The Remarkable B.R. Myers RevealedIn the summer of 2001, the U.S. magazine Atlantic Monthly published “A Reader’s Manifesto,” a lengthy, scorching critique of American postmodern fiction. It created an uproar in the literary world, but it also posed something of a mystery.
The writer of the polemic, B.R. Myers, was completely unknown to the dignitaries of the U.S. literary establishment. Writing about Mr. Myers a year after his “Manifesto” was published, the Wall Street Journal pointed out, “No one seems to have met him.”
Of course, no one thought to look in Jochiwon, South Chungcheong province. There, the cryptic initials B.R. ― which have since appeared in bylines on the Atlantic’s literary reviews and in The New York Times ― belong to a 41-year-old American transplant. Friends know him as Brian.
In the small community an hour south of Seoul, far from his role as intellectual bomb thrower in the realm of U.S. literary criticism, Mr. Myers is a professor at Korea University’s regional campus, where, as students greet him in the halls, he has to hold himself back from bowing in return.
Foreign professors in Korea generally teach politics or economics, and with a few exceptions, they lecture in English. But Mr. Myers, by most measures, is in a class by himself: He lectures in fluent Korean on North Korean literature, culture and society.
Whether ruminating on American literature or the Korean psyche, Mr. Myers has strong views. “Anarchist” might capture how the U.S. literary establishment has come to view him, but other readers have championed him for blowing the whistle on pretentious writers. His Korean students seem similarly divided between suspicion and enthusiasm when it comes to their iconoclastic professor.
While he has denounced what he sees as a collection of inaccessible, badly-written American fiction, Mr. Myers specializes academically in one of the world’s most arcane, least artistic bodies of literature. His published dissertation, “Han Sorya and North Korean Literature,” remains today one of the few English-language resources on North Korean literature, and he is undertaking an ambitious project to “distill a lifetime’s worth of propaganda” into a primer on North Korean culture.
Mr. Myers’ background is a jumbled one. Born in New Jersey, he spent his childhood in Bermuda, his youth in South Africa and his higher education in Germany, at Ruhr and Tubingen universities. After marrying a Korean, teaching German in Japan and doing a stint in China with an automobile manufacturer, in 1999 he bought a house in New Mexico, which he still owns. (It was there that he wrote “A Reader’s Manifesto” before leaving again for Korea.)
Politically, he supports the U.S. Green Party, follows a strict vegan diet and ardently backs animal rights causes, but in Korea, his provocative stand toward North Korea and its rulers leads some to regard him as a hard-line conservative. He says one fact is key to understanding North Korea’s erratic behavior: “This is not a Stalinist state.”
Unlike Marxism-Leninism, says Mr. Myers ― who has a master’s degree in Soviet studies, including Slavic languages and literature, and a doctorate in North Korean literature ― North Korean propaganda doesn’t seek to indoctrinate its people so much as “infantilize” them.
Appealing to emotion rather than the mind, the North Korean regime represents a coddling mother figure, not a stern, guiding father figure a la Stalin, according to Mr. Myers. North Korea, believing above all else in the “natural virtue of Koreans,” doesn’t think its people need to be educated.
In the resulting “highly irrational ethnocentrism,” Mr. Myers says, North Korean culture differs from a disciplined Stalinist one in that it features “spontaneity and everyday violence.” By encouraging unbridled love for Kim Jong-il, known as “the Dear Leader,” and unbridled hatred for the United States, the state propaganda machine sanctions impulsive outbursts of emotion, he says.
To Mr. Myers, the recent Pyongyang mob action at the soccer match against Iran makes perfect sense because his thesis takes into account not just the regime’s official line, but how the North Korean people react in turn.
“It’s a controlled state,” he says, “but not as controlled as you may think.”
He thinks this has implications for the international community’s floundering effort to pressure the North to give up its nuclear weapons program. “The world’s complacency about North Korea’s nukes is inspired in large part by memories of stodgy Soviets who had the bomb for 40 years and never used it,” he said.
In a February opinion column for The New York Times, Mr. Myers criticized the Bush administration for dismissing North Korea’s official rhetoric as “too ludicrous to warrant careful monitoring.” He believes there are symbolic, almost hollow concessions the United States can make to Pyongyang that wouldn’t entail any substantive backing down from its position.
“Mao was a brutal and literally filthy dictator, and yet Nixon flew to Beijing to shake hands with him,” Myers said. “Both our peoples are better off now as a result.”
