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From the Summit to the Abyss: A Long Story of Exile

  • onDecember 3, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byChristine Jordis
Réveillé au milieu de la nuit: Poèmes d’exil (Awoken in the Middle of the Night: Poems of Exile)
Tr. Choi Mikyung
2018
108pp.

Here, finally translated into French, are the poems of one of the most brilliant, inventive and modern of all nineteenth century Korean thinker – “Dasan” Jeong Yakyong (1762–1836). These poems of exile form just a small – but deeply moving – part of the immense oeuvre of a universally talented author who has some seventy volumes on a wide variety of subjects to his name. In the introduction, translators Jean-Noël Juttet and Choi Mikyung trace, in broad outline, the magnificent and painful story of his life. Like “Chusa” Kim Jeong-hui, one of the greatest calligraphers of the period, Dasan occupied some of the highest offices of state (he was adviser to a king whose untimely demise prevented a planned break with the stifling rigidity of neo-Confucian tradition), before falling victim to the malicious rumours spread by his enemies. Accused of associating with Catholics, Dasan was sent into exile – a more merciful fate than the death sentence received by his elder brother. He was almost forty when he was sent to Jeolla province, far from the capital, where he remained for eighteen years.

At the peak of his success, the winds of change were blowing. Dasan was not satisfied by merely embracing foreign influences and studying new technologies, designing machines to save time and effort, creating complex, da Vinci-esque designs featuring wheels and pulleys, or even drawing up the plans for the Suwon Hwaseong fortress (now a UNESCO world heritage site). He situated this research in the wider context of his thoughts on humanity,⁎considering not only the material needs of humans, but also their profound – that is to say, spiritual – aspirations. In other words, thought about man remained at the centre of his quest for progress. And what daring thought it is. His writing, anchored in his lived experience draws upon his own joys and pains rather than elaborating on abstract theories. Dasan wants to open up to the Other, to help them to live. Here, the Other means the poor, the isolated, the enslaved and the excluded: those invisible people that no one cares about. But it also means foreigners, their culture and thought.

All this can be found, and suggested by the most delicate of strokes, in his poems of exile. They speak of nostalgia, the pain of absence, regret and loss. There are visions of the people and places he pines for: his charming young daughter with her graceful movements, or his longed-for home where he used to sit against a paulownia tree and chat with friends. There are occasional eruptions of bitterness, combined with a piercing satire of the ways of the world, the Court and its minions, the meaningless honours sought by the mediocre, and those who spew forth slander and malice in order to hold onto power. He attacks institutions, the civil service examinations and the excesses of Confucianism. Time passes, while he, Dasan, remains on the margins, forgotten, counting his white hairs – so many of them now – and those passing hours, which he can do nothing about. Old age, soon to envelop him, is envisioned as a desiccation of one’s being. But he never forgets the task of inner growth.

Nature, and the joys it brings, is placed in constant opposition with this hollow, inert world: animals and plants, fish and crocodiles, sea monsters, whales and dragons, snakes, the white clouds (drifting and detached like him), storms, rain, the wind, the stars. He writes of daily life in all its simplicity and tranquillity. His poems, the fruit not only of a joy in contemplation that is renewed daily but also of a long internal labour, depict his reality and the emotion it awakens in him. Dasan, like Chusa on the distant island of Jeju, “sees” the drifting cloud not as a symbol of wandering but as a beloved companion.

As explained in the introduction, if Dasan seems close to us today – “all geographical, temporal and cultural distance erased” – it is because of the profound sincerity and simplicity to which these poems attest. The translation renders their graceful ease without stumbling, conveying the exile’s varying and often contradictory states of mind – nostalgia, anger, outrage, admiration, passionate criticism – but also his admirable desire to always keep growing, and to “become more honest”.

 


1  As the translators point out, one of his most significant treatises on government, in many respects a revolutionary work, has been translated into French as L’Art de gouverner by Philippe Thiébault (Autre Temps, 2007)

 

 

by Christine Jordis
Editor and Reading Committee Member, Gallimard
Author, Paysage d’hiver: Voyage en compagnie d’un sage (2016)