I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-ha

Part 1

  

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 expiredbloodiednestled 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 ...

The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Your Republic Is Calling You, and Black Flower were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who will also publish his latest book in 2017. Kim was a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times from 2013 to 2014. His books have appeared in more than twelve languages.