is deemed absolute truth, regardless of what misrepresentations transpire in this process, and discourse takes as its principle an aim “to extract the truth of sex.”10 In sex, that landscape hidden by the clouds of language, is supposed to lie the answer to our existential tangles. Hence why the grownups assume little Kochan to be prodding them to disclose sex, when in fact he had “not the slightest desire to ask about ‘that’” and was instead simply confounded by his memory of being born—something less about sexuality and selfhood than about memory and selfhood.11 The identification of sexuality is initiated in childhood, when individuals are most directly under the sway of the other, whether in the structures of education, family, medicine, or any other institution. Through these structures, children are compelled to identify themselves as sexual beings foremost. Foucault writes, “parents and teachers were alerted, and left with the suspicion that all children were guilty . . . all around the child, indefinite lines of penetration were disposed.”12 By ordering children’s lives around these “lines of penetration,” discourse entreats children to cross the lines, to have sexuality always in the back of their blossoming minds. Exposed to the so-called barriers around sexuality, such as the dismissal of Kochan’s talk of birth by the grownups, children are implored to identify that sinful impulse within themselves and to confess it. The barrier is indeed the mask referred to in the title of Mishima’s work, which is why it is making a confession, for the mask is fashioned by a normative discourse in order to posit that what lies beneath it is the not-normal, the sin, the hidden truth.

With that said, identification persists beyond childhood, and while Confessions of a Mask does deliberate on Kochan’s childhood, it spends equal time relating adulthood, where childhood’s lessons take on more pervasive implications. Having identified the kernel of sexuality in the child, discourse further identifies a classification of sexualities. It orders sexuality into categories that define the individual through to the end of their lives. Foucault calls this the “incorporation of perversions” and “specification of individuals.”13 Nineteenth- and twentieth-century discourse, especially in the growing fields of psychology and anthropology, was responsible for generating a taxonomy of sexualities, in which no aberration, no deviance was unaccounted for. It is no coincidence that Mishima’s narrator makes reference to Magnus Hirschfeld, a German sexologist who founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which sought to explain human sexuality with an established sexual science.14,15 The methodical classification of individuals by their particular sexuality comes to be the cause of Kochan’s great deliberation, for his perversion begins to infiltrate every aspect of his being through its interaction with discourse, which like a surveillance camera, stalks and probes to catch any signal of deviation. It is in a conversation with T, Kochan’s “lady’s man” friend, that the actual effects of this discourse of identification becomes clear to Kochan; he asks T about the writings of Marcel Proust, to which T responds, “I’ll say it’s interesting. Proust was a sodomite . . . He had affairs with footmen.”16 T overlooks the actual content of Proust’s literary output in favor of identifying Proust by his sexual category and confining the entirety of Proust’s life and work to this specification, even adding, seemingly degradingly, that Proust slept with footmen, as if being homosexual correlates to lowering oneself to a subordinate rank. Foucault notes that homosexuality was one of the first of a classification of perversions: “the homosexual was now a species” that could be effectively tamed.17 This is to say that speciation, as well as the general framework of biology itself, has been integrated into the discourse adopted by modern treatment of sexuality. By identifying the sexual type that an individual fits into, one theoretically has access to the whole psychical atlas of their personhood. Discourse displays the museum label of our social selves.

The consequences of this discourse, constructed upon negation and identification, must be treated with gravity, because discourse is not neutral but always has a moralistic charge and political fangs. The first way by which discourse exerts its power is by creating a standard of normativity. Kochan recognizes this standard when he says, “I had, so to speak, accepted ‘normality’ as a temporary employee in the corporation of my body,” referring to his assumed affections for Sonoko.18 Kochan wears his mask of “normality,” which organizes his everyday life according to principle—the principle of conformity. It is a principle consistently reinforced under the discourse of sexuality, more specifically a sexual science, which Foucault describes as placing the sexualized subject “under the rule of the normal and the pathological.”19 The power to exert and impose the rule of the normal is disseminated infinitely, so that it is transferable from body to body, interaction to interaction, granting the other a constant lookout. Of course, this function owes to the fact that power indwells in discourse, which, being nothing more than a codified language, is learned and practiced by every socialized individual. Consequently, the normalizing, pathologizing gaze, ever-intent upon articulating deviations, blankets itself on the entire population, so broad that it cannot be directly targeted, yet so intimate that it can pierce through the individual body. This is how discourse becomes an “encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures,” i.e., a bio-power.20 It is evident from the first chapter of Confessions of a Mask how discourse encroaches upon Kochan’s body, as when the grownups insist upon his childhood sexuality, or when the sick-nurse studiously apportions the gender binary, or when Kochan’s mother grows pale at the sight of him cross-dressing and the nurse shimmies him away to correct him of this bodily transgression.21

