The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Monday, August 01, 2005


Margaret Drabble demonstrates a weird ambivalence to mulitculuralism in this week's TLS. She has the same, sad desperation to do the right thing that I remember the one or two male Gender Studies majors I met in Stanford having. They entirely agreed that men were evil, but equally had a tough time proving that conviction, since they were men. Drabble's essay is on the Post-Colonial equiavalent of never being able to deactivate the male gaze in class. Her attempt to write a poroper work of world literature, one which would combine today's west with 18th century Korea's literature (fascinatingly taking as her model "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"'s combination of 19th century mores and medieval British culture), backfired horribly among the world-literature people who'd inspired her in the first place:
Novelists are always nervous when they hand over the product of three years of solitary labour to a new reader, and I was apprehensive about what I had done, but I had not expected either the tone or the content of the response I received from my first reader in New York. I had tried to behave correctly, but I had not been correct enough. My attitude towards the original classic Korean text was, according to the view from American academe, full of “egregious error”. American academe, appearing to speak on behalf of and in defence of Korea, declared that The Red Queen was full of crimes, the least of which was a reference to Korea in the eighteenth century as a frozen land and, by implication, a “hermit kingdom”. This latter phrase has been used by Koreans and Westerners for centuries, referring to the Chosun dynasty’s undisputed policy of isolationism, but it is, I was told, no longer correct. We are now to believe that the Koreans never were and are not now hermits. They welcome cultural interchange and debate. Nevertheless, the phrase “hermit kingdom” was not to be used, and the publication of my novel could not be approved. The position seemed to me to be paradoxical. (When I commented recently on the fact that the much praised exhibition entitled Encounters: The meeting of Asia and Europe 1500–1800, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004, contained only one Korean artefact amid a profusion of images from China, Japan and India, I was informed by the curators that this was because there were so few encounters. However, it is incorrect to refer to the “hermit kingdom”.)

My novel, I was told, would probably be greeted with ridicule in the United States, because “educated readers” in the US are aware of issues of multiculturalism, and indeed many universities include a one-year course in non-Western civilization in their degree requirement. Had I never heard of Edward Said? (His ideas are embedded throughout my text, and his name appears towards the end, but I don’t think my would-be censor got that far.) Was
I not familiar with the debate over Madame Butterfly? I had Orientalized the Crown Princess – or had I perhaps Westernized her? Objections came from both sides. It was not clear to me whether I had made her too feeble or too strong-minded, but whatever I had done, it was not condoned. I had also, in an attempt at even-handedness, Orientalized the Romanovs, whose barbaric home life comes in for criticism from my time-and-space-travelling narrator. (My comments on the American twentieth-century habit of executing minors and the criminally insane, a practice condemned within the last months by the US Supreme Court, went unnoticed.) My interpretation of Lady Hong, or the Lady Hyegyong, was inadmissible. It was not even clear which of her names I was allowed to use.

This Korean author, whose words had moved and inspired me, died in 1815. She was disadvantaged in life, and she was being censored, it seemed to me, in death. These objections came not from her own country of Korea, but from the standpoint of contemporary American political correctness, which claimed the right to halt my publication. Was it not the practice in England, I was asked, to submit one’s work to peer review? Was this practice uncommon in fiction-writing?

I had clearly caused great offence; I was, in turn, offended. I readily admit to unintended factual errors, some of which could have been removed by a more tactful response. It was a mistake to describe the floors of the Korean central-heating system (the famous ondol flooring) as wooden: they are made of stone covered in varnished paper. It was a mistake to refer to Koreans being obliged to compose the infamous Chinese “eight-legged essays”. It was not a mistake to suggest that the Crown Princess might have seen some Western works of art brought to China by the Jesuits, though it was improbable that she had. (I needed to suppose that she had, because I needed to invoke the question of artistic perspective, a concept introduced into Korea at this period.) I was probably right in guessing that she had not heard of her contemporary Voltaire, but wrong to suppose that she could have read Freud or The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, or known about immune-deficiency disorders or stem-cell research.
The weirdness to the ambivalence is in Drabble's quiet need to still please these people. While she does such a good job of mocking her critics, she is still keen to say that she has had a minor conversion on the question of "cultural appropriation." It seems a bit too grovelly to be a genuine second thought. But she does manage to stick the knife in to them, through this comparison of the defender's of Korea's culture from Western misconceptions in American academe, and the people who make up Koran culture itself:
Magpies are thieves, and in Britain they bring bad luck. In Korea they traditionally bring good luck, or so I was assured. But Korean Americans have adopted the bad luck line, and in my view they therefore misinterpret their own texts. This is confusing.