The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea

The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea. By Christopher Hanscom. Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013. 248 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Anastasia Lin, University of North Georgia

Christopher P. Hanscom’s new book intervenes in Korean literary history of the 1930s through a comparative modernist re-reading of the critical and creative works of Pak T’aewŏn, Kim Yujŏng, and Yi T’aejun. Throughout his work, Hanscom questions the binary of realism versus modernism within the context of Japanese colonialism. Hanscom’s main goal is to reframe the discussion of literary modernism in Korea to understand its roots in social activism; though 1930s Korean modernism is typically thought of as a derivative form of Western modernism, Hanscom argues the Korean turn to modernism reacts to the doubled crisis of representation authors felt in the midst of colonialism. 

Hanscom’s argument follows a historically and theoretically grounded introduction with a brief chapter that explores the attitudes and approaches of contemporaneous Korean literary critics. Hanscom is finely attuned to the history of the period, especially the Japanese dismantling of Korean Artista Proleta Federacio (KAPF), a collective of realist writers using socialist proletarian works to critique the colonial powers. Such censorship coupled with the realization of language’s inability to fully and stably connect signifier and signified “presented the 1930s author with a seemingly insurmountable gap between the real predicaments of colonial society and their ideal representations in fictional or poetic form, and a narrowed scope of literary practice under the militarization of Japanese imperial rule and the increasing enthusiasm with which statements of ideological conversion (sasang chŏnhyang) were elicited from leftist activists” (32). From this context sprung the literary Group of Nine, including Pak, Kim, and Yi. Against the socialist realism of KAPF, these authors, who preferred a modernist style of aesthetic description and linguistic play, are often read as apolitical at best and pro-Japanese at worst. These writers faced the double bind of what Hanscom calls a crisis of representation: at the same time Korean nationals struggled to represent themselves and their culture in the midst of Japanese control, modernist authors were also struggling to represent ideas in the face of modernist anxiety over the split between language and meaning. These concomitant limitations led to the crisis at the heart of Hanscom’s text, in which 1930s authors struggled to present in writing the reality of colonial Korea within a language where “one’s site of enunciation was split off from the enunciation itself – an alienation from language that made evident the gap between what was said and what was meant.” (33). Hanscom asserts writers like Pak, Kim, and Lee each constructed their experimental writing styles to both engage the disconnect between language and meaning as well as signal their resistance to colonization and assimilation. 

The remaining chapters offer paired readings of the critical and fictional works of Pak, Kim, and Yi. This structure seems especially effective in that it allows Hanscom to offer a clear enunciation of each author’s critical position before critiquing his literary work. The first paired set is arguably the most successful. In chapters 3 and 4, Hanscom analyzes and applies Pak’s criticism to his novella One Day in the Life of the Author, Mr. Kubo. For Pak, writing consists not only of traditional linguistic communication, but also of technique; both affect final meaning. Meaning in colonial Korea is further complicated by multilingualism and modernity. Thus, Pak’s writing centers on the gap between symbol and referent; Pak’s ambivalent works are designed to confront the modernist dilemma by “produc[ing] interpretive desire in the reader through the split between utterance and enunciation” (57–58). Hanscom terms this approach “hysterical modernism” and deploys it in Chapter 3 to read Pak’s novella One Day in the Life of the Author, Mr. Kubo. Though the text is traditionally read as apolitical and modernist, Hanscom argues reviewing the text in light of Pak’s focus on the impossibility of referentiality reveals a more socially engaged text which critiques colonialism. As Hanscom avows, “hysteria allows us to call the status of the subject into question as always emerging in response to the desire of another” (61). Utilizing ambivalent prose that highlights the inevitable divide between language and received meaning, Pak’s Kubo is characterized as full of mediated desires unfulfilled and misapprehended. Hanscom likens this to the colonial predicament of being asked to desire Japanese nationalism while concomitantly being asked not to achieve it. Pak’s Kobu, then, enacts the conflation of modernity and colonialism through a text ripe with misunderstanding, fake desires, and un-fulfillment. 

The second set of paired chapters mount readings of Kim’s works. In chapters 3 and 4, Hanscom delineates Kim’s distrust of the transparency of language. For Kim, language is not empirical, but rather lacks the ability to fully apprehend its referent. To this end, Kim advances a new style of writing that “confronts such assumptions with the impossibility of complete representation, a continual grasping toward always unattainable ideals of human knowledge and understanding” (78). Counter to the standard acceptance of Kim as a realist, Hanscom argues Kim utilizes an “ironic double language” as a way to apprehend not only the inherent referentiality of language itself, but also the “split self of the modern subject” (95). In this way, Kim thematizes irony throughout his work to convey the lack of transparency in language as well as the doubled reality of the colonial subject reacting to multiple languages and realities. Kim’s irony reads as modern in its inability to enact complete communication and its examination of the relative social reality of colonial Korean existing beneath Japanese rule. 

In the final paired chapters, Hanscom investigates Yi T’aejun, an author often critiqued for either ignoring the colonial situation or sympathizing with Japanese imperial initiatives. Hanscom rehabilitates Yi T’aejun as a socially-engaged modernist through a close reading of his Lectures on Composition and his short story “Crows.” Against the impetus to unite and standardize language as advanced by the colonial powers, Hanscom reads Yi’s theory as attempting to overcome the crisis of representation through a style overtly cognizant of the ambiguity and subjectivity of language: “what is demanded of the modern writer is the carefully crafted expression of the individual experience of new modes of being; at the same time, language cannot but fail to fully represent either subject or object, a weakness that must be overcome through formal artifice and innovation” (150). In chapter 7, Hanscom attends closely to Yi’s lyricism as a marker of modernity in its “stylistic interpenetration of speech and writing” (21). Taking Yi’s short story “Crows” as example, Hanscom examines Yi’s embedding of the lyrical “I” within a manufactured narrative to highlight the inability of the written to fully reflect the spoken. Yi’s work fits squarely into a socially-engaged modernism as it acknowledges the inherent contradictions of language within the context of the colonial push to standardize language.

Hanscom’s ambitious and well-researched book widens the discussion of modernism in a colonial context by looking beyond European territories. His careful questioning of the relationships between language, colonial subjugation, modernist aesthetics, and political engagements suggest further avenues for inquiry in comparative modernist study. However, at times the density of his syntax and sheer extent of the argument can be hard to follow. Nonetheless, Hanscom is a patient teacher who often repeats main points in order to hasten understanding. This is especially helpful in his paired chapters, which work as well on their own as they do within the text as a whole. While his text undoubtedly covers new ground for Korean Modernist scholars, those outside the field would benefit from further discussion of the specific colonial history of Korea. Ultimately, Hanscom’s work opens up a new dialogue on Korean modernist literature and its sociopolitical contexts of interest both to scholars in his field and to those more broadly interested in the deployment of modernism in non-European countries. 

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