# LITERATURE /// Destructive Beauty: The Stendhal/Mizoguchi Syndrome as Seen by Yukio Mishima

Burned Golden Pavilion KyotoKinkaku-Ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) / 25th year of the Shōwa Era (1950)

Beauty sometimes reaches level of intensity that can lead to pure pathology. The Jerusalem syndrome, for example, is experienced every year by pilgrims visiting the holy city. Overwhelmed by their emotions when experiencing the old city, their pathology is characterized by hallucinations, paranoia, continuous declamation of holy texts as well as other symptoms. It is interesting to see that there is an inverse syndrome, experienced by a few Japanese people visiting Paris when they discover the extent of the discrepancy between what they were imagining the city to be, and what it really is. The Stendhal Syndrome, on the other hand, comes from the pathology experienced by French author Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal when he was visiting Florence for the first time in 1817. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the works of art he was able to see almost simultaneously, he is said to have almost fainted and had hallucinations. This pathology, since then clinically recognized, kept his name since then.

The novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, written by Yukio Mishima in 1956 is a classic of 20th century Japanese literature. Its plot is inspired by events that occurred six years earlier when the 500-year old Golden Pavilion in Kyoto had been burnt down (see photograph above) by a young Buddhist monk. Mishima depicts a similar young monk, Mizoguchi, who develops a fascination for the Golden Pavilion as he is following his religious training. All along the book, Mizoguchi elaborates an interpretation of beauty that considers it as the main existential problem of one’s life:

It is no exaggeration to say that the first real problem I face in my life was that of beauty. At the thought that beauty should already have come into this world unknown to me, I could not help feeling a certain uneasiness and irritation. If beauty really did exist there, it meant that my own existence was a thing estranged from beauty.

One can understand how such axiom about beauty can lead to a disturbing mix of fascination and paranoia. All along the novel, Mizoguchi remains obsessed by the beauty of the Golden Pavilion, to the point that the image of the building substitutes itself to the one of the two successive women he is trying to loose his virginity with. He soon understands that he feels compelled to burn down the Golden Pavilion; not as a form of vengeance, but rather as a sort of work of art that would punctuate the beauty of the temple, express retroactively its fragility and creates an acute feeling of the lost object. Mizoguchi thinks that there is no beauty in killing a man as killing a man always consists in accelerating his inevitable death; on the contrary, destroying a building that is supposed to remain forever constitutes a much stronger act and allows to pass from “a world that includes the Golden Pavilion” to “a world that does not include the Golden Pavilion.”

I once wrote a text about how the iconoclast is not a human who does not understand art, but rather understands it so well that (s)he feels compelled to destroy it. Mizoguchi is one of those; the intensity of beauty that the Golden Pavilion triggers in him is so strong that he must burn it down. Before doing so at the end of the novel, he understands the secret of the Golden Pavilion’s beauty in a passage that can be seen as an explanation of how beauty occurs, and simultaneously how it is structured of “nothingness:”

[…] if one examined the beauty of the [pavilion’s] details, one found that  this beauty certainly did not end with any detail, was not completed with  any detail, because, whichever detail one looked at, it held within it a hint  of the beauty of the next detail. The beauty of each detail in itself was filled with uneasiness. This was because, while it dreamt of completion, it never attained it, but was enticed on to the next beauty, an unknown beauty. Each hint of beauty was connected to another hint of beauty, and so all those hints of beauty which did not exist became, so to speak, the theme of the Golden Pavilion. Such hints were signs of nothingness. Nothingness was the structure of this beauty. Thus, the incompletion of the details of the pavilion’s beauty naturally hinted at nothingness, and this delicate structure, made of the thinnest lumber, shuddered in anticipation of nothingness, like a pendant trembling in the wind.

The Stendhal syndrome, just like what we could call the Mizoguchi syndrome reveal that such psychological syndromes are only pathology because of the way it separates its “victims” from their world; however, just like madness (see the several past articles about Antonin Artaud for example), these pathologies have probably more to do with an acute perception of the world’s hidden structures than with an actual loss of senses. The violence of such experience does not come from the syndrome per say, but rather from the collusion of two ‘worlds,’ the world of the rational norm and the world of the sensitiveness. This present article is not to promote one over the other, but rather to argue for a dialogue between the two, reason and delirium, as the construction of a relation to the world within a creative production.


3 Comments on “# LITERATURE /// Destructive Beauty: The Stendhal/Mizoguchi Syndrome as Seen by Yukio Mishima

  1. A great novel! A dialogue between reason and delirium, you say. Between gesture and discourse, I add.
    Thanks for your posts. Always make me think.
    Andrea Villar

  2. Interesting post, as always. I tottally agree: the iconoclast is the one who understands art (as image) too well. Faced with the mirror either of Divinity or Himself, he prefers not to know. The iconoclast can see the horror in images. And hence prefer to avoid them.
    Thanks again for your insightful work, Léopold.