Romanticism in the Peripheries: Choe Jae-seo's Literary Criticism in Colonial Korea

This essay explores the possibilities of literary criticism in a colonial situation by tracing the career of Choe Jae-seo (1908-64), who was one of the first scholars of English literature to write literary criticism in colonial Korea. Choe began his literary studies with a particular focus on English Romanticism at Kyungsung Imperial University, and Romantic aesthetics became a major site of struggle for Choe in finding his voice as a colonized critic. Throughout this struggle, Romanticism carries the burden of Choe’s historical and political consciousness by becoming the point of tension between literature and politics, East and West, universal cosmopolitanism and totalitarian imperialism. At the end of this road, Choe arrives at the possibility of a Romantic cosmopolitan criticism, which continues to call for a critical vigilance against colonial oppression and political violence.

Romanticism in the Peripheries: Choe Jae-seo’s Literary Criticism in Colonial Korea

Suh-Reen Han
Seoul National University

1.        Is literary criticism possible in a colonial situation? Can the colonized critic speak? When Korea gained independence from colonial rule at the end of the Second World War, many of its writers and critics underwent the tormenting process of self-reflection and self-criticism, publishing through various venues “declarations of conscience.” These overly lucid acts of self-avowal testify to a suppressed sense of guilt about the silence that had prevailed under colonial oppression—a silence that implicated even those intellectuals who did not outwardly support or collaborate with the Japanese regime. [1]  The incriminating silence and inaction point to a peculiar predicament in which colonized subjects found themselves when brought into the imperial system as the subjected other. Christopher P. Hanscom attributes this predicament to the “paradox of empire,” which “demand[s] that, as an imperial subject, one speak beyond the position of the colonized” and enforces “the simultaneous denial of a universal position of enunciation to the same colonized subject” (35). The question of breaking one’s silence against colonial powers was a particularly knotty one for Korean intellectuals because the colonial period saw a multi-layered, multi-cultural climate of imperial acculturation and hybridization, which already compromised intellectuals’ sense of autonomous self-representation. With the Meiji government beginning to intervene in Korean affairs in 1876 and finally annexing the Peninsula in 1910, Korea was gradually forced to open its doors to the political, economic, and cultural influences of the outside world—that world being predominantly Japan but also the West, whose culture was mainly transmitted via Japan. During this period, foreign literature began to flow in on a massive scale and had a significant impact on the popular imagination and academic scholarship of Korea. Western literature in particular signified world literature for the Koreans, and to be well versed in Western classics was a vital part of being cultured. Imbibing Western literature was in itself a paradoxical act, relying on foreign culture to overcome the crisis of political and cultural disempowerment under colonial rule.

2.        This essay will explore the possibilities of literary criticism under the colonial condition through the works of Choe Jae-seo, one of the first Korean scholars of English literature. Choe himself embodied the paradox of empire, struggling to create a critical space for himself by appropriating Western literary theory, which simultaneously formed and unsettled his sense of colonized subjectivity. English Romanticism was one of Choe’s main areas of interest, and this essay’s aim is to reflect upon the exigency of the Romantic mode of thought in the Asian colonial context through Choe’s literary criticism. In a critical sphere where a variety of imported literary modes from the West, such as modernism, socialist realism, and symbolism, were contending for cultural leverage, Romanticism carried the burden of Choe’s historical and political consciousness by becoming the point of tension between literature and politics, East and West, universal cosmopolitanism and totalitarian imperialism. If silence is inevitable in the paradoxical situation of the colonized critic, Choe opens the possibility of a Romantic aesthetics framing the silence and giving it a contour that enables a critical inquiry into colonial discourse.

