res severa verum gaudium. (all true joy is serious) ~ Seneca
How ignorance consecrates the unholy heart of comedy--one laughs only as one learns the irony--a primordial ignorance is necessary for the minute ecstasy of laughter, hilarity. Hilarity depends upon ignorance, how the needless delight of the sage seems to occur only long after the giddiness of laughter has dissipated. Perhaps this is why those aspiring for sagacity have usually considered nothing more offensive to them than the hysteric...
Yet insofar as sagaciousness remains ideal (some humanity remains in us), we learn to laugh again and only through forgetting. By forgetting again and with a fleetingness of mind we discover again an originary meaning of innocence--the ability to laugh again. But if, as Locke said, identity is constructed only by memory, the loss of memory is revealed as the death of the self. Opposed to this, sagacity as the fullness of memory’s plenitude, aliveness through pure knowing, true joy of seriousness. But wouldn’t that just be another form of Aristotle’s notion of ’the good life’? Laughter sometimes manifests itself as a hidden lament, a secret mourning. Choruses of dirges screaming past on every channel, but lamenting what, then? A death, a dying? Then a collective death or a singular? Is impersonal mourning possible? Or are all such expedients merely unconscious forms in lieu of a displaced and personal mourning of the self? I have my temporary guesses.
I saw my bedridden grandmother two Sundays ago, as the trip to the temple was cancelled due to rain. The place where she stayed was occupied by corpse-like torsos with skeletal heads barely protruding from the stumps of their feeble necks, eyes mostly closed, sustained surely only by medical vacuum tubes and the pity of those capable of attending to them. One such woman resembled a mummy I once saw in a museum, so shrunken her torso was, reminded me of someone I did once know. But where, I wondered, are this woman’s limbs? I saw they formed small ridges against the sheet that shielded her, like the overground traces of the decaying roots of an old tree, her foundations having already disappeared in eternity’s eyes though she was the very image of persistence in that same instant.
Though smitten with amnesia my aunt was able to procure from her a few words, through saying such things as: "Do you remember ____?" "He came all the way from Canada to see you." "Do you remember him?"
My grandmother, who surely raised me until I was seven, though at first she thought I was someone else, and though Alzheimer’s disease has very far advanced throughout her neural system, went on to speak my name. This stunned us, as she is not known to be able to put words together easily anymore. It took her several tries, several minutes, at first only mutters, stutters, incoherent concatenated syllables that resembed either that of an epileptic or a holy man speaking in tongues. Though this would have troubled me many years ago I found it not disturbing in the least. "Where else is a lad like this one?" she asked, then went on to say, looking at me, "how pretty." My aunt asked, "who’s prettier?" protruding her face, to which my grandmother replied to her, "this one." My stupid uncle took his baseball cap, bending over her, looking up at her like a retarded child trying to play with someone. Then he put his hat on her frail head, making all my hairs stand. This man cannot drive..... He runs every red light, nearly got us killed, twice, in one day.... Back to this visit to grandma, though I was the one in thanks, even as I sensed she would pass away not long from now, it was her before I who said to me "I’m thankful," and the best that I could say at that time was "me too," and promising to bring her some tangerines next time we bowed politely, said our farewells, and we departed.
I barely have enough time to write anyone these days, even at this instant class is starting within minutes, kids are already flooding in, I am nearly ashamed to say they’ve resorted for now to assaulting me with their cameras. I’m covering my face as I write this, this is indescribable, this insanity, this hysteria! Hysteria, and not delirium I say, as I suspect the latter belongs to yet a different kind of innocence--one not based in ignorance, nor derived from forgetting, but that which spontaneously erupts rather from a suspension, an apatheia, an absolute defiance made possible through the active indifference to all knowledge, against all knowing, despite that knowledge (a second innocence?)--what is imperceptible, hence most difficult (for most), that forever secret union of play and ritual.
