A Loose Collection of Works Thought to Be LA or Driving Poems Dictated to a Small Digital Recorder While Driving from San Diego to Los Angeles at Dusk
“[. . .] the bare fact of movement [. . .] is rarely just about getting from A to B.”
— Tim Cresswell
The day’s temperature was hitting 46.2 degrees according to my mercury-in-glass thermometer, and Boulevard Bourdon was all but deserted. M and I lived on Rue Arthur, between Paris’ tenth and eleventh arrondissements. It hadn’t been long since we arrived in Paris when M, drunk and overly excited, insisted on running along the Canal Saint-Martin. M didn’t seem to mind the overbearing heat; the few Europeans scattered about on the other hand looked dazed and lost. The fountain in front of Palais de Chaillot had turned into a swimming pool.
Meanwhile, I was dreaming up a story-slash-essay on the flâneur, or the idly strolling observer, not that writing the essay was my only reason for coming to Paris. But I was behaving as if it were the primary reason I came to Paris, which was why I could often be found blathering on and on about Louis Aragon in the company of others. Because I had no real affection for Louis Aragon, however, I was making zero progress in my writing.
1. Runtime Error
The reason I don’t like fiction is because the medium fails to properly describe the act of walking. So does poetry. Poetry tends to characterize the act of walking as a timeless activity, one that goes on forever. Either that, or the walk is over as soon as it has begun.
The act of walking must exist together with the act of running. Most of the problems in contemporary civilization stem from the original sin of having separated these two activities. For instance, we’re not allowed to run where we should be walking, and we cannot walk where we should only run. We cannot go jogging in walking attire, and we cannot stroll in runner’s clothes. Should we make the mistake of doing so, the violation would be tantamount to a crime or intense public humiliation; it would be a pronouncement of inefficiency and ineptitude.
Here is a scene involving a stroll.
In Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the protagonist Frédéric engages in a duel to win the heart of a woman. Duels were not uncommon in nineteenth-century Europe. Historically, many foolish men have gone to their deaths after an ill-fated duel. These included Pushkin, Galois, and others. In the novel, Frédéric and his rival Cisy agree to duel in the forest of Boulogne. When M and I arrived at the forest, we surveyed a crowd of people in various stages of undress, suntanning or jogging, and between the trees we caught a glimpse of the silver Louis Vuitton Foundation shuttle bus plodding by. M and I spread a striped beach towel on a spot near the lake and began discussing Robert Bresson’s The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne.
“Have you seen it?”
“Neither have I.”
With the following paragraph, Flaubert describes the scene with Frédéric and Cisy walking to their intended dueling ground:
Occasional wayfarers crossed their path. The sky was blue, and from time to time they heard rabbits skipping about. At the turn of a path, a woman in a Madras neckerchief was chatting with a man in a blouse; and in the large avenue under the chestnut-trees some grooms in vests of linen-cloth were walking horses up and down.
Cisy recalled the happy days when, mounted on his own chestnut horse, and with his glass stuck in his eye, he rode up to carriage-doors. These recollections intensified his wretchedness. An intolerable thirst parched his throat. The buzzing of flies mingled with the throbbing of his arteries. His feet sank into the sand. It seemed to him as if he had been walking during a period which had neither beginning nor end.
Director Lee Man-hee’s film A Day Off was completed in 1968 but the military dictatorship at the time banned it, purportedly for being too indecent for society. The film was soon forgotten—or more accurately, it was never properly remembered—until August 2008, when the reel was discovered and re-introduced to the world. Its plot was simple. While his beloved girlfriend Ji-yeon is getting an abortion, Huh Wook, the main character, leaves the hospital and fraternizes with a woman he meets at a hostess bar. They end up having sex at a construction site until the church bells toll, whereupon Huh realizes what he’s done and runs back to the hospital. On his way, he crosses paths with a friend he owes money to, who proceeds to beat him to a bloody pulp. Huh manages to make his way to the hospital where he learns that Ji-yeon died during the surgery. He leaves the hospital and runs into the night. Seoul’s neon signboards blink and buzz around his face as happier memories of Ji-yeon float to the surface. The act of running as committed by incompetent, immoral men is romanticized in the steel gray streets of the contemporary city. What’s interesting is that the camera doesn’t pan down to show the rest of Huh’s body but remains focused on his face. His act of running is one brought upon by the grief that is clearly etched onto his face.
The term “running time” refers to the duration of a movie. “Runtime” refers to the period of time when a computer program is running. Movies are by definition mobile and always moving—hence, the term “movie.” The word “cinema” and the German word for films, Kino, both come from the Greek word kī́nēsis/kinētikós, which describe movement. Motion pictures.
