Reprint: F-104 by Yukio Mishima
The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of
the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is
said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives
birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he
therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia. Carl Jung
The Epilogue of Mishima’s 1969 Essay on Art, Action, and Death: Sun and Steel
Before my eyes, there slowly emerged a giant snake coiled about the earth a snake that by constantly swallowing its own tail vanquished polarities; the ultimate huge snake that mocks all opposites.
Opposites carried to extremes come to resemble each other; and things that are farthest removed from each other, by increasing the distance between them, come closer together. This is the secret that the circle of the snake expounded. The flesh and spirit, the sensual and the intellectual, the outside and the inside, will remove themselves a pace from the earth, and high up, higher even than the where the snake-ring of white clouds encircling the earth is joined, they too will be joined.
I am one who has always been interested only in the edges of the body and spirit, the outlying regions of the body and the outlying regions of the spirit. The depths hold no interest for me; I leave them to others, for they are shallow, commonplace.
What is there, then, at the outermost edge? Nothin, perhaps, save a few ribbons, dangling down in the void.
On earth, man is weighed down by gravity, his body encased in heavy muscles; he sweats; he runs; he strikes; even, with difficulty, he leaps. At times, nevertheless, I have unmistakably seen, amidst the darkness of fatigue, the first tinges of color that herald what I have called the dawn of the flesh.
On earth, man wears himself out in intellectual adventures, as though seeking to take wing and fly to infinity. Motionless before his desk, he edges his way closer, ever closer, to the borders of the spirit, in constant mortal danger of plunging into the void. At such times — though very rarely — the spirit, too, has its glimpses of the dawn light.
But body and spirit have never blended. They had never come to resemble each other. Never had I discovered in physical action anything resembling the chilling, terrifying satisfaction afforded by intellectual adventure. Nor had I ever experienced in tellectual adventure the selfless heat, the hot darkness of physical action.
Somewhere, the two must be connected, Where though?
Somewhere there must be a realm between, a realm akin to that ultimate realm where motion becomes rest and rest motion.
Suppose I flay about me with my arms. As I do so, I lose a certain amount of intellectual blood. Suppose I allow myself, however briefly, to think before I strike. At that moment, my blow is doomed to failure.
Somewhere, I told myself, there must be a higher principle that manages to bring the two together and reconcile them.
That principle, it occured to me, was death.
The earth is surrounded by death. The Upper regions, where there is no air, are crowded with death pure and unalloyed; it gazes down on humanity going about its business far below and bound by its physical conditions on earth, yet very seldom does it bring bodily death to man, since those same physical conditions prevent him from climbing this far. For man to encounter the universe as he is, with uncovered countenance, is death. In order to encounter the universe and still live, he must wear a mask — an oxygen mask.
If one took the body to those same rarified heights with which the spirit and itellect are already so familiar, the only thing waiting for it there might well be death. When the spirit and intellect ascend to such heights alone, death does not reveal itself so clearly. The spirit, therefore, is always obliged, reluctantly and with a feeling of dissatisfaction, to return to its fleshly dwelling on earth. When it ascends alone, the unifying principle refuses to show itself. Unless body and spirit come together, the principle will have nothing to do with them.
At that stage, I had not encountered the giant snake.
Yet how familiar my intellectual adventures had made me with the loftiest regions of the sky! My spirit flew higher than any bird, unafraid of a lack of oxygen. Possibly, even, it had no need of anything so rich in the first place as oxygen. How I laughed at them, those grasshoppers who could jump no higher than their bodies would take them! The mere sight of them, far below me in the grass, would make me hole my sides and shake with mirth.
Yet, I had something to learn, even from the grasshoppers. I began to regret that I had never taken my body with me into the upper regions, but had always left it behind on earth, in its ponderous casing of muscle.
One day, I dragged my body with me into a pressure chamber. Fifteen minutes of denitrification — the breathing in, that is, of pure oxygen. My body was overwhelmingly astonished to find itself placed in the same pressure chamber that my spirit entered every night, to find itself bound immobile to a chair, forced to submit to operations it had never imagined possible. Never had it dreamed that its role would be reduced to simply sitting, without moving hand or foot.
