Tag Archives: tradition

All Is Not Lost

12 Feb

It fades, generation by generation, epoch by epoch.  Our peculiar march as men, tramping down straighter and faster paths toward not being men, watches the deep, the integral, the unrecognized but crucial parts of ourselves cast aside like overcoats by the road on a hot day — we needed them before, but right now, on the brightly lit road that we can see for the moment, we don’t.  So we shed our baggage, our encumbrances, to forge on lighter and faster.

Those who scream and rant about the disintegration of things, reminding others of how much better things were in their childhood and how everything is on the wrong paths, have the wrong perspective.  It is not their nostalgia that is wrong.  Rather, it is their frame of view.  True, things have disintegrated since their childhood.  Yet the golden days of their youth were forged from the disintegration of yet a previous era, the pleasures of the present bought by sacrificing the world of the old and already-passed.  And in the generations before that, the foundation for their family’s gradual mobility was bought by mortgaging, whether by choice or not, their old ways, in which time was not an arbitrary division into past, present, and future, but a living, breathing continuation of what was.

But all is not lost.  For one can venture beyond the screaming artifice of neon and PC rooms and Olleh WiFi and Prugio luxury apartments, and find this:

The grandmother and her granddaughter sit at her house, folding the towels by hand.  Modernity is here, visible or not.  Synthetic cloth; running shoes; machine-woven towels made white with chemical bleach; perhaps even the logs under the house were run through a pneumatic splitter instead of being chopped by an axe.  But the old house is still kept well, as it always has been.  The stones are neatly set, the fibrous paper backing the door free of holes, the courtyard made of crushed stone, not poured concrete.  The two women fold by hand.  No machine nor specialty delivery service does it for them.  They themselves must take up the task and do it completely, do it well.  No technology has stripped away their toil by adapting to them instead of they to it.  The basic physical movements inherent to humanity’s long experience with daily living are still there, protected, at least for now.  Genome revitalizing drugs, robotic enhancements, brain-wave reading digital paper, the Singularity: all these things and their terror are coming.  But they are not here yet.  And so all is not lost, not yet.

All is not lost.  All that is ourselves, our true selves, has faded and many parts disappeared entirely, beyond our recall or care.  But some remains, within us in fact or within our reach, should we choose to stretch out our hand to it.

All is not lost.  That is not hope in and of itself.  Hope is not fuzzy feeling, nor wishful thinking, nor contentment to apprise and merely remark.  There is only hope in acting.  We see hope in the phrase “all is not lost” only because there must be some thing that is not lost and that it is recoverable.  Yet one must look for that thing, find it, take it up again as if nothing had happened, not for the demands of the moment, but for its own original purpose.  We must look to our past, and the intersection of our selves with it, not to satisfy our political dissatisfactions, our societal critiques, our cultural grumblings, our paranoia over the stability of the whirring world.  Rather, we must immerse ourselves in that past as if there was no severance with it, no disruption.  For to use the past merely as criticism is to concede the victory to the world that has occurred.  Nothing is written; things could have gone differently.  Take up what they before us saw as our purpose, take their vision as our own with the full knowledge that it is ours by inheritance, fully, completely, with no justification needed.

All is not lost.  And nowhere is that more true than in a small Korean village, by a river, the smell of wood smoke strong in the winter air.

Old School

17 Aug

Down south in Jeollanam-do, there is an old Confucian school, a seodang, that has been rebuilt on the site of its predecessor. The proprietor, an elderly gentlemen who tends to repeat himself and measures time only in ‘later’ or ‘today,’ has a few rooms to let to travelers. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay there.

Seodangs were schools primarily for boys, going all the way back through Joseon to Goryeo. Chinese characters were used to write the Korean language and thus memorization of their complex forms was necessary. This did not promote literacy to extent one would expect, however, as the creation of hangeul demonstrates; a simpler system was needed for the average peasant. The reading of the characters as well as classical works was an important foundation for anyone who hoped to take the civil service exam and thus rise up to the level of at least semi-nobility.

Worn out from a day of hiking, we spread a blanket on the planks and played hwatu (화투) as the sun went down behind the mountains.

The surrounding country has lush greens and big blue skies. Green is common in Korea: in the summer, weed, vines, grasses, and trees seem to grow in tangled silence, like an unruly haircut. Blue skies with a trace of pollution, though, are rare in the capital area where I reside.

We were the only ones staying here, it turned out. Even the old proprietor went home and left us be. We swung the giant wooden gates shut and barred the doors: in for the night, free to explore the school at will.

This seodang is still used during the summer for its traditional activities. Witness the banner on the rear wall: “예절” means manners or etiquette.  In addition to such customs, student learn 한자 or Chinese characters. Calligraphy is the method for integrating them, for great patience and self-mastery is required to make the correct strokes. The calligraphy brushes sat in a rack next to mats on the floor. Back issues of “The Confucian News” hung from a peg near the door.

I had awakened every morning to the sound of the teacher scolding her students harshly, be it for lack of attention or haste in crafting the complex characters with but a brush on thin paper. I doubt that it would have been much different a hundred-odd years or more ago. Here, more than anywhere else I have been in Korea, the past ways are not only remembered but intrinsically a part of life. The correlation between cultural and physical distance, between the remote Confucian countryside and the globalized urban jungles, is no coincidence.

To open up a student practice book is to realize why it was only the rich who could afford education in the old days. A great deal of time is needed in order to read, let alone write, the basic thousand Chinese characters, and time is something that a working man does not have. Yet one can also see the roots of the Korean attitude toward education: time and dedication are essential to mastery and sacrifices must be made by the present generation for the sake of the next.

The students at this summer seodang were from the city. They came to absorb the deepest and most traditional aspects of their culture, their parents spending much money and time observing. My girlfriend said that this is no isolated incident; it happens in other places besides Jeolla.

Korea is indeed hurtling down a path of globalization, hellbent on achieving the system we have already created and found lacking. But whatever their immediate material desires, something in their instinct remains firmly rooted in what has come before. It is an identification with the past and its ways which has virtually no parallel in contemporary America. I find it hard to imagine families from New York, Chicago, or L.A. sending their kids to Kentucky for a month in order to read Jefferson, till land, and learn riflery. Such would be the equivalent for us. Yet we do not believe in the necessity of virtue, let alone the virtue of those who came before and lived harder lives than we. Koreans, though, intuit that such virtues, whatever one’s personal feeling about them is, are a part of themselves. They have inherited them, whether they like it or not, and it is their responsibility to know them well.

The night had a crescent moon, which a local taxi driver told us meant that ghosts were out and about. As I walked about the courtyard in the warm air, I wondered if I would see the apparitions of Confucians past, treading the grounds with me. Perhaps, despite my white skin, they would not haunt but welcome me as one who, though not born of their ways, nonetheless understands and defends them all the same.

And defend them I do. Their tradition is not mine and I disagree with it on many points. But we are men all the same, men seeking to live as Men, not as ‘progressive apes.’ Our ways are manifold and our disagreements inevitable; yet we find common cause in seeking the course of good through the human heart. Behind these shuttered doors, in this renewed part of the past, in this small town, that cause lives on against the irrational powers of this world.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia