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Edging Toward Japan: Sun lovers D.H. Lawrence, Yukio Mishima also knew darkness

Yukio Mishima, having embarked on his first round-the-world trip.

By Damian Flanagan

Closing my eyes on a terrace bathed in sunlight and pointed towards the African coast, my thoughts drift towards the British novelist D. H. Lawrence and his short story, "Sun." Lawrence had a lifelong pull toward sensuality and sunlight -- embarking on odysseys throughout the 1920s to the Mediterranean, Australia, Mexico and back ultimately to the Mediterranean -- which you can only fully comprehend if you grasp his humble origins as the son of a coal-miner in a pit town in northern England.

The pursuit of the sun, and the desire to touch and taste the essence of life with every fibre of the soul, was borne out of Lawrence's primeval fear that literary failure might well have condemned him to a life in the cold, utterly dark miners' cave like his father. The simmering, agonized frustration of his father is expressed in one memorably pathetic scene in "Sons and Lovers" where his father flings away in fury a family pork pie. "Waste your own stuff!" Lawrence's alter-ego screams at his father, containing in those words a rebuke that the father had wasted his own life and might yet waste the son's.

Only perhaps if you have witnessed at first hand the true horrors of "the cave" -- the life of frustration and the inability to truly express oneself -- can you understand how your soul can rise up in celebration of "the sun."

Natsume Soseki, when recalling -- and imaginatively transforming -- his memories of his two frustrated years in London in 1900-1902, tended to depict the entire city as a cave -- a gloomy, dark, cold and permanently clouded maze. The only chinks of sunlight seen was the artificial light within another vast cave: when stumbling into a dark theatre, the stage is revealed, bathed in the beautiful Mediterranean glow of "Twelfth Night." Shakespeare offered chinks of literary light to his imprisoned soul.

For Soseki, the moment of release and apotheosis with the sun -- at least in his imagination, if not in reality -- came not in London, but basking in the golden October sun of the Scottish Highlands.

50 years later, another Japanese author, Yukio Mishima, headed off from Japan on a cruise ship on his first round-the-world journey. Sitting on the deck and bathing in the sunshine, he wrote that:

D.H. Lawrence

"I felt that I had come out of a dark cave and had discovered the sun for the first time ...Then, while bathing in the sun all day long, I began to think of remodelling myself. "

For Mishima, the primeval "cave" was the room his grandmother kept him trapped inside as a child, refusing to let him go outside and requesting that he tend to her sickliness. The lifelong quest for sunshine, bodily strength and health were all nurtured as a psychological response to the horrors of the cave.

Someone once wrote that to truly comprehend the power of electric light you first have to have seen the darkness of the world before such lights existed. I think similarly, to truly grasp the worship of sensuality and the sun, you first need to have been imprisoned in the shadow of the cave.


(This is Part 18 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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