Marcel Proust opined in his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time that memory is a critical wellspring of personal identity and the substance of all relationships. It is what restores a person to himself after a spell of unconsciousness ends and the only place where interpersonal bonds truly exist. Echoing these sentiments, psychological drama Hyde Jekyll, Me featured memory as a recurring theme in its story development. Memories defined the boundaries of the split personalities of its mentally unstable protagonist and gave life to romance. Losing an arm or a leg, one of the personalities pointed out, would not change his identity, but once his memory was gone, he would no longer exist. The inability to share memories thwarted relationship building, whereas the flow of them rekindled love. Should memories then be recovered and preserved through works of art, as Proust did with his 4211-page tome, on behalf of a person so that he can at least live on in people’s minds for generations after his demise?
Mortality was, uncoincidentally, an issue weighing on the alter ego’s mind as he strolled down the nostalgic Kim Kwang-seok Road in Daegu, South Korea with Hana, his romantic interest. He was perishing as his memories steadily migrated over to the host personality’s side, leaving him with an emptier and emptier shell who would one day not even have an inkling of the kinds of cherished memories he had lost or recognize the loved one standing before him. The street murals featuring songs by real-life folk singer Kim Kwang-seok (1964-1996), who also passed away in his 30s, echoed his sentiments. There were the opening lines from “An Elderly Couple in Their 60s,” in which a man reminisced about how his wife used to tie his necktie with her beautiful, fair hands—a possible throwback to how Hana fixed his shirt for him before his first public appearance as an artist. There were also recollections of the couple growing old together—experiences that could not be shared with Hana—while the ballad wondered if the deceased partner could remember them. The ending lyrics from “The Love That Cannot be Spoken” proclaimed though that while his song would be over, “his heart will forever belong to only one, only one, only one.” The Korean word for “one” is a homonym of “Hana.”
Kim Kwang-seok Road, the location of the singer’s childhood home, is just one of several street art initiatives celebrating South Korea’s history and culture. Other projects of this nature include: Mulberry Street, which wall paintings relate tales of a Ming general who defended Joseon from Japanese invasion and stayed on to grow mulberry trees in the country; Kang Full Webtoon Street, which showcases the eponymous first-generation webcomic artist’s works; graffiti art on Samcheong-dong that portrays independence fighters; and Mabijeong Mural Village, which murals depict traditional rural life in the country. Decorated with two statues, three-dimensional musical motifs, and around 70 paintings of Kim Kwang-seok with his guitar and scenes from his ballads, while the singer’s soulful music plays in the background, Kim Kwang-seok Road acts as a late tribute to a musician who struggled with a modest following and weak record sales during his lifetime. It, in fact, took an estimated four years after his death before his works gained nationwide popularity. However, rather than a simple celebration of this posthumous success or expression of sadness for his early demise, the original purpose of the public art project was pragmatic: to revitalize the then deserted and crime-ridden district by leveraging the ex-resident’s newfound fame.
While remembrance projects driven by altruistic motivations would be the ideal, it is perhaps not unreasonable to accommodate monetary considerations so that such projects would be economically attractive and financially sustainable. Moreover, unless evidence indicates otherwise, it is possible that the deceased parties might have been glad to see revenue from the projects benefiting communities connected to them and family members holding their intellectual property rights. A problem occurs, however, when money becomes a divisive factor or degrading force or distorts the representation of a person. Prohibitive pricing and commoditization, for instance, may give the individuals’ works and ideas different reaches than the kinds they desire. A single-minded pursuit of profits may also result in the exaggeration of personality traits so that the deceased will “sell better.” It is worth noting, though, that these concerns are not isolated to profit-driven projects—as long as organizers feel a need to target certain audiences and promote or underplay some particular aspects of the people they are paying tribute to, whether out of love, sympathy or political agenda, the risks of social exclusion, denigration and misrepresentation arguably exist.