In fiction, a book’s running time hinges on its readability. This means that the running time of a work of fiction is variable and subject to the reader—but not entirely. Those who construe this phenomenon as a means for liberation are old-fashioned elitists, while those who take it as a chance for participation are old-fashioned market capitalists. Political engineering is targeted at multiple people, while artistic planning is marketed to the few; this is fated to be “academicized” or oxidized. Art as a political plan and politics as an artistic plan will reach the destinations of their relevant genres, regardless of the intent.
Can art as a political project survive on its own merits without catering to capitalist or populist notions? Can art be free from the shackles of readability and running time, while also managing to avoid the pitfalls of academia and obsolescence? Consider a theater screening of a sixteen-hour-long film, or a stage performance of an eight-hour-long play. Lev Dodin’s works were nothing more than brazen classics. M said there were tons of movies on Netflix that were ten hours or longer, and that viewers had no problem binge-watching eight straight episodes of the new season of Stranger Things. Meanwhile, to watch a ten-hour-long film in a theater in Berlin, we must buy four tickets that cost twelve euros each. And the idiot artists who exhibit those ridiculously long films in art museums are nothing more than hucksters. Their work is simply a grand façade of gestures put on by famous contemporary artists. The concept of running time is therefore nothing more than a hostage to a goal-oriented linear movement. The Stockholm Syndrome of narrative.
2. Zeno’s Paradox
The most decisive film in Phase Two of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is the 2014 hit Captain America: Winter Soldier. Netflix describes the movie with this tagline: “He is always prepared to fight in the name of justice. But the world has changed. The lines between justice and injustice have become blurred. In such a world, who is he to trust?”
From that description, it’s impossible to tell what the movie’s about, M complained. M once said that they didn’t care for Marvel films, and that they couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to go see an MCU movie while in Paris. Couldn’t they go see a film by Xavier Dolan instead? M asked, and I retorted that I’d rather gouge both my eyes out than watch a Xavier Dolan film.
As a studio, Marvel is consciously making the effort to reshape the audiences’ general attitude toward movies, which largely centers on heterosexual males. This was what led to the release of Captain Marvel. M didn’t much care for Captain Marvel either. But I persuaded M that watching Winter Soldier would change their mind.
Blonde, white, and clad in Star-Spangled spandex (and a soldier to boot!), the original character of Captain America was a perennial headache for Marvel, given the conservatism he represented. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely agreed that the Captain was an issue. No one’s going to wax nostalgic about Captain America’s days, except for the neocons. Captain America makes Clint Eastwood look progressive, lamented the Russo brothers, who had taken the helm of the franchise. We need a spy film, goddammit, a good old-fashioned 1970s spy flick! A few months later, producer Kevin Feige reached a decision.
We were sitting at a café in a museum in Philadelphia. We could see a statue of Rocky from where we sat. As if speaking from one mind, Markus and McFeely took turns rapidly finishing each other’s thoughts. Then we got a call from Kevin. We knew this was the call.
Okay. I think I’m ready to take down S.H.I.E.L.D!
They ultimately decided to pit America against America itself and have a blonde white man (Chris Evans) attack another blonde white man (Robert Redford). What followed was an inevitable conflict between the Captain and the Avengers’ primary agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. In the movie, America turns out to be a police state. But America can also overcome its problems through the sheer force of its free will. It was a dazzling resurgence of liberal humanism, or rather, a weak attempt to mask what was going on in the real world (George W. Bush Barack Obama Donald Trump).
So basically, the theme in Captain America is the act of running, I explained. M and I were strolling down the Marais district. The weather was proving to be highly unpredictable; the formerly oppressive heat had given way to a cool breeze. A man in Satisfy running shorts jogged past. His long curls tossed in the wind and a musty aroma, whether from sweat or cologne, hit our senses. He winked at M and, without giving them time to react, dashed past.
“This may sound crazy, but I think everything in life is connected. Just as with Markus and McFeely, and with Anthony and Joe Russo, I believe that running and humanism are connected, and that liberalism and realism are connected, to create liberal humanism, and ultimately Captain America. Walter Benjamin obsessed over strolling because he was a Communist, so any blanket statements that try to connect walks to the idea of humanism are plain wrong. My story is going to conclude with ideas about the posthuman and the human body, racial discrimination and misogyny, entropy and singularity.
That’s my big picture idea, anyway,” I concluded.
