Dedicated to my daughter Katya
(Translated by Steven Sunwoo Lee, Stanford Universiry)
Of course, choosing a line of conduct,
we choose between one fantasy and another,
but we do not have a choice,
to imagine or not to imagine.
Man is doomed to be a novelist.
– Jose Ortega y Gasset
From time to time I ask my quite old mother to recall some more details about that place where they took me immediately after birth. I know that it was a two-room apartment on the fifth floor of a recently constructed building, in the very center of Pyongyang on the shore of the Taedong River, to which I was taken out in a carriage on walks for fresh air. I ask her…but all of my requests remain futile—either mother doesn’t want to, or she can’t remember—and nothing remains for me, how to present, conjure, visualize to myself through the turbid thickness of years curves, bends and lines that are native to me, meaning a landscape that, it would turn out, I in principle could not remember.
And none the less, closing my eyes, I see the Taedong River, in all of its deep perspectives, its smooth level current, and even seagulls rushing about over the silver surface of the water, but then with the turn of the head—father along the shorefront, in a gray tunic, three steps from me, squatting down and stretching to me his hand, toward which I direct my first steps. In this, my first step, the happy images break off, like an old, lost and tattered film reel, and opening my eyes, I again, once more, remember that all of this landscape, this plot, I merely contrived to myself, that my inner perspective holds nothing but deception, subterfuge, the momentary luxury of pseudo-clairvoyance, perhaps as an eternal protest against all that is tangible, visible, immutable, all to which—by my will or not—I should abide.
Yet as long as this bright vision again and again returns to me, then I, a faster visionary and mystic than materialist and positivist, in the end conclude that this reflection, flash, fragment, this is my paradise, absolutely not lost for me, but always found, residing in me and with me; now I am here, and the linear flow of external life only demonstrates its immutability, or the immutability of my ability to summon this paradise.
The World and the Word
But of course I learned this ability not immediately, and in the beginning there were no Words or Visions—I speak now only about my sensation of life—but just one silent emptiness, about which I wrote about several times in my essays, stories and plays, when they carried me as a one-year-old to Alma-Ata—an emptiness which lasted probably a few years at least—my memory doesn’t know anything about those silent and invisible years. And only afterwards, before I had reached five years—it was an early winter morning—a bright light suddenly blinded me, as if someone had opened a thick curtain, and I saw a room, and the bright lamp under the ceiling: mother prepares me for kindergarten for the first time, putting on my boots last, and we walk to the exit, wind in the face, the long journey through dirty hardened snow, to a two-story building that was gray in the gloaming: we head inside and mother gives me over from her hand to the hands of a rude, loud-voiced nanny, who roughly plucks from me all that my mother had diligently clothed me in. Then the expansive room with noises, slovenly unsightly children, and I, instead of joining with them, walk stubbornly, despite the nannies’ cries, to the window: to see, glance through the gloaming—to seize by my eyes my mother, who, as it seemed then, had betrayed me, leaving me here in this rude, horrible, institutional place…I knowingly and in full detail depict now this shrill—neophyte!—feeling of injustice, known, perhaps, to each Soviet person, namely because from this precipice, fracture, fright, even shock began that otherworldly—in my soul, at least—life, suddenly declaring to you that your paradise or image of paradise is traitorous destruction.
And so, all the still memorable Soviet institutions: kindergarten, school, university, work by assignment—you walk bitterly and rigidly by the canvas of what public society determines, and through some kind of moments stolen from this society, you instantly understand that Words in your life as you knew them before are no more. But there is just one absolutely uncomplicated introspection, a mechanical motion and memorized wording, actions which you present to the world, only so that it, useless and indifferent, will leave you in peace next time. And you, of course, suffer, but then what can you do but move again—you learn, work, socialize, seeing what is around you and nothing within…In the end you arrive at despair, called forth by precisely that shrill, screaming discrepancy, and you even see how others also begin to rebel—let this life slip through, run from its classes, be a hooligan, live off of others, behave disgracefully—understanding that nevertheless you are not alone, so rough, nervous and inarticulate, and if you long for that which does not exist, then maybe it will be worthwhile for you to track down that very nothingness, moving along those earthly circles which are sometimes worse than those of hell. That is: deceive, sin, live in dissolution, like others, and in the end and through the most unexpected figure, these circles push you out not to some place, but for some reason just to the writing table, behind which you begin to write on clean pieces of paper some kind of secret characters, and perhaps denunciations—for now unclear to whom, to another world on another planet?—filled with furious indignation again those wintertime situations in which you once found yourself.
