Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The evidence of things not seen

In the most prominent position on page 1 of the New York Times for February 26, 2008, a brilliantly lighted troupe of young women performs a traditional Korean fan dance, one in which the performers dip and rise and turn to create the impression of a great flower turning before the light like a happy woman turning before her mirror. The performance made it into the Times because it was staged in Pyongyang in honor of a visit to North Korea of another troupe of artists dedicated to formal beauty: the New York Philharmonic.

Elsewhere in the Times's coverage of the visit, reporters noted that (unusually) photography was allowed from the orchestra's buses. Taking advantage of that aesthetic opening, Times photographer Chang W. Lee captured the image below this one, and the Times juxtaposed the two images with a single poker-faced caption: "A North Korean troupe performed in the capital, Pyongyang, for members of the New York Philharmonic on Monday. Earlier, a woman gathered firewood near the road from the city's airport."

In that lower image the colors occupy a different neighborhood of the spectrum. They are the drab shades that winter allots to daylight in the zones south of Siberia. And instead of triumphantly filling the frame as the dancing girls do in the upper image, this woman and her baby are set off on all four sides by wide margins of the blank landscape. Behind them, lined up neatly to create an artificial horizon for the eye, is a stone wall whose orderly granite courses are laid in the traditional Korean way, on the diagonal. But the woman's clothes are western.

In fact, they aren't just western; seen as we see them, from the west, they seem to belong less to western couture than to western literature -- specifically, the western novel of the era of Dickens and Hugo. The woman in the picture can't be much more than four feet tall. Her gloves appear to be men's work gloves, several sizes too large. In the United States her shoes would have been seen as comical a hundred years earlier, because they are the shoes of Charlie Chaplin.

And "gathered firewood"?

On the front page of the New York Times, the phrase even looks funny. I look at it again to be sure I'm seeing it in an urban newspaper as part of a description of life in a world capital. "Gathered firewood"? It isn't even a phrase reminiscent of Dickens; it's a phrase reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath. By every standard except the trivial one of chronology, that pastorale predates Dickens's sensibility by centuries.

But what other language could the Times have used? Certainly no language available to it in the dialect of the Potemkin village that is Pyongyang.
Our literature, inheriting the traditions of revolutionary literature and art built up during the period of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle, made rapid strides after liberation. Novels, such as Sea of Blood, The Fate of a Self-defence Corps Man, and The Flower Girl, renditions of the immortal masterpieces created during the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle into works of contemporary literature, were created with success. The question of depicting the leader, a burning question for revolutionary literature and art, was solved with credit.

-- Pang Hwan Ju, Korean Review (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987) 169
No; all we're left to understand with, I'm afraid, is formalism. We may gain a little for meaning by, for instance, juxtaposing the phrase "gathered firewood" with some of the other phrases in its vicinity, such as "New York Philharmonic" or "New York Times," and listening for the discordant connotations. Or we may choose to go back to the seekers for the instant when life turns into art -- seekers with the ear, such as William Carlos Williams or Charles Reznikoff, or seekers with the eye, such as Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson. A seeker with the eye might say, for instance:

Look at the repeating lozenges of that granite wall in Korea, and look at the repeating pattern of ellipses and lines in the iron railing which matches its course in parallel. In between, see how the woman's floppy clown shoes curve upward, and see the diagonal tilt of her bundle of twigs, cutting across the rectilinear civic grid she walks through. See, in the grays and greens and whites of this frozen landscape, her red coat . . .

and now, having disciplined yourself with that propitiatory exercise, can you bring yourself to look at her face?