The Length of the Sword
A straw mat rests inside a pool of light beneath a cherry blossom tree. On the mat, a small wooden pedestal holds a curved dagger, a samurai’s knife known as a tantō. On the four corners of the mat, small leafy branches have been ceremoniously arranged. A man wearing a navy blue robe kneels off to the side, face obscured by shadow, a wooden water pail before him. From the darkness, another man approaches the mat, a horseshoe shape shaved into the crown of his head, the remaining tuft of his black hair tied tightly in a bun. Wearing a spotless white robe with exaggerated shoulders, he sits cross-legged on the mat. The man in blue reveals a long sword, the katana, which he slowly unsheathes before standing. He rinses the tip of the weapon in the water pail then positions himself behind the man in white, who begins to disrobe. The man in white lifts the tantō horizontally, the blade clasped between both hands. He bows once. After a few deep breaths, he sets down the knife, moving the pedestal, called a sanbo, to his backside, using it like a stool. The man in blue raises his sword while the man in white feels for the tender spot below his left rib cage. His movements deliberate, graceful, the man in white grips the knife’s handle, the point pressing against his flesh. With all his strength, he disembowels himself in a single, clean motion. The man in blue’s eyes bulge. The sword swishes through time, space, skin, muscle, bone—all in 1/100th of a second. From a delicate branch of the cherry blossom tree hangs the fallen man’s final words, a death poem written on a translucent strip of paper.
When I left New York City in early 2011, I swore to become a more serious writer, mostly out of spite. Abandoned by my lover and friends, humiliated that I was moving back in with my mother, success seemed at the time to be the best form of revenge.
Considered wildly experimental upon its conception, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring depicts a pagan ritual wherein a woman dances herself to death. It is divided by two Acts, L’Adoration de la Terre—The Adoration of the Earth—and Le Sacrifice—The Sacrifice.
I determined that getting serious required no small sacrifice on my part. I went back to school at a small college in Maryland, enrolled myself in writing workshops. When a smug-faced Biology major with a penchant for writing the cringiest romantic poetry declared that a story I’d written should not be allowed to exist, I knew I was on the right track.
Stravinsky’s own accounts of The Rite’s origins are contradictory. He first told the press that the music itself inspired the pagan backdrop. Later, in his memoirs, Stravinsky claimed instead to have been struck by a vision which inspired the music. I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps.
Since returning home I’ve won awards, published pieces, even occasionally received scant paychecks, all for my writing. Despite all this, I still have trouble referring to myself as a writer. I ceaselessly denigrate myself, my work. There’s the old cliché, You are your own worst enemy. The problem is I get along just fine with my enemies. There are quite a few of them, a regular harem of bad habits.
Maya Angelou’s day began at 6am with a lubricating glass of sherry. She would rent a separate hotel room to write in for month-long stretches. Working into the afternoon, she always provided herself extra time before supper to review the day’s material and make revisions. She prohibited the maids from changing the sheets.
Being a serious writer demands a certain level of self-awareness, but until now I’ve never given my own writing habits any thought. I must have some. I’m writing this. The clock reads 8:00pm. Strange—I usually don’t care to write at night. I’m falling into some new habits, perhaps.
What Sylvia Plath called a child forming itself finger by finger in the dark.
As a boy I was plagued by insomnia, prone to neurosis. To occupy my fledgling mind, I spent hours reading in bed every night. My favorite books included any that scared me or made me cry or both. My mother called me sensitive. I could only see myself as weak.
Though he had been born a sickly child, in the final decade of his life, the Japanese author Yukio Mishima began a strict weight-training regimen. Espousing the code of bushido, Mishima detested intellectuals who favored mind over body. Already an established writer, he began embracing an extremist form of right wing, anti-government nationalism.
When I was thirteen, my eighth grade Language Arts teacher gave our class a creative writing assignment. We were to compose our memoirs. My life story up to that point included musings on my parents’ separation, my theatrical experiences, my obsessions with reading and writing, my first girlfriend. I called it Sleepwalker. The title was apt—nearly twenty years later I still feel as if I am wandering through life in a dream, my feet plodding forward unconsciously.