Ultimately, all those who are also sitting behind a writing table—by night and day, weeks, months, and years—you suddenly understand that you are writing page by page some kind of forbidden, other-worldy life, addressing it in the first place to you yourself, creating heroes from your multifaceted and prehensile earthly observations, and with these, equipping those heroes who are important with completely different impulses and aspirations, the essence of which lies in simplicity: to attach elementary meaning to all human existence. And when you finally understand this, in yourself and on paper with strange figures that form quite enigmatic other-worldly landscapes, among which live various strange characters, which you, the author, can even classify over time.
And in particular: you see people, immured within walls, count them—walls of society, of time, of history, of a political regime, of all those winter situations that you despise, of people from your fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations. Then you see people who are already liberated from these walls, faster than your generation, which is subdivided in your intricate, secluded world into two categories—outcasts and Golems. People of the first type, gaining the freedom that they desire—to spite their parents and their ideals, values and image of life, lost in their struggle all strength and don’t know what to do with that which they so craved. The second kind, Golems and conformists—in appearance active, bright, talkative, endlessly vital—only imitate freedom of a particular movement, in fact remaining immured in other walls of theirs. And there is a fourth category: these are people-travelers, who devote their entire lives in search of an exit, and for now they cannot find it. It’s worth noticing here that all of the above-listed personages are not necessarily people from Soviet times—I’m simply talking here about my generation!—these, in essence, are personages of any historical time, since times change, but walls and corridors remain.
I came to this clear picture of my shrill vigil, of course, not immediately, but after long years of agonizing, solitary labor of the sweetest kind, damning in the end all that occurred through my windows, steadily gaining the hard knowledge that everything of yours that is secluded, other-worldly, and seemingly meaningless, enclosed in four walls and visible to no one, forms in you the most important and precious: an inner person. Do you remember Brodsky?
…Не выходи из комнаты*
Считай, что тебя продуло
Что интересней на свете
Стены и стула?
Зачем выходить оттуда
Куда вернешься вечером
Таким же, каким ты был
Тем более изувеченным?….
… Слейся лицом с обоями
Шкафом от Космоса
Эроса, Расы, Вируса…
* – in Russian
And of course, from all of the four above-listed categories only the hero-travelers gave me hope of some kind of meaningful existence, and I understood that my traveler simply should find an exit from its other-worldly underground, because otherwise its and my years-long struggle would have no meaning.
Just recently I completed a literary historical work, where by my original intention my hero would have perished, lacking the strength to find an exit, but suddenly that very winter life bore to my intention an unexpected and marvelous correction. Those very few-in-number people close to me, who surrounded and surround me now, with one of their cordial dispatches suggested to me an exit, simple and human, through nothing other than love—their love, which I so often need to avow, and neglected to do so.
And so: the hero falls in love with the heroine, and through this image finally forgets about himself, about his inescapable and tortured internal espionage, about his infinite, cycling looping of and enchantment with himself, and towards the finale of the work, in the most dramatic moment, when his beloved—according to the first variant—should be on the verge of death, he saves her, it seems, from inevitable—like a train rushing towards you—death. He saves her, but this means that a breach has formed in my secluded, other-world—a happy ending, which I’d always viewed with skepticism and even contempt. Because usually—and I think that no experienced author would argue with me!—that happy endings appear artificial, pretentious, and dogmatic, such as with that piano in the bushes, or the case with Filemon and Bavkida, who allowed God to be a guest in their home and thus—and here’s a great moral!—provided themselves with a more successful existence.
In other words, I want to say that in every original history there exists—and, if you want, must exist—a dramatic pre-finale, and only through such a situation can we talk without any affectation about a happy ending. Because—and this is very simple!—if Fate did not frighten our courageous heroes, then it means, hence, that only they have the full right to a worthy existence.
The Fundamental Meaning of Creativity
And here the most important thing in your authorship begins! Having found himself at last in a this-worldly earthly realm, in the sunlight under an open sky, listening to the song of birds, seeing the silver current of a glorious river, and many marvelous other things, our hero-traveler, of course at some point rejoicing over what has occurred, happens upon one supremely important question, which, unfortunately, real earthly people absolutely do not happen upon. And the question is such: How should he, the traveler, move through this world and life? What is his path and to where should he take it? It needs to be recognized that this question happens upon him for the first time, because, as already said, throughout his underground existence, all that he did was torturously search for an exit.
And so, how? We will try to answer this question. And for this we will turn to world culture, and not just to literature, but to film as the most plastic and dynamic art. We will take three—of course, in accordance with my predilections—classics of world film of the 20th century. And let these be Antonioni, Bergman and Fassbinder. And before I say anything looking at, reading the films of a great director, you, without fail, from work to work, will collide with one and another appearance—of a single author’s—let’s put it so—cursive, or line, sculpted form, already recognizable curve, mathematically precise landscape, the personal and determinant style and handwriting of the Author.
For example, speaking about Antoninoi: we always and immediately already remember and see him…emptinesses and prolixities, the seemingly total coincidence of screen and physical time, the primeval out-of-bodiness of his heroes, and accordingly their conciseness in dialogues, alternating with despairing monologues, their fatal impossibility to hear each other, their unshakable dotted lines, impending doom moving through the labyrinth of their resonant solitude. Or: Ingmar Bergman: his primordially reserved world—if families, simply the relationship between a man and woman, encroaching on love with each other—and out of the containment of these worlds seemingly arises an unphysical sensation of the other world, which through cracks and door peep-holes spies upon that which occurs within. This is the source of the eternal anguish of his heroes, madness seemingly of a clinical sense—heroes who seem as if they’ve been pent up for life, and even aware of this!—all of these famous “whispers and cries,” not people, but “personages,” between which there is silence, then a despairing howl—in a word, the primeval heroes of Edward Munk. Finally Fassbinder, the first punk of world cinema, depicting an eternal tearing away from the meaningless and vulgar bourgeois world, fractures and again collapses of human relationships, the unpredictability, the expressions of heroes and the particular expressionism of the author, and at the same time some kind of unearthly, insane tenderness, lyrical substance, blowing upon all of these holes, corners, notches of plastic form, melded together by the paradoxical German genius.
Please forgive me beforehand my reader: I speak about these great artists in a scattered way, as figures applied—apologies—for the sake of my ideas, the essence of which can be concluded as such: that every great artist has his, as it is called, archetypal form, curve, line, sculpted bend, by which we can determine this or that filmmaker. This, in essence, is a simple idea that overtook me many years ago, but assumed its definite verbal incarnation precisely after a viewing of the film of the German director of a new generation, Tom Tykver. I have in mind his film “Winter Sleepers” (1998). We will not retell the plot, semantics, and metaphysics of this picture, but stop at just one moment that is very important for us. One of the heroes of this story is injured in an accident, as a result of which he loses his memory, and receives trauma, a scar on the back of the head in the shape of a strange snake. Exactly at this moment—and perhaps just a bit earlier!—you begin to notice that all of the landscapes depicted in the picture repeat this serpentine form, and this given plastic particularity works by the intention of the author, who presents a dreamlike atmosphere in a quiet provincial town, on the background of which, as if in a silly dream, seemingly superfluous actions take place with the heroes, leading to the real dramas and tragedies.
And so, we figure that every authentic author at first subconsciously, and then consciously, be it in cinema, graphic art, or literature, essentially draws in his work his ancestral landscape, a certain shape, certain mark, which is lain in him primordially and which beckons to him, tells fortunes, and even more precisely, this landscape draws the artist himself and his own, prompts from work to work a return to the self—and in this soothsaying, in this sweetest insanity, according to my deep conviction therein rests the deep meaning of creativity. And only later does the author insert into his consciousness the plastic form, emotional supply, his parcel, world understanding, his philosophy—all that suits his soul.
