Culture

Is Nationalism Curative or Fatal?

Patrick Pearse (Bain News Service/Library of Congress)
Shared sacrifice for the sake of others is a boon, but some varieties of nationalism are performative and selfish.

At the very end of my summer, I felt as if I’d experienced the end of the pandemic, or at least I got a foretaste of the end. In the New Jersey beach town my family goes to each year, I went ten entire days without seeing a mask, or wearing one myself. Part of this was accomplished with savvy planning. We got a giant order of groceries delivered on the first night and limited trips to shops or takeout orders. I was told people were wearing them in the stores. But the sight of normal people interacting the way I normally expect them to interact was an immense relief nonetheless.

I’m conflicted about masks. I think they are fine as a matter of emergency hygiene. They are even polite during a pandemic. But culturally, I think they are obnoxious and intolerable. Most of all, I hate putting the tiny ones on my children. But that is the price of taking them along as I do the errands and chores of life.

On the avenue closest to the beach, I never saw the people riding bicycles or walking dogs wearing masks, as I sometimes do in my hometown. The beach itself was like a place where the danger of infection didn’t exist.

And yet, I wonder how many people will continue to wear them for years. Or at least during any flu season? For some people, an emergency can give life some kind of drama and meaning, even long after the danger has passed.

Last year, around the time my book came out, I was on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast, and we were discussing nationalism. I quoted one of the central historical figures in my book, the Irish-language activist and revolutionary leader Patrick Pearse. During the First World War, Pearse defected from the mainstream of Irish Catholic politics, which had been firmly behind the Home Rule party of John Redmond, aimed at restoring a devolved national parliament in Dublin. Pearse came to believe that only full separation from the English could honor Ireland’s history of rebellion and its ambitions for its own life.  He wrote:

The men who have led Ireland for twenty-five years have done evil, and they are bankrupt. They are bankrupt in policy, bankrupt in credit, bankrupt now even in words. They have nothing to propose to Ireland, no way of wisdom, no counsel of courage. When they speak, they speak only untruth and blasphemy. Their utterances are no longer the utterances of men. They are the mumblings and the gibberings of lost souls. . . .

They have built upon an untruth. They have conceived of nationality as a material thing, whereas it is a spiritual thing. They have made the same mistake that a man would make if he were to forget that he has an immortal soul. They have not recognised in their people the image and likeness of God. Hence, the nation to them is not all holy, a thing inviolate and inviolable, a thing that a man dare not sell or dishonour on pain of eternal perdition. They have thought of nationality as a thing to be negotiated about as men negotiate about a tariff or about a trade route, rather than as an immediate jewel to be preserved at all peril, a thing so sacred that it may not be brought into the marketplaces at all or spoken of where men traffic.

I had quoted it to Goldberg, and he noted that on the first hearing, this is somewhere he couldn’t go himself. Goldberg’s chief worry is the smashing of the minority or the individual in the name of the majority, which takes the name “nation” as its own license. He wants to understand the limiting principles involved. What prevents this line of thinking, he asks, from leading to tyranny and barbarity?

I wish we could have talked about it more in the larger context of Pearse’s essay. The language is urgent and extravagant (all holy!), but I think the principle involved is limited and proper. And the moral point that Pearse is making is the basis on which we judge and execute people guilty of treason. It’s the basis on which we ask young men to risk their lives in war. I think it is the basis on which America justly launched its own claim to independence.

As I’ve written before, I think there are a small number of people whose psychology inclines them toward the nation’s collective life and character as their chief political preoccupation. Let’s call them the natural nationalists. They tend to be conservative. And then I believe that a much larger section of any nation can be aroused to care and to act by events — major demographic change, crisis, foreign interference, or war. Nationalist political movements are like fevers and can be curative or fatal in themselves.

Goldberg’s reaction is on my mind because I recently had the same experience myself of immediately pulling away from a nationalist text in horror — Patriotism, by Yukio Mishima.

Mishima has a small cult following among some young right-wing nationalists. Born in 1925, Mishima was just a teenager during the period of Japan’s military ascendancy in the Pacific. Mishima was many things: a playwright, actor, novelist, homosexual, bodybuilder, and ultimately the leader of a quixotic right-wing nationalist militia, the Shield Society. He was recognized as a genius at home and hailed for his great international reputation as an author of beautiful, erotic prose. At the same time, his politics were a source of bafflement, even embarrassment. He was devoted to a Japanese ideal that had brought the country to ruin, was he not? At the age of 45, he and a few comrades visited the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Mishima gave a dramatic and theatrical speech demanding a coup that would restore the position of the Japanese emperor and expel the Americans. He was jeered by the very soldiers he hoped to inspire. He then immediately committed seppuku.

Paul Schrader made a film about his life in the 1980s. And in an interview with Dick Cavett, he explained that for most artists, the act of creation is purgative. But not for Mishima. His work did not extinguish his nationalist fantasies but enflamed them all the more. Mishima’s suicide was practically scripted from beginning to end. He designed the customs. He notified the press.

Patriotism, which was reprinted in translation in Esquire magazine, begins this way:

On the twenty-eighth of February, 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 Incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion — profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops — took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private residence in the sixth block of Aoba-chô, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death. The lieutenant’s farewell note consisted of one sentence: “Long live the Imperial Forces.” His wife’s, after apologies for her unfilial conduct in thus preceding her parents to the grave, concluded: “The day which, for a soldier’s wife, had to come, has come. . . .” The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep. The lieutenant’s age, it should be noted, was thirty-one, his wife’s twenty-three; and it was not half a year since the celebration of their marriage.

(For those who would like the background, you can read about the February 26 incident here.)

What follows over the next several score of short pages is a languid description of the officer and his wife making love to each other and then plunging these weapons into themselves. Once it occurs to you that it is pornographic, suddenly almost all else vanishes.

But it is only morally vulgar. Even in translation, the prose is beautiful and hypnotic. And one must admit that this highly aestheticized form of nationalism has seductions and contradictions aplenty. By treating their own lives as mere kindling in the national flame, our two leads paradoxically distinguish themselves all the more as individuals.

The crucial fact about these characters is hidden in the last phrase of that introduction. Mishima uses the fact of their youth and the newness of their marriage to heighten the drama, to draw our attention to their physical beauty and the brightness of their passions. But the most important thing is that they are childless. This is highlighted even more by the way Mishima draws attention to the filial bond in the penultimate sentence. The presence of a child of their own would render such an act perverse. Instead of the chilly self-sacrifice, we would see the flaming self-indulgence.

For a certain type, I think Mishima’s spell is irresistible. Precisely as Japan becomes a producer of Honda two-stroke engine motorcycles and other consumer distractions, Mishima is preoccupied with the glories of imperial Japan, revealed in the supererogatory sacrifices of its children. But in this book as in his life, Mishima’s vision severs the ideal of the nation not just from any organic community but from human nature itself. And it becomes the funhouse image of the Japan that would come later into being. Instead of consumerist, martial. Instead of vulgar anime, lurid melodrama. But in each, the unmistakable barrenness and loneliness.

The passions in national feeling burn fast and bright, but they make sense only when shared with others, and when the sacrifices are performed not to make spectacles of ourselves, but to provide suitable homes for our children.

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