“Do you ever think you might be a little too old-fashioned?” M asked.
“Look around you,” M said, gesturing broadly. “Paris has been taken over by Lime scooters. We’re up to our necks in the shared economy, and you’re sitting here going on and on about the flâneur?”
M was right; Paris was overridden with electric scooters. Gone were the bicycles with loaves of freshly baked baguettes tucked into their baskets. Parisians no longer had to pump pedals or own cars or even walk on their own legs. Bus stations, parking lots, and arcades had all become unnecessary. When the British newspaper covered the story of Lime arriving on its shores, its headline read: “Anarchists of the Streets!”
Transportation is a political system. Representative democracy and the nation state will be destroyed by the shared economy.
And big corporations will bring the world together?
Elon Musk declared that, by 2020, Robotaxis would be servicing our streets. Level 5 autonomous vehicles will soon become commercially available. We won’t even have to touch the steering wheels anymore. It would be crazy to buy any car other than a Tesla. That would be like buying a horse when you can buy a car! Of course, come 2020, Elon Musk will declare that 2021 will be the year for commercial self-driving vehicles. And in 2021, he will pronounce that 2022 would be the year. The singularity is the turtle. We are Achilles.
A few months ago, a man who was riding in a Tesla using its auto-pilot function died in a car crash. The auto-pilot remained operational even after the driver had died; the Tesla continued spinning down the freeway with the dead body strapped inside. How could this happen, you ask? How horrible, you might say. Well, actually it isn’t. The issue is simple. The driver being dead has no bearing on the car’s ability to drive, so it keeps driving on. The important thing is not why it drives—it’s whether or not it can. If it can drive, it will continue to drive, even if it has no reason to. As William James once wrote, “A man does not cry because he is sad, he is sad because he cries.” Or, take Vseveled Meyerhold, “We do not run out of fear, we are afraid because we run.” Question: Are the thirteen children in Yi Sang’s “Crow’s Eye View” afraid because they are running? Or are they running because they are afraid?
Captain America: Winter Soldier opens with a jogging scene. Running is one of the actions that define Captain America. When he runs, he seems at once distinct and different among the other superheroes, who are seen soaring through the skies on telekinetic wings or teleporting to distant worlds. Compared to that, the act of running is humble, dynamic, physical.
In contrast, his antagonist in the film, the Siberian-made cyborg Winter Soldier never runs. The main character in A Day Off is seen running, but the camera never shows his body in the act. Audiences are therefore made to believe that this self-deprecating misogynist doesn’t have a physical form, and therefore can never be completely free. A thoroughly modernist take. On the other hand, the character of Captain America is grounded in realism, while the Winter Soldier, in social realism.
Body 1. Sound body and sound mind: Captain America
Body 2. Weak body and unsound mind: Huh Wook
Body 3. Weird body and insane mind: Winter Soldier
Ever the brooding walker, the Winter Soldier is nothing more than a puppet,1 devoid of free will that was forcefully taken away from him through hypnosis. Russia = fascism. To this formula, Marvel adds the element of machinery. The anti-humanist idea of the machine is combined with fascism. It is not too difficult to see the shadows of fascism across Iron Man and the Helicarrier (S.H.I.E.L.D/Hydra), which insist they are working for the sake of the common good while depending on extensive algorithms and the use of AI. Iron Man leaves his suit behind to start a family with Pepper Potts. Humanism taking off the Iron Man suit family. The moment Iron Man is seen at his most humane and vulnerable, he dies. Captain American returns as an old man. The strongest basis for free will and humanism is that all humans eventually die, and that humans can make the choice to die of their own free will. (Christianity also clings to the belief of free will because of the concept of judgment after death./Literature’s greatest obsession has always been death.) The reason many of us are uncomfortable at the thought of transhumanism and life beyond death is that the idea seems to imply the end of free will. (Incidentally, all dictators hope to live forever, as history and narratives have repeatedly told us is the case.) The end of free will = the loss of all meaning.
Two questions: 1. Can masculinity ever manage to overcome self-hatred and misogyny without leaning on human free will?
2. Can the dynamism of the human body be recreated without coming into the fold of liberal humanism?
Additionally: All meaning has the ability to withstand contradiction . . . Contradiction is represented by the moment when meaning complies with its self-conformity. Because meaning, by definition, also includes the possibility of its own denial.