Also debatable is the social burden imposed in the names of memory and art. Projects necessitating the remodeling of residential streets or buildings, especially, may disrupt lives by forcing the relocation of original tenants and introducing dust, noise and unwanted interference with the traditional lifestyle of a place. In another mural village, located in the coastal city of Tongyeong, for example, visitors are reminded to keep their voices down and refrain from trespassing on private residences. It is not always the case that the damages are more than compensated for by economic benefits. In addition, when the projects are funded from public coffers, taxpayers have a right to know whether the possibly hefty construction expenses and maintenance costs they are picking up the tab for contribute to a cause they would believe in or the self-aggrandizing campaign of a group of people linked to a socially unimportant deceased individual. Public consultation may help to alleviate these problems.
It is also worth questioning whether the arts always provide the best media for reconstructing memories. On the one hand, it makes sense to represent an arts professional through works of art. Furthermore, as the drama noted, memories consist of informational and emotional contents. Arts can convey the former in a concise manner and deliver the latter with power and depth, making them relevant to figures from other walks of life as well. On the other hand, there is perhaps a limit to the extent to which the intricacies of philosophy and thought, sometimes the greatest aspects of an individual, can be conveyed through the relatively abstract nature of the arts. Take, for instance, evolutionary economist John Maynard Keynes. Can all his ideas, like the liquidity preference theory, consumption expenditure function and concept of marginal efficiency of capital, be effectively taught through a sculpture, an opera or a sonnet? Perhaps an art form that is more conducive for elaborate discourses like a novel or a film would help illustrate some of Keynes’ economic thinking, as biographical film A Beautiful Mind attempted to for Nobel laureate John Nash’s Nash Equilibrium. Yet common experiences suggest that it is often far more straightforward to study macroeconomics through non-fiction writing, documentaries or lectures. Artistic creations can be useful learning supplements and invitations to discover more about a person, but in pursuing them, more efficient means of transmitting the person’s comprehensive set of thoughts and beliefs should not be overlooked.
No matter how comprehensive the reproduction of memories is, though, they will not return the dead to life. The personal identity and relationships they sustain have ceased to be shaped by any deceased party concerned. In the drama, the alter ego was arguably not revived when the host personality acquired the remainder of his memories because his volition was no longer there. The host personality could, after all, choose whose behavior to adopt and whose emotions to act on. The show was apparently conscious of this break in the continuity of personhood, just as it seemed painfully aware of the clumsiness of its crime subplots, among other flaws. This was supported by, among other things, how it made the memory of Hana and the alter ego’s wedding ceremony, his most precious experience, irretrievable by the host personality so that the alter ego had the happy ending of “[taking] that memory with him.” Nonetheless, even though the free will of a deceased individual cannot be fully restored, those paying tribute to him can come close to doing so by respecting his wishes. Often, one of the most important ways of complying with the wishes is to continue the good work he has done. In the case of the alter ego, this would mean staying devoted to Hana. In the case of Kim Kwang-seok, this would mean producing music that resonates with the ordinary experiences of the working class. In the case of an intellectual, this would mean further developing and investigating his hypotheses and, if possible, converting his findings to real-life applications. In the case of a philanthropist or a company or civic leader, this would mean taking the organisation or society to new heights while safeguarding the welfare of its people.
Sometimes, however, a dying person simply does not wish to share any facet of his life with anyone. In such instances, extreme but not improbable, respecting his wishes would entail respecting his privacy. Barring special circumstances like the need to use his information to save lives, his memories, factual and emotional, should, like the person himself and like a battered narrative, be permitted to go gentle into that good night.
8 thoughts on “The Sketch of an Eternity Through the Arts”
Disclaimer: This article is by no means intended to be a criticism of Kim Kwang-seok, Kim Kwang-seok Road or any other actual person or project.
Special thanks to the following bloggers for their expression of support in the prelude to this post:
– Lady Nyo
– Jon Awbrey
– Cindy Knoke
– Iva Sallay
Here it goes another award for you https://dramachaser.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/sunshine-award-2015/#more-1187
I agree with Marcel Proust. And perhaps that is the reason we become writers….
Interesting question: Should we respect the wishes of those who want their memories to go into that good night? The question, as I see it, is not that black and white. What we do has a legacy that may echo for thousands of years. It may not bear our name. Some things may even erroneously be attributed to someone else, or be completely unrecognized as ever having been done. But our lives have consequences, whether or not people recognize it.
We make a mistake if we think it is celebrity or sainthood or statues or any other kind of overt recognition that is the true measure of our lives – for better or worse.
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