The Gaze at Broad Daylight
- onNovember 16, 2014
- Vol.23 Spring 2014
- byLee Seung-U
- The Gaze at Broad Daylight
“Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in.” Malte Laurids Brigge begins his notebook with this sentence. This young man—sickly, lonely, impoverished, and hypersensitive to memories of the past— smells the air of anxiety and death in this alien city only three weeks after he arrives. That this city, where people came to die, was none other than Paris is a sentiment that is not easy to understand, even considering the fact that this writing dates back about a hundred years. After all, it is said that Paris is where the concept of “taking a walk” was invented. If it was a good place to go for a walk, one could also presume that it must have also been a good city to live in. I wonder if Rilke had heard of Varanasi, the place where pilgrims come to die.It is Varanasi, not Paris, where men come to die. As the saying goes, birds go to Peru to die and men, the Ganges.
Romaine Gary treated the suicidal phenomenon of a huge flock of birds flying to Peruvian seashores to die as a mystery. Gary wrote, “The birds whose blood was beginning to get cold and had just enough strength to fly, came to Peru and threw themselves at the seashore.” Here he was implicitly comparing Peruvian beaches to the Ganges River—as if birds had a yearning for a holy place. About forty years after his novel was published (Birds Go to Peru to Die was published in 1962), an author in Korea wrote a paper criticizing Romaine Gary's lack of meteorological knowledge. It was Han Seung- Won, the "writer of the ocean," who claimed that Romaine Gary wrote it that way because he did not know about the El Nino phenomenon, a phenomenon that occurs when ocean water warms up. According to Han, birds came to Peruvian seashores and died, not because it was a holy land for birds, i.e., a Varanasi for birds, so to speak, but rather, it was simply due to the lack of availability of plankton caused by El Nino, which prevented anchovies from coming to Peruvian sea. The birds flew to Peruvian seashores to live, to feed on anchovies, not to die. However, there weren’t any anchovies in the area, so they weren’t able to live and ended up starving to death.
If Malte had known about Han’s criticism of Romaine Gary (this is not possible as Rainer Maria Rilke, who used Malte as his voice, died in 1926 and Han Seung-Won was born in 1939), perhaps he may have revised the first sentence in his notebook. That is, people came to the city to live, but for various reasons—meteorological, sociological, or other reasons—they died because they just couldn’t survive.
Regardless, I believe that he would not have revised his first sentence anyway. In his notebook, Malte was not describing the city’s external landscape but projecting his inner world onto it. What we can read and understand from his notebook is not the physical landscape of the city but his inner universe. When you are depressed, the world loses light.
The depression inside you swallows up the light in the outside world. In this case, the inner depression is like a black and white photocopying machine. No painting—no matter how colorful and brilliant their colors are—can retain its original hue and brightness once they go through such a machine. It can only come out vague and drab. Malte sees the landscape of the city and its pedestrians through the “internal black and white photocopying machine” inside him. This is why I believe that Malte would not have changed his first sentence. He is not interested in meteorological science. On this, Malte is clearly on Romaine Gary’s side, not on the side of Han Seung-Won.
