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

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.14 Winter 2011
  • byKim Dongshik
I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
Tr. Chi-Young Kim

Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (1996) connects reality and illusion and life and death in the way a Mobius strip creates a curved surface with an indistinguishable inside and outside. His novel shakes the dichotomous perception of reality vs. illusion and life vs. death to the core. The novel poses the question: If humans desire life, couldn’t they also desire death, which is a part of life? Can’t our desires advance beyond life and reach the realm of death? In I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, life, illusion, death, and desire travel across each other’s boundaries. The protagonist asks , borrowing Shakespeare’s words, “Then is it sin to rush to the secret house of death ere death dare come to us?”

The protagonist/narrator of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is a suicide designer. “I” seeks out people who are lonely and depressed over the emptiness of life, and recommends suicide. He coaches them and runs errands for them in order to make it happen. For the protagonist, suicide is a way of artistically condensing a boring, messy life, a ritual for the aesthetic perfection of life.

Two women succeed in killing themselves. Judith (Seyeon) works at a bar and has a habit of having sex with Chupa Chups in her mouth. She’s dating K, a superspeed cab driver, but seduces his older brother C, who’s a video artist. She has car sex with C during a snowstorm one day and disappears without a trace. She kills herself in a planned gas explosion with the help of the narrator. Mimi is a performance artist. Mimi, who has never seen her own performance, asks video artist C to film her performance. While watching her performance on video in her bathtub, Mimi slits her wrists. The protagonist gave advice on her suicide as well. After overseeing their suicides, the protagonist goes on a trip and fictionalizes their short lives.

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself makes significant allusions to three paintings: “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David, “Judith” by Gustav Klimt, and “Death of Sardanapalus” by Eugene Delacroix. All three paintings have death motifs and function as the subconscious cause and object of the narrator, Mimi, and Judith’s fascination with death as an aesthetic. They also represent the themes of the novel, end of the revolution, eroticism, and bio-politics. “The Death of Marat” symbolizes the end of the revolution through the death of a radical politician of the French Revolution, Marat. “Judith,” which depicts Judith smiling with Holofernes’ severed head in her hands, is a reference to Georges Bataille’s concept of eroticism, namely the ecstasy felt in close approximation of death. “Death of Sardanapalus,” which depicts Sardanapalus killing his courtesans before the fall of Babylon, is a metaphor for the bio-political situation in contemporary society where the matter of an individual’s death is subject to government rule.

Kim Young-ha’s critique of society has in its undercurrent a critique of contemporary civilization. As Michel Foucault pointed out, contemporary society is founded on the Lacanian foreclosure that has its roots in reason and power. Just as madmen were alienated and institutionalized in the process of establishing modern social order, contemporary society was established by systematically excluding death from the masses’ metaphorical circulation. But as many scholars point out, contemporary civilization built on the “death of death” is in reality ruled over by the culture of death. As critic Nam Jin-woo so aptly puts it, the death aesthetic of Kim Young-ha is a resistance against a world that has castrated death. Kim triggers a progressive imagination that breaks “normalcy” apart by smuggling death back into the territory of contemporary society. His shrewd language f lows against the current into death, and leaves a sharp wound in the dull consciousness of today’s living dead. 

Author's Profile

The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy MyselfYour 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.