"for there is no great experience of life that is not finally the calm experience of disillusion." - Fernando Pessoa
If illusion is the free play of ignorance in a necessary condition of life’s spring that is innocence, disillusionment with regard to amnesia can be, it seems, like the circular detournement whose meaning, returning to an originary uncertainty, is rended and scattered like Dionysus, whose death, in forgetting, will provoke lament and hilarity, but whose body--under the aegis of a different dream to come--is said to persist. "the dream has gone but the baby’s real--"
Lately I’ve taken a little easy solace in the fact that every poor sod and spinster walks these streets with unjustifiably sophisticated cellular phones and mp3 players. Mine was really fabulous, had an English-Korean dictionary (and vice versa, with Chinese characters) built in with a full QWERTY touch-screen keyboard built in, but I smashed it accidentally when it fell from my inner pocket down two storeys, falling on a marble surface, though it failed to keep working only two months after this tragedy! Well, everyone has their little gizmos now, every grandma and her grandchild, I have to confiscate about 3 or 4 per class these days. I don’t feel as strange now as when I ride on the bus or walk listening as I do to my brother’s IPod he gave me, through perhaps one of the best earbuds available on Earth at this instant... intact with memory-foam ear-inserts, a dual subwoofer and a balanced tweeter delicately but firmly resounding in each earpiece, with a vented and inconspicuous shell, not at all too flashy --good thing too I got in in Canada before I came here--I’d probably have to go quite far into Seoul to find any good audiophile-grade gear, as I did the other day, when I ventured out to a three-floor musical department store looking for a decent MIDI controller and a monitoring system, to realize they had just closed-- but they did have all the guitars for the most part I was looking for, the Gibson SG, the Fender Vista series, a good range of hollow-body blues-guitars with F-holes in them, which I love to death (why did I ever sell mine nearly a decade ago? ah I remember now--I’d sold it so that I could buy a new Vista series, the now-out-of-production Supersonic. I should have to have it shipped to me soon, but I’m afraid, because it’s very rare, that it will be mishandled in transit)... I’m saving up at present, everything good seems a little too expensive here.
Speaking of which, imagine my surprise when the Buddhists urged me to pay up $350 for the ritual we participated in-- this would ensure, so they said to me, that the ancestral spirits would safely travel from purgatory (this world, in which they linger as ghosts) to the heavenly realms. And I recalled how on the first night I was there, how I was to be mindful of my dreams during the next twenty-one days--as it would be during these days that my ancestors, my family spirits, would communicate with me.
The first of my memorable dreams during this time was an intensely erotic one, having nothing at all to do with any of my ancestors--just imagine the most erotic dream you can imagine, and then let it be surpassed--that is how it felt to me, charged with symbol, passion, desires; a whole universe resonates from it still. Then in the second dream, about a week later, my mother appeared at a kind of family party, telling me of how relatives will soon arrive, presenting gifts there, and how I should remain polite to them. Then she disappeared, leaving me with relatives now, aunts, uncles, in Canada that is, who went on to shower praise for my mother, who they said lived happily and full--but in my heart of hearts I knew the hypocrisy of it all, and of course this was nothing more than the empty ritual of a predictable funereal ceremony, and upon waking up I could see through all the lies of parenthood--they say that youth is deluded, but I could see then how in a world of illusions, one can be compelled with fervor or without--that one could be selfish for one’s own reasons, own’s own unreasons, or those of (in)significant others. It was already 5am when I awoke, and I began my train ride to the airport to catch the shuttle bus to see my mother’s mother, who else but this great eluder of imminent death whom my little girl cousins today call ’the Phoenix,’ grandma.
I finally met Leonard, another teacher in Incheon from Toronto, we’ve both been too busy to meet, and at dinner I slipped some details about the ritual I wasn’t supposed to. But already in my heart I’d decided, I was sure, this betrayal would be imminent, that in a dilemma between eternal life, happiness, for the loss of my soul, and eternal suffering, eternal exile in being true to a religion that’s mine, the question would be redundant, just a useless joke.