Breaking the Waves
This ancestral landscape, this primary-form, primary-curve—corresponding and invariable!—constitutes the notion of the Style of the Author, and automatically forms, if we continue to speak of film, the depth, the composition of a shot, its color scheme, the action and trajectory of camera movement, binds with the construction of the plot, with the emotional content of the heroes, with their plasticity and psychophysicality, with dialogues, manners, costumes, and other various things. In such a way, a style is formed: film as style, shot as style, history as style, hero as style. And therefore, I declare that all which does not have this binding and form-building big and little style of primary-form is, as it is called, mass-culture, pop, yellow journalism, “Britney Spearses” and “Phil Kirkorovs;” or that creative work of those with unbridled limits, that nowadays overwhelms those of us with heads like viscous—you must forgive me here!—and foul-smelling contents, suddenly bursting through the world’s sewer system. Still, it is particularly necessary to notice that Style and Stylishness does not at all exclude commercial success of, as we will put it, an artistic product, because we know a great number of examples, in film, as well as in music, literature, anywhere, in which a work of high art has become widely known, popular, as it is called, cult.
We spoke about the classics of world cinema of the 20th century, but we live, indeed, already in the 21st. I have in mind all of those cultural, political, social, economic processes transpiring in the present time, or the so-called clash of civilizations, notorious globalization, the dying howl of postmodernism, the collapsing twin towers, terrorist threats, and much more. And here arises the question: in the context of all enumerated above and the unknown future, what will be the new art of the 21st century? And what will be the new classics in this senseless world? Allow me here to convey and state my particular subjective views on this absolutely not idle question.
And here I again turn to cinema, preserving, noticing the stylistics of our meditation, and namely, as has probably already been surmised by the name of this section by an attentive—and even not very attentive reader—the creative work of the very brightest, or one of the brightest contemporary film directors, Lars von Trier, whose name is known to a vast public. From his very first work, “The Orchid Gardener” (1976), this Danish director, from film to film, has masterly and effortlessly opened up and pedantically presented to the world all styles and trends of world art: from specimens and figures of ancient art, barge exercises, to German expressionism, surrealism, impressionism, with constant references to world film, as well as literary sources, and with such a form expressing the postmodern phonation of our epoch. But through all of this, Trier remains faithful to his style, and more precisely, if it is possible to say, primary-style, the gloomy and furious essence of which is maximally revealed, from my view, in the first film from his “Golden Heart” trilogy, “Breaking the Waves” (1996), a religious story about a miracle carried out by a woman for the sake of her beloved, and which—the nature of this style is a question for a separate, detailed work!—is entirely, emblematically expressed by the very title of this picture.
I think that precisely in the example of Triller’s creative work, the new classic of the 21st century has already formed, and the core of it consists in that it will be the art of islands, or separate artistic identities, already not presenting, or presenting particularly nominally this or another national art. Because these islands, these artistic worlds, films, literature, in our—in the literal sense—apocalyptic world are linked and akin with each other not by geographical, ethnic, horizontal signs, but first of all, existentially, vertically, metaphysically—by essence.
Or, simply speaking, the new films of Hong Kong director Vong Kar-vai, Finn Aka Kaurismiaka, the French Patrice Shero, or the American Paul Thomas Anderson feel by definition closer and more native to you than…the ordinary wretched opus of your eternally dismal, inarticulate fellow tribe-member. By this I in full measure give due to—as it is called—art of the soil, but how does it at times in its unshakable provincial narrowness tend to be absurd, funny and archaic?!
With such a figure, I repeat my assertion that, if you want, the arising cultural paradigm of the 21st century, that the new classic will have in the first place, a vertical dimension, dissecting and including in itself the layers and contexts of world culture, and in the end bringing to the world a new existential content, fully respondent to those multi-form and dramatic processes of a new time, with which we have already collided today.
And as the conclusion of the given section, allow me to change the semantic, metaphoric accents in the title of Trier’s famous film. If, by my understanding, the cultural epoch of Islands of Art has ensued, then they will swim along the Ocean of Time and Loneliness, namely the breaking waves, and this movement is always courageous and at heart is forced by itself, just as in the art that I named new classics—for all of us are countrymen, citizens, compatriots of some kind of historical moment, and have become endlessly, shapelessly, hopelessly alone.
How is that Place Called?
And now we again return to our hero-traveler. It seems that we answered the primary important question of how he, the traveler, should advance, and the nature of his journey…Yes, namely by following his ancestral landscape, whose essence, in my view, concludes in the curve of the Taedong River, with which I began my reflections, and which emphatically and happily, through the muddy thickness of years, returned and returns to me.
