I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byKim Young-ha
- I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
Tr. Kim Chi-Young 2007119pp.
The Death of Marat
I’m looking at Jacques Louis David’s 1793 oil painting, The Death of Marat, printed in an art book. The Jacobin revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat lies murdered in his bath. His head is wrapped in a towel, like a turban, and his hand, draped alongside the tub, holds a pen. Marat has expired—bloodied—nestled between the colors of white and green. The work exudes calm and quiet. You can almost hear a requiem. The fatal knife lies abandoned at the bottom of the canvas.
I’ve already tried to make a copy of this painting several times. The most difficult part is Marat’s expression; he always comes out looking too sedate. In David’s Marat, you can see neither the dejection of a young revolutionary in the wake of a sudden attack nor the relief of a man who has escaped life’s suffering. His Marat is peaceful but pained, filled with hatred but also with understanding. Through a dead man’s expression David manages to realize all of our conflicting innermost emotions. Seeing this painting for the first time, your eyes initially rest on Marat’s face. But his face doesn’t tell you anything, so your gaze moves in one of two directions: either toward the hand clutching the letter or the hand hanging limply outside of the tub. Even in death, he has kept hold of the letter and the pen. Marat was killed by a woman who had written him earlier, as he was drafting a reply to her letter. The pen Marat grips into death injects tension into the calm and serenity of the scene. We should all emulate David. An artist’s passion shouldn’t create passion. An artist’s supreme virtue is to be detached and cold.
Marat’s assassin, Charlotte Corday, lost her life at the guillotine. A young Girondin, Corday decided that Marat must be eliminated. It was July 13, 1793; she was twenty-five years old. Arrested immediately after the incident, Corday was beheaded four days later, on July 17.
Robespierre’s reign of terror was set in motion after Marat’s death. David understood the Jacobins’ aesthetic imperative: A revolution cannot progress without the fuel of terror. With time that relationship inverts: The revolution presses forward for the sake of terror. Like an artist, the man creating terror should be detached, cold-blooded. He must keep in mind that the energy of the terror he releases can consume him. Robespierre died at the guillotine.
I close my art book, get up, and take a bath. I always wash meticulously on the days I work. After my bath, I shave carefully and go to the library, where I look for clients and scan through potentially helpful materials. This is slow, dull work, but I plod through it. Sometimes I don’t have a single client for months. But I can survive for half a year if I find just one, so I don’t mind putting long hours into research.
Usually I read history books or travel guides at the library. A single city contains tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of years of history, as well as the evidence of their interweaving. In travel guides, all of this is compressed into several lines. For example, an introduction to Paris starts like this:
Far from just a secular place, Paris is the holy land of religious, political, and artistic freedom, alternately brandishing that freedom and secretly yearning for more of it. Known for its spirit of tolerance, this city has been the refuge for thinkers, artists, and revolutionaries like Robespie-rre, Curie, Wilde, Sartre, Picasso, Ho Chi Minh, and Khomeini, along with many other unusual figures. Paris has fine examples of excellent 19th-century urban planning, and ike its music, art, and theater, its architecture encompasses everything from the Middle Ages to the avant-garde, sometimes even beyond the avant-garde. With its history, innovations, culture, and civilization, Paris is a necessity in the world: If Paris did not exist, we would have to invent her.
One word more about Paris would be superfluous. Such succinctness is why I enjoy reading travel guides and history books. People who don’t know how to summarize have no dignity. Neither do people who needlessly drag on their messy lives. They who don’t know the beauty of simplification, of pruning away the unnecessary, die without ever comprehending the true meaning of life.
I always take a trip when I’m paid at the completion of a job. This time, I will go to Paris. These few lines in the travel guide are enough to pique my curiosity. I will spend the days reading Henry Miller or Oscar Wilde or sketching Ingres at the Louvre. The man who reads travel guides on a trip is a bore. I read novels when I’m traveling, but I don’t read them in Seoul. Novels are food for the leftover hours of life, the in-between times, the moments of waiting.
At the library, I flip through magazines first. Of all the articles, the interviews interest me the most. If I’m lucky, I find clients in them. Reporters, armed with middlebrow, cheap sensibilities, hide my potential clients’ characteristics between the lines. They never ask questions like, “Have you ever felt the urge to kill someone?” And obviously they never wonder, “How do you feel when you see blood?” They don’t show the interviewees David’s or Delacroix’s paintings and ask them their thoughts. Instead, the interviews are filled with meaningless chatter. But they can’t fool me; I catch the glimmer of possibility in their empty words. I unearth clues from the types of music they prefer, the family histories they sometimes reveal, the books that hit a nerve, the artists they love. People unconsciously want to reveal their inner urges. They are waiting for someone like me.
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