For the spirit, this was routine training in withstanding high altitudes, and presnted no difficulties at all, but for the body the experience was unpresedented. At each breath, the oxygen mask clung to the nostrils, then detached itself again. “Look here, body,” says the spirit. “Today you’re going with me, without budging an inch, to the highest limits of the spirit.”
“You’re wrong,” countered the body contemptuously. “So long as I go with you, then however high they may be, they’re the limits of the body too. You only say that, you with your bookish knowledge, because you have never taken the body with you before.”
But all such talk aside, we set off together, without moving from the spot.
Already the air was being sucked out through a small hole in th ceiling. An invisible lowering of the pressure was slowly beginning.
The motionless cabin was ascending towards the heavens. Ten thousand feet, twenty thousand feet. Though to the eye nothing was happening inside the cabin, that same cabin, at the frightening pace, was shaking off its earthly chains. As the oxygen thinned out within the cabin, so everything that was familiar and ordinary began to recede. At around the thirty thousand feet mark, some shadow seemed to be approaching, and my breathing became the gasping of a dying fish frantically opening and shutting its mouth on the surface of the water. Yet still my nails showed no sign of the purple cyanosis.
Could the oxygen mask be working properly? Glancing at the “flow” window of the regulator, I could see the white indicator moving slowly in a broad sweep at each large, deep breath I took. The oxygen supply was coming through. But suffocation was taking place as the gases dissolved in the body were turning to bubbles.
So precise had been the balance between the present physical adventure and intellectual adventure, that so far I had not been alarmed. I had never supposed that anything definite could happen to my motionless body.
Forty thousand feet. The sense of suffocation increased still further. Hand in amicable hand with my body, my spirit was searching frantically for any air that might be left. Any air it ofound — even the smallest amount — it would have devoured greedily.
My spirit had known panic before now. It had known apprehension. But it had never known this lack of an essential element that the body normally supplied to it without being asked. If I held my breath and tried to think, my brain was immediately occupied — frantically occupied with the creation of the physical conditions for thought. And in the end it breathed again, though in the manner of one committing a necessary error.
Forty-one thousand feet, forty-two thousand feet, forty-three…. I could feel death stuck fast to my lips. Soft warm, octopus-like death, a vision of dark death, like some soft-bodied animal, such as my spirit had never dreamed of. My brain had not forgotten that training would never kill me, yet this inorganic sport gave me a glimpse of the type of death that crowded about the earth outside….
And then, a sudden free fall. The experience of hypoxia produced by removing one’s oxygen mask during horizontal flight at twenty-five thousand feet. And the experience of a sudden drop in pressure, when, with a brif roaring sound, the interior of the cabin was suddenly enveloped in a white mist….Finally, I passed my test, and was given the small pink card certifying that I had undergone physiological flight training. Soon, then, I should have the chance to find out in what way the edge of my spirit and the edge of my body would meet and fuse together in a single shoreline.
The fifth of December was gloriously Fine.
At the base, I could see the silver, gleaming, forms of the F104 supersonic fighter squadron lined up on the airfield. Maintenance men were attending to the 016, in which I was to be taken aloft. It was the first time I had seen the F104 so peacefully at rest. Often, with longing eyes, I had watched it in flight. Acute-angled, swift as a god, the F104 was no sooner seen than it had ripped through the blue sky and vanished. I had long dreamed of the moment when that speck in the sky would enfold my existence within it. What a mode of existence it was! What glorious self-indulgence! Could there be any more glittering insult to the stubbornly sedentary spirit? How splendidly it ripped the vast blue curtain, swift as a dagger-stroke! Who would not be that sharp knife of the heavens?
I donned the dun-colored flying suit and fastened on my parachute. I was tought how to release my survival kit, and had my oxygen mask tested. The heavy white helmet would be mine for a while. And silver spurs were fastened to the heals of my boots to prevent my legs from springing up and breaking.