The 1978 documentary film Budo: The Art of Killing explores the relationship between mind and body, featuring demonstrations from numerous schools of Japanese martial arts, collectively known as gendai budo. Shinto practitioners don colorful robes to walk barefoot over red-hot coals. Half naked karate masters exercise in the frigid snow. Young trainees spar waist-deep in the ocean, waves crashing against them. Zen disciples meditate in the zazen posture, prohibited from flinching, while a monk wielding a thin bamboo keisaku strikes them repeatedly across the back. All to rid themselves of self-deception, to see clearly, to confront pain, suffering, aguish, the disappointments of life, to embrace a sense of nothingness, to achieve enlightenment.
self-dis•ci•pline / NOUN [mass noun] / The ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses.
How do I control myself? Maybe the real question is, why do I control myself? Why not succumb to my true bestial nature?
Sumo wrestlers typically eat upwards of 5,000 calories per day. For those in upper weight classes, that number can be as high as 10,000. The daily recommended caloric intake for the average person is 2,000. I imagine these calories in terms of a text—5,000 words a day, 10,000 words a day.
I am my own worst enemy. I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to produce. Write, write, write. You can always write more, I tell myself. No matter the word count, it’s never enough. I’m insatiable, gluttonous. Eat to live, not live to eat, Socrates might have said. Write to live, not live to write. But does the writing sustain me? It certainly has no nutritional value, there’s no fiber in words, no grammatical calories, semiotic trans fat.
Before writing, Walt Whitman treated himself to a breakfast of oysters. His contemporary Emily Dickinson liked baking bread between poems.
I love anything that eats my time. I keep myself constantly busy. If I stay in my head too long, I get depressed. When I’m depressed, I like to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling. I demobilize, shut down. The best way to avoid this, I’ve found, is to occupy myself with all manner of tasks. I work, teach, study, read, clean. I keep a perpetual To Do list. The writing might be different from these other distractions in that I’ve always considered it more of a compulsion. The writing has a will of its own.
The French writer Pierre Guyotat famously masturbated while composing such works as Eden Eden Eden, a vitriolic single sentence playing out across some one hundred odd pages of sexual depravity and violence. Describing this practice as beat-sheets, Guyotat would climax directly onto his drafts. These cum-stained manuscript excerpts are now preserved, framed, hanging in European galleries, priceless works of art.
People often praise a work as exquisitely measured, beautifully composed, noting the author’s seemingly effortless control of the text. It was so carefully written, someone might say, or the author exercised such miraculous restraint. While I do admire sparse and deliberate prose, I’m also attracted to messy writing, drawn to the chaotic ramblings of madmen. People tend to divide themselves between these poles, these limits of self-control.
Widely regarded as the finest male dancer of the 20th century, Vaslav Nijinsky toured the world, dazzling crowds with his technical virtuosity and at other times baffling them with his transgressive choreography. Partnering with the famed Russian producer Sergei Diaghilev, their newly formed troupe Ballets Russes caused a sensation during its 1909 Paris premiere. Finding tremendous success on mainland Europe, Nijinsky and his cohorts were considered minor celebrities. Amidst the fanfare, Diaghilev and Nijinsky became lovers.
I never stick to a strict writing schedule. The urge comes and goes on a whim. I never plan or outline. Often I’m stumbling blind, following some thread with no clue as to where it might take me, perpetually chasing that sense of discovery. Sometimes it comes in big spurts, pages and pages in one go. Other times I can barely squeak out a declarative sentence. I’m a selfish writer (I think) because I never consider the audience. Some call me indulgent, and who am I to argue?
Self-indulgence, the equivalent of masturbating on the page.
Is it somehow more real, more authentic to abandon our humanity, to revert back to our animal nature? Maybe deep down we all want to shed the thin veneer of civility. Maybe it is more fun to be a beast. But our responsibilities prevent us—a family, a job, a God, all fair excuses to withhold from excess. Stranger still is that we see no harm in watching someone else descend into barbarity. Is it worse to be a sort of vicarious cannibal, feeding off the degradation of others while keeping oneself just slightly removed, whether by screen, or stage, or page?
Constantly improving both their techniques and mental powers, the sumo wrestlers undergo severe training, even to the point of cruelty, yet this severity is indispensable in the accomplishment of budo.
Graham Greene forced himself to write five hundred words per day, nothing more nothing less. For him, those five hundred words were sheer torture.
I want to approach my writing with ascetic devotion. I want to be the Simeon Stylites of letters. I want to live on a six-foot wide platform atop a sixty-foot tall pillar on the outskirts of Aleppo for thirty-seven years. I want to fast for the whole forty days of Lent then eat flatbread and goats’ milk that local peasants send me via a bucket on a pulley. I want to bind my limbs with coarse ropes until my putrid flesh becomes a breeding ground for maggots, plucking any worms that fall and returning them to my open wound out of sheer dedication to God’s will.