Additionally: Method acting and biomechanics
During his stay in Moscow, Walter Benjamin sat through no fewer than fifteen plays. Of these, some had an anti-revolutionary message. One of the most well-known of these plays was Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of The Days of the Turbins (December 14, 1926). After watching Stanislavsky’s performance, Benjamin wrote:
The audience was noticeably different from the ones I had seen in the other two theaters. It was as if there were not a single Communist present, not a black or blue tunic in sight. [. . .] A waft of perfume greeted me as I entered the theater. [. . .] The entire production was done in the style of a dusty court theater.
Stanislavsky’s theater and acting concepts were introduced to the American Laboratory Theatre by his protégée Maria Ouspenskaya. At the Theatre, actors such as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler developed the concept of method acting and applied it to Hollywood productions. This anti-revolutionary acting style caused a revolution in film acting and became the prototype for contemporary acting.
Meyerhold, for his part, refused to comply with Stanislavsky’s realistic portrayals of characters’ inner psyches, and instead created a new method influenced by the notion of biomechanics proposed by Aleksei Gastev. What he refused above all was realism, or the embrace of reality. He believed that theater shouldn’t present a literal representation of reality but rather its highly sophisticated stylization. To him, the actor’s body was a biomechanical device used to express emotions and ideas. Consider it an inversion of acting as media. What is a theater actor? She is, after all, an artistic engineer who uses her body in keeping with the scientific principles of time and movement. What about the most physically well-trained, disciplined actors? They are actors who have achieved a near-perfect unity between the mechanisms of stimuli and response—that is, those who have cut the time it takes for a stimulus to produce a relevant response down to the barest minimum, so that any stimulus produces a nearly instantaneous response.
So it was only natural for the Turkish immigrant Elia Kazan, who studied method acting from Stella Adler, to go from being a Communist to becoming a proponent of McCarthyism. The anti-revolutionary body becomes a revolution; the star of capitalism and the affected humanist leads anti-Communist Fascism. The revolutionary body influenced by Taylorism becomes a machine and is branded as an elitist and Soviet counter-revolutionary, before ultimately disappearing in the Great Purge.
3. Running is a Question of Class
M decided to make a movie. They had majored in English literature and dabbled in poetry for a while until they learned they couldn’t write poetry forever. To write poetry was to punish themselves—and others—continuously. In a different time zone or a different country, perhaps it might have been possible to write a different kind of poem. But not in Korea. The bigger concern was that M loved to run. M boasted that they had come in first place in long-distance running and in the two-hundred-meter dash while in junior high. It may be hard to believe, but it’s true.
“That’s why I can never write poetry. Because poets don’t run. Only novelists run.”
I had to agree. I’m not much of a runner, but I admit that novelists are the real runners. In school, they probably came in last in all the relay races. But the act of writing fiction and the act of running are all a lonely race. Running requires much physical stamina, more so than walking. Likewise, writing a novel is a physical struggle. Philip Roth once stated, “Work is important. Only amateurs are waiting for inspiration.”
“That’s why I hate Philip Roth.”
M said they couldn’t get through The Human Stain, neither the film version nor the novel. “Why do people even read American novels, anyway?”
We were in Paris, the city of racial discrimination. Paris is also the city of misogyny. Paris is also the city of walkers. Therefore, it stands to reason that all walkers are misogynists. Samuel Beckett liked to frequent the brothels on the Rue Godot-de-Mauroy in the ninth arrondissement of Paris. One day, a woman—probably a sex worker—approached Beckett and asked if he wanted her services. When he refused, the woman sneered, “Of course you do. So, who are you waiting for then? Godot?”
M looked shocked. “Wait, so that’s how Beckett got the inspiration for Waiting for Godot? Wrapped in the arms of a hooker?” Well, we couldn’t jump to any conclusions. Beckett may have gone to a brothel but decided not to have sex. Maybe he felt a certain blissful irony at the thought of seeing God in his conversations with prostitutes.
“Your problem is that you consider that ironic.”
M’s favorite place in Paris was the Louvre and their favorite movie scene was from Bande à part where the three main characters race across the Louvre in record time, finishing at nine minutes and forty-three seconds, only to have this record broken, at nine minutes and twenty-eight seconds, by a similar scene in The Dreamers. Another was the recreation of this scene by Agnès Varda who strolls across the Louvre in a wheelchair.
I recalled reading a post on an online community site for people interested in traveling across Europe. The author of the post had written that he wanted to pay homage to both Bande à part and The Dreamers by breaking their record of running across the Louvre.
Seeking two companions who want to join me at the Louvre tomorrow morning.
Contact me if you’re a dreamer! My KakaoTalk ID is XXXX lol
“I thought it was awful! He wanted to run across the Louvre with complete strangers. Why would anyone want to do that?”
