Yi Sang, Spectral Insurgent (Or, To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life)
by Joyelle McSweeney on Aug.30, 2012
With the charlatans, liars, and robbers at the Republican convention trying to snow me with their ideology of balanced accounts, self-madeness, hard work, a less generous, more ‘austere’ government, etc, which really hides the bloodthirsty greed of the weasels who built and fecklessly crash the anyhow unsurvivable global economoy, it comforts me to give some thought to writers who reject this “wholesome” ideology all together in favor of a Bataillean bereftness, a limitless pouring out of resources, a going beyond, an excess, a cult of luxury, sensation, and suicide, death, that is, the decadent.
Glimpsing Fi Jae Lee’s ghostly, multi-protuberant, ectoplasmic sculptures of Yi Sang and his wife impelled me to track down books by this crucial Korean Modernist who died of tuberculosis at 27 after a term of imprisonment by the Japanese for thought crimes. A innovator of Korean literature with his intense, indeterminately genred work, he encountered European modernism while in the schools of the Japanese occupiers. He surely birthed a strange headed beast from his duress, his split-apart ribs.
The three short prose pieces gathered as ‘The Wings‘ [the Wings, Encounters and Departures, Death Child] create an intense yet diaphanous continuous fabric through which the youthful yet decaying speaker, named Yi Sang, engages in strange transactions with the universe, as embodied by a fitfully attentive/abusive ‘wife’ figure. The permeable, irregular fabric of these tales prioritizes luxurious sensation over utilitarian shelter, both at the debilitated Yi Sang’s expense.
In the first story the apartment house the two live in is ‘just like a house of pleasures’; eighteen households live side by side behind ‘papered lattice doors’, ‘the cooking holes identical, too.’ Yet, ‘the residents are young as blossoms’. Exposure produces a possibly fragile beauty, a blossom, but a blossom is a growth which has pierced through and which erratically persists. Yi Sang spends his time sleeping, hiding under a quilt while his wife entertains ‘guests’, carefully noting what he can hear and see through this membrane, moving across minute spaces with deliberation:
“It has become a major recreation of mine that I promptly go to the front room in the morning when my wife goes out and watch various bottles on her make-up chest brilliantly glimmer with the sunbeam trickling in through the eastern window I opened.”
Yi Sang opens the window, but looks not at the dawn, that productive signal to good citizens to go out to work, but at the brilliant light in the little makeup flasks. It is a decadent choice, a rejection of both nature and utility in favor of effortfully obtained sensation. It reminds me of Pater: “To burn always with this hard, gem like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
Yi Sang’s mysterious wife gives him a silver coin after her guests leaves, his ‘tip’. The accruing pile of silver coins is at once the only measurable accumulation visible to this tenuous soul and nothing; he eventually throws them in the toilet. Yet he soon wants more money- value, above all is fluctuating. No value is permanently negated or erased from the world; in each story, the fickle wife keeps coming back; one tale is entitled “Encounters and Departures”.
A ‘Yi Sang’ in the tale ‘Deathly Child’ begins, ‘This is the touching scene my feelers discern’ and later notes,
The suicide verdict that has been handed down to me reads:“It has been shown that the defendant has hastily squandered his life. To extend the defendant’s life by a day would result in an unnecessary burden to the operational costs of the universe. Therefore, it is decreed that the defendant shall enter the rat hole without turning back even to look at his own tail.”
With this figurative ‘termination notice’ from the universe, Yi Sang declares himself once and for all with those who cannot keep the balanced accounts of respectful society, whose profligacy is so ecstastic that he must be driven down into the ‘rathole’ of dense, irrational, unacknoweldged yet still present space, the kind of black space through which his aesthetic and political inheritor, Kim Hyesoon, moves as muga or shaman, possessed by all that is abandoned. It is this subterranean, blacked out terrain, blacked out and blacked in again and again with the collapsing and corrosive catastrophes of centuries, from which the 21st century’s art and noise must issue, through which its profligate artists must move.
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