Or would that be considered trying too hard?
Mishima formed a small militia called Tatenokai—Shield Society—mounting an unsuccessful coup attempt at the Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Self Defense Force. Mishima, in formal military regalia (an outfit he himself had sewn), a white Hachimaki scarf emblazoned with the symbol of the Rising Sun tied around his forehead, stood proudly on a balcony before the throng of soldiers below. He delivered an impassioned speech meant to rouse the crowd’s sympathy, but instead they laughed him offstage.
When I teach acting, typically I begin by stressing the importance of control. Actors who lack focus are not only boring to watch—they are dangerous. I once watched a castmate bloody a woman’s nose because he neglected to make proper eye contact when initiating what was supposed to be a staged slap to the face. The woman (understandably so) broke character, filling the theatre with an impassioned cry, That fucking hurt! The audience, thinking it was all part of the show, burst out laughing.
The Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky, who would eventually become Nijinsky’s wife, witnessed the dancer perform in Budapest during the spring of 1912. In her own words, An electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being…the power, the featherweight lightness, the steel-like strength, the suppleness of his movements.
Legendary for his strength, Mas Oyama founded the Kyokushin style, an influential type of full contact karate. At a young age, his family sent him to Manchuria to work on his sister’s farm. One of the field hands, a man named Lee, began teaching the boy Chinese martial arts. One of Oyama’s first lessons was to plant a seed. Lee instructed him to wait for the seed to sprout. When the tiny stalk sprung from the earth, Oyama was tasked with jumping over the plant one hundred times daily. As the plant grew, Oyama was forced to leap higher and higher. Because of this training, Oyama said, I was able to jump between walls back and forth easily. I want to perform the literary equivalent. This essay could be the seed. Now I just need to jump over it one hundred times every day until it blooms.
Here I go again, trying to make the text seem effortless, as if it wrote itself. Can you tell I’m struggling?
I suspect that even if I were to birth some thousand-page manifesto it would fail to satisfy the tapeworm that is my authorial intent. Maybe I should start waking earlier. I do prefer writing in the morning. Kurt Vonnegut awoke at 5:30am. I could try that. Better still, Haruki Murakami gets out of bed at 4:00am. Yes, I could synchronize my own sleep schedule with his. I’ll have to account for the time difference. From where I sit, Murakami is already fourteen hours ahead of me. How can I catch up? I should wait longer before going to sleep. Jack Kerouac slept all day and began his writing at midnight, preferring to compose by candlelight. What if I fall asleep at midnight and wake up at 4:00am? Four hours of rest should be plenty. I think it was Napoleon who said, Four for a man, five for a woman, and six for a fool.
Clad only in the skins of wild beasts, Simeon Stylites slept little if at all. The venerated holy man attracted huge crowds of worshippers to the pillar he sat atop. His first dwelling was a meager nine feet off the ground, but when the onlookers continued to swell in numbers, Simeon retreated higher and higher into the sky, so that his private acts of penance would go undisturbed.
I make my work public though I compose it as one might masturbate, alone, behind closed doors, ashamed but unable to stop. Both an escape. Both messy. Both fleeting.
Mishima’s final speech took only a few minutes. He exited the balcony, walked back into the barricaded office, and performed seppuku. A fellow co-conspirator was assigned kaishakunin duty, responsible for decapitating Mishima after the author disemboweled himself. The kaishakunin tried and failed three times to remove Mishima’s head. Ashamed, the first kaishakunin opted also to end his life, and a third Tatenokai member beheaded both men with relative ease.
Contrary to widespread belief, suicide is the ultimate expression of self-control. The willpower it must take to end this involuntary life seems staggering. He was so selfish, they say, or shaking their heads whisper, He took the easy way out. No, what he took was total control of his destiny.
My deepest fear is the day I cease to relinquish control voluntarily, when nature strips me of the right, when entropy forces me to hand over the reigns. A friend of mine told me a story about his great aunt who developed dementia. For years the woman relived a traumatic incident from her childhood on a constant loop. She experienced nothing else outside of this cruel, circuitous memory. When she was but a little girl, the woman witnessed her sister drowning in a lake. The scene played out ad nauseam inside the woman’s head until her death at last brought relief. She would cry out, Save her! Someone, please, save her! I wonder if she was talking about her sister or herself.