But recommending a pragmatic approach to the North does not mean he is not sharply critical of Kim Jong-il and his ruling clique.
“When I first came [to Korea University] some students from other majors turned up on the first day, and then left when they thought I was being too critical,” he remembers, though, in a characteristic rejection of categorization, he says by now they recognize that he is “neither in the posu (conservative) or jinbo (progressive) camp.”
This unwillingness to take ideological positions leaves him open to a frequently levied charge. In a searing rejoinder to the “Manifesto” in 2001, Judith Shulevitz of The New York Times Sunday Book Review called him an “outsider” who had no stake in the American world of letters, because he was “foreign to it in every way.” To clinch her case that Mr. Myers was a hopeless alien, she acidly pointed out that he would be “teaching North Korean literature to the South Koreans.”
To this Mr. Myers responds, “I would probably have described me in a way less calculated to evoke the phrase ‘selling ice to the Eskimos.’”
And indeed, some South Koreans have treated him as an outsider. In 2000, he criticized “ludicrous inaccuracies” about Korean culture, history and tradition he found in “Ten Thousand Sorrows,” an acclaimed memoir by Elizabeth Kim about her life as a war orphan. He says his charges weren’t so much disputed so much as disregarded by the readership.
“I was the foreigner; she had Korean blood,” he says. “Koreans in general are very generous about misrepresentations when it’s another Korean doing the misrepresenting.”
But by and large, his students at Korea University have embraced his approach to North Korean studies. “It’s like he’s one-half Korean and one-half all different backgrounds,” said graduate student Kim Ji-eun.
Bae Hyun-duck, a senior in the department, even cites Mr. Myers’ foreign perspective as an advantage. “Korean scholars tend to stick to their specialty and are reluctant to branch outside their box,” he says, “but Professor Myers situates North Korea within the broader picture.”
Mr. Myers joined the Korea University faculty four years ago. He says he appreciates the university’s commitment to globalization, as well as the growing openness he sees in the country as a whole. His lectures on North Korean media, for example, have incorporated political analyst Hannah Arendt, psychologist Carl Jung and Stalinist-era portrait art.
“My students disagree with me all the time, but they never say, ‘What can a foreigner know about North Korea?’” he says. “Would American students be so accepting of a Korean teaching American literature?”
In spite of, or perhaps because of, this mutual appreciation, the spartan second-floor classroom of the university’s humanities building is another place where Mr. Myers can’t help being a lightning rod for heated debate ― and sometimes heated emotion.
A recent afternoon class rolled smoothly through a Power Point lecture, group activities and student presentations before the floor opened up for discussion on South Koreans’ declining concern for human rights conditions in the North. That was when Mr. Myers began wondering out loud, to members of a demographic known for its nationalistic inclinations, whether patriotism on the peninsula “means not so much that Koreans love other Koreans [as] that they hate outsiders.”
Perceiving the least slight, Koreans rise up in arms, he said. But the human suffering of their fellow people ― meaning the people of North Korea ― doesn’t enter their personal sphere.
Having long encouraged his students, accustomed to Korea’s hierarchical classrooms and quiet acceptance of their professors’ views, to voice dissenting opinions, Mr. Myers is now seeing some payoff. One previously silent student took issue with his professor, wrapping up his dissent by saying point-blank to his professor, “You’re wrong.” But another student looked thoughtful ― “It’s because we’ve spent the entirety of our modern history looking above us, not below,” she mused ― and told Mr. Myers something he’s heard before in his career: “I disagree. But I see what you mean.”
Some tough words from a philologist
When B.R. Myers returned to the United States in 1999 after spending almost his entire life abroad, he had amassed a collection of languages including Afrikaans, German, Mandarin and Korean. At that point, he felt a need to “reconnect with my own language.”
Upon reading some of the most highly-praised works of recent American fiction ― by Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster ― he wondered, “Am I not understanding because I’m just that out of touch?”
Subtitled “An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose,” “A Reader’s Manifesto” was his firm answer “no.” With a philologist’s scrutiny, he attacked what he viewed as today’s bullying clique of writers and critics who seek to “thwart” readers with “insincere,” “meaningless” and “affected” language rather than engage them with plot, characters or emotional truth.
Major literary voices from the Los Angeles Times to Salon to National Review sounded off on “Manifesto.” “Someone dared to say out loud that the emperor had no clothes,” praised the London Observer, while others accused Mr. Myers of “phony populism.” One critic called the essay, with grudging ambivalence, “sort of smart but definitely annoying.”
by Kim Sun-jung