Republic of Korea (4)
On the express train from Incheon airport to Seoul the TV screens, which you expect to be playing bland tourist-board products, loop an English-language propaganda film asserting South Korea’s claim to the Dokdo islands, which in the video’s telling are the first bit of territory that the Japanese empire seized by violence. “The world knows the truth,” “Japan knows the truth,” and so on. Seoul was full of Japanese people (I didn’t know they were Japanese unless I overheard them talking), who presumably had no stake in the islands and seemed to be having a good time. Museum signs were in Korean and English; subway signs were in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese. I had taken a few days to learn hangul, like a stupid man, but reading the katakana was still quicker every time, and I was often reminded that if only I had idiot Korean matching my idiot Japanese, I’d be much farther along.
On the Inwangsan trail you can’t take pictures in the direction of the city, because the presidential palace is too near below. You can take pictures in the other direction, which is all mountain and must get close to the DMZ, though I didn’t know where the markers were. It was a route in this area that the North Korean commandos took when they tried to assassinate Park Chung-hee in 1968; under one of the trailheads there’s a monument to the police chief who first accosted them and died in the firefight. Nearby is a memorial museum to the poet Yun Dong-ju, who died aged 27 in a Japanese prison in 1945.
Before my trip I knew nothing about Korean poetry except for Ko Un, and had the pleasure of discovering a great many figures of the thirties and forties inviting (to me) comparison with Lorca or Celan, blending an older generation’s aestheticism and surrealism with other modes and all marked by history even when they didn’t die young—though so many died young. Yi Sang, whose pen name comes from being wrongly called Lee-San by a Japanese teacher, wrote with Dada inventiveness and compulsion until his arrest and death in Japan; Cheong Chiyong, the more classicist modernist who climbed Paengnokdam, was detained in Pyongyang in 1950 and never heard from again. Yun Dong-ju is everyone’s favorite not because he achieved the most, but because his single posthumous book has enough breath-catching moments to make clear the maturing gift, and because his basic Keatsian innocence tempts martyrology. For me the sentimental sticking point is that he died so far from home; I was really chilled to see the manuscript of his poem about homesickness in Japan actually written on the university’s exercise paper. (Calling Japan a foreign land would get you in trouble; writing in Korean would get you in trouble.) And who hasn’t written such things on school exercise paper? But universities have always been my refuges, and this one, where he had gone to study English literature, ended up complicit with the regime that killed him.
The memorial museum used to be a pumping station built into the hillside, and is ingenious and strange. The outer room has the exhibits; farther in is an “open well” converted from a storage tank with the roof removed and a reed garden planted; farthest in is a “closed well” made from the adjacent tank with the roof intact, which does an uncanny job of evoking the prison environment, at least when they aren’t projecting a documentary on the wall that shares some formal qualities with the Dokdo islands video. Most of my time in the museum I spent threading my way around a tour group whose guide I couldn’t understand, just as I couldn’t read the manuscripts. It was all for the tour group much more than for me. But they made space for me, as much as I required, which was not much at all; I hope it seldom is.
Republic of Korea (3)
It’s very much summer here, I didn’t put on sunscreen, I’m not wearing a hat, I only have one water bottle and countries that use milliliters don’t make water bottles large enough. Coming down off Inwangsan I pass a park where parents are playing with their toddlers, keep on through a thick-pined valley, descend stone stairs and am back among cars and high-rises. In search of tourist amenities I head for the giant fourteenth-century palace and am stopped by three armed police who politely ask where I’m going and seem surprised to find me a U.S. national. I don’t ask what they thought I was. They wave me on, telling me to continue straight, and going past more police and barriers I realize that I’m walking alongside the grounds of the presidential residence. The fourteenth-century palace costs three bucks to enter and is many city blocks across, gardens and grounds and a complex of buildings that reveal themselves one long low wall at a time, with unexpected offset doorways that conduct you in series through more dusty courtyards, more wood porticoes until the slope of one or another mountain appears, so nicely framed among the balancing of roofs and walls that it seems something built deep within the palace itself.
The northernmost building in the complex is smaller than some but well kept. An old attendant sits on the front steps, and everyone who goes inside leaves their shoes on one rack and takes soft blue slippers from another. I do the same, expecting to find some state or church relic within, and step into the still heart of the world.
The still heart of the world is a library with a few thousand books in many languages, old and new, tables and chairs for study, shelves of pottery, clean wood floors and white carpet, designs on the ceilings, carved birds over the doorways and circular windows open to the gardens around. I pass under one of the birds into a small octagonal reading room with desks and chairs facing open windows on all sides, small conifers in pots and a cafe counter where I order the most needful iced coffee of my thirty-eight years. When I sit down the barista brings me, unsolicited, a copy of Special Lecture on Korean Paintings. I read through it, drinking the cold coffee, and every so often a piny breeze flips the pages to a new, unexpected picture. In one case the picture is what Oh Ju-Seok calls unquestionably the best tiger painting in the world.
Republic of Korea (2)
The old Seoul wall rings a central slice of the city that looks modest on the map and anywhere else would count as a large city in itself. Its lower courses tend to be buried under modern streets, but wherever there’s a hill, files of white stone will appear to climb it—rectangular with pointed cornices and small square openings, and winding back and forth like a dragon’s backbone. Threads of park run alongside it, and walking trails that can be hard to locate because pine and cypress groves hide them from the streets below. I enter twisted streets with that sewer-garbage smell of Barcelona (unusual in this generally clean city), pass between a park and hospital, and suddenly I’ve found my entrance and am lifted out of the city into slopes of pale purple wildflowers, with the wall on my left and magpies chattering everywhere, scruffier and with sharper beaks than the Euro-American kind, wings an especially brilliant blue.
The wall runs right over the mountain summits and my path takes me up Inwangsan, where after a point the trees give out and you find yourself scrambling up the glaring peaks of the moon. It might be the early sun that makes this mountain feel so much more strenuous than others I’ve climbed of late; it might be that the grade simply doesn’t let up. By this time there are a good many other hikers, lots of them with Republic of Korea flags stuck in their packs, which gives our procession a sense of endeavor and purpose. We're discovering the moon together.
The summit is a lone sun-blasted boulder. I reach and acknowledge it, and dizzy and thirsty, find the nearest trees in the lee of the wall. In my pack I have a protein bar and the Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, which includes a magisterial prose poem by Cheong Chiyong about a climb up Paengnokdam. I am not meeting that standard. But I sit on a square rock in the pine grove, and make these notes in mind of some far away.
Republic of Korea (1)
We touched down at Incheon airport just before sunset, the low disc a color I’d never seen, an almost lavender pink (was the window tinted?), the Yellow Sea not yellow but metallic blue except where it gave back the lavender glow, and finely grooved as a phonograph record. All around the river’s mouth small dark islands projected forest and cliff.
Seoul from the air looks like ten or fifteen separate cities dropped into the vacant spots between palisades of green mountain. Once you’re on the ground, the high-rises (which outstrip humble California and clump together in centrally mandated ways that in Europe would indicate the Iron Curtain) block the peaks until one or another rears up in the opening of an avenue or river. At times a palace or museum more deliberately courts the effect. Very soon you learn to distinguish pyramidal Bugaksan, wide rocky Inwangsan, humped Namsan with its tower. I’ve never seen a city more situated in beauty—I can’t say “beautiful city,” since coherence of form is both lacking and superfluous to its purposes. It’s like London; old-new and huge, a place where it obviously all happens at once.
Die gewalt der musik
Reger in Bernhard’s Old Masters hates Reni, calls him the most tasteless of all the painters in the museum; which means at minimum that we’re supposed to take hating Reni as an intelligible position, perhaps consider what else might be entailed in hating Reni. And perhaps the answer is “not much”; Baroque is Baroque after all, and Massacre of the Innocents seems unreasonable, Saint Michael would be too much even without the nipples and navel on his armor, David With the Head of Goliath is one punchable kid.
There’s always something, though. His Saint Cecilia I saw in Los Angeles and stayed in front of a long time.
Why that figure—someone he knew? The crease under the eye. The neglectful grip on the bow, about to let it drop.
(I also find Bacchus and Ariadne hard to dismiss, I think because of the complete unreality of the scene: still life at the swimming pool.)
The funny thing about London is how everything feels like it’s trying to push you out. So all these people are trying to get in, but the city itself and the infrastructures that have been created and the social issues, everything is trying to push you straight back out. Everyone’s trying to fight to get into the middle, but then there’s something in the middle that’s just trying to force everyone out and it's saying, you’ve got to earn your place. But if you get pushed out, then someone else instantly fills your space. We feel a bit disposable.
source quoted in Craig Taylor, Londoners (2011)
At dusk a foggy layer that spent all afternoon massing behind San Francisco breaks over the peaks and slides onto the water in a huge wall, like Ginnungagap. It hits the 80, all the cars slow to 15 and turn their wipers on.
...ως τελευταία απόλαυσι τους ήχους,
τα εξαίσια όργανα του μυστικού θιάσου,
κι αποχαιρέτα την, την Καλιφόρνια που χάνεις
and hear, as a last delight, the voices,
the exquisite music of the mystic procession,
and bid her farewell, the California you are losing
“We have to stop winning.” The devil never even comes to collect his due. To him it’s enough that you take the gifts. I live to serve, he says, and means it. The old non serviam in heaven, that was an opening gambit. He knows he’s in a better place now.
• Chasing after the wind
On the theory that life was going to pot, we took an unplanned 24 hours in Monterey. R. is now more interested in the natural world, will stare with her parents at sardines, mackerel, anchovies, lookdowns stamped from tinfoil with their spines showing, leopard sharks; though for some reason, what she most enjoyed was a piece of live-action theater on the history of the bay. Ohlone reed boats, Chinese immigrants night-fishing for squid with lanterns in baskets, collapse and recovery of sardines.
I was surprised by the recovery story (partial, temporary) of the Colorado River delta. (Journalism, journalism, video produced in the way of videos.) Old memories there, hiking through ten miles of gully until you get to the stream, because the stream is where the general hostility of things abates and you can stop for a while. Parts of the gully itself can also work, if enough rainwater collects for cottonwoods or sycamores to grow; but a stream is better.
I have to-read list of Analytical Work around this: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian; Cadillac Desert; Dead Pool.
The paintings I saw in L.A. are still in front of me—when I’m driving, say, in place of the road. The milliners are still on the clock.
Geoffrey Hill, To the High Court of Parliament
Where’s probity in this—
to lordship of a kind
as rats to a bird-table?
England—now of genius
unsubstantial yet voiding
substance like quicklime:
privatize to the dead
let her wounds weep
into the lens of oblivion.
Strange week for his death; I had been thinking about this poem in particular, with the UK taking itself apart. One of the great, mournful questioners into the nature of that country (PJ Harvey the other).