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The Violence of the Unrequited: Thirst for Love (1950) by Yukio Mishima

By Mariam Pari

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Death and Life (Death and the Maiden) (1893-94), oil on canvas, 128 x 86 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

“What will I do if on this evening when I want to tell everything to Saburo and endure his recriminations, I should have to sit by while someone else tells him? He wouldn’t show anger; he would just keep quiet, hiding his disappointment. Or, worse, he would be reticent with everyone present and smile as if to pardon me. And that would be the end of it all – of the pain I have anticipated, of my wild dreams, of my joyful annihilation. Nothing must happen until one o’clock in the morning! Nothing new is to come into existence until I do it myself!”

After the death of her philandering husband, Thirst for Love’s protagonist Etsuko moves into her father-in-law’s household. Newly widowed and feeling impossibly lonely, numbly she submits to his advances. Filled with apathy towards the old man, Etsuko begins to find herself falling in love with a young servant boy called Saburo. Entangled in the complex emotions, consumptive jealousy and sexual torment of the household, Etsuko is caught in never-ending excruciating suspense caused by Saburo’s indifference to her desire.

Thirst for Love (1950) is a turbulent story of the violence that comes with complete infatuation and the intricacies and tragedies of forbidden love. Her internal struggle leads to a deep and painful obsession furthered by Saburo’s innocence and obliviousness to Etsuko's passion. Saburo is young and unaffected, love is the last thing on his mind. An oppressive atmosphere permeates this novel as Etsuko is trapped in the eternal routines of grasping the elusive, reaching for something that will never come to fruition, yet she is filled with a dangerous hope. The destruction of this unrequited love and her romantic delusion becomes more frightening as the novel progresses. She yearns for Saburo’s love to heal her of the embarrassment caused by her husband and father-in-law yet in doing so, Thirst for Love becomes a twisted and complex story of Etsuko’s suffering as her insatiable hunger transforms her into some sort of vampire, but rather than lusting for blood, she lusts to be loved.

Etsuko is extremely intelligent, yet a victim of her own nature. Jealousy is her vice, although it is also what feeds her hunger and gives her a purpose in the strange household. Without it, she has no purpose. Mishima’s rendering of Etsuko as intense but also immensely sensitive means that she becomes a very understandable character with whom the reader wants to sympathise with.

Like the soldier in Angela Carter’s short story The Lady of The House of Love (1979), Saburo’s youth is his protection, he does not understand love, he does not even realise that he has become the object of Etsuko's desires. His callousness and youthful ignorance mean he is quite a blank character in comparison to Etsuko. He has a simplicity and vacancy that makes it hard to see why he is the one that Etsuko has chosen to love. However, it is precisely this blankness that makes him the perfect person for Etsuko to project her own desires and dreams. Her fantasy of being with him is tainted by an unreality which Saburo encompasses because of his unattainability and indifference.

Her engrossment that comes from this unattainability also comes from the stratified class systems in which they exist. Because of their differences in social and cultural capital, they are unable to communicate meaningfully. This misunderstanding keeps her fantasies alight as if they truly understood each other, she would realise that any potential relation is doomed to fail. In refusing to realise this, Etsuko becomes a kind of masochist, enjoying any hurt that comes from this unrequited love. Saburo becomes a mirror of her own narcissistic longing, she is driven by a thirst that can never be quenched.

Her longing for salvation creates endless and heartless punishment. Without her obsession, she is listless and spiritless towards everything else in her life. Her desire is overwhelming, as if ‘an overpowering, corrupting spirit seemed to hold her in invisible chains’.

In the book A Month in Siena (2020), Hisham Matar writes about the concept of desire in a way that is reminiscent of Etsuko's dangerous passions. He contends that desire is an ‘unfulfilled wish, the frustrated appetite,’ and that desire is kept alive only by this promise of attainment, yet when it has been achieved, this desire ends. Desire wants complete conquest, but it is this undernourishment that keeps it going. As a continuum, it's reliant on the notion of unattainability.

Etsuko experiences this and knows what she is doing to herself. She knows that to transcend herself and her life which she finds so mediocre, she must engage in this consuming game of cat and mouse. She enjoys the annihilation that she is orchestrating. She is the victim of her own hands.

Similarly, Sophie Calle’s piece Venetian Suite follows similar ideas. Venetian Suite is a performance which was undertaken in 1979 in which Calle stalks a man referred to as Henri B over a thirteen-day period in Venice. During this following exercise, she develops an obsessive attachment to Henri B, claiming ‘only love seems admissible’. This sense of unreality and the projection onto an unknown subject draws parallels to Etsuko in Thirst for Love. Both Calle and Etsuko reach for the elusive, for the unattainable, and commit acts that toe the line between obsession and madness.

At the end of her following, Calle finally encounters Henri B., yet the resolution is wholly anti-climactic: “What did I imagine? That he was going to take me with him, to challenge me, to use me? Henri B. did nothing, I discovered nothing. A banal end to this banal story.” She has also said regarding the project that it did not start out of artistic reasons but as a personal exercise, claiming that she was ‘just trying to play, to avoid boredom.’ At the end of the Thirst for Love, when it becomes clear that Etsuko and Saburo can never be together, there is this same indifference that Calle feels after her mission ends.

“The crowing of roosters in the middle of the night fittingly knows no end. It went on again. It went on beyond ending.

...yet there wasn’t a thing.”

The dissatisfying ending means Etsuko’s thirst for love is never satisfied and with no hope of the resurrection of her desire, Etsuko returns to the same banal existence and ultimately, fails to escape her own company.


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