I arrived at midnight in this small city of thirty thousand people located near the cease-fire line. I arrived on the last bus to the city that day. The bus, which had been carrying passengers back and forth on the same road for the whole day, looked like an exhausted camel, and the driver, a hump on the camel’s back. It was hot inside the bus and the air, mixed with various unknown smells and giving off strangely repulsive odors, wasn’t circulating. There were six passengers on the bus, four of whom were soldiers. They were returning to the base after a brief vacation. They all had different ranks but the same grim expressions on their faces. The higher ranking soldier pushed the chair back low, flung himself against the chair, and closed his eyes as soon as he got on the bus; the private made rustling sounds while tearing open the plastic wrapping of a pastry. The two other soldiers kept gazing into the darkness outside the window. I became curious about what it was that they were staring at. I wondered if they were looking at anything at all. I have no doubt there was something worth looking at, even in the darkness. Darkness is always hiding something within itself. Darkness is dark because it has something to protect. However, it didn’t appear that the soldiers’ eyes were focused on anything specific. The grim and rigid expressions on their faces invoked an anxiety in me as I was heading in the same direction as they were. Invoke! I was startled by this word that I had invoked from my subconscious self. That I “invoked” it suggested that it had been crouching within me all along. That which is invoked had been waiting to be invoked, laying dormant until invoked by another. Because it has been waiting, it responds immediately, even to the slightest act of invocation. You could also say that anxiety stems from the anxiety of not being invoked by someone else. In order to suppress my anxiety, I called out to the soldiers on the other side and asked, "How long does it take?" The soldiers who were gazing outside the window did not respond. I thought about calling to them again, but feeling embarrassed, decided against it. A man with a tanned face sitting behind them answered instead, informing me that it would take about an hour and a half. The truth is that I already knew how long it would take. Before I got on the bus, I had searched the Internet and learned that it took anywhere from two hours and ten minutes to two hours and thirty minutes. The time between buses was an hour and thirty minutes, so if you missed a bus, you had to wait for an hour and thirty minutes. The last bus left at eight thirty. I had also read about local specialty foods and tourist spots and gleaned some more information, but could only remember that there were commercial passenger boats close by and many military posts around the area. Not far from them, there was also a secret military underground tunnel from North Korea that had been discovered.
A disconcerting silence pervaded the bus. Only the sound of the engine, like the groaning of a tired camel, stirred the surface of the silence. Exhaust, emitted from the bus as it ran up the hill, slipped inside the bus. The unexhausted carbon monoxide and nitrogen gas mixed with the stench in the air and made my stomach turn and made me feel nauseous. I didn't have anything to eat, but did not expect to get carsick. Trying to swallow the acid coming up from the stomach, I started pressing my head with my fingers. Then the first sentence from Malte's notebook flashed in my mind like an inauspicious omen. Was I going to this place to live or to die?
[ . . . ]
Unexpectedly, my days at the country house were surprisingly satisfying. I spent most of my time reading books in my room. Mother thought I might be bored and told me to visit Seoul once in a while and meet some friends, but her fear was unfounded. I did not much care to meet friends, not even P.
Sometimes I would spend the whole day going back and forth between my study and the living room, just lounging. I would start reading a book lying on my back on the floor, roll over and lie on my side, then after a while, turn around and sit down…and then lie on my back, roll over again, and so on.
I would travel across all the rooms in the house that way. If I felt like sleeping after reading for a while, I just went to sleep without hesitation. Once in a while, I went out for a walk. The scent of pine nut trees was mellow and balmy. The wind gently stroked the trees and grass like a large caressing hand and the birds sang in difference voices. The birds sang differently in the morning than at dusk. At sunset, I saw a grey rabbit that was hopping around, as if it were being careful not to scratch the grass. I crouched down low and stayed still so that I wouldn’t scare it away. The nervous rabbit pricked its ears and stared at the big animal with suspicion. Then he quickly ran away and disappeared into the forest.
Once in a while, I ventured a little deeper into the forest. The scent emanating from the forest and grass covering the mountain made my body feel infinitely light; I felt my weightless body floating in the air. When I was in the forest, I could really feel the connection between all of the organs of the human body. I was even beginning to think that if I were exposed to the spirit of the forest for a long time, I might even be able to perform magic.
Though she had promised, my mother did not visit often. She was busy and I also told her that she did not have to come around a lot. Then again, considering that she was not the kind of person who would listen to me, the truth is, it was probably more because she was busy. At first, the housekeeper came every day to cook meals and clean the house. Three days in, she starting coming just once every three days. For both cooking and cleaning, this was sufficient. Since I lived alone, there wasn't much dust to clean and the house remained tidy for several days without much effort. Also, it wasn’t really necessary to prepare food for one person every day.
P called me often though. She wanted to visit me, but I forbade her from visiting, on the grounds that my disease was contagious.