M told me to stop visiting those travel community pages.
“The focus should be on Agnès Varda. Ignore those washed-up losers living out their 1968 revolution dreams.”
The Louvre race was noteworthy for the fact that Agnès Varda didn’t run. While the male artists, Godard and Bertolucci, were busy setting records, Agnès Varda is seen strolling leisurely through the space with the aid of a machine.
“That’s where Varda and Donna Haraway meet,” said M. “Running is a tool of the oppressors! Machines are the tool of liberation! Therefore, cars are to our freedom what the typewriter was to women’s liberation!”
“But you like to run. And you don’t even have a driver’s license.”
“So? I can still be an oppressor, can’t I?” M argued. “And I’m going to name my movie Running is a Question of Class.”
That night I thought of Jack London. Specifically, of Jack London and his short story “To Build a Fire.” Of the seaman Jack who wrote a thousand words a day. M had only a cursory knowledge of Jack London, but knew he had overdosed and died. They also knew that the protagonist in “To Build a Fire” had frozen to death while crossing Alaska.
“There’s something strange about that,” M said.
We discussed other works that were set in Alaska. I brought up Park Min-gyu’s “Rudy,” while M spoke of Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska.
“Whoa!” M shouted, while reading “Rudy.” “Rudy” is about a fear of things that never stop moving. A Kind of Alaska is about the chaos one feels at having stopped all movement.
“As a well for ideas, the theme of movement is basically bottomless.”
M and I fell into the delusion that we would soon create a masterpiece. I would write a novel much like an essay film, while M declared they would use the filmmaking styles of the Laputan people from Gulliver’s Travels.
In the book, the people on Laputa island believed language to be unnecessary, and that everyone could communicate using real objects. With bags slung over their shoulders, they would take out objects from the bags and point to them every time they needed to discuss what was on their minds. M announced that their movie would be the film version of that ever-important bag.
I had no idea what M meant, not having read Gulliver’s Travels, but I was struck by their idea. Exhilarated, we rushed out into the street. It was past eleven o’clock, and Paris was gripped by a sudden, bitterly cold wind. Sang-woo, who lived in Berlin, said he had put on his HEATTECH shirt.
How’s the weather in Paris?
It was scorching hot yesterday . . .
“Europe’s crazy. It’s the craziest continent in human history.”
We were afraid of possible attacks by people of other ethniticies but still decided to run in the face of the cold and discrimination. Our goal was to pass the fountain and enter Villette, then cross Belleville and run straight to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. M struck out first. Their pale legs gleamed in the dark, and thinking I could easily overtake them, I started out slow. The streets were empty, save for an Arab man in a black leather jacket sitting on the railing of a café with his dog, slowly eyeing us.
I had already crossed the intersection but hadn’t caught up to M yet. I speeded up. M glanced back at me then raced ahead. The distance between us grew. I ran faster, and so did M. We were growing farther and farther apart, and I was getting out of breath. By the time we reached Chinatown, I was about to faint. Except it only felt like we’d been running for five minutes at most.
“I think I’m going to die!” I yelled.
At that, two young men in nylon tracksuits turned to stare. Panicking, I kept running. M looked to be at the end of the road. They seemed to be merging with the vanishing point on the horizon, and my heart was beating so loudly it was drowning out all other sounds. But I couldn’t stop. If I stopped now, I would be easy prey for the city’s pickpockets. Besides, M would be in danger too, alone in the streets at night. We’re going to dream about running and images and movement and stopping . . . I thought. Let’s just power through to Père Lachaise . . . There we’ll collapse and be buried . . . Hopefully next to Balzac . . .
Running is peculiar for its ability to reduce the sensation of time. By shortening the time it takes to cross a certain distance, our experience of that distance is also cut short. Time is experience. Running is goal-oriented. There is an event, and it is to solve the event that we engage in running. The runner is oblivious to everything else, and therefore, experience is limited to the event itself.
On the other hand, walking lengthens the sensation of time. Walking doesn’t seek a clear purpose; nor is the act particularly desperate. The walker can change direction at any time, or even come to a full stop. Walking is by nature a scattered, distracted act.
