- The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea by Christopher P. Hanscom, and: When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea by Janet Poole
Deeply researched and skillfully written, Christopher P. Hanscom’s The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea and Janet Poole’s When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea are welcome additions to the still-slender corpus of rigorous English-language scholarly examinations of early twentieth-century Korean literature. Hanscom focuses on the loss of faith in language as a vehicle of meaningful reference, the socalled “crisis of representation,” in the critical and literary production of three prose writers central to Korean literary circles of the 1930s—Kim Yujŏng 金裕貞, Pak T’aewŏn 朴泰遠, and Yi T’aejun 李泰俊; the crisis of representation is understood as “an intense realization of the uncrossable gap between signifier and signified, word and object” (p. 16). For her part, Poole explores how Korean writers and philosophers during the late 1930s and early 1940s, the so-called amhŭkki 暗黑 期 (dark period)—including Ch’oe Chaesŏ 崔載瑞, Ch’oe Myŏngik 崔 明翊, Im Hwa 林和, Kim Namch’ŏn 金南天, O Changhwan 呉章煥, Pak T’aewŏn, Sŏ Insik 徐寅植, and Yi T’aejun—often were driven by “the sense of a disappearing future and the struggle to imagine a transformed present” (p. 1). Individually and together, The Real Modern and When the Future Disappears provide sharp insights into late colonial Korean literary practice.
As Hanscom explains in the opening pages, The Real Modern began with a question: “How is it that during one of the most trying decades in modern Korean history—the period of so-called imperialization under Japanese colonial rule during the 1930s—we find an unprecedented variety of literary and literary-critical production?” (p. 7). In other words, how and why did cultural production flourish so [End Page 191] spectacularly under such seemingly impossible conditions? To probe this question, Hanscom spotlights heretofore relatively neglected writings on language by three key figures of the Kuinhoe 九人會 (Group of nine). This modernist collective of creative writers and critics is often contrasted with the Korea Artista Proleta Federacio (KAPF), a group of proletarian and leftist artists dubbed “realists” that colonial authorities disbanded in 1935. Hanscom aptly demonstrates that differences were considerable even within the Group of Nine, with many of the familiar aspects of modernism not readily apparent in their creative production. But he rightly argues that one common concern, regardless of style, is the attention to “language as a flawed medium of communication … their fiction thematizes this flaw even as it attempts to work around a loss of conviction in the capacity of language to say what it means” (p. 35).
The introduction and Chapter 1 of The Real Modern provide the historical and literary context for analyzing modernism in colonial Korea by bringing to the fore the discourse on the “crisis in representation” that circulated in Seoul literary circles during the 1930s and by reading 1930s Korean modernist literary practice as a “response to linguistic, subjective, and social crises” (p. 16). Discussing 1930s modernist literary production both as taking place within a specific colonial context and as engaging with the more general question of how language connects with the material world, Hanscom debunks all-too-common misperceptions of Korean modernism: when it is acknowledged at all by scholars outside Korean studies, Korean modernism is dismissed as a derivative latecomer and an entirely local, place-based phenomenon only tangentially relevant to global modernisms.1
The following six chapters of The Real Modern trace engagement with the “crisis of representation” in creative and critical writings by Pak, Kim, and Yi. Two chapters are devoted to each writer: the first of the pair examines critical works, while the second provides close readings...