Tag Archives: fin de siecle

Paris on the Peninsula

31 Aug

The girl at the end of the table was smoking mojito-flavored cigarettes. “Bohem Cigar Mojito” was the name. The dual fans on the porch were blowing in her direction, whisking the smoke away and off into the Gangnam night, so I never got a chance to see what the smell was like.

There were four of them, girls, university friends who rarely cross paths these days. After the wedding of one of their close friends, we’d come here, to this cafe. Each one of them was interesting. The girl at the far end, smoking the mojito cigs, was a part-time model, with an intelligent and mysterious air about her. She looked exactly like one of my old professors. I considered telling her this, but then thought better of it when I remembered the professor was Japanese. Comparisons such as that are a minefield in this country.

The girl at the other end of the table, to my left, was a tattooist. She kicked her shoes off toward the end of the evening and revealed the wings she had tattooed on her feet. I could only think of the Greek god from the FTD florist signs back in the States (Hermes, perhaps). The girl in the middle, on the far side of the table, talked energetically, asked probing questions, and burned through nearly a whole pack of cigarettes. Perhaps it was all the coffee. Her claim to fame was that she once slept with a Japanese film star. They were all artists by training and temperament. They looked and acted the part.

The talk amongst the three girls and my girlfriend was difficult to follow at best. My brain was fried from the heat and the acidic caffeine of too many americanos that day. From this rooftop patio, I could see across across much of Gangnam. The red glow of the giant Kumkang sign reflected off of every shiny surface around. Looking to the right, northward, you could look over Sinsa. The HanSkin building had nearly every light on, making it look like a cheese grater with a lightbulb inside. Beyond it was the blinking red light of the radio tower array that stands just southeast of N Seoul Tower on Namsan.

For some reason, I imagined anti-aircraft fire puncturing the warm, glowing night over this part of town. That seems slightly ridiculous, but not because there’s no threat to the city. Rather, it’s ridiculous because the North Korean air force would never establish air superiority over the South. No, the likely explosions would not be from tracers arcing into the dark, but rather from rockets or shells falling to earth.

My mind looked to war because Seoul itself has often reminded me of a different place: Paris. Not the eternal Paris, though, the Paris of love, lights, pleasure, and ease, but pre-Great War Paris. A poor comparison, you might say, but consider a few general points. First, Seoul is a flourishing metropolis. There is great wealth spread among the elites, the benefits of which trickle down to the lower rungs, especially in infrastructure. There is a great awareness of and interest in the international scene; Korea senses that there is an important role to play, though it may not have clear and realistic vision of what that is. Korean culture is an export in and of itself, seen as sophisticated around Asia. These things do indeed resemble Belle Époque France. Still, one may argue that such traits could also have applied to other European cities at the time as well.

But the Paris comparison is just when considering that which looms over the horizon. Fin de siècle Paris had a great, foreboding sense of the end of its flourishing. The 19th century seemed to be bringing material prosperity and high culture to an apotheosis, yet the Parisians felt only malaise at this prospect. Korea does not feel that now, but there are signs that this Miracle on the Han River is failing in its greatest moment. There is a growing gap between the rich and poor, with many who teeter in the middle slipping to the lower rungs, while elites see their income rise sharply. The economy is heavily dependent on exports and will suffer in a second, deeper worldwide recession. With that, the already tight Korean job market will be even more severely pinched. The promise of affluence and a better future will be delayed further, especially for younger Koreans.

But the greatest salience is in the threat that lies over the DMZ. North Korea is the Imperial Germany to Seoul’s Paris. Both were threats faced once before, with unsatisfactory results and a permanent imprint on the national psyche. South Korea must inevitably reckon with this violent neighbor again, hopefully without bloodshed. Yet the structure of the world order seems to preclude any sort of boldly proactive approach. Orders are important: Europe saw relative peace when the Congress of Vienna consensus discouraged permanent alliances and attempted to localize conflicts. Similarly, our world sees security as intimately connected to markets — the benefits of trade discourage violent cataclysms that disturb the order. Yet this order works on the assumption that the actors are rational. I think we can all agree that North Korea is not rational. Imperial Germany was not either. Its culture saw war as a romantic way to transcend soul-stifling bourgeois values.

An order which less and less resembles reality will lead to misconceptions, confusion, and, given the chance, cataclysm. Something must be done to prevent a war, nay, a catastrophe, on this peninsula, but there is a fear of doing anything, for an equally great fear of the consequences. There is a lurking sense that the current age of constant growth and ever-increasing plenty cannot be sustained, but we cannot imagine how to replace the system that we already have or tame its destructive potential. So nothing is done. And the order entropies more quickly, leaving us in even more of a predicament, fearing even more the consequences of failure.

I left the girls to their conversation about cute guys and stood at the railing. I looked at the rooftop gardens, the countless cafes restaurants packed with couples, the slick skyscrapers, and the older buildings grimy with pollution. When Seoul fights its own Battle of the Marne, I wondered, will I be here? Will I look down to the street and see the soldiers on leave kissing their mini-skirted, high-heeled girlfriends goodbye, then piling into Hi Seoul taxis that speed them to the front somewhere near Pocheon? Will this neon city of ceaseless diversion see its lights going out, not to be relit again in my lifetime?

When I sat down again, I didn’t share my thoughts. The girls would not understand this, not because they are girls, but because they are Korean. They are always optimistic, in spite of the challenges their young lives face. They don’t think of failure or unraveling orders or anything of the sort. They think of life and how they are living it. I realized my Paris reference was right, but of the wrong era. If one day distant artillery fire does silhouette Kyobo Tower, they will repose here and watch the show, like Rick, Ilsa, and Sam of a different Paris, with each cigarette and americano echoing Sam: “This ought to take the sting out of bein’ occupied.”

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