I spent last weekend in Berlin, the main purpose being to perform at the 9/11 Commemoration Service at the American Church in Berlin organized by the U.S. Embassy there.
Along with Andreas Boelcke (who is head of the Piano Academy Berlin and is my partner in the Amitayus Duo), in the middle of the service I played “Prayer” by the Jewish composer Ernest Bloch.
The front-row audience for the event included Germany’s President (Christian Wulff), the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the U.S. Ambassador in Germany, and assorted other political heavyweights on the political scene in Berlin. [A photo gallery of some of the front-row spectators is here.]
More photographs should be on the way soon, but as this event — and the whole notion of commemorating a trans-national disaster as well as the business of moving on — has been on my mind of late, I wanted to share with readers of this site. And China was unavoidable on this trip as well, from visits to the Chinese Cultural Center in Berlin to readings by Ha Jin from his unpublished manuscript on Nanking to a visit with colleagues and Sinophone libraries in Frankfurt. Perhaps there shall be more to come.
North Korean Metaphor War: Whether Adrift or Storming Forward in the Post-Cold War Epoch, the DPRK Remains Not So Much an Enigma as a Deep Cultural Bunker Into Which One, Generally Speaking, Can Only Enter By Pounding on a Piano
If I had a nickel for everytime I read the words “according to Kim Jong Il’s former Japanese chef” I could buy enough rice to feed entire boatloads of squid fishermen in the sea whose name was called Korea by an Italian in Mongolia in the 1250s.
Which is to say that the repetition of data, after certain repetitions, becomes not data at all, but a blockage.
Accrochage: phalanges of the trained musician bring plangeant glissandi to those pleasantly-drifted into halls named for dead dissidents, the only kind we truly respect.
A melismatic turn in North Korean music would be a sign that Syrian friendship has finally inflected itself upon the layered harmony of that so-called “friendship” which fails to share a common tonal intercourse!
But let’s just talk about books, specifically, this one:
Hartmut Koschyk, ed., Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005).
In which Bonhoeffer in Korea is discussed and Doris Hertrampf, the former German Ambassador in Pyongyang, reminds us of certain basic facts; a book in which Uwe Schmelter, on page 311 of her essay (“Ist die deutsch-koreanische kulturelle Zusammenarbeit eine ‘Einbahnstrasse’?” pp. 301-312) brings down my house-of-cards-mind with a real revelation that undermines, to modify a Rumsfeldian phrase but to shear from it the referent to the cultural destruction of Iraq, “what I thought I knew about what I thought I knew.”
This fact, which opens up a wide swath in an enigma that originated as a great wound some decades ago, is that the Goethe Insitut opened in Pyongyang in 2004 and promptly screened the film Goodbye Lenin under title “Never Cheat Your Mother.”
Were that not enough (were that not enough? what is this “entry”, some kind of Dickens novel? facts mere gruel for the uncared-for yet consequently insatiable?), the book moves on into even more fertile cultural territorium:
Alexander Liebreich, ”Kulturarbeit in Nordkorea,” in Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint, Hartmut Koschyk, ed., (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005), pp. 313-329.
In which it is established that Liebreich is chief director of Munchen Kammerorchester [Munich Chamber Orchestra] and a kind of musicologist [Musikwissenschafter], and that he took three trips to Pyongyang from 2002-2006.
What’s that I hear you saying? You want something unique from this man? Perhaps, a pebble of data that, when shifted and ground down among other pebbles, portends a thunderstorm, a tidal wave, an upsurge, an Aufschwung of analysis worthy of being gripped like a newspaper on that terrible morning?
The man is a musician, and he notes the unbelievable quiet in Pyongyang in a way that none other would. Instead of harping on the lack of cars in the North Korean capital (“Shame! Shame! on you for not purchasing our Hyundai-Toyota-Mercedes-Chrysler-Shares-in-Our-Failing-Companies, Shame, North Korea, for clearly the measurement of your damnable system is now complete!“), on page 314 Liebreich says simply:
“Wir unterschaetzen, wie wichtig das klangliche Umfeld fuer einen Menschen, vor allem aber fuer einen Musiker ist (We underestimate how important the sonic environment is for a person, but above all for a musician).”
Yes, by God, yes. Riding in the back of the Maestro’s tiny red Japanese sportscar between his Baltimore mansion and his millions-dollar symphony hall, I, as an twelve-year-old soprano about to be baptised into the cult of Mahler, had this point driven home by David Zinman. Recollecting his castigation of a winter audience, Zinman said so pointedly, so naked in both his dependence and his power: “The artist starts from nothing, and must start with a blank page, a white canvas. Sound is my medium. I ask merely that you provide me with a blank canvas.”