I also told her, “It would be prudent for you not to contact me for a while. That’s why I’m here to begin with. I’ve been quarantined. Do you think I’m here for vacation?”
Every time I said this to her, I felt guilty. Whatever the reason, I was feeling an inexplicable sense of happiness in this place. It was true that tuberculosis was contagious, so I wasn’t lying to her—at least not technically. I just didn’t want her to suddenly show up and disrupt this new peace I was experiencing, perhaps for the first time in my life. I even thought that it was good that tuberculosis was contagious. It was not like I was tired of her and didn’t want to see her any more. It was just that, for the first time in my life, I was alone with nature. Until then, I had never been completely alone; I had never not been surrounded by people. Until I came to the forest, I wasn’t even aware of the fact that I had never been alone. Perhaps, then, it was natural that I had never felt a need to be alone. In many cases, you do not want what you need because you do not know that you need it. Ironically, you realize that you actually needed it only when the unwanted need has been accidentally fulfilled. We live our lives not really understanding what it is that we truly need. This is absurd, of course. However, this is how it is with most people. For example, when your lover leaves you, you suddenly find yourself in need of something that you didn’t realize that you needed when she was with you. Sometimes you come to understand something that you did not when you were able to sleep only when you become unable to sleep. Sometimes you come to understand things in your old age that you did not understand in your youth. It is a contradiction, but unless you realize that you need it, you cannot really want it. That is what I mean when I say you can’t help it. In any case, for the first time in my life, I was absorbed in my inner world of silence and solitude, living in a strangely inexplicable happiness. For me, it was an exceptional experience.
However, this happiness did not last long. One day, a stranger knocked at my door. He lived in one of the other five identical-looking condominiums. He said he had noticed that my house lights were on. Since the house had previously been vacant, he realized that a new tenant had moved in and just came by to say hello. He also handed me a pack of toilet paper as a housewarming gift. Then, although I did not really intend to ask him in, since he had already entered the foyer, I offered him some coffee. I thought it would be rude of me to send away a neighbor who came to welcome me, especially when he went to the trouble of bringing me a housewarming gift.
He was a retired college professor. His field was psychology and he lived with his wife. He had moved here right after his retirement. He also told me that his wife was in bad health and had trouble moving around. He was taking care of his ailing wife, as she was essentially just waiting for her death. After introducing himself like this, he asked me why a young man like me was living here alone. I could’ve been offended, since he was basically implying that this was the kind of place where only old people came to live, but I didn’t mind. Also, his "I’ve told you my story so why don’t you tell me yours" attitude didn’t bother me, because I was familiar with this customary practice. We usually do not talk about ourselves unless we’re confident that the other is willing to talk about himself. In some cases, we tell our stories first, even if the other person doesn’t particularly want to hear it, in order to make the other person tell their story, which we want to hear. Like most things in our lives, the terms of trade govern our conversations. I told him that that I was a graduate student, but my health was in bad condition, so I was taking a leave of absence from school. I also told him that it was my mother who had bought the land, which was basically a wasteland before, built country homes on it, and then sold them for profit. The retired professor was nodding for some mysterious reason, but I didn’t care much to know why.
Then he asked me, “How about your father?” as if it were the next natural question to ask. Of course, there was no order for questions like these.
“I don’t have one,” I said immediately.
The conversation was supposed to go in a different direction from there. That’s what usually happened. When I told people that I did not have a father, they usually didn’t ask about him again. Although it wasn’t necessary, some would even say they were sorry to have asked the question. In any case, the conversation would stop there and a new conversation would begin. However, the retired professor was different than most people.
“When did he pass away?” he asked.
He assumed that my father was deceased and was asking me when he died. Smiling, I retorted that I had not said that he was dead; I said I didn’t have one. Then, looking straight into my eyes, the old professor said bluntly “If you say you don’t have a father, it must mean that he has passed away.”
Feeling defiant, I said “Isn’t it also possible that my parents could be divorced?”