They could not have been farther apart politically, one the glamorous elitist, in reality an extreme nationalist who appeared to many as a proto-fascist, the other a champion of the dispossessed. Although Jean Genet and Yukio Mishima occupy extremes of the political spectrum, they share many threads in thought and action, if alone in sexual preference - beyond their sheer genius.
The distinct characteristic they shared was that of the outsider, the marginalized man, the ignored prophet. They both courted this distinction in their own ways - Genet was recognized as going beyond the pale in his later years (by throwing his support behind the Black Panthers, for example, or later with more damage to his reputation, the Red Army Faction) and Mishima by choosing to end his life as a Samurai following Bushido after a failed coup.
Beyond politics they also expressed their sexuality differently, of the two, Genet more openly. Mishima married, but enjoyed the company of men 'on the side'. On a tour of Mishima's house in Tokyo, the singular volume among a bookcase of Japanese titles is a gay guide to New York, in English. As a young solider in Syria, Genet fell in love with a 16 year-old hairdresser in Damascus during France's skirmishes with its African possessions in the imperial years before the war. The whole neighbourhood knew of their love and it was accepted in the best tradition of amusement among the Muslim men and boys. Genet was careful (being a colonial) but it seemed not to matter, the locals taking it in their stride.
In fact for both Genet and Mishima, their lives ended up going beyond the sexuality that defined them. Mishima was a masochist. He endured, as a young boy, his strong-willed grandmother, who removed him from his mother shortly after birth, keeping him at her side for the next 12 years. He was later to call himself a 'grandma's boy'. This elicited in him a strong impulse for self control and discipline that would later blossom into a cult of the body and the raising of a private army. To an extent an autobiographical writer (they certainly both were), he was never to mention his grandmother in the 40 novels or 18 plays he was later to write. For Genet, in later years, he spoke of his sexual attraction to his Arab political confreres and questioned whether that very attraction was the reason for adopting their struggles. Later still he was able to separate the sexuality from the politics and accepted the idealism as a higher motive for his involvement.
Mishima had two children with his wife and was a doting father, the perfect picture of a landed gentleman. He was fascinated with beauty and was a romantic aesthete. On the other hand, Genet glorified his hoodlum attitudes
and fabricated a youth of crime. Of the two, Genet certainly had better luck being raised. In his writing career he would espouse the role of the thief, but he himself had a loving foster family taking care of him after being born a bastard in 1910. He was given ample books and attention from the farm family that took him in. Shortly after this tenth birthday he began pilfering their possessions as well as those of their neighbours. For this he was sent to reform school.
Mettray Reformatory was the crucible where he took up an interest in theft and homosexuality. Genet's version of his own childhood being illustrated with poverty and abuse was a lie - a myth propagated and given credibility by his friend Jean Paul Sartre. Nevertheless, he later survived as a thief, forger and male prostitute. Having been arrested several times, he spent the majority 0f the Second World War incarcerated. Prison, at the very least, gave the man time to write. Mishima was prolific as a teenager, fixated on Saint Sebastian (even going so far as to be photographed later as the Saint, punctured with arrows). For Mishima, pain, blood and beauty were the ingredients in the purification of the spirit. For Genet it was the opposite. Genet was attracted to straight men and turned a blind eye to his feelings when his butch boyfriends rolled pansies for pocket money or possessions. In this at least, he was a nihilist.
In their later years physical beauty became an issue, as it does for many gay men. Mishima weight trained intensely, making sure he would have, as he once implied, a good looking corpse. Genet found solace in the Arab world as an older man, echoing Paul Bowles' sentiments that the Middle Eastern cultures were not ageist and older men could enjoy the company of young men without the fear of the torments of age.
Taking up the Feyedheen cause in the late 1970s, Genet was invited by Yasser Arafat into northern Jordan. He writes,
The first two Feyedheen were so handsome I was surprised at myself for not feeling any desire toward them. And it was the same the more Palestinian soldiers I met decked with guns, in leopard-spotted uniforms and red berets tilted over their eyes, each not merely a transfiguration of but also a materialization of my fantasies...
Genet's erotic impulse was redeemed by what he called an emotional affinity that had its place in an intuitive sensual attraction to these men and their struggle. Accepted as something of a sage by these Nationless Palestinians, he defended them completely saying, "They are in the right because I love them."
Genet's ideas here could be applied tantalizingly but falsely to Mishima's Shield Society, or Tatenokai. The ranks of the private army created by Mishima were culled from a right-wing student newspaper called the Ronso Journal. Mishima was not a fascist, although one look at his uniforms for the Shield Society, and one wonders. Rather, he wanted to restore the power of the Emperor in Japan, a country he thought had become too decadent and rich in the years after the Second World War. He was a fervent follower of Hirohito, and used his disciplined unit (they constantly drilled and lifted weights together) to announce his political convictions. Hated by the Left, essentially ignored by the Emperor, he no doubt wondered and worried about the eventual departure of American forces from Vietnam and the resulting political vacuum that it would create in Asia. Toy soldiers to fight the tide, the Tatenokai were also Mishima's homo-erotic ideal.
Aside from the wealth of literature Genet and Mishima left the world, with all its pain and darkness and beauty, they also reached the height of their respective oeuvres with two defining acts, and neither of them were literary.
End of Part I