Songs of Coexistence and the Future of Life

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byKim Jinhee

The escalation, not only in Korea but globally, of capitalism-backed development and the pursuit of materialism has exacerbated environmental pollution and the degradation of the ecosystem, thereby posing a serious threat to life and humanity. “Life” is something that directly concerns all life forms on our planet. Realizing the threat to life engendered by the ecological crisis and taking steps to check it are the sine qua non for preserving the sanctity of all life on Earth.

Since the nineties, Korean poets have started paying attention to the dehumanizing effects of consumer capitalism and the ecological crisis triggered by development. Ko Hyeong-ryeol, Lee Moon-jae, Ra Heeduk, and Kim Ki-taek display in their poems a reflective introspection about the global mechanism of capitalism and desire. These poets strive to redirect our lives so that we can coexist with nature by reinvigorating our awareness of the environment.1


Capitalist desire and alienation of life

These poets claim that the progress of modern capitalism, which develops and exploits nature, and the resultant excess of desires are the root causes of the destruction of the ecosystem and an environment that is anti-life. Lee Moon-jae says, “Something exists between the hand and the world./ That something betrays the hand and the world./ It keeps them ignorant of each other” (“The Capitalism I Know”). He is critical of capitalism’s power that does not move the world in the autonomous and harmonious manner wished for by humans. He emphasizes that capitalism should be rejected by summoning the lost “past, and this whole body” to reality. With the conditions of our life and bodies enslaved to our appetite for development, we are now continually “under construction.” Kim Ki-taek likens this reality to excavators and backhoes invading even our bodies. He describes the noise of construction that swallows up the quivering screams of vegetation, crying out, “My body, which takes in that noise fretfully and infuses it as is in my heart, lungs, nervous system, neurons, and bodily waste, is also under construction” (“Under Construction”). Urban life is reproduced as “a parched, hideous Earth brimming with desires and products of steel, glass, and cement” in Ko Hyeong-ryeol’s “Giant Ulcer.” Ko wants to remember 21st-century capitalism’s glittering city as “a lump of darkness.”

Such critical observations of the poets allude to a new awareness of “Earth-nature” that, after modernization and capitalism, refuses to be reduced to a tool to be used. After being recognized as an object of conquest for progress and development, nature, once regarded as an organic life form, has lost its value as “life” because humans, even as they share the phenomenon of life, have split off from nature, in which they once circulated, and have become alienated from life’s value.

If we do not pay attention to Earth and nature’s ongoing barrenness, we might end up facing a bleak future where the earth is bereft of all life like an “Earth with bare eyes, legs, and chest” (Ko Hyeong-ryeol, “Death of a Blue Fish”). As we rush hastily to the future brimming with overconfidence, our fetishistic desires do not stop even in the face of death as Kim Ki-taek wrote in “Highway 4.” Despite witnessing the suffering of Earth, a planet that is one of a kind, we are unable to stop overburdening it with our desires or put into practice “truly slow slowness” (Lee Moon-jae, “A Really Slow Slowness”). We do not realize that Earth’s suffering is our suffering and Earth’s end is our end. Lee counsels, “No matter what, you don’t get the feeling you’re wrong?/ The thought doesn’t strike you that the earth is your own body?/ Dig into the other side of your body then./ Dig within your heart then.” (“Yes, Thinking Is Energy”). In other words, this means that we need to realize that exploiting Earth and nature is the same as damaging our lives and our bodies. Recognizing equality of life is the premise to sanctioning anti-life political, institutional, and cultural plans pushed by ideologies of pragmatism and development.


Recovery of nature and the ethics of coexistence

Poets remember the past based upon reflections on the present and suggest possibilities for the future. “Nature” is the spot that suffers the violence of an anti-life culture and the most vital point where the possibilities of life can be read. In “To Draw a Road,” Ra Heeduk says that to clear the path to becoming a truly human civilization, we need to keep in mind that the leaves and shadows of nature-trees are the pillars of peace. At the foundation of this recognition lies the thinking that nature is the source and starting point of all life and humanity, rather than simply being a target for development and exploitation. Humans have been shaped from mud (Ra Heeduk, “Person of Mud”), so Earth is the birthplace of humans and the wellspring of energy. In “Grass,” Kim Ki-taek says the reason “that the concrete floors crack” in the city and “and the hard carapaces split loudly.” is the vigor of the grasses whose “numerous heads continually butt it from below.” The reason Ko Hyeong-ryeol can sing of the tenacity of roots by saying “trees that reach/ the deep well do not sway” (“Deep Well, Deep Root”) is that humans can lay down sturdy roots only when they are one with nature.

Traditionally, the East tried to find life’s truth and morals in nature. In this sense, the resilience and energy of nature helps us dream of being elevated into higher beings. Ra Heeduk speaks of the magnanimity of the “nerve fibers of grasses that often get entangled/ but never devour each other/ bending and twisting, seemingly aware that the other’s body is one’s body too” in “The Nervous System of Grasses,” which shows us symbolically how to coexist with the Other. Enthralled, we keep watch as “love grows little by little in the young stalk sprouting in the backyard” (Ko Hyeong-ryeol, “Raising the Cucumber Again”), wait for lightning, and happily imagine “male and female clouds, all hot and bothered, growling, and the earth and darkness heaving, almost crushing each other in their embrace” (Kim Ki-taek, “Waiting for Lightning”). In this sense, the task of recognizing the crisis of the environment and restoring our damaged nature goes hand in hand with the task of enriching our lives today by recognizing anew the age-old values of human life. 


by Kim Jinhee
Literary Critic and Associate Professor
Ewha Institute for the Humanities
Ewha Womans University


1 The books referenced in this article include Ko Hyeong-ryeol’s A Mirror When No One Comes Looking For (2015), Lee Moon-jae’s Now, Here Is the Very Front (2014), Ra Heeduk’s Time When Words Return (2014), and Kim Ki-taek’s Split (2012).