It was past two o’clock on the airfield now, and sun light was falling and scattering from between the clouds like water from a sprinkler truck. Clouds and light together were disposed according to familiar convention observed in depicting the sky over battle scenes in old paintings. From some heavenly coffer behind the clouds, solemn shafts of light pierced through and fanned out towards the earth. Why the heavens should have formed such a vast, awe-inspiring, old-fashioned composition, why the light should have been filled with such inner weightiness, bringing a touch of divinity to distant woods and hamlets, I do not know. They seemed to be saying a mass for the soon to be pierced sky.
I got into the rear seat of a two-seater fighter, fastened the spurs on the hells of my boots, checked my oxygen mask, and was covered with the hemispherical wind-shield glass. My dialogue with the pilot was interrupted frequently by directions in English. Beneath my knees rested the yellow ring of the ejection equipment, its pin already out. Altimeters, speedometers, instruments innumerable. The control stick that the pilot was testing was duplicated in front of me, and the second stick vibrated furiously between my knees as he tested his.
TWO twenty-eight. Engine started. At internvals through the metallic thundering I could hear, on a cosmic scale, the pilot’s breathing within his mask heaving like a typhoon. Two-thirty. Gently, 016 entered the runway and stopped for a test with throttles fully open. I was filled with happiness. The joy of setting off for a world that was completely controlled by such things was something utterly different from the departure of an airliner, which serves merely to transport bourgeois existence from one place to another. For me, it was farewell to the everyday and the earthly.
How I had longed for this, how intensely I had looked forward to this moment! Behind me lay nothing but the familiar; before me lay the unkown — the present moment was the thinnest of razor blades between the two states. How impatiently had I awaited the fulfilment of this moment, how I had yearned for it to come under conditions as strict and unalloyed as possible! It was for this, surely, that I was alive. How could I Fail to feel affection for those whose kindness had made this possible!
For many years I had forgotten the word “departure,” forgotten it as a magician might try deliberately to forget a fatal spell.
The takeoff of the F104 would be decisive. The upper regions at 10,000 meters that the old Zero fighters reached in fifteen minutes would be reached in a mere two minutes. Plus-G would rest hard upon my body; soon my vitals would be pressed down by an iron hand, my blood flow as heavy as gold dust. The alchemy of my body would begin.
Erect-angled, the F104, a sharp silver phallus, pointed into the sky. Solitary, spermatozoon-like, I was installed within. Soon, I should know how the spermatazoon felt at the instant of ejaculation.
The furthermost, the outermost, the most peripheral sensations of the times in which we live are bound up with the G that is the inevitable concomitant of space flight. Almost certainly, the remotest extremeties of everyday sensation in our age blend with G. We live in an age where the ultimate in what was once referred to as the psyche resolves itself into G. All love and hate that does not anticipate G somewhere in the distance is invalid. G is the physical compelling force of the divine; and yet it is an intoxication, an intellectual limit that lies at the opposite extreme from the outer limit of the intellect.
The F104 took off. Its nose lifted, then lifted further. Almost before I realized it, we were piercing the nearest clouds.
Fifteen thousand feet, twenty thousand feet. The needles of the altimeter and speedometer spun like small, dancing, white mice. Mach 0.9, almost the speed of sound.
Finally, G came. But it came so gently that it was pleasant rather than painful. For a moment, my chest was empty, as though a cascade of water had descended with a great rush and left nothing behind it. My field of vision was monopolized by the sky, blue with a grayish tinge. I felt as though we were taking a great bite of the sky, chewing it, and gulping it down. My mind stayed as fresh as ever. Everything was quiet, majestic, and the surface of the blue sky was flecked with the semen-white of the clouds. Since I was not asleep, to say I awoke would be wrong. Rather, I experienced an “awakening” as though another layer had been torn rudely from my wake-flness, leaving my spirit pure, unsullied as yet by my contact. In the unsparing light of the windshield glass I clenched my teeth against naked joy. My lips, I am sure, were drawn back as though in pain.
