Why I Am Captivated by Literature

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byHwang Tong-gyu

Why do I do literature? Even among difficult questions that one is particularly hard to answer. I have to think it over. Why, even after not writing for a while, do I always come back to literature? How wonderful it would be to be able to give such a lucid response as, “to help humanity live more humanely” or “for my own salvation and that of those around me.” Or even, “to present life as it truly is.” Such things, however, are too grand to be my aims. You and I live in an era where we are all frantically rushing around, trying to obtain the greatest outcome for the minimum effort. The best answer I can give to the question of why I write is that in such a world, I am constantly drawn in by that foolish charm of literature whereby it forces us to be satisfied with the smallest possible outcome for the greatest of efforts, a form of minimal productivity which makes for a precious output.

Not long after I opened my eyes to the world, before I even realized it, I had begun to write. In the beginning, I was drawn by the thrill that came from making new and different combinations of words, then my heart was captured by the way that life itself melts and seeps into that thrill. I was always overflowing with curiosity. One of the characteristics of curiosity is that it reaches out in all directions, so I was drawn by my inquisitiveness to many different paths and alleyways. Occasionally, there were those in which I searched and wandered only to reemerge sometime later, but the winding alleyway of literature is the only one in which, having entered once, I’m still unable to find any way out. All I have confirmed is that writing is not a dead end.

I came close to spending my entire life wandering the alleyways of music. To put it more precisely, when I was in my second year of high school, coming and going through the streets of Seoul from which all visual stimuli had been erased by the destruction of the Korean War, I began to frequent a music room called Renaissance & Dolce, where I discovered the auditory rapture of Western classical music and vowed to make it my life’s vocation. At that time, any occupation aside from that of a composer seemed to me like a strange joke, and of course I was all set to study composition at a specialist conservatory. Having spent most of those months poring over harmonics textbooks in my spare time, one day I went to a concert with my friend Mah Chonggi, and as we emerged from the concert hall both whistling the tunes of what we had just heard, I realized from my vocalizations that I must be somewhat tone deaf. I had no choice but to replot my career path. From then on, music was no longer an occupation for me but became somewhat of a chronic illness. Even in the years when I had to move regularly from one rented room to another, I shouldered a heavy sound system with me from place to place and even when we had no money, I made sure that I maintained the equipment and bought replacement parts. Not long ago, under the pretense of uncovering the dynamics of a quartet, I spent three months engrossed in Beethoven’s late compositions for strings, listening to recordings by different ensembles of five movements for string quartet, beginning with Opus 127. Despite such efforts, I can hardly say that I mastered the dynamic I sought to understand, but I was able to confirm again the beauty of the performances by The Lindsays and the Vegh Quartet, and now have much better idea as to why Koreans so adore the Budapest Quartet’s performances of Beethoven.

Although I know hardly any popular ballads and so tend to ruin the atmosphere when I find myself having to sing at karaoke, the influence of classical music on my life and my literature is immense. In my early works, in order to achieve a shift in rhythm while writing, I would divide poems into sections and label them with numbers like those of classical movements; more recently, I have published poems with their titles left in that numeric form. Seeing the way that Bill Evans has also come into my poems I imagine that jazz, too, has an affinity with the classical.

However, the influence of music on my work doesn’t stop at imitating movements or referencing the names of songs. For many years now I have been able to sense the presence of an inherent music in beautiful paintings, sculpture, and architecture. I even think of my literary works as a give and take in the space between the realities of life and the world of music. Life is the starting point for my writing, but I could never be satisfied with my poetry unless it touched on the inherent soul of music. Indeed, what so attracted me about music was surely the fate of classical music in our contemporary world whereby, like literature, we can expect from it the very minimum return for the maximum effort.

When I went to university, the next alleyway that drew me in was traveling. This was long before the days of tourist vacations, back when the simple tasks of getting somewhere, finding something to eat, and locating a place to sleep, were all arduous and uncomfortable endeavors. There were times when it was impossible to buy grain even if you had the money to pay for it, so there were places where you had to bring along your own rice, and there was a time when all of the inns which took in travelers were short of electricity, so two rooms would be divided by a partition that didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, and a single light was placed directly above the partition to light two rooms with one bulb. This meant that you had to try to sleep serenaded by the snoring and sleeptalking of the other guests. One of the journeys most firmly planted in my memory is when I rode a chug boat from Yeosu, traveling along the southern coast via Tongyeong to Busan. Unlike the grey post-war ruins of Seoul, Hallyeosudo, a collection of islets off the coast to Tongyeong, was a sight of sheer beauty. I remember that before I set off from Seoul I had invited a school friend who was from Tongyeong to my home for dinner. Then, during the summer holidays, I sought him out when I visited his hometown. Back then, times were tight and when he took me back to his house in the evening I overheard him get such a scolding from his mother for having a guest over. It was a scene I will never be able to forget. I was so distressed that I left Tongyeong early the next morning so as not to cause them any more trouble.