The encroachment of power upon individual bodies is visible and direct and no doubt the instigator of social control, yet even more insidious of such bio-power is the manner in which this pathologizing discourse, instigated by the other, is introjected by the subject, so that they take it upon themselves to surveil and correct the self. The way self-surveillance is manifested may be linked again to Lacan’s mirror stage, wherein by recognizing a self that has been identified by the Other, subjectivity becomes split. Gleaning from this psychoanalytic framework, we may say that the subject has some sense of being represented through discourse, and Foucault furthers that the subject then polices the way in which this split self is regarded by the other, requiring that they “place themselves under surveillance.”22 We see just how serious and invasive this procedure is throughout Kochan’s narrative, which is fraught with tension and anxiety. Having been thoroughly conditioned by discourse in childhood, Kochan becomes completely split, placing himself under surveillance so that his “true” self, that which discourse contrives by negating and identifying, remains apart from the mask that he assumes. “I had to undertake an elaborate disguise of my true self,” Kochan says; “The unconscious feeling of guilt . . . stubbornly insisted that I play a conscious and false role.”23 Kochan has explicitly subsumed the gaze of the other and set it as his own standard of normality. The pressure this places one under predictably leads to a severely debilitated and constantly fretful psychological plight. It is an attempt to control that which is beyond control and resultantly, is bound to implode, which perhaps points to why Kochan’s fantasies end so violently, in stabbing and killing his desired men, as if he fantasizes about destroying that abnormal desire itself. At one point, Kochan attempts to convert his homosexuality, and it fails terribly. He forces himself to meet up with a female prostitute under the pretense of a “sense of duty;” during the encounter, he describes “a numbness that resembles fierce pain. I felt my entire body becoming paralyzed with just such a pain,” and after finishing, his “knees were shaking with shame.”24 This event comes across as particularly upsetting because what is most clear is that desire cannot be disciplined, cannot be suppressed without invoking a suffocating feeling of shame and distress. The demands of sexual discourse begin first with confession and proceed to correction and “psychiatrization.”25 The demands are relentless, caustic, they are deemed as pertaining to the whole of the individual and drastically affect one’s ability to thrive. They penetrate even the most minute of instances, hence why Sonoko’s prying question takes on such weight. “When?” she asks, “With whom?” forcing her way deeper under Kochan’s skin to draw out the truth of his sexual history, and we then see the interrogation take its effect on him: “The blood was draining from my face. The moment for parting stood waiting eagerly. A vulgar blues was being kneaded into time.”26 Sonoko’s question comes as the culmination of years of discursive surveillance, following Kochan’s realization that he will never be able to reconcile his split self. Having undergone a lifetime of categorizing and splitting and controlling and correcting, Kochan is overcome by the strangulating pressure of the bio-power exerted by sexual discourse. He has dissociated from his body and from time itself. Perhaps the visceral consequences of discourse’s bio-power can be summated in this reflection of Kochan’s, which ensues from the inescapable fact of his own lack of normative desire but reverberates outwards, aimed at all those individuals who find themselves subjected to such an extensive, virulent condition: “You’re not human. You’re a being who is incapable of social intercourse. You’re nothing but a creature, non-human and somehow strangely pathetic.”27

Without a doubt, bio-power is a mechanism of dehumanization. It sweeps across the social body and shells it out. Kochan has been pruned of his desire’s fruits, left to streamline his actions through the hardened mask that prevents any behavior from being displayed without second thought, without the filter of discourse. Yet, we know that desire is far more complex than what the order and specification of sexuality supposes it to be, and there are hints of the possibility for a less fraught, less restrained desire throughout the confession. The sensations that flutter within us are “like tiny particles in the ether,” writes Kochan; “they fly about freely, float haphazardly, and prefer to be forever wavering.”28 In this sense, to prescribe any sort of sexuality, any discourse to desire is bound to grate harshly against the immanent potential in its wavering, sometimes baffling drifts. Namely, this is the potential to express our desires with candor and pleasure, not coldness and anxiety—which is to say: affection, not confession.

  1. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby (New Directions, 1958), 253.
  2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, translated by Robert J. Hurley (Vintage, 1990), 34.
  3. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 61.
  4. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1,61.
  5. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 33.
  6. ]Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 33.
  7. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 2.
  8. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 92.
  9. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 215.
  10. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 77.
  11. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 2.
  12. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 77.
  13. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 42-43.
  14. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 41.
  15. The First Institute for Sexual Science (1919-1933),” Magnus Hirschfeld und das Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, accessed May 9, 2020.
  16. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 227.
  17. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol.1, 43.
  18. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 182.
  19. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 67.
  20. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 48.
  21. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 12; 19.
  22. Focault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 116.
  23. Mishima, Confessions, 116.
  24. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 226.
  25. Focault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 105.
  26. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 254.
  27. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 230.
  28. Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 241.
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