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[Kim Seong-kon] Remembering John Barth and the Korean 1980s

By Korea Herald

Published : June 4, 2024 - 17:34

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Recently, the celebrated American author John Barth passed away, leaving behind his long-lasting legacy of postmodern literature. In his monumental essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1967), Barth declared that literary realism and conventional modes of literary representation had used up their possibilities in the postmodern era of electronic media and pop culture. In his 1982 sequel essay “The Literature of Replenishment,” he proposed “postmodernism” as a means to replenish the exhausted potential of print-oriented literature.

I first met John Barth in 1980 at Johns Hopkins University where he taught creative writing. I requested an interview, and he kindly invited me to lunch at JHU. Barth was already a well-known celebrity novelist and yet he was a modest, charming person of admirable character. We discussed postmodernism with reference to his works. Our conversation appeared in “Literature & Thought.”

Later, we met again at Pennsylvania State University where I taught as a visiting Fulbright professor. We invited John Barth for a special lecture on the future of the novel. A foremost postmodern writer, Barth enlightened us that reality was no longer a fixed entity and thus could be as elusive as fantasy. He agonized over the predicament of contemporary writers who had to wrestle with this elusive reality at a time when even a TV drama could create reality. In his innovative 1968 fiction, “Lost in the Funhouse,” therefore, Barth compared his protagonist, Ambrose, who was lost in a mirror room of the funhouse in the amusement park, to self-reflexive contemporary writers.

In his 1972 fiction, “Chimera,” Barth compared postmodern writers to Scheherazade’s sister, Dunyazad, in “Arabian Nights.” In “Chimera,” Dunyazad marries King Shahryar’s brother Shah Zaman, who asks her to tell him stories every night just as her sister Scheherazade has done for his brother. The problem is that Shah Zaman already knows all the stories Scheherazade has told his brother. Thus, Dunyazad has to invent new stories to entertain her husband every night. According to Barth, postmodern writers, like Dunyazad, must conjure up new stories out of exhausted possibilities.

As Barth prophesized, we are now living in an era when printed novels have to compete with electronic media such as Netflix, YouTube and a myriad of video games. If novelists fail to provide more powerful, more intriguing stories than those electronic media, the novel will inevitably perish and become obsolete.

Today’s readers, who are infatuated with computers and smartphones, are more tyrannical than King Shahryar is and they can send the boring novel into extinction almost instantly. Today, therefore, it is more important than ever to heed Barth’s advice to postmodern writers: we should explore new stories and modes in order to bring the reader back to the novel and to replenish literature that had exhausted its possibilities.

When I returned to South Korea and began teaching at Seoul National University in the 1980s, the Korean Republic of letters and academia were at war, divided into the realist camp and the modernist camp. The anti-government political dissidents clustered around the realist camp, chanting for socially engaged literature and the art-for-art’s sake, non-political people gathered at the modernist camp, advocating pure, elite literature. There was no middle ground allowed.

Few Korean authors at the time agonized over the difficulty of “fiction making” in the era of electronics. They still believed that reality was as solid as a rock. Few Korean scholars in the humanities were aware of the radical change either, which was taking place in literature worldwide in the name of postmodernism. In fact, few Koreans knew what postmodernism was in the 1980s. Embarrassingly, Koreans were and still are slow to catch on.

Under the circumstances, it was not easy to teach postmodernism because it was like encouraging young people to seek a third way amidst rigid binary oppositions. Yet, I assigned John Barth’s novels to my students with reference to postmodernism, so they could open their eyes to another world that provided them with a third possibility.

Thanks to John Barth, my students learned that the ages of realism and modernism were over and they were now living in the age of postmodernism that suited the era of pop culture and electronics. They also learned that realism lost its validity, as reality was no longer a fixed thing, but could be an illusion. They learned that the age of elitist modernism was over, too, and that they lived in the postmodern era when they should reconcile with pop culture and electronic media.

John Barth gave us an important insight when he pointed out, “There is no single truth in fiction. It's all about different perspectives and interpretations.” However, in the 1980s, Korean writers and scholars believed that there was “absolute” truth in literature, and thus they did not allow different perspectives and interpretations. Barth also said, “There are no original stories, only different ways of retelling them.”

Now we realize that John Barth was truly a prophetic, pioneer postmodernist. We miss him very much.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.