Guyotat once wrote himself into a coma by neglecting food and not once leaving his apartment for three straight months while composing the manuscript for Le Livre.
Isolation helps with my writing. If I know other people are nearby I get uncomfortable. I can’t perform, which is odd given the plentiful amount of time I’ve spent in front of an audience. I know some writers who prefer to work in noisy, crowded places, like a trendy café or a popular public park. For me writing must be a solitary experience, even though I’ve seen firsthand the benefit of working with a group, an ensemble.
Nijinsky, like any performer, was no stranger to collaboration. He choreographed the infamous 1913 production of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. At first, the pair of -insky’s seemed to get along fine, but the relationship soon became fraught with turmoil. In his 1936 memoir, Stravinsky writes of Nijinsky, The poor boy knew nothing of music. He could neither read it nor play any instrument. With rehearsals badly behind schedule, Stravinsky threatened to cancel the show, but by May of that year Nijinsky’s dancers had at last mastered his intricate choreography. On opening night, at the newly constructed Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, an eager crowd sat ready, oblivious to the chaos about to ensue.
I don’t mind exploiting myself but I worry about doing so to others. The more intimate I am with you, the greater likelihood I will one day write you, textualize you. I once did a live reading of a short story I wrote. Afterwards, I joined a friend at the bar. She asked, So who’s the girl in the story supposed to be? I gave the usual answer, It’s fictional, knowing full well who inspired the character. No wonder writing truthfully about myself brings such discomfort. I have no mask to hide behind. I am exposed, nude, standing in front of a crowd with a noose around my neck, my dick in one hand, a pen in the other.
During the year before his death, Mishima meticulously planned his suicide. Some scholars believe the coup attempt was merely a pretext for the seppuku of Mishima’s dreams. His final work was a traditional Japanese death poem, just like the samurai of old would have penned. Over a career spanning decades, Mishima wrote 34 novels, nearly 50 plays, about 25 books of short stories, at least 35 essay collections, one libretto, and a film, Patriotism, the Rite of Love and Death. Today most scholars consider Mishima’s body of work to be semi-autobiographical.
Memoir is not an act of self-preservation, but rather a ritual of self-annihilation. The true self is transferred to the page, while the hollowed out imposter continues to walk through the world. A memoir becomes a form of sacrifice. To write oneself is to kill oneself.
And yet I cannot stop.
Mas Oyama, sporting only a pair of floral print shorts, one hand wrapped around the bull’s horn, the other clutching the ring through its snout, wrestles the 2,000 lb. animal into submission before releasing his grip. He raises his right arms and swipes it down in a swift chopping motion, slicing through the bull’s horn, killing the creature instantly. During his lifetime, Oyama fought fifty-two such battles, in three instances killing the bull in a single strike, earning himself the nickname “Godhand.”
Sometimes I write when I don’t want to. I force myself. Like right now. I don’t always enjoy writing. Any author will attest to its difficulty. I’m suspicious of anyone who claims they have such fun when they write. To mar the page is often painful.
When The Rite premiered on May 29, 1912, Stravinsky’s first bars were greeted with laughter. The audience, split between wealthy, elite Parisians and vagabond, avant-garde bohemians, bickered continuously throughout the performance. The orchestra was pelted with garbage. Some forty people had to be ejected from the auditorium. The hissing from the crowd coupled with the dancers’ stomping feet drowned out the sound of Nijinsky shouting the steps from the wings.
Even though I claim writing to be such a burden, it upsets me to be interrupted when I feel like writing, when the urge propels me, when the compulsion takes over. Whatever or whomever disrupts this hypnosis becomes the object of my discontent, even those I love. My wife calls at the wrong time. What’s the matter? she asks. Nothing, I lie. You sound annoyed. That’s because I am. Annoyed, yes—but selfish also in my hermitage, my hypocrisy.
Simeon did not withdraw himself completely from public life. He consulted with anyone brave enough to climb a precarious ladder that reached within speaking distance. He frequently preached to his followers, profanity and ursary being his gravest concerns. The neverending crowd watched in awe—Simeon repeatedly bowing his head to his feet as a sign of devotion, undeterred by the ulcer in his thigh.