Giving master classes in Pyongyang, the young German maestro/author now realizes how important the culture of note-taking is in Pyongyang. Would that he would analyze the national anthem!
And then he does Bruckner’s 8th Symphony in a huge hall. An absolute rush of North Korean string talent is made available to him.
Defection is not an option and there are too many hours now logged on this fine side of Checkpoint Charlie to mitigate against anything other, but every so often one feels as if one has washed the face of an ancient statue or an inscription on the tomb of a king (buried of course with his concubines), so nobly and so unaffected is a truth expressed.
Humans need silence in order to understand themselves, but when braided up into strands of sound marshalled by Brucknerian successors, no system — even full of the most paternal insticts and their most coercive extensions — can stand up and honestly say “We have nothing, nothing to offer you.”
So let the octaves thunder in Pyongyang, because we have hungry souls.
I found this French film, apparently shot in spring 2010, to be better than most treatments of the North Korean tourist experience. Among other things, a young North Korean “rapper” is encountered in an amusement park (at 12:31), North Korean rallies are accompanied by music by Philip Glass, and the piece benefits from the use of some selected extracts from North Korean film archives.
In Part II, one gets a sense of how French tourists experience the Korean War museum in Pyongyang, a visit which begins with one of the visitors writing an inscription about her father, who left Korea in 1950 for France, never to return, in the museum’s visitor’s book.
Of slightly older vintage (but with the same North Korean Francophone guide, and a far more vigorous and hirsute traveller) is this French documentary from 2008, which concludes, around 2’30”, with the main TV personality sprinting across a field to batter a plywood cutout of a big-nosed American soldier, which prompts some humorous dialogue with the locals.
In the following section, a man gathers edible grasses on Kim Il Sung’s birthday. Then, in section three (below), the host laughs — he has finally lost his guides, who refuse to enter the church along with him in Pyongyang.
In Part 4, the viewer can enjoy (what else?) spectacle, as the French man goes into an extended discussion with his hosts about the sex habits of ostriches, including the possibility of bisexual ostriches. This is as far from the dark and paranoiac music of Lisa Ling’s National Geographic DPRK documentary as possible! As with everything else, it seems that the results of a journey have much to do with the proclivities of the traveler.
On the more geopolitical side of things, there is this in-depth French look at current events through a historical prism, including interviews with (among others) Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation which begins with a look — which I had never seen before — at the immense American flotilla sent to intimidate the North Koreans in summer 2010.
There are, somewhat less helpfully, long discourses by Jerrold Post, head of psychoanalysis [?] for the CIA, about Kim Jong Il’s cognac habits, and Klingner goes on about how the current generation of North Korean children are “mentally stunted.” But the documentary takes Kim Jong Il’s film history seriously, and, for the cultural historian, part 2 begins with extracts from the 1985 North Korean remake of Godzilla.
Not to be missed (besides the wonderful contrast between the personal stories of the casual and goateed bandana biker-styled Kenji Fujimoto and the statistics of Marcus Noland in his precisely fixed suit and tie) are North Korean television depictions of George W. Bush, seen here at 6’30”. What I find remarkable is the extent to which the continuity of the North Korean graphic styles manages to make Bush look like John Foster Dulles in 1950.
Finally, the obligatory refugee documentary, “Han, la prix de la liberte [Han, the Price of Liberty]” by Alexandre Dereims in 2009. Like Mike Kim’s book Escaping North Korea, “Han” traces the path of refugees from Yanji down to the Chinese borders with Laos/Thailand and takes them into Seoul. This is a well-known arc to anyone who follows news about North Korean defectors, but there is one point of fact which I found particularly interesting, if not happily so. At about 1’40” of the following segment, a young woman refugee being interviewed in an apartment in Yanji describes the years of famine — 1994, 1995, 1996, she enumerates them off one by one as if to recount each as an entity deserving of individual weight — and matter-of-factly recounts that people resorted to cannibalism. Then, she says “Things are presently on the path for it to happen again.” Not good news from inside North Korea. Incidentally, although in the wake of the Laura Ling/Euna Lee debacle which managed to break up at least one network dedicated to extracting refugees from the North, the defectors’ faces here not pixelated out because they made it to Seoul, where, presumably, they are presently.
Back in July, while on a late-night stroll through the 5th Arrdondisment looking for Rue Oberkampf, I chanced upon an announcement of the Dalai Lama’s mid-August trip to Toulouse, France, a city which appears to have become a kind of new Buddhist heartland.
