[Kim Seong-kon] The pleasure of having special people around you

By Korea Herald
  • Published : May 27, 2014 - 20:56
  • Updated : May 27, 2014 - 20:56
It is wonderful to have some special people around you from whom you can learn valuable things in life. It is even more wonderful if the special people are foreigners. I am lucky enough to have such special people around me and am eternally indebted and grateful to them for enlightening me.

Among others, professor Caroline D. Eckhardt at Pennsylvania State University comes to mind. I first met Dr. Eckhardt when I was a visiting professor at PSU in 1990. As head of the Comparative Literature Department, she helped me in many ways. Dr. Eckhardt was particularly nice and friendly to me, presumably because she adopted two orphan girls from South Korea and raised them as if they were her own flesh and blood. The amazing thing was that she already had two children of her own before the adoption.

Dr. Eckhardt was also a truly open-minded person. As a scholar of comparative literature, she had the capacity to embrace foreign literatures and cultures, respect differences and provide comparative perspectives. Once she wrote me, “In my perspective, as someone whose academic life has been devoted to comparative literature, a crucial part of the responsibility of both writers and scholars lies (and will continue to lie) in establishing links across cultures, peoples, languages and geographical distances.” That means, as an intellectual and scholar of comp lit, she wants to bridge the two hemispheres. She said, “We need to recognize the intellectual and aesthetic significance of literatures from other parts of the world.”

Another thing that made her special and charming was that she was capable of turning adversity into a privilege. When she was a child, Dr. Eckhardt was very ill and had to stay in bed for a considerable amount of time. But she wisely turned the seemingly hopeless disadvantage into an advantage. “I read steadily through my parents’ bookshelves from one end to the other, absorbing far more Kierkegaard and Tolstoy than could have been good for a 9-year-old who was already worried about dying,” she recollected. “The fortunate outcome of that childhood experience is that, having fully recovered, I continued to read books.” Hence an erudite scholar whose mind is open to the world!

“Why am I in Comp Lit?” she posted on the website of her department at Penn State. “To me, the essential characteristic of the comparatist is curiosity about what else may be ‘out there,’ along with openness to connections of all sorts: connections between individual writers, between cultural traditions, between ideas or movements or approaches that appear all over the globe, and, finally, connections between and among people.”

Another special person I esteem as a mentor is Judge Don Chae in Texas, my former professor and academic adviser who greatly influenced me in the early stage of my academic career. In the 1960s, Judge Chae went to the States and received his M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. Later he also earned a J.D. from Southern Methodist University. I admired him so much that I became a huge fan. Learning from him was always an inspiration. Whenever I saw his degrees on his office wall, my heart leaped. Looking at his passport, which was issued only to a limited number of privileged people at that time, I dreamed of going abroad to pursue my graduate studies, just as Stephen Daedalus does in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

Thus I followed in Judge Chae’s footsteps all through my professional career, except for becoming a judge. An exceptionally brilliant man, Chae was always far ahead of me, and thus I could not possibly catch up with him. Certainly, it is not easy to become a judge in the States. Yet, Chae was so modest that he kindly encouraged me some time ago, writing, “As for you, it is a case of a student outshining his teacher, as a Korean (or Chinese) proverb says.”

Then he lamented that we no longer have Renaissance men such as Dante, Da Vinci or Shakespeare these days. “There have been no more Renaissance men. This is an age in which men of narrow specialties prevail.” Chae continued, “But the current century desperately calls for a Renaissance man, although it is so rare and infrequent that we can meet such a person. People do not have a global view, only parochial views. You should fill such a void.” To me, however, Chae himself is surely a Renaissance man. His career has been diverse and spectacular: he has been an eminent scholar, a distinguished professor and an honorable judge, to name but a few.

From professor Eckhardt, I learned the importance of comparative perspectives, and from Judge Chae, the importance of becoming a Renaissance man in this rapidly globalizing world. It is indeed a great pleasure to have special people around you. 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.