Research is the most productive way to waste time. I stop mid-sentence to run any number of asinine internet searches, flip through tanned pages of creased paperbacks. I read articles, shifting from one source to the next, free associating seemingly disparate people, places, events. Before I know it, I’ve watched a ninety-minute documentary about seal hunting without writing a single word. The research will inform the writing, I tell myself. I’m a brilliant liar.
Today, Oyama’s bullfights are widely considered to have been faked, mere propaganda. Experts claim that none of the oxen were true “bulls” and they were often purposefully tired out before the duels. Rather than striking the horns from the front, Oyama would hit the much less durable backside. Some of his former students claim that they were instructed to loosen the animals’ horns with a hammer ahead of time.
It might be true that my process is all over the place.
Yukio Mishima’s novel Runaway Horses is the second in a tetralogy of phonebook-sized novels. The plot involves a young man trained in the art of budo who instigates a failed rebellion against the Japanese government. The novel concludes with our disgraced protagonist walking through a tangerine orchard to reach a cave by the seashore, where he commits seppuku.
I have yet to write a suicide note. It must feel liberating—knowing that you’ll never write again.
Stylitie, from the Greek word style—meaning pillar. A writer’s style. A writer’s pillar.
It would be so easy. To reject all this. Stop writing. Stop living. Stop.
Near the end of his life Mas Oyama developed painful osteoarthritis but refused to abandon his training. Pushing seventy, Oyama continued teaching and giving demonstrations, smashing wooden boards to bits, the joints of his hands swollen into grotesque knobs.
Nobody better change my sheets.
A laborious and puerile barbarity…the work of a madman…in complete opposition to the traditions of classical ballet, contemporary critics described Nijinsky’s choreography as.
I used to enjoy writing. I used to enjoy a lot of things.
Time changes a human life. A certain swordsman, having mastered the art without losing his life for half a lifetime, learned in time that he should never draw the sword. Not being cut by an opponent and not cutting another, defeating the enemy, winning over his own mind. Such is the spirit of the Japanese sword. He has understood the truth. Only when his mind accepts the inevitability of death at any moment can one truly understand that the sword should never be drawn. Through the severity and cruelty of the training, one arrives at the truth of budo, to live life in peace without violence. It is only at the instant separating life from death that the spirit of budo becomes crystal clear.
Once you have been emptied, you cannot be refilled.
As early as 1919, Nijinsky began exhibiting signs of serious mental illness. Still in his twenties, Nijinsky kept a diary, recording his descent into madness. At times he is God, savior of the world. Other entries find him slipping into despair—fully aware that he is going insane. He filled pages with drawings of eyes, paranoid he was under surveillance from his wife and doctors, who he suspected were plotting to lock him away. His fears were soon realized when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and promptly institutionalized. For the next thirty years, he shuffled in and out of hospitals, never again gracing a stage.
I don’t live to write. Rather, I write to live. The text sustains me as much as I nourish it. Once, during a severe depressive episode a few years ago, I found myself sitting on the toilet, numbly running a warm bath, a razor resting by the sink. Out of nowhere, my dog ran in and leapt onto my lap. We were both crying. He wouldn’t stop licking my face. I drained the water, threw out the razor, and wrote a poem titled “My Dog Won’t Let Me Kill Myself.”
After thirty-seven years atop his pillar, Simeon departed this world on September 2, 459. His disciples found the holy man as he normally was, stooped solemnly in prayer.
Writing and misery are consummate companions. Here I have entered into a ménage a trois of sorts. I fuck them, they fuck me. A woman once told me she believed I liked feeling sorry for myself. I’ve often been a fool. I used to ascribe to the belief that this psychic pain was essential to my art—a dangerous fallacy. My disease hides itself, seeks to deceive me, to control me, to convince me that my darkest thoughts are the truth rather than a warped version of reality. I must never forget this.
I am my own worst enemy.
I’ll never be a famous dancer. I’ll never be a master of budo. I’ll never be a saint or a Zen monk. I’ll never fight a bull with my bare hands. I’ll never fast for forty days. I’ll never stage a revolt against the government. What I will do is keep writing, keep learning to control those impulses that would rather I self-destruct than continue through this strange life, keep following the length of the sword until I reach the end one way or another.
And I must always remember that despite my best efforts, I am never truly alone.
A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate
Matt Lee is an actor, teacher, and writer from Maryland. His work has been featured at SURFACES, Tragickal, and Occulum, among other venues. He has produced numerous original works for the stage with Maryland Ensemble Theatre. He tweets @Gallows_Ticket
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