To follow up: The Dalai Lama indeed went to Toulouse, and a short clip from a French television station captures very well the local excitement and the huge crowds (over 10,000 attendees, each paying over 100 Euros) garnered by the visit.
Although his speech is a touch impenetrable, I personally enjoy how the 20-something guy standing in line in his sports gear is there to learn from the Dalai Lama about compassion, a value which I also felt exuding from the somewhat drunk but indisputably kind (pre-Buddhists/sloshed Boddhisattvas?) of French origin who I sat next to while taking in the fireworks and getting an earful of Leonard Bernstein and Sinatra on Bastille Day near the Ecole Militaire.
Now that I mention it, there is a working paper to be written somewhere about the battle for hearts and minds, the soft power struggle, undertaken by the Chinese government and the Tibetan Government in Exile amidst the semi-employed post-collegiate white and French-born segment of Europe. (I say “white and French-born” because it may be that among African-born Francophones in France, Sino-African relations is the terrain upon which China is judged and found wanting, or exemplary; this may be speculation on my part, but a quick glance at the newsstands in France and the predominance of African affairs there argues for my correctness in this small argumentative vector. Of course white French readers of the press are also concerned with Africa — as are France’s armed and thoroughly multi-ethnic forces — but that is another debate altogether.)
The Dalai Lama’s visit to Toulouse is also an opportunity to contrast how French politicians handle such a visit, as opposed to their American counterparts. When the Dalai Lama visits Washington, American Republicans waste no time in smashing the administration for not showing His Holiness more respect. Tibet policy is one of the great unstated, but unquestionable, areas of extreme left-right agreement in the U.S.
On the other hand, France’s answer to the Tea Party, Marine LePen and her National Front, appear to have no comment on the Dalai Lama’s visit. There is, though, this video of Le Pen holding forth in a small press conference in Toulouse (which includes complaining of the “Islamicization” of France) in which neither China nor the Dalai Lama comes in for discussion (for more on the Petainist origins of the present permutations of the French right wing, see James Shields’ detailed book from 2007). However, this Marine Le Pen press release from spring 2008, singles out the main object of attack — following in her father’s footsteps of associating French left with the Cultural Revolution — is not the Chinese government but instead a French communist:
Mardi 08 Avril 2008
Du Tibet à Nanterre : le communisme incompatible avec la démocratie
Communiqué de presse de Marine Le Pen
Si les violences commises par le régime communiste chinois au Tibet ont été largement commentées et condamnées par la classe politique, pas une voix ne s’est élevée pour dénoncer les propos stupéfiants du maire communiste de Nanterre, Patrick Jary.
Réagissant le 7 avril dans les colonnes du Parisien au prochain déménagement du siège du Front national dans la préfecture des Hauts-de-Seine, l’édile communiste affirme “qu’il faut que les gens comprennent qu’il y a des lieux où le FN n’a pas le droit de venir”.
Au Tibet comme à Nanterre, le communisme, fidèle à sa vision totalitaire du monde, démontre une fois encore son caractère antidémocratique et la vision toute particulière qu’il se fait de la liberté …
Le Front National dénonce l’hypocrisie d’une classe politique qui sait être bruyante quand il s’agit de stigmatiser les violations des droits de l’homme à l’étranger mais reste étrangement silencieuse quand certaines libertés fondamentales sont bafouées en France.
So much for France.
A week after his Toulouse sojurn, the Dalai Lama was received at Goethe University in Frankfurt, an institution with an already-dynamic Asian Studies profile, particularly via its Interdisciplinary Center for East Asian Studies. Video of the visit is available here, via Goethe University.
By way of comment: As I was in China during both of these visits, it very much interests me how routinized (which is to say, ignored) the Dalai Lama’s global work has become in the PRC press. When a prominent French politician — say, the mayor of Paris — wants to make the Dalai Lama an “honorary citizen,” or an American mayor wants to commemorate Tibetan struggles in the month of March, a stink is raised, but by and large, the CCP lets these kind of appearances pass without comment, partially because they have already spent a great deal of their human rights pushback capital on cases like Ai Weiwei. It may also be because the Dalai Lama is so apparently indefatigable, and there is little that the CCP can gain from railing against his every move. It is one of the many instances in China where the “hard line” is in reality rather spotty, and applied only exemplary circumstances sufficient to inspire second thoughts about extending an invitation, second thoughts which are then rather easily pushed aside by the original impulse to broaden the scope of the inquiry and bend the ear towards the man in the crimson and gold robes from Dhramsala.