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  • The Value of Literature (Munhak ŭi Kachi)1
  • Yi Kwang-su
    Translated by Jooyeon Rhee

Literature occupies a very important place in the history of mankind. It may seem an extremely difficult task for an amateur scholar like myself to discuss the "value of literature." However, the reason why I have not encountered discussion of this subject in the Korean literary world is because literature itself has been ignored. Since our nation has been put in a perilous situation, all of our citizens are entirely absorbed in practical matters relating to their daily lives. Under such circumstances, it may be difficult for people to ponder something like literature, which seems to exist outside those lives. Yet, is literature really a useless thing that exists separately from reality? This important question has to be answered first. Therefore, although the scope of my perspective and knowledge is limited, I will venture to say a few things here.

First, I will talk about the nature of literature as simply as possible.

It is not an easy task to clarify when and where the word "literature" (munhak) was used for the first time. Nonetheless, its original meaning is "general studies or learning."2 As men's [End Page 287] intellect gradually developed, learning evolved with it. During this progression, literature has been slowly gaining independent status, and its meaning becoming clearer: in East Asia it now refers to written compositions such as poems (siga)3 and novels (sosŏl)4 that embody human feelings and emotions—the so-called chŏng (情).5 The English term "literature" followed a similar historical trajectory as well.

Climates vary across the East Asian region, whose lands are barren. Living in such unfavorable conditions, people in our country and others like it have largely focused their efforts upon obtaining materials that can provide them with clothes, food, and shelter. This narrowly focused interest on such materials, in turn, has resulted in the prioritization of knowledge (chi, 知) and will (ŭi, 意) over emotions (chŏng, 情). Emotions, in other words, have been disregarded or ostracized. Thus, literature—as an embodiment of emotions—has been seen as a mere recreation or pastime. This is the reason why the development of literature in Korea has been so slow. European countries, by contrast, have a mild climate and fertile lands, which enable their inhabitants to live in abundance. Thus Europeans did not have to be obsessed with acquiring knowledge and will only; they also recognized the existence and value of human feelings and emotions. Their affirmation of emotions, in short, was a driving force behind the rapid development of European literature to this date.

Readers may wonder, "Although literature may be important for people who can afford a leisurely life because of the natural conditions under which they live, what does it do for us—who live in a generally mild climate but are geographically closer to the frigid [End Page 288] zones—who cannot afford it?" This is a misunderstanding. I do not mean to say that literature is important only for those who live under ideal conditions, but to emphasize that it develops relatively faster in such places. It is inevitable that literature will survive as long as men and intellectual activities continue to exist. To put it differently, just as science—the fruit of human intelligence—is indispensible to our life, so is literature; it is destined to live so long as our feelings and emotions remain intact. Thus, the degree of literary evolution and development differs according to historical conditions and the geographical environment: this is the difference I wanted to point out. To reiterate, literature will survive as long as mankind itself does not vanish.

Next, what constitutes literature and what is its value?

It is an arduous task to give a clear definition of literature since its scope is vast and its boundaries unclear. However, it would not be inaccurate to say that literature refers to written texts that embody human feelings and emotions. To this day, many scholars have presented many different definitions of literature, yet no consensus has been reached so far. Although there is no clear standard we can consult, we can include poetry and fiction...


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