“To Build a Fire” is about the struggle between humans and nature. What’s interesting is not the inner conflicts as depicted in the story, but rather the clash between form and content. “To Build a Fire” is critical of something the story itself is guilty of in its form. The story is critical of the goal-oriented, aggressively direct tendencies of humans, but its own style is goal-oriented and direct. This conflict is due to Jack London’s own contradictions, himself a Communist who wanted to be rich. London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden, a spin-off of The Great Gatsby, describes the distorted views of women held by men riddled with contradictory ideologies. They mythologize love and/or women. From there, death is born. In his anthology of world literature, Yi Mun-yol selected “To Build a Fire” as a work that deals with the “aesthetics of death.” According to Yi, some civilizations invested too heavily in death and therefore collapsed, while others focused only on living pleasures and withered away. Neither civilizations could be free from death. This is why literature, particularly fiction, is so gripped by the subject of death. Since ancient times, death has been both the gravest of literary themes and the most emotionally resonant device.
4. I May Not be Happy Forever but Tonight I am Satisfied
We were sitting across from each other on the bed, each staring into our own laptops. M was drinking wine, while I drank coffee. M liked Bordeaux wine, and I had no problem falling asleep while caffeinated. The reason I drink coffee at night is not because I like it, but because I can still go to sleep even after I’ve had some, I said. M said that made sense somehow, oddly enough.
“Want to watch this?”
M turned their laptop over so I could see the screen. It was set to a YouTube channel.
M said that they had come to know about Bonnie Bremser only recently, and that they were unsure of how to make sense of that fact.
I for one had never heard the name before. M of said that was normal. In Korea, when people talk about the Beat Generation, they mostly mention male authors like Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, so it was only natural. In fact, there were tons of women who were part of the movement.
“Bonnie Bremser was a Beatnik and a poet. And female.”
Bonnie was the wife of the Beatnik poet Ray Bremser; her maiden name was Brenda Frazer. As with all members of the Beat generation, Bonnie had become disillusioned with college life and society in general when she first met Ray and decided to go on the run with him. Ray was being chased by the police for armed robbery, though he claimed he had been framed. Bonnie didn’t seem to care. No matter if it was true, that would be so cool, a real criminal, a revolutionary, a terrorist, the Jean Genet of North America. But life is a treacherous journey. It’s sickening, and trite, and sentimental, but it’s true. With their infant daughter Rachel, Ray and Bonnie crossed the border into Mexico, where, having no other means to make a living, Ray forced Bonnie to turn tricks. Bonnie wandered the streets of Mexico City and Veracruz prostituting herself, and used that money to take care of Ray and Rachel. Ray was her pimp, her lover, her teacher, and a father. Disgusting piece of shit. Vile human. Total asshole. People spat on Ray, but Bonnie believed she had made her own choice. No, Bonnie, that wasn’t your choice. You were being used. Yes, Bonnie later came to realize that she may have been used by Ray, that she was being cleverly manipulated by him somehow. So it was true. But what could she do? Ray was arrested by the Mexican police and thrown in jail. Bonnie and Rachel were cast out onto the streets of Mexico City in the 1960s. Bonnie put her daughter up for adoption and continued working as a prostitute. In the mornings, she smoked a joint, then sat before a typewriter where she wrote a letter to Ray. At night, she donned a short corduroy skirt and headed out to the street.
Troia: Mexican Memoirs is a collection of the letters Bonnie wrote while wandering around Mexico City. It begins with this paragraph:
. . . First off I want to tell a few really important things about me. I know that continuity is necessary [. . .] but I believe in distortion—I believe that if you get to a place where something is taking shape and want badly to comprehend the thing that you have created [. . .] then any old thing to fill the gap will do [. . .] what’s important is not the technique or lack of it, but those few minutes when you overcome the frustration, bridge the gap, and hold something incredibly beautiful to you [. . .]
The book, though published in 1969, was completely forgotten until it was reissued in 2007, whereupon it created a small sensation. Theorists and artists who had lived through the Third Wave of feminism were unsure what to do with this woman, who was both a whore and an artist, a provider and a lover, who dreamed of monogamy but had no qualms about sexual deviation and prostitution. She was too problematic to be touted as a hero, but too independent to be cast as a victim.
“Have you read the book?” I asked.
M said that they had, a little. But her life was much too difficult for M to comprehend. M didn’t want to paint her as an Other and put her on a great remove from themselves, but that’s how M felt.
The YouTube video M wanted to show me was shot in 1997. It was filmed by Jerome Poynton, a Beat researcher and amateur filmmaker, who meets Bonnie, who is living in Alpena, Michigan, and has a conversation with her. The video had only 350 views so far.
“He’s not going to make any money off this,” I said. “I heard you only get paid after four thousand views.”
“Thieves,” M said.
