“Trap of History”

Jeong-Hyun Shin’s The Trap of History should have been a contender. Instead it’s underlying reactionary politics render it worthwhile to read, but better to distrust.

The first issue is Shin’s palpable dislike of Korea, in the present and as a recent historical concept:

During the nineteenth century, however, the Korean people failed to transmute their energy to higher and more subtle levels; instead, they abandoned themselves to the national vices -moral, economic, and political corruption; factional struggles; and the inflating of the elite class, thus severely straining the political and social system of the nation. As a result, the twentieth century has been the worst of times for Koreans.

This is the oldest sort of complaint, the equivalent of an old man hollering to keep children off his lawn, then slumping back into his rocking chair and murmuring about “the good old days.”

Or as Cicero put it, “o tempora, o mores!”

The second issue is that this stain in his brain leaks, as stains do, out to tarnish what he thinks of modern Korean literature:

“Unfortunately, I cannot in these works find any intelligible set of ideas for how to transcend the present, how to move out of the pasts, how to reconcile the past with present life, and how to create a national self.” (xiv)

This is an interesting view of what literature should do and I’m not sure it is consonant with Shin’s claim, which is key to his dismissive attitude about current Korean lit, that previous Korean literature had been good.

Certainly what Shin describes (with approbation) as:

literature, old myths, religious rituals, and nursery rhymes were elevated to the form of hyang-ga, songs, si-jo, ga-sa, and finally the modern forms of the novel and poetry. (x)

do not seem primarily to be literature of transcendence, rather the literature of acceptance of the ‘old days.’

Further, Shin’s ultimate point, “For more than half a century the literature has been largely concerned with the expression of some anachronistic foreign values in patriotic guise.” (xv) seems accurate but largely without importance since for the last half century the country of Korea has largely been concerned with the expression of anachronistic foreign values in patriotic guise and it is largely because of this approach that Korea has been able to remake itself in the remarkable fashion it has.

Historically, this is where Korea is, and that can’t be escaped by longing for the good old days.

Shin is a literary moralist in the old-fashioned sense. When he discusses “A Fire” by Jin-gun Hyun he concludes that the narrator’s final act of revenge is flawed because “the fire at Sun-i has discovered in the end should be used creatively and positively to break her own fetters.”(8) This borders on the absurd, given the already well-limned territory of control and pain that that the narrator is trapped in. If the story doesn’t have some notion of human perfectibility in it? Shin will pan it.

Shin also has an annoying habit, one I’ve detected in several other essays of Korean critics, of beginning his essays with tangential discussions of various theorists (From Umberto Ecco to Andrea Dworkin), before finally veering back to the literary work under examination. My favorite introduction leads off Chapter Five. Shin weaves Heraclitus, Macbeth, Achilles and Adam, Faust and Confucius, into a perfect cotton-candy of analysis, all of which leads up to a conclusion something like, “The Koreans have a different, and not worse way, of addressing fate.” To return, for a moment, to Macbeth, it is sound and fury, signifying nothing. As a new reader to Korean criticism I make the snap, and probably incorrect, judgment that this kind of writing is to prove some kind of minimum daily requirement of western literary thought. If that is what it is, it is pretty unnecessary.

Sometimes, also, his analysis is perverse. When Shin argues that the traduced maiden in “The Lunatic Painter” represents “how ordinary people become dead in the course of daily life” he seems to miss the actual point, that the death of her “inner light” is absolutely not in the context of daily life. Despite this, Shin begins there and builds a progressively more breathless argument that radically misinterprets part of the story. It often seems that Shin’s analysis precedes his reading.

Shin’s belief that Koreanness includes some kind of inherited racial history is clearly carried through his analyses. Reviewing Yi Saeng’s “The Wings” Shin argues that, “There is no denying that we feel some limitation in Sang Lee’s use of interior monologue; because of the narrator’s limited mental space the monologue does not reveal his cumulative memories and wishes.” (39)

That is, of course, nonsense, Yi presents his narrator as living in a permanent present haze as part of his presentation of the character and his numbed disconnection. Why Shin believes that each and every character in a story should be a walking talking representative of the cumulative social and political history of Korea is unclear, but it is an unfair and profoundly philistine concept.

Shin seems to know this elsewhere. When he argues that (about the narrator of “The Wings”:

There is an everlasting horror in the narrator’s life. He may never become liberated, may never find utopia. He is confined in his wife’s world.

Shin explicitly admits that this character is unnaturally bounded in, yet at the same time he wants him to be the vast canvas of Korean history. These thoughts are paralogical.

Moralist that he is, Shin gets in some good digs at narrator’s wife, and these are well earned. Shin is a good writer and often a skilled critic; but one wearing blinkers.

This blinkered condition is demonstrated in his analysis of “Kapitan Lee” which is one of the most amusing, if derogatory, stories of a collaborator in the canon of such stories (if there is one?)

Shin says:

on the way to be servile yet again to another foreign power — he falls into a reverie on his long history of servility to foreign power

Kapitan Lee certainly serves any ascendant foreign power, but he is not servile in the dictionary sense, rather he is cunning as a weasel, and this is not a difference without a distinction.

Shin wants to portray Kapitan Lee as a mere bootlicker. Lee certainl
y licks boots, but he is a cold-hearted opportunist, and that has an entirely different meaning than the one Shin tries to tack onto the horrible, but oddly attractive, Kapitan Lee.

It is a topic for another paper, but Shin also does an amusing job of assessing the narrator “behind” Kapitan Lee and how the two clash. Blinders on, Shin misinterprets that relationship, but it is clever that he detected it – I certainly didn’t, but the moment I read Shin’s analysis it came crystal clear.

Finally, there is Shin’s catastrophic misunderstanding of “Seoul: Winter 1964,” by Seong-ok Kim. This is a classic story of the random anomic state of citizens (An and Kim) in a society governed by those with economic goals, and how this makes social, personal ties, meaningless.

Miraculously, foolishly, Shin says:

The setting is not delineated well enough; the characters are not fully developed; and their actions are not given enough motivation and conflict

This, of course, is precisely the point of the story, and Shin’s tin-ear for meaning is painfully revealed by his analysis.

“Tin-ear “might be unfair. But Shin’s moralistic streak, his desire for every story to show us some path from Gehenna to Paradise, shades his understanding of modern Korean literature, which has progressed far beyond simple stories of Good versus Evil.

Shin later claims that An and Kim are “are buried alive in history, which is painful in every sense.”

Of course the opposite is true – they are buried because they have no history, they float like leaves.

If you only have a moment to read “The Trap of History” this is the chapter to read, as Shin’s moralizing is most ridiculous and clear in it.

With all of this said, Shin is probably worth reading. I like him, well enough, merely on account of his dislike of the noise of modern life. He can sometimes see through a stories’ structure and get at the knotty issues below. The problem is that he might, with his prediliction for “good old day” Koreanisms, completely misunderstand what the problem is.

Still, Shin is brave enough to be a public intellectual critic in a culture in which that is not always a safe thing. Props to Shin for writing his work, demerits for his sometimes staid, if not regressive, analytics.