Living without literatureAbout 10 years ago, I visited a small town called Salinas in California. I was tracking down the roots of John Steinbeck, the American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature who wrote about the faults of capitalism in the early 20th century. The vast fields of Salinas were not much different from his description. In addition to the traditional fruit trees, blueberries and pistachios are grown, and white laborers have been replaced by immigrants from South America. A young man I encountered in the center of town did not know about Steinbeck, but an old lady working in a store was glad to direct me to the National Steinbeck Center. She seemed amazed that a visitor from Asia knew about Steinbeck. She must have been tending the shop her entire life with the pride of the “sanctity of labor,” in the very spirit of the winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize.
More precious than awards is the work and the spirit that became a guiding light to the average person in the arduous journey we call life. Do we have such an inspiring writer? Every year, when the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a writer in a faraway country, many Koreans secretly hope that it will come our way. We may be hoping that the prize would give cultural recognition to Korea, the golden boy in economic development in the 20th century.
Literature is a record of the battle between the soul and the realities of life, but books are growing less popular. Small bookstores are disappearing and the literature section in the big bookstores is not attracting readers. Do you have a favorite writer? Koreans are reading self-help books and other trendy publications. In a country where career writers are starving and aspiring writers are rare in prestigious universities, literature could die and writers could lose their artistic souls.
Literature Park by Chuncheon Lake has an empty pedestal with a sign, “Waiting for a Nobel Laureate.” Who will see his or her bust placed on the pedestal? While the Nobel Prize may not be the only yardstick of spiritual greatness, we need to examine how we abandoned literature.
Literature has long been dead in Korea. It is not that we don’t have talented writers and outstanding work. We have trampled over our traditions and not produced an environment for literature to prosper. Even the toughest reality can produce glorious literature when it is refined by the process of insight, meditation and put into language. In the old days, scholars used to make a habit of writing in order to clear their minds, and commoners memorized folk tales and pansori, a traditional Korean song that tells a story. We need to ask ourselves if we treasure the nourishment for the soul that comes from novels, poems and plays. The young generation needs to understand how writers in the 1960s and 70s, not to mention during the colonial period, addressed the discord of their times in order to build the future of Korean literature.
There used to be a time when we couldn’t live without literature. Ever since Yi Kwang-su (1892?1950) liberated literature as a unique area of intellect, spirit and justice, literature became a reservoir of the agonies of the time, and the authors were warriors seeking an escape. Writers were the most venerable intellects of their time. Major newspapers featured monthly literary reviews and recipients of literary prizes were the talk of the town.
They were more celebrated than those who passed the bar exam, and they became the writers who are mentioned for the Nobel Prize nowadays. Poet Ko Un became a world-class writer as he interpreted all kinds of people and situations. Novelist Lee Moon-yeol reinterpreted the father figure, while Hwang Seok-yeong garnered the attention of the Nobel Prize committee by addressing the tragedy of a divided nation. Many works have been translated into English, French and German.
However, these uniquely Korean topics failed to ignite literary passion and create any kind of international consensus. This outstanding pool of writers cannot go beyond the impoverished environment in a country where the dialogue with the soul is rarely put into words and behavior patterns that fan the flame of literature are dying. More than half of our artists make less than 1 million won ($943) a month, and 90 percent of the writers struggle with poverty.
A few years ago, I asked the late Park Kyung-ri if she expected to receive the Nobel Prize. I asked because the first part of “Toji (The Land)” was translated and published in France. But she was firm: “I feel insulted when I am asked this question.”
To her, literature was not about winning a prize but about engraving her works into the hearts of the readers. The hermitic writer wished to express history with her language of sympathy. When literature becomes a part of our daily lives, which produce artistic inspirations, the heartless reality becomes richer. If we want to fill the empty pedestal in Literature Park, we need to first check whether we still have pieces of literature in our daily lives.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
BY Song Ho-keun