Ever since I realized, a few months ago, that the qualities that make me an anomalous 22-year-old are not mere deficiencies but a product of a legacy, I’ve daydreamed of a time when such a legacy would have still been in currency. The realization was this: what I had once considered a disposition that made me a pocket of air free of both youthful turbulence and highs of youth—which I once described in a job application as my ‘preternatural gift for sanity’—is in fact nothing more than a genetic trait. My father was raised Buddhist, my grandmother was Buddhist. My great-grandparents were Buddhists. How many generations could it have gone on for!?! I was born wearing the yellow of the middle path, the blue of universal compassion, and the red, blessing of practice. My even temperament was not an aberration that made me boring and confrontation-averse, but the product of self-selective breeding, an inter-generational compact to make the blue more blue, the yellow, yellower, the red bleed redredder. So, I’ve since dreamed of a Buddhist dreamland in which my qualities would be illuminated as the highest ideals of masculinity and sociability. No more rewarding the hunky Christian souls who throw themselves left and right in conflict with the world and society! A night nightclub to sip tea in and an action film in which a small-framed Asian boy fixes everything through guile and practice, not force.
The more I dream, the more implausible such a high noon of Nirvanic existence becomes. Not only because the context within which such a realm could have existed is, frankly, unimaginable to my expatriate brain, but also. But more so because my recollections of Buddhists and Buddhism from my childhood are clear enough to prohibit my having a free reign over my imagination. My dad, a cynical evolutionist, belongs to what was once a Buddhist youth group, which is now an old boys’ club. Whenever we went to see, for New Year’s, the plump old man who had created the group (the one-man evangelical who preached colloquial chanting, but could not become a monk because “he liked meat too much”), my dad put on an overly social demeanor that I recognized as his mannerism in front of those he wanted to be kind to but did not agree with (i.e. the in-laws). We laughed together at the vanity of the old man importing a gold plated portrait of a Buddha from India. We ignored the postcards that came, informing us of the next service. I never went to a Buddhist temple, but the ones I saw, being driven through the streets of Seoul, seemed like set pieces—not from another time, but merely as timeless and time-prone as a shanty—about to be crushed by adjoining office towers.
The obfuscation of my own legacy from my awareness was not the result of opacity, but of a uniform, unflattering illumination. I struggle to erase from my daydreams the evidence of such people and such places, but. I must, in order to reflect onto myself a better image. I take out the ugly, neo-traditional clothes favored by some temple goers and the cold, stone floor of the Buddhist youth group’s cement headquarters. The more I imagine, and the more omissions I make, the further I run from what must have been the legacy of beauty in those realms, in their genuine, historical contexts. Nothing like stepping into a candle-lit temple in the early dawn remains. My notions of masculinity and sociability belong to a contemporary Western context and imagination. Even as I understand the nature of my constitution, I still find myself wanting sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
Reading is a way to immerse myself in the beauty of those lost realms without being pulled away by my jejune fantasies. Tanizaki Junichiro, in his essay “In Praise of the Shade,” describes how the Japanese home replicates the shadowed dimness of the Noh stage, where lines are softened by the absence of light, darker colors are made attractive, and the folds and wear of well-worn clothes are made natural, the color of red miso made brilliant, and soy sauce is made to gloss. Plates of gold reflect light into the darkened spaces, while the brilliant Noh costumes complement the Japanese complexion, while simultaneously dramatizing the Japanese anatomy, most noticeably the hand. Tanizaki goes onto describe his artistic mission:
“*Even this is a grumble of sorts, and even I know how to be grateful for the changes in the world. So I don’t mean to throw objections at this late hour, when Japan has already set its step to the march of Western Civilization; it even occurs to me that there is no way now but to push aside the elderly and throw ourselves headlong into the changes ahead. We must resolve, however, to bear the loss that we will have to carry forevermore, for as long as the skin tones do not change. What I wanted to note with this essay was the idea that perhaps in some spheres—let’s say the literary arts—we may preserve and make up for these losses. I wish to call forth the fading world of shadows, if only in the realm of literature. Carve deeper its eaves to make more dim its walls, push into darkness that which is too bright and apparent, take down the unnecessary interior ornaments. If only one such house remains, it would suffice. Let’s see what happens when we turn off the electric light.*” – December, 1933
With the same imperative with which I attempt to flee my life through the imagination of the Buddhist dreamland, I try to argue that Tanizaki’s house is no longer standing, so as to not lose myself in lament for the beauty of the house of the shade. Even if Tanizaki succeeded in building it, it is now hidden in impenetrable darkness. A darkness that has consumed the kind of beauty Tanizaki sought to represent, a darkness that consists of Western narratives that teach the East of how friends should be made, how sex should be had, how life should be told. Still, I seek for some incantation to call the house of shades into being, to dispel the unseemly illumination that besets me. I try to break through, to reach in, to dig out, so as to bask in the glow that world would emanate onto my being. This is, even as I understand the truth in Tanizaki’s mission: whatever it was that was beautiful about the world Tanizaki saw passing, one could do no better than to try to preserve it between the covers of a book, in a narrative that might keep it from rotting, sealed away, by words, from the ocular vision that will already have gone after the Western eye.