What then was the purpose of the ritual, the initiation, the exercise? Dressed in Han-bok, traditional Korean silk robes, attended by two priestesses I followed all the protocols necessary to them such that my desire for the expiation of the sins of the ancestors will be heard, honoured, moreover that their curses be lifted from my life, my family too, which would be all fine and good--but the Buddhists asked more still--they desired eternal life, told me I too should want it, and they wanted magical powers, to become the special elect of their messiah.
According to the Samguk-Yulgi, an authoritative native history text concerning the Three Kingdoms, there was born a Buddhist cult in the 12th C, in the Silla kingdom, in which the "Hwarang"-warrior monks, devout Buddhist soldiers trained in foot, hand, and sword combat, desired for their Maitreya to appear, their saviour. Some legends have it that he did in fact appear, as a young warrior-monk boy, and some began to worship him as the final incarnation of the Buddha, a veritable god made flesh. This type of Buddhism, a fusion of Confucianism, Shamanism, Taoism, nationalism and Buddhism, was later known as the "Mireuk cult," and I discovered only last week that it was into their welcoming arms I found myself, only to find their love wanting, and their values, hopes, and dreams, worthless and pitiful to myself.
That night, having divulged a few things to Leonard, I woke in sweat, surely from a nightmare, and in it my family, all of them, even my little brother, in strife, were locked in a deadly fight with each other, punching, kicking, screaming, like the blood of Cain.
A week later now, having visited the temple, having gone through the rituals, having seen the eastern sea and paid my respect to the innermost chambers of the temple in Gangwon province this past Sunday in the sacred halls of the ancestors, which, to be sure, was an experience like none other I’ve had, as far as a "do" is concerned, which is to say, a "path" or a "way" that can be named, I’m happy to say I’ve found a "Kumdo" hall just blocks from my house, an art whose name translates as "the way of the sword"--a tradition which arguably goes back to the Hwarang warriors of the Silla kingdom or even earlier to that of the more militant Kyong Dang warriors of Koguryo, and which resembles Kendo in many of its aspects (attesting to the notion perhaps that Japan was formed by Korean immigrants in the 10th C), something I’ve wanted to begin to learn for a very long time.
the longswords of Admiral Yi Sun Shin (197.5 cm, 5.5 kg), preserved at Hyon Chung Sa
Admiral Yi Sun Shin, "Duke of Loyalty and Art of Chivalry," 1545-1598, commander of the first armored, cannon-equipped, warships
The image above displays the construction of the Geobukseon, a turtle-shaped armored vessel with a dragon’s head. I’ve lately resolved that the simulacrum who used to chase me in my nightmares when I was six years old in my school playground, threatening to take me to the underworld with him for being ’such a bad boy’ was none other than Yi Sun Shin himself, whose statue I discovered lately still stands in the same spot in the playground where I played when I was little. He might have taken me away in those dreams actually, if my grandmother didn’t appear strangely from out of nowhere in them, to whisk me away, insisting to him with the utmost nonchalance-- ’he’s alright, he’s a good kid.’
I’ve lately only been reading Pessoa; of writers he interests me the most these days. He said it well, I think, when he considered reading of all kinds to be a certain kind of slavishness, and "if all reading is dreaming, then why not my own dreams?" Probably won’t get to read him much again until the weekend, going to Seoul again tonight by myself for Hangul classes as I did for the first time on Monday... What a night it was, perfectly alone as I was, in this nation’s capital, passing along in the shadows of royal walls, still standing, which remind that one treads on sacred land as lovers stroll by in the soft hues of lamplight, grounds on which the strange kingdom’s palaces once proudly stood. I do like that city, Seoul is indeed gorgeous, I’ve been entertaining the thought of living and teaching there next year.
I’ve lately been discovering this is a very strange country, and I’ll be writing a bit about this peculiar strangeness soon that unsettles everything I seem to know about the world, after I weigh such experiences I’ve been having against the swerving diversions of my own thoughts.