I was one with the F104 that I had seen before in the sky; I had transformed my living being into this thing that I had seen before my eyes. To men on earth, who until a moment ago had numbered me amongst them, I had become a receding existence; I dwelt at a point that was now no more than a fleeting memory for them.
Nothing could be more natural than to imagine that the notion of glory derived from the sun’s rays that poured so mercilessly through the glass ubble of the cockpit, from this utterly naked light. Glory was surely a name given to just such a light — inorganic, super-human, naked, full of perilous cosmic rays.
Thirty thousand feet; thirty-five thousand feet.
A sea of Clouds spread out far below, devoid of any conspicuous irregularities, like a garden of pure white moss. The F104 headed far out to sea to avoid sending shock waves to earth, racing south as it appraoched the speed of sound.
TWo forty-three p.m. From thirty-five thousand feet and a subsonic speed of mach 0.9, we climbed with a slight vibration through the speed of sound, to mach 1.15, mach 1.2, and so to mach 1.3 at a height of forty-five thousand feet.
The Silver fuselage floated in the naked light, the plane maintaining a splendid equilibrium. Once more it became a closed, motionless room. The plane was not moving at all. It had become, simply, an oddly-shaped metal cabin floating quite still in the upper atmosphere. No wonder, then, that the pressurized chamber on earth could serve as an exact model of a spaceship. The motionless thing becomes a precise archetype of the most swiftly moving thing.
There was even no suffocating sensation. My mind was at ease, my thought process lively. Both the closed room and the open room — two interiors so diametrically opposed — could serve equally, I found, as dwellings for the spirit of one and the same human being. If this stillness was the ultimate end of action — of movement — then the sky about me, the clouds far below, the sea gleaming between the clouds, even the setting sun, might well be events, things, within myself. At this distance from earth, intellectual adventure and physical adventure could join hands without the slightest difficulty. This was the point that I had always been striving towards.
This silver tube floating in the sky was, as it were, my brain, and its immobility the mode of my spirit. The brain was no longer protected by unyielding bone, but had become permeable, like a sponge floating on water. The inner world and the outer world had invaded each other, had become completely interchangable. This simple realm of cloud, sea, and setting sun was a majestic panorama, such as I had never seen before, of my own inner world. A the same time, every event that occured within me had slipped the fetters of mind and emotion, becoming great letters freely inscribed across the heavens.
It was then that I saw the snake.
That huge — but the adjective is hopelessly inadequate — snake of white cloud encircling the glove, biting its own tail, going on and on for ever…
Anything that comes into our minds even for the briefest moments, exists. Even though it may not exist at this actual moment, it has existed somewhere in the past, or will exist at some time in the future. Here lies the resemblance between the pressure chamber and the space ship; the resemblance between my midnight study and the interior of the F104, forty-five thousand feet up in the sky. The flesh should glow with the pervading prescience of the spirit; the spirit should glow with the overflowing prescience of the body. And my consciousness, that shown serene like duralumin, watched over them all the while.
The black shoulders of Fuji loomed in silhouette slightly to the right of the plane’s nose, gathering their clouds in slovenly fashion about them. To the left, the island of Oshima, the white smoke from its crater curdled above it like yoghurt, lay in a sea that gleamed in the setting sun.
Already we were below twenty-eight thousand feet.
If the giant snake-ring that resolves all polarities came into my brain, then it is natural to suppose that it was already in existence. The snake sought eternally to swallow its own tail. It was a ring vaster than death, more fragrant than that faint scent of mortality that I had caught in the compression chamber; beyond doubt, it was the principle of oneness that gazed down at us from the shining heavens.
The voice of the pilot fell on my ears.
“We are going to lower our altitude and make for Mount Fuji. We’ll circle the crater, then do a few rolls and lazy eights. Then we’ll make for home, passing over Lake Chuzenji on the way.”
Red lillies, reflections from the surface of the sea dyed crimson by the sunset, glowed through rents in the sea of cloud directly below. The crimson cast a glow within the thick layer of vapor, staining it with color, dotting it all over with red flowers.