Guilt Begets God: Songs on Earth by Lee Seung-U

  • onOctober 26, 2014
  • Vol.19 Spring 2013
  • byKim Dongshik
Songs on Earth

Lee Seung-U is a rare author who has delved into the metaphysical realm from the Christian point of view. He was born in Jangheung in South Jeolla Province, graduated from Seoul Theological University, and studied at the United Graduate School of Theology at Yonsei University. Since embarking on his literary career in 1981 with “The Portrait of Erysichthon,” Lee has continuously dealt with the issues plaguing modern society by linking them to Christian salvation. That is not to say that the theological dilemmas or the Christian worldview present in his novels are his own. His novels have the power to make readers rethink the idea of the absolute being and salvation by making connections between the hardships people undergo in contemporary society and the root causes that drive human psychology (guilt, anxiety, and desire). If we could invoke the title of Lucien Goldman’s work here, Lee Seung-U’s novel examines the hidden God in modern society.

Lee Seung-U’s recently published novel Songs on Earth takes place at Cheonsan Monastery. Cheonsan Monastery is both a sacred place with beautiful writings on the wall and a place with a tragic past involving a mass murder. Songs on Earth is a multi-layered novel with five different narratives intertwined: Kang Sang-ho, who investigates the monastery based on the records left by his older brother and later exposes the existence of the inscriptions on the wall; Cha Dong-hyeon, a theological scholar who writes about the inscriptions on the wall after reading Kang Sang-ho’s book; Jang, who makes confessions about the 72 followers who were killed at the monastery after reading Cha Dong-hyeon’s work; Han Jeong-hyo, who is at the center of political power and is connected to the mass slaughter at the monastery; and Hu, who goes to the monastery after suffering from feeling responsible for his cousin Yeon-hui’s sexual assault.

With the monastery at the core, we find out about the incomplete manuscript of a traveler, a newspaper article by a religious scholar, and a testimonial and confession about the mass slaughter. We also see a diversity of writings like the Biblical scriptures that cover one of the the monastery walls. And as the narratives converge, the memories surrounding the wall and the killings at the Cheonsan Monastery come alive.

According to Songs on Earth, desire comes from a sense of guilt. The fact that Kang Sang-ho completes his brother’s work posthumously or the fact that Jang reveals the truth behind the mass killing all come from their sense of guilt. If that is true, who controls this cycle of desire and guilt? There could have been many other ways to lessen Kang Sang-ho’s guilt about his brother. Why did he feel the need to complete his brother’s work? This can’t be explained purely by societal mechanisms or by innate human desire.

As Tolstoy said in What Is Religion?, the irrational, unpredictable, and invisible actions are what allow human beings to go beyond their limitations.

In Lee Seung-U’s Christian worldview, a sense of guilt that seeks atonement bears desire and that desire spawns more guilt. According to his work, the endless cycle between desire and guilt originates from the desire of the indescribable, transcendent, ultimate being. The hidden God is at the center of that cycle of human desire and guilt, and hence, the novel makes us contemplate the incompleteness of human beings and the world.

Lee Seung-U’s works Two Sides of Life and Mysteries of the Labyrinth have been translated in Europe and the United States and have, in particular, received high praise from the French press and literary circles. In 2009, Lee Seung-U’s novel The Private Lives of Plants was published as part of the Folio series by the French publishing company Editions Gallimard, as the first Korean author to be included. 

Author's Profile

Lee Seung-U, a former student of theology, made his literary debut in 1981 with the novella A Portrait of Erysichthon. Throughout his career, Lee has maintained an interest in theological and metaphysical issues, which is reflected in his writing style that meticulously depicts the inner workings of the human soul. His works deal with questions about morals arising in quotidian life as well as more universal issues concerning God, salvation, and guilt. In particular, Lee’s novels since 2000 have inquired into the meaning of reality and the everyday, thereby bringing together the sacred and the secular, and the mind and the body. Published translations of his books include The Reverse Side of Life (Peter Owen, 2005), La vie rêvée des plantes (Gallimard, 2009), Ici comme ailleurs (Gallimard, 2013), and The Private Life of Plants (Dalkey Archive, 2015).