In January 1988, the Kazakhstani writer of Korean descent, Han Din wrote a story by the title “How is that Place Called?” His heroine, at the brink of her death, grievously happens upon this single question: if the place where you were born is called one’s motherland, then how do you call that place where you die? Sixteen years following the writing of the story, I want to answer the question of this writer—honest, one out of a few in the Korean diaspora, worthy, and alas, already departed from life, who in the context of the current time and of all the aforementioned sounded by me—isn’t it so?—is more than touching and naïve.
For—I answer as such!—if a person for all of his life creates and produces—it’s not important if he built homes, planted trees, taught children, wrote novels, shot films, simply engaged in any work—listening to his heart, following his curve, then that place, where he worked and lived, is always called for him, “motherland.” If a respectable, law-abiding citizen resided in some kind of foreign, and not his own, life, following false demands of a society, time, even family, social, economic fashion, political regimes, having never been able to reveal and develop in him the creativity of a person, in fact, being a servant to everything and everyone, then this place—not dependent on whether he was born here or not—will remain for him a foreign land.
And now tell me: is there not something simple, heart-felt, and elementary in this—despite all of the disintegration, dissension, divorce, division, disaster of the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century!—and ending in a genuine philosophy of human existence, in the past as well as in the present and future?
Return of the Brave Pinky
It remains for us to get to the results, and once again, as a desired meaning that has indeed been gained, to repeat all the aforementioned. Thus, one day a certain person, having understood all of the meaninglessness of life imposed upon him by society, exits from the “main” to the side, and begins to create his secluded otherworldliness. To create at the very least, in essence, the objective—to liberate from captivity this very life, foreign to him—and gaining his own meaning and freedom. This exit or transition in the end comes to be realized by him through Creativity and Love—for a woman, to close ones and relatives, to people, living together with you on this planet, to this very planet, to a city in which you live, to the history of people, planet, and city. Having gotten out at last to the world of earthly life, he, step by step, and even grievously, not quickly, creates his way, understanding that his Way is always a return to the native, spiritual landscape, to himself and his own—yes these words will not be blocked!—roots and origins. And when he finally realizes this, then nothing can knock him from the Way, no kind of societal trends, factors, directives, and fashions. Or, as the wonderful Peruvian poet of Indian descent César Vallejo wrote about Return, truly capaciously and figuratively:
Hasta el día en que vuelva, de esta piedra
nacerá mi talón definitivo,
con su juego de crímenes, su yedra,
su obstinación dramática, su olivo.
Hasta el día en que vuelva, prosiguiendo,
con franca rectitud de cojo amargo,
de pozo en pozo, mi periplo, entiendo
que el hombre ha de ser bueno, sin embargo.
Hasta el día en que vuelva y hasta que ande
el animal que soy, entre sus jueces,
nuestro bravo meñique será grande,
digno, infinito dedo entre los dedos.
It seems that you will not find a more successful formula for return! And it is evident, that we, in essence, discussed in the pages of all of our meditations precisely the return of the honest little finger. Is it not so?…And, it seems, we said it all. Really what remains for us is to wish courage to our honest little finger in further paths, indeed a truly Samurai courage, or courage—here the last film analogy!—of the heroes of Takeshi Kitano, so that our little finger remembers the main maxim of the Samurai of the Bushido code:
A warrior should never speak with an uncertain voice. He should decide all for himself in advance. Even in trifles deep hearts can be seen.
And so, even in trifles deep hearts can be seen, to decide or foresee for himself all in advance, namely, the great tearing away. In the very beginning of the path, you might collide with the treacheries of people, whom you had counted indisputably as friends, the failure of family, and booming loneliness, which without fail seizes you immediately, thoughts about death over the expanse of a few years, and then…we exit into the positive!—an unexpected light, which nevertheless and suddenly seizes you in the end of your named tunnel, that vague, unclear-for-now curve, with which you recklessly fall in love one day, and which, after some time, suddenly becomes distinct and visible, answering to you obligingly, and which afterwards will never leave you!
Оригинальный текст: Александр Кан. Путь, или история одной излучины (прелюдия к философии будущего)