There are people who call me “the travel poet,” but I’ve never gone traveling in order to write poetry, and have never written a poem to document the scenery of a place to which I traveled. Rather, it is as though, when I return from a holiday that the things I experienced are left untouched in the repository of my subconscious, or in reminiscences, and then I retrieve them for my writing when necessary. One example would be the scenery of a port in wintertime in “Port of Call.” It’s a composite of a number of ports on the southern coast that I’ve visited over the years.

What attracted me to traveling must surely have been an attempt to escape from routine, but back in those days, to a large extent, it would also have been the foolish thrill of achieving the bare minimum with the greatest amount of effort. That is how it is. More than the joys you experience when you travel, the times when you’re faced with a challenge or have to suffer remain in your heart as the dearest memories. For that reason, I can bring my travels into my poetry without feeling self-conscious as though I am saying, “I had such a wonderful time in a place you have never been to. Aren’t you jealous?” These days I can say, a little conceitedly, that there are few must-see places in Korea that I haven’t been to, but now the places that I really long to visit are the villages I once saw, which may still appear on maps, but have all but disappeared. In some places, even the empty houses will have vanished.

I have never been enthusiastic about religion for the sake of soliciting favor or of gaining entry to heaven. Though this is coming from someone raised in a Protestant household, I’m sure that reading the Bible will have helped my writing somewhat. I remember that when I was in my first year of high school, my mother coerced me into going to a weekly prayer gathering in the home of one of the elders of her church in Cheongnyangni. The people involved will have thought of it as a “primitive church,” but in contemporary terms it would be more accurate to call it an “Adventist church.” I attended for about a year, and each week the Second Coming of Christ grew one step closer and the worship exuded an overwhelming urgency. I, however, was more interested in the literary intensity of the prophetic writings, and after that time I naturally grew distant from organized Christianity.

When I got to university, I became captivated by the philosophy of Nietzsche, and for the past twenty years been engrossed in texts on Zen Buddhism. In the end, enlightenment must be in the moment when you move beyond the courage and devotion of “Stoicism” to the “Epicureanism” of Nirvana. The wonderful thing about Zen Buddhism is that it weaves these two outlooks on living and dying into a single thread. However, even now I am of the mind that when it comes to learning Zen through books—though you may read one hundred volumes you cannot achieve even a single instance of courageous devotion—and though I may be somewhat awakened I have never thought of myself as a Buddhist. Quite simply, while taking delight in amaranthine flowers, if we set aside for a moment the desire to still dine at the finest restaurants, or the longing to gain entry to heaven, which so defines faith for the sake of personal gain, I would consider that religion, too, is a means of gaining the very least through the greatest possible effort.

It is only natural that Christianity and Buddhism play an important role in my writing. For some time now I have been composing a sequence of poems based on the premise of Jesus and the Buddha engaging in candid conversation, having set dogma to one side. I suppose I am hoping that, in the midst of their exchange, questions about the true nature of humanity and of how humans should strive to live will somehow be addressed.

The ever diminishing place of classical music, real traveling as opposed to sightseeing tours, religion which disregards pleading for favor or trying to enter the pearly gates—all of these things have the aura of human behavior enacted without the hope of recompense. Even if they are not activities which seek no return, they are surely things we do with the most effort for the least gain, and so intrinsically, they are activities which bolster my reasons for continuing to pursue literature.

Is that all there is? No, there is something underlying all of that. More than anything, I believe that my writing is concerned with love. From my early poems, such as “A Joyful Letter,” to later works such as “Song of Peace,” “Beleaguered,” “May 1998 Q&A,” “Clashing Song of Love,” and even in the drafts that I am working on now, my writing is bursting with the joy and sadness of love felt by one human towards their lover or towards another person, and with the delight and desolation of the endurance and magnanimity of love. One of my favorite Bible passages, 1 Corinthians 13, begins like this: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” But in fact, is not love, too, another one of our human naiveties? Striving with the absolute maximum amount of effort to attain the least we can. 



by Hwang Tong-gyu

Author's Profile

Hwang Tong-gyu is a professor emeritus at Seoul National University and chairperson of the literature department at the National Academy of Arts. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley and NYU, and participated in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. He has received the Lee San Literature Prize, Daesan Literary Award, Midang Literary Award, and Eungwan Order of Cultural Merit. His books of poems have been translated into English, German, French, and Spanish.