I find this desire of mine troublesome, if only because it resembles fascist imagery. Cast off the capitalist dirt and cleanse the Japanese Imperial body politic, restore the authentic Japanese spirit. To realize that I could easily have been seduced by the call of the fascists! Could there be some way to express this yearning for restoration without sounding the bugle call of totalitarianism?
I claim to have found just such an act in the case of arson that destroyed the 14th-century Namdaemun (“Great South Gate”) in downtown Seoul. Of course arson can’t be justified, the arsonist should be punished, and a wanton act of destruction ought not to be aestheticized. But follow me.
The arsonist, a 70-year-old Mr.Chae from just outside Seoul, was given the following profile by Hankyoreh, a Korean daily.
_According to the police, Mr. Chae, 70 years-old and married with children, had lived an ordinary life in the bedroom community of Ilsan, outside of Seoul, until his land (approximately 99 square meters) came to be included in a new construction project in 1997…_
*At the time, the company overseeing the construction of a new apartment complex attempted to buy the land for access in and out of a new development. The company had allotted what was then the publicly assessed value of the land, 9.6 million KRW (approximately $70,000 at the time), for the purchase, but Mr. Chae held out for 40 million KRW ($ 300,000).*
When the construction company refused to give in to the demands, Mr. Chae’s land became a barren clearing in the middle of a forest of apartment towers.
*Mr. Chae, enraged, sought avenues of appeal, at the courts, in the city hall, and in the president’s office, but his efforts came to nothing.*
The police said it was at this time that Mr. Chae came to harbor extreme rage at society.
The article goes on to describe Mr. Chae’s first crime against society. In 2006, he went to Chang Kyung Palace, armed with newspaper and a can of butane gas. Using the material at his disposal, he set alight the wooden door of the building Chosun kings had used as their office (in reality, it was only a reproduction of the building the kings had used—the original had been destroyed when the palace was converted into a zoo during the Japanese occupation). He was immediately apprehended by guards and tourists, but the court handed him only a suspended sentence, in view of his old age and his clean criminal record.
The Great South Gate was his second try. Once the southern boundary of the medieval walled city, the gate now sat in the middle of a roundabout, having had its wings clipped during Japanese rule, when the city expanded. It now sits (or, rather, whatever is remaining of it sits), surrounded by office towers, in the middle of busy traffic heading in and out of the city’s heart.
Mr. Chae approached the gate on the evening of February 10, 2008. He later said that the monument had been poorly guarded and that he had no trouble accessing it. The fire quickly consumed the top, wooden half of the gate, while the Fire Department and the Agency for Heritage Preservation dithered, arguing whether or not water should be sprayed. The gate burned through the night, televised across the globe. If arson could be an art, the critics would have raved. “A perfect expression of his deepest inner rage.” The gate burned, illuminated by nothing but its own light—Mr. Chae’s rage was all-consuming. He set fire to his barren clearing of land, as if it would set it free from the encirclement of apartment towers. The gate burned and lit the windows of the office towers with its reflection and its dancing shadows. “It felt as if the glass would melt,” said an observer.
I speak of this act of arson only as a metaphor: it seems to me that the only form the expression of a yearning for the reclamation of a bygone legacy of beauty can take, apart from a fascist call for restoration, is that of self-immolation, self-destruction—that of illuminating the existing material world with whatever light can be made by excising the still-remaining elements of beauty. Still, the burning of the “National Treasure #1” might serve a practical purpose. If some good were to be made of the loss, this act of arson would become a symbol marking the conclusion of an era. An era marked by encounters with fascism and totalitarianism, first in the shape of Japanese annexation and then nationalist drive for industrialization. Perhaps, with now only a reproduction standing, the ever-recurring calls for the restoration of old glory will be harder to sound.
As for me, I think there is no choice but to find humility in the fact that I am far from the first to have sounded an appeal to the beauty of the old. And to resolve to be content with treading the world of dimness, where beauty is obscure, even to the clearest eye, unlike in that place where the beautiful may have been obvious, its illumination unwavering, the house of shades that I hear once stood.