For most of the twentieth century, the Korean literary
scene has been dominated by writers and critics who have insisted that
in order to manifest seriousness of purpose, literature must depict in
a vivid manner the painful realities of life in the society of the period.
During the Japanese colonial period, this could be seen as an expression
of resistance to the occupying powers; later, the agony of the Korean War
demanded to be memorialized. The social transformations of more recent
times have largely been imposed by authoritarian regimes unwilling to pay
heed to the pain that such changes cause; giving themselves the task of
recording aspects of daily life that the authorities wished to ignore,
many writers have felt compelled to portray that pain, in a form of indirect
As a result, critics and literary historians have mostly
focused their attention on works conforming to the criteria of social documentation.
Yet from the very early days of modern Korean literature, there has been
another current active in both poetry and fiction, inspired by the more
purely aesthetic currents of late nineteenth and early twentieth century
European literature. It has often been noted that the aesthetic criteria
of poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarme' have had a considerable influence
on Korean writers. This is only natural, for "art for art's sake" corresponds
to a deep and vital dimension of literature, whether or not the social
dimension is given much importance.
Unfortunately, perhaps, many Korean critics have paid
little attention to the work of writers felt to have ignored social dimensions.
The pursuit of purely aesthetic criteria in writing has at times been seen
as a virtual betrayal of the writer's moral and political responsibility,
and has rendered certain poets deeply suspect. As a result, there has been
relatively little discussion of the criteria to be applied in evaluating
the aesthetics of literary work, and little work has been done on developing
specifically literary styles of writing .
In Korea, content has for long been valued far more than
style, and relatively few writers enjoy a high reputation as "stylists"
as opposed to "realists." In this number of our journal, we offer texts
that seem to represent both sides of this equation. Some of the poetry
and fiction published here are by writers reputed for their social commitment,
notably Ko Un, as well as poets like Cho Byung-hwa and Mun Dok-soo, who
are generally considered to write poetry deeply rooted in a more private
and personal world.
Yet other works are by writers like Kang Shin-jae and
Lee Je-ha, admired by those who hope to see literature espouse other dimensions
than the ordinariness of everyday life. In the end, however, many works
transcend any attempt to classify them too categorically, particularly
the story "Flame" by Sunwoo Hui or the extract from The Naked Tree
by Pak Wan-so.
Literature always resists approaches that are too dogmatic
or systematic, and most Korean writers strive to produce works that are
well-crafted works of art and at the same time related to the Korean society
in which they arose and to which they were originally addressed. Only in
that way can we have truly meaningful literary works worth translating
and sharing with the world at large.