The Curse of Too Much Knowledge
I have spent the better part of the last week reading Bruce Cumings’ 1997 book Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. I have little experience with Korean history and chose this book on the recommendation of The Metropolitician, who cited it as a good general background.
Author Bruce Cumings is a lot like Spike Lee, in fact, having read the book in its entirety I find it remarkable that the phrase ‘A Bruce Cumings Joint’ isn’t plastered across the cover in a font bigger than the book’s title. I considered writing a post about Cumings’ amazing ability to make the history of Korea somehow seem to be about himself and entitling it ‘I Done Been Cumingsed’ but I looked at those four words/pseudo-words and decided I owed it to the world to not inflict such willful ugliness upon it. Taking a page from Steve Martin and his suggestion that a better title for the movie Gung-Ho would have been ‘Keaton and the Japs’, I considered suggesting that a nice title for this book may be ‘Cumings and the Topknots’ or some such, but I have it on good authority that the South Korean government is going to return the favor that Cumings did by writing this book and introducing their little country to all his fans by commissioning a Cumings biography called ‘The Cumings We Knew: A Little Sadae from a Grateful Nation’. No topknots needed.
What I’m getting at, if you can’t tell, is that I felt that Bruce Cumings was a bit too about Cumings, if you catch my drift. I’m not sure if it comes through, written, as it is, in blog format.
OK, so while there’s plenty about Cumings to be bugged by (his annoying tendency to shoehorn every personal experience he’s ever had into context of the events of the day; his need to inform us repeatedly that his wife is Korean, as is her family, and that he likes them and Korea; his annoying attempt to explain every practice of the Korean greengrocers of 1990s New York City to a riveted readership; his use of the McCune-Reischauer romanization scheme for Korean, with its dependence on silly diacritic marks and shifting, unrepresentative spellings) the thing that’s got me going tonight is his desperate attempts to create some kind of constant narrative connecting the events of modern North and South Korean history and the Joseon Period.
His basic premise is that North Korea is totally based on Neo-Confucianism, which I am sure has some validity but a lot of the evidence that he uses is just dumb. Yes, both Joseon period yangban (nobles) and Kim Jong-il used their pure blood as qualifications to rule. Everyone knows Korea loves pure blood, but in the modern era doesn’t that really have more to do with attempts to prove Korea’s unity as a people and uniqueness in contrast to Japanese occupation and early attempts to build Korea nationalism? To me this is like connecting Hitler’s Aryan Race to those rulers of the Holy Roman Empire who claimed to be descended from Charlemagne. In other words, yes, blood is a powerful symbol, but it has more than one meaning, not one of which is exclusive to Korean history.
He goes on to say that the North Korean elite ‘has the same sense of birthright and entitlement as the old yangban.’ The same could be said of high school lacrosse players: It means nothing. Furthermore Kim Jong-il’s mother Kim Jong-suk ‘has had one honor after another granted posthumously’, which leads to a footnote describing how King Yeongjo granted his stepmother nine honorary titles and referred to her as ‘the mother of our nation’. Yes, people, powerful people included, often like their mothers. Very salient. Also dictators and kings tend to glorify their ancestors as a means of glorifying themselves. Again, nothing even remotely Korean about any of this. In discussing Kim’s succession to leadership, he launches into a quote form 1405 which says ‘The heir-apparent is the foundation of the nation and the state of order and disorder is linked to him.’ Et cetera et cetera et cetera. Lots of people in lots of cultures have had lots of things, good and bad, about kings, and this thought has been expressed in many places and periods to many ends.
What I’m getting at here is that the thing that has led Cumings to this conclusions is his own familiarity with the Joseon period. He claims deep roots for everything that happens in both North and South Korea because that’s where his strength lies. I have no doubt that he’s out there somewhere right now linking the Wonder Girls to a 1640s fad for excessively young gisaeng which expresses what contemporary poet Ch’oe Ch’ûng’ang described as
[T]he greatest lotus-blossom
of hyo given and ûm released [sic]
the moon, like a tal in [sic] the hanûl [sick [sic]] hung like a pyôl
My problem with Cumings, in other words, is that he generates what looks to me like a bunch of fake connections between the past and present to make his points, which aren’t that strong. What’s worse, I get the distinct feeling that he knows that these connections are very tenuous, but that he feels that they are right in spirit, and so he draws the first thing that comes to mind from the Joseon period and writes it up with whatever he’s talking about.
A perfect example is when he states that Kim Jong-il learned the ropes as the head of the party and had his coming-out party as the nation’s leader at the age of 30. Just like King Sejong’s son, Cumings chimes in. Is there any actual connection between these two facts? I suspect that if there were Cumings would have explicitly stated so, but instead these two facts are plopped side by side, just like ‘My kid was fine until the age of two. He got vaccinated. Now he’s autistic. You do the math.’
This is the problem with mastering a large body of knowledge of any kind: it begins to appear to contain all the knowledge one could ever need. I am sure that one could describe every aspect of North Korea’s recent history that Cumings does without ever using the word Joseon (or, as Cumings would have it, Chosôn), but for Cumings it’s like not being able to see the stars for the moon, and every question leads him to find the answer swifter and more surely in the Joseon period.
And that’s just plain bad scholarship, any way you look at it.