[VIEWPOINT]Finding quiet in an urban areaArt historian Choi Soon-woo disseminated the beauty of Korean art through our beautiful language. Impressed with his writings, I had published a complete collection of his works in 1992, which paved the way for me to become a publisher.
In Seongbuk-dong, Seoul, there is a house where he had lived all his life. This house was once sold to a developer and on the verge of being torn down. It fortunately survived, thanks to the efforts of some people from the cultural community. I also lent assistance. In this respect, I have a lasting relationship with him.
This house is now neatly restored and is open to the public. Probably because of its amiable space, the house is said to have attracted many visitors.
The house is rectangular with two bracket-shaped buildings connected together. It is not a grand residence. In the courtyard and the backyard, persimmon, Japanese cornel dogwood and bamboo trees grow.
It seems that Mr. Choi was not overly concerned about decorating his house in a splendid manner. There are no pretentious decorations in the house at all, but there is an array of beautiful objects on display.
In my opinion, some of the most beautiful are the wooden plaques displayed under the eaves.
“A Hall for a Nap,” written in Chinese letters by Danwon Kim Hong-do, a famous Korean artist during the Joseon Dynasty, makes you feel lazy. “A House of Chastity of a Japanese Apricot Flower,” written by Chusa Kim Jung-hee, a master calligrapher during the Joseon period, is a profound phrase.
Because the names do not smack of awkwardness, the house owner is seen as having that great taste. In referring to Choi Soon-woo, people often say, “What is beautiful is like him and what is like him is beautiful.” His artistic taste is evident even in the smallest details, such as in selecting the plaques for the house.
What I considered unusual is the sign Mr. Choi personally created. Hung in the front of his writing room, it reads, “When the door is closed, this place becomes the deep mountains.”
His handwriting is fresh. Compared to other authors’ works, his writing is reminiscent of vegetables grown in the cool climate of mountains. Because its implications, rather than his calligraphic style, are deep and profound, his words linger on for a long time in our hearts.
It is remote and silent even now, so the house must have been like a temple in the mountain when he lived there. So it is no exaggeration to call the house “a country cottage in the heart of the city.” It occurs to me that Mr. Choi compared his house to “deep mountains” because it was that quiet.
The next thing that occurred to me was that his writing shows his pride in placing his mind above worldly concerns. However quiet Seongbuk-dong might be, could it be compared to the leisurely countryside? So the phrase on the plaque may indicate a “city hermit”: “A true hermit hides in the streets of the city.” It means that wherever we live, what is most important is whether we open or close our hearts.
But one question remains. Why did he hang the plaque in front of his writing room of all places? What did the expression written on the plaque have to do with the act of writing?
After close examination, I found a poem that could give us a clue. The poem was recited by Yang Wan Li of the Song Dynasty. “The mood rivers and mountains conjured do not desert human beings/ Rain or shine, it is mysterious / Closing the door and looking for verses is not the way to write a poem / Going out onto the street is a poem in itself.”
The poem says that a poet shouldn’t try desperately to weave this phrase and that sentence into a poem, confining himself at home in the process. It argues that as a whole, the material for writing can be found throughout nature.
But the plaque on Mr. Choi’s house speaks of the contrary. It retorts: Why on earth does a poet need to go out when his place becomes like the deep mountains once the door is closed?
Confining oneself at home was something loyal subjects of the fallen Goryeo Dynasty did to demonstrate their loyalty, but it is also the action of someone who is born to be a writer. Closing the door means isolating oneself from the group.
It may be embarrassing to say this, but art is the product of solitude. If people flock together, they are bound to grow accustomed to each other, and once accustomed to the group, they are bound to corrupt. This is how the world works. In this way, art can never be accomplished.
Confining himself in the deep mountains of his home, Choi Soon-woo wove writings, more beautiful than silk threads. He understood the value of solitude.
* The writer is the president of Hakkojae, a publishing company. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Woo Chan-kyu