It was the dead of winter when Jerome went to Alpena, Michigan to meet with Bonnie Bremser. The entire village was covered in snow and the streets were empty. Cars crawled along slower than horse-drawn carriages. Sunlight, when it could peek out from between the thick clouds, shone feebly down on the rooftops. Poynton, who lived in Athens, was used to bleak weather, but he says even he was surprised by the bleakness of this Michigan winter, where the atmosphere was foggy and chilly, and where no one came and nothing existed due to the cold, with the train stations empty of vacationers and full of nothing but drunks. Bonnie doesn’t respond. Although she was living in a city that was the polar opposite of Mexico, which is where she spent her youth, she didn’t seem to think that her life had turned upside down, or that her life was a pile of shit. She didn’t seem to like others commentating on her life. You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? Jerome asked. And what about you? What made you crawl here all the way from the Mediterranean, you sucker? She seemed to want to say, but to speak requires energy, which she didn’t want to waste.
Jerome and Bonnie go for a walk towards Lake Huron. A walk in this weather? Bonnie thinks but Jerome looks so excited at having met the legendary poet Bonnie Bremser that she keeps it to herself and guides him to the lake while doing her best to talk about things unrelated to poetry. It’s approaching dusk, and the sun can be seen setting beyond Lake Huron. The orange sun is hanging on the horizon, and to their left and right lay thick piles of snow, hardened and firm and looking as if they’d been there for decades. A lone, skinny dog appears in front of them. Jerome seems to like dogs. Excitedly, he waves the camcorder around and runs toward the animal. The dog prances around the snow then disappears in the forest nearby. Great place, huh? Jerome laughs. Bonnie mutters, Fool, what a great place this is, hah! But Jerome, lost in his reverie, doesn’t hear her. The last of the Beat generation ends here . . . Jerome murmurs, as he stares across the Huron, as expansive as the sea. You’re the Beat generation’s true lost poet, aren’t you? he asks. Bonnie responds that she hasn’t lost anything. I don’t want to be cynical towards life, but if people say this attitude is cynical, then I guess that’s what I am. She says that all words, evaluations, and values seemed empty and ridiculous. If the people on my side are disappointed to hear this, well then, there’s nothing I can do. If the people on the other side are emboldened by this, well then, that’s too bad but there’s nothing I can do about those hopeless people. I am not on the side of any words, and I am not on the side of any meaning. I am on the side of all existence.
After walking along Lake Huron for a long time, they climb into a car. They drive past a snowy village, warehouses, and factories during a time of day that isn’t quite nighttime or daytime, in a place that looked as if things that were neither fully human nor beast might rush out at them, but their conversation, along with the sounds of the wind rushing past, seem normal enough.
The video ends at a parking lot in a 7-Eleven. At one point, Bonnie throws back her head and laughs, and it looks like she is missing all her teeth. Maybe we’re exaggerating things, I said. Like Bonnie said, there was no meaning to words. The words themselves don’t give meaning; only the fact that the words exist give meaning. Bonnie seems to be at peace, and not at all like the last remaining Beat generation poet who used to sell her body for sex while on the run from the law.
“It’s better that way,” M said.
1To run, one must demonstrate the will to run. Meanwhile, walking has always been an activity characterizing people who have lost their minds, or are confused and unsure of their surroundings. This is also why Fascists were compared to zombies, who were seen to have lost all free will. But then, the zombies began to run. Contemporary Fascists are no longer devoid of free will or subject to others’ control (or at least, they don’t believe they are). This crossover between walking and running points to a confusion in the concept of free will.
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim
Illustration ©OMSCIC COMICS
The Connection Between Hibiscus Flowers and Rum
The Connection Between Hibiscus Flowers and Rum
By Petra Ben-Ari
I started translating Korean literature roughly a decade ago and continued to translate and interpret Korean while pregnant with my three children and throughout their early years. Sometimes I wonder what relationship they might have one day with the Korean language and literature that they have been absorbing even before birth. Well, the answer life brings is often much less poetic than our imagination. My two older boys came back from kindergarten the other day humming a rhyme which my philologist's ear identified as Mugunghwakkochi piotseumnida (i.e. "The hibiscus flower has bloomed"), popularized by the notorious Squid Game series.
My portrait, "photo Ⓒ Andrea Černá"
I was shocked that this content had become so ubiquitous as to reach the kindergarten playground. I seriously considered having a talk with the teachers. Eventually, it turned out that an older sibling(already in his teens) had taught the rhyme to the younger kids as a cool thing, after having been inspired by the series to play "Red Light, Green Light" using the Korean rather than the Czech words. Luckily, nobody saw the original scene. If I'm being perfectly honest, however, I was more concerned about the kids picking up an incoherent Korean pronunciation from a hearsay version of the rhyme rather than the slim chance of their being exposed to graphic violence at school.
