Secret Agency-less Men: Part IV (the nature of the thing)

Some Korean Nature (Suraksan)

NOTE: In post I of this series I tried to go through the historical reasons that Korean fiction lacks agency, and completing my argument backwards, in post II I attempted to show that Korean fiction in fact does lack the kinds of agency one routinely sees in Western fiction. In post III I considered the role of Shamanist history in reducing agency.

Reading through an interesting text, Values Of Korean People Mirrored in Fiction I, and I am reassured to see this quote about novels of the Joseon era:

It will be proper, therefore, to say that the four trends of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and shamanism – are the general backdrop of Joseon novels. (Kim Tae-kil p.18)

This is not an entire endorsement of my scheme, of course, because much water has passed under the bridge since the Joseon era, colonization, war, bifurcation, rebellion, development and democratization are not to be sniffed at, but it does at least suggest the basis from which modern literature evolved, fits my model.

But Kim adds another aspect that has been slowly creeping up on me as well, and that is the Korean relationship to nature. I have been struggling, as this website has sometimes given evidence of, to understand the Korea love for The Buckwheat Season. When I ask this of Koreans they wax rhapsodic about connection to the land and seasons. I’ve never quite absorbed this.

Thus I was very interested when I got to the second chapter of Kim’s book, titled Thoughts about the Nature and the Ability of Human Beings, and read, “The way the Joseon people saw nature vastly differed from the way people see it today.” (24) He goes on to argue that, “From these writers and the readers who liked these storires, we can tell that the people of the times were not merely close to nature but were one with it.” (25) This is a startling difference between cultures as, even when the Western world was essentially “one with nature,” our literary output has rarely had anything to do with that. Perhaps the Romantic poets, in a decaying way, and the American Transcendentalists

Hanok doing the “Harmony” Thing.

(Thoreau pops to mind), had this kind of approach, but in general the western authorial style has been to follow our Greek philosophical basis and taxonomize and utilize any bits of nature we could get our hands on, or minds around.  Think, for example of how the Bible sees the relationship between man and the earth – Man is given dominion. Compare that to say, Taoism, in which, “the world moves in its natural course and man has to stay within the limits of the given fate.”

To draw pieces of of evidence from another field, look at architecture. First consider the hanok house, or, more properly, the “ideal” hanok house. From a bit of puffery in the Korea Times:

Hanok are traditional Korean houses that have their own philosophic values. They were built with special considerations to harmony with the surrounding nature. They are not only about setting up a structure, but about building a dwelling place that is nature-friendly, and not just about materials, but also positioning.

The house has to adjust to the land’s height, the site’s position in relation with surrounding mountains and water sources.

Again, compare this to the general ideas of historical Western architecture, which are to segregate houses from nature. Much of this has changed in modern time, but it’s social psychic force is still there, and even when it has changed, in Korea the architectural changes have stayed more or less in line with a puny human in the face of much larger force, in this case, the “Apateu.”[1]

This approach to nature is, of course, hand in hand with religious belief. Kim notes that because nature was incomprehensible Koreans, beginning with Shamanism, but working right on through all other Korean religions, invested great religious significance in nature. Compare this to the West, where incomprehensibility virtually demanded a historical project to impose comprehensibility on nature.

Here one can see the difference – the Western model is on of imposing human will on nature, while the Eastern model is much more of being in a relationship, and perhaps an inferior one, with nature. It is beyond this short post, but Kim also has a few nice passages on how this played out in idiom, with natural idioms abounding in Korean, and some of them quite specific.

But I think the general point here is clear – the Korean vision of a human’s role in the Universe, is very different from that of the West, and it is a vision that is at least partially hostile to the development of the individual, or even tragic, hero.

And, returning with some apprehension to The Buckwheat Season I think it is partly his vision that makes the work so appealing to Koreans.

Possibly only older ones, but the work does still manage to show up in an unusually high number of collections. 😉

In any case, toss relationship to nature in with religion and Confucianism as sources of the Korean style of hero.

In my next post I will return to religion, Buddhism I suspect, and eventually end this series with a reflection on what all of these influences have meant for Korea in terms of creating a “national literature,” and how that came to serve Korea well in the 20th Century.

[1] I don’t want to discuss this too deeply, as it is off topic, but consider the western McMansion, which is built with an intentional disregard for it’s surrounding. Or the subdivision, which chops nature and people into distinct silos. The Korean version? The “Apateu,” an enormous apartment building in which, while nature has been removed, a vast communalism exists. Even when Korean housing does move away from nature, it does so in an egalitarian (looking) manner.

4 thoughts on “Secret Agency-less Men: Part IV (the nature of the thing)

  1. I’m curious about the text you mention, “Values of Korean People Mirrored in Fiction.” Is this published in Korean or English, and where would I find a copy?


  2. Bonnie,

    It is in English, translated from Korean. It is two volumes and I checked it out from the Seoul Cultural Center Library. It is worth getting if you can find it. I found one of its two volumes online and bought it. I did not see any other copies available.

  3. I followed a trackback from your post on my posts about SF to this series.

    Two things:

    1. That hanok stuff is absolutely puffery, of a very interesting sort because I’d argue it does what has been done to every other aspect of Joseon culture: it’s remapped royal/elite aesthetics, values, and practices onto Korea as a monolithic whole. Not uncommon — every Scottish person outside the UK fancies his ancestors highlanders, for example. But still, I have a serious set of doubts that Joseon people had such airy thoughts about nature or their place in it; I imagine their thoughts were relatively comparable to the thoughts of peasants anywhere. (Which is to say, taking it for granted at once that humans are part of an subject to nature; but also espousing a double standard about human concerns and interests versus natural ones.)

    2. That I and my partner are beginning work on some translations of Korean SF and fantasy stories. Assuming things go as I hope, I’ll be able to report back about whether agency is showing up in more recent, newer SF stories in Korean. That’s where I’d expect it to show up, since the genre is essentially foreign and is highly centered on intellectual and investigative or inventive agency. I hope to have more to say soon, and will try remember to track back to your original post of SF an agency-less-ness.

  4. Gord.. late getting back to comments.

    I’m really looking forward to what you find in the SF. As to your first point I’d add the universal observation that almost everyone who has had a previous life was either Napoleon or Josephine, and very few were the scullery lad who died at age 13, face down in cow-shit, after being clocked by a hoof.

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