33. Yukio Mishima, ‘the green snake’, and The Possessions of Doctor Forrest

Mishima photographed by Eikoh Hosoe for the book 'Ba-ra-kei' (Ordeal by Roses) (c) Eikoh Hosoe

In last Saturday’s Guardian I wrote at some length about Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility, a truly beloved read of my youth to which it was a pleasure to return 22 or so years later… There is a fleeting reference to Mishima himself within the text of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, and since Sea of Fertility is the only tetralogy of novels I know that treats the idea of metempsychosis then I have to admit that it must have had an influence on my own little tale of reincarnation…
I daresay the ‘snake’ element of Doctor Forrest – which extends from the novel’s front-cover, through an evil-looking tattoo on Robert Forrest’s bicep, to a bracelet that bears a charm of the medical symbol of the Asclepius – was also somewhat inspired by Mishima. Sometimes, to paraphrase Dr Freud, a snake is just a snake. But more commonly and problematically a snake tends to be a thousand other things, sometimes simultaneously. The serpent is the symbol to end all symbols, is it not?
Towards the end of his life Mishima was wont to refer to the uroborus, the ancient occult symbol of the serpent coiled around the Earth and devouring its own tail, ‘a ring vaster than death’, ‘vanquishing all polarities.’ Is this the same reptile that seems to haunt The Temple of Dawn, volume III of The Sea of Fertility? One does get that feeling.
A few months before his suicide in November 1970 Mishima told his English biographer Henry Scott Stokes that Japan, beset by money and materialism and ‘ugliness’, was under the curse of ‘the green snake.’ (One can imagine Mishima saying it in his excellent if inflected English: ‘green’ sounding like two syllables, ‘snake’ with a slight sibilance.) Scott Stokes was evidently troubled by Mishima’s language, and for all that Mishima was a considerable showman with a devotion to provoking nervous laughter, it seems fair to assume – since he was dead within a matter of weeks – that this cosmic despair was unfeigned.
You can hear him for yourself in these clips.


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