3.        Choe Jae-seo (1908–64) was born in Haeju, a city located in the Hwanghae Province, which today is part of the North Korean territory. Japan’s official annexation of Korea took place in 1910, just two years after his birth, and Choe’s education was largely a product of the modern public education system introduced by the Japanese government. He must have been an outstanding student in his youth since he was able to attended Kyungsung Second Middle School in the capitol city of Kyungsung (or Keijo in Japanese, the name given under colonial rule to what is now Seoul). In 1926, Choe was admitted at the top of his class to Kyungsung Imperial University, one of the two imperial universities founded by Japan in the colonies. [2]  Choe majored in English literature at the College of Law and Letters with a special focus on English Romantic poetry. The list of courses he took with the Keats scholar Sato Kiyoshi include such titles as “Byron Studies” and “Poems of Keats,” and the title of his senior thesis, which he wrote under Professor Sato, is “The Development of Shelley’s Poetic Mind” (Kim Yun-sik 216). Choe advanced to graduate school in the same university, and although there is no official record of his having received a degree, he did complete the two-year master’s program after working on a research project entitled “Romantic Types of the Poetic Mind.” Upon his completion of graduate studies in 1933, Choe became the first Korean to be appointed lecturer of English at Kyungsung Imperial University—an event phenomenal enough to be reported in the Chosun Daily (April 30, 1933). After a year at his alma mater, Choe continued to teach English at Kyungsung School of Law and debuted as a literary critic in both Japanese and Korean literary circles by publishing prolifically in Japanese academic journals, Korean newspapers, and a journal called Inmun Pyeong’ron [Criticism in the Humanities], of which he was both publisher and editor.

4.        Romanticism was clearly what held Choe’s interest in school, and although his senior thesis on Shelley is evidently lost and unavailable for assessment, we can get a glimpse of his early thoughts on Romantic literature through the papers he published as a graduate student. In an essay called “The Limits of Poetry,” which Choe wrote in Japanese for the English department’s bulletin in 1931, he places Wordsworth and Shelley at two opposite limits of Romantic poetry—Wordsworth as a realist poet who grounds his ideas on the sensory experience of the outer world, and Shelley as an idealist who reaches for the far limits of the human imagination. While this may not be a particularly original take on the two poets, Choe’s criticism of where the two poets fail offers a reverse glimpse of what he saw as successful poetry. For Choe, Wordsworth lapses into unnecessary moral didacticism whenever his poetry loses touch with the natural world. Choe reads Wordsworth’s preface to Peter Bell as evidence of the poet’s anxiety about Coleridgean supernaturalism and the dangers of imagination’s flight beyond earthly themes. Shelley’s fault, on the other hand, is found in such early poems as Queen Mab, whose characters Choe sees as mere personifications of conceptual and revolutionary ideas. By contrast, Shelley’s later works such as Epipsychidion are better poems in Choe’s opinion because they “spiritualize” characters from real life and sublimate reality into ideals. In his view of Wordsworth and Shelley, Choe appears to be consistently wary of moral and political ideas being presented in poetry without the mediation of human experience, through which the ideas become an integral part of the literary work. Good literature, in other words, is the representation of ideas in their most concrete and lived form, and Choe found literature at its best and its worst in Romantic poetry.

5.        Choe’s interest in literature’s engagement with the external world finds another outlet in his essay, “Immature Literature,” written in 1931 for a literary journal issued by a coterie of Korean graduates from Kyungsung Imperial University. Here Choe notes the immaturity of some of Shelley’s long poems, most notably The Revolt of Islam, calling to evidence their formal faults. The Revolt of Islam, according to Choe, may have been one of Shelley’s most ambitious and politically radical poems, but the poet there lacks the compositional skills to draw in the readers’ interest and stimulate their political awareness. Choe criticizes Shelley for inserting long political speeches, unnecessary descriptions of natural scenery, and expressions of sentiments that have no clear motive in the story—all of which contribute to thwarting the narrative’s power of escalation and depriving it of a sense of realness and authenticity. On the surface level, Choe’s criticism appears purely formal, especially since he attributes these faults to the difficulty of composing long poems and instead argues for the greatness of lyric poetry by Romantic authors. However, Choe mentions Prometheus Unbound as one of Shelley’s greatest poetic accomplishments, and we come to suspect that it is not merely formal weakness that makes a poem “immature.” In fact