‘Confined to a cage, you cannot create’
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Korea’s first culture minister, Lee O-young (1934-2022), predicted that he might not be in this world in March. Sadly, his prediction came true. He left a gigantic footprint across the intellectual realm from the natural sciences to the arts. It is hard to believe he is no more.
In 1956, Lee published the critical essay “Destruction of an Idol,” deploring the authoritarian elitism and complacency in Korea’s literary community after the war. In “In this Earth and in that Wind,” he examined the depth of the Korean ethos in the early 1960s. With renowned poet Kim Su-young, he disputed the “social acceptability” of poetic expressions. As the curator of the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, he epitomized Korea’s peace-loving and vibrant identity with the “Boy with the Hoop” performance to erase the country’s image as a remote country in the Far East recovering from war. As a culture minister in the conservative Roh Tae-woo administration, he applied the Russian Formalists’ concept of “defamiliarization” in cultural administration. His idea of “digilog,” which was later borrowed for the invention of the touch screen-based iPhone, and the biocapitalism he spoke of before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic show the profundity of his thinking.
An avant-gardist defying clichés and overriding contemporary fixed concepts, he was a pioneer in thinking about industrialization, democratization and digitalization.
I had a phone conversation with him in early February, 22 days before he passed away. It was the last dialogue between a pupil and his teacher. He didn’t sound like the intellectual with the sharp voice and clear eyes I had been used to. He feebly said he could not make a call as he had gotten ill. “As my new book came out, I’ll send it to you,” he said.
As death came after him like “a tiger out of the cage,” Lee pleaded not to “taxidermize” him. He did not wish to be remembered as a being of the past. He preferred to be remembered in living language. His life itself was a great contribution to the evolution of literature, culture and civilization by courageously matching his words with actions.
Lee observed Koreans were “slash-and-burn farmers” who cannot farm without destroying existing fields. With his “language of fire,” he challenged the oppressive mainstream. He reasoned against political and judicial denseness based on universal theories. As editor of “Aurora” in 1960 when he still was in his 20s, Lee led a protest in publication by gathering intellectuals to speak out against the authoritarian government of Syngman Rhee. He wrote essays on “What is Social Participation?” and “A Sleeping Giant” in the magazine. He immersed himself into politics yet returned to literature as soon as his role was done. He believed literature transcended power and political ideology. Even when he waged a fiery dispute with poet Kim Su-young over literature’s role in politics, he believed the two “shared the same dream.”
When author Nam Jeong-hyun stood trial for praising North Korea in his book “Land of Excrement” in 1967, Lee was called to the witness stand and asked by the prosecutor whether he had not been shocked by the explicit pro-North Korean tone in the book. He answered, “If someone believes the picture of a tiger in a folding screen is real, one would be shocked. But it cannot shock someone who knows it is just a picture.” He added the book was fiction, not a newspaper article. The prosecutor requested a seven-year sentence for the poet, but the bench, persuaded by Lee’s argument, ordered a suspended sentence.
He refused to chain himself to a certain ideological front. He did not leave a lineage of followers. He was regarded as a “pen gangster” — his critical aim had no mercy regardless of who the target was. He even made waves for his alma mater, Seoul National University. He chose to be a loner. In an interview with the Dong-A Ilbo early this year, he recalled he always had been a part of the minority rather than the majority. He refused to conform to a certain group and was ashamed of intellectual groups basking in the sunshine of power. “There are many opportunists. A liberal turns right and a conservative turns left. They join politics to ride on popularity. Intellectuals’ role is to stay outside politics and view politics from an objective perspective,” he said.
Lee was a voluntary stranger who bolted from the dead society of intelligentia. He wished to uphold humanity and the dignity of civilization. Lee claimed it was his writings that defined who he was. Soulless intellectuals still dance with politicians to spread hatred. “Woori (We) cannot create when they are confined to woori (cage, as the two words are pronounced the same in Korean).” The self-restraint to stay as a loner in the world of never-dying temptation made him an exceptional man. Requiescat in pace.