I must admit once again that I have never seen anything like the kind of attention aroused by Korean shows and dramas. Increasingly, I meet young people who have been inspired to study Korean by watching Korean content. Intrigued by the peculiar charm of these shows, they plunge into a sea of dazzling cultural otherness and become thirsty to know more. In my mind, this would be the opportune moment to introduce them to Korean literature. The leap from watching visual content to reading books is a big one to take, however, a gap that lacks a solid bridge. Perhaps this is one bridge that we translators might help to build.
The Loneliness of Others by Jeong Yi Hyun, dramatic reading, Czech translation by Marek Zemánek, Avoid Gallery, 23. 7. 2020,
"photo Ⓒ Tereza Čechová, Skandinávský dům"
"Red Light, Green Light," for instance, plays a substantial role in the closing chapter of Seven Years of Darkness by Jeong You Jeong, which was published in Czech as Sedmlet temnoty a few months ago. While translating this novel, I was struggling to bring the Korean version of this children's game closer to its Czech cousin. Yes, the rules are more or less the same. But the rhyme was the problem. Korean kids jabber about blooming hibiscus, whereas the Czech ones shout out "Sugar, coffee, lemonade, tea, rum, boom!" In times before Squid Game, it was unthinkable to keep Korean words in a translation. No readers would relate. But today, after what I have seen with my kids, I would probably consider incorporating the phonetic transcription of the original, given the chance that some readers would be able to fill in the robot doll's intonation.
In the Czech Republic, as in other European countries, Korean literature remained largely undiscovered by the general public until the 2010s. Only recently—and owing mainly to the efforts of LTI Korea—numerous translations of modern and contemporary literature are being published. Readership is increasing steadily, although it may still fall short of Netflix's figures. Out of two dozen titles published in the last twenty years, two have won domestic literary awards: Human Acts (Kde kvete trávain Czech) by internationally acclaimed author Han Kang, and graphic novel The Grass (Tráva in Czech) by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. The former was nominated for the Magnesia Litera Award in the category of best translated book, the latter was awarded the Muriel Comics Award in the category of best translation.
The White Book, theatre play based on Han Kang's novel, Czech translation by Petra Ben-Ari, Meet Factory, 20. 6. 2021,
"photo Ⓒ Kristýna Šaarová"
In Han Kang’s case, it has been interesting to see Human Acts receive much more attention than her first international success, The Vegetarian. The fight for democracy, portrayed in the painful search for the human stories behind the Gwangju massacre, has seemingly good potential to resonate in our post-socialist country, where (during socialism) dissenters of the totalitarian regime used to be harshly repressed. This is not to forget the female voice in contemporary Korean literature, however, which has also found a responsive audience. Long before The Grass, world literature magazine PLAV dedicated a special volume to Korean literature, issued under the title Illusions of Korean Women. In my opening essay, I tried to emphasize the common source of female activism and literature written by women in contemporary Korean history. Later, at the launch party for this special issue, selected translations were presented as short dramatic pieces (see attached photos). One featured short story, "The Loneliness of Others" by Jeong Yi Hyun, was so successful that, following the event, a radio programmer decided to create a radio session made up of Korean short stories. Han Kang’s books, for their part, are popular with Czech theatre directors —The Vegetarian and The White Book have been adapted as theatre plays.
I like to interpret these adaptations as pillars of the bridge between literature and series like Squid Game, as mentioned in the beginning of this essay. A show happens at the present moment and entertains in real time. Literature lasts and requires good timing. A translator's insight facilitates smooth engineering. The bridge can eventually serve to help in both directions.
When the kids were torturing me with their distorted Korean syllables, I tried to offer them examples of the proper accent by showing them children's videos of the actual game. I can't say they showed much enthusiasm. At least I can hope that one day, picking up a copy of Seven Years of Darkness (translated by their dearest mom), they will remember "Red Light, Green Light" as the exotic tune they used to tease me with as preschoolers.
Petra Ben-Ari (1983) is a Czech orientalist and translator. She majored in Sinology at Charles University in Prague. During her studies, she spent three academic years abroad, first in Italy (Venice), later in China (Jinan and Shanghai). Between 2011-2015, she studied Comparative Literature at Seoul National University in the Republic of Korea. Besides translating Korean literature, she also publishes articles, reviews and essays.
Edited by Yoonna Cho