While apocalyptic literature has inspired the imaginations of writers since antiquity, there has perhaps never been a time more urgent than now to examine humanity’s ethical and moral response when faced with disaster. Korean writers too are exploring the prospect of hope and resistance when the world seems to be falling apart.
In recent years as natural and social disasters have become more frequent and more severe, people are increasingly faced with moments where they must deal with and overcome catastrophe. The word “disaster” usually refers to unfortunate accidents or tragic incidents caused by the forces of nature. Here we can see that disasters are something beyond human capacity, unstoppable and uncontrollable. Over the years Korean literature has sharply addressed the meaning of such disasters from a myriad of different angles. While in poetry disaster has tended to be something symbolic, something that implies a certain network of meaning, in prose fiction it has been much more specific.
One of earliest and best-known examples of apocalyptic literature is Albert Camus’ The Plague, which portrays the tenacious volition of humans, refusing to give up hope even in the most desperate times. Camus stresses that when faced with brutal reality, not losing hope is a genuine form of resistance for those who must deal with the irrationality of the world. Rather than a depiction of the process of eradicating an infectious disease, the true meaning of this literary work comes from the dignity and companionship among people working as a group, found in the process of fighting against the symbolic evil of the “plague.” This compassion between people and their resistance to evil can be seen as the very essence of what Camus pursued in his literature. However, in Korean literature there is an unusual and interesting tendency to look for the causes of disaster—not because of an event or a calamity—but rather, because of the inner desires of humans. In this respect the imagination of disaster shown in Korean literature is completely different from novels that merely seek to overcome a catastrophe. Korean writers are creating narratives that chart the process of desire as it destroys any sense of humanity.
First let’s take a closer look at poetry. As a poem composed during the Japanese colonial period, Yi Sang’s “Crow’s-Eye View” records this era of terror in the movement of children running through the streets. The running and terror are themselves emblematic of the disaster of this era. Choi Seung-Ho’s “A Village” creates the situation whereby a landslide destroys the houses in a valley and a forest fire spreads towards the village below. The poem presents the process by which, in the face of unexpected disaster, the people of a village, caught up in anxiety and fear, cover their bodies with thorns like hedgehogs and reject all communication. Ko Un’s “ChaRyeong Mountain Range” expresses the will to stand up to the catastrophes of history with the strength of truth; in this instance, however, the disaster that we need to prevent is not something brought about by nature but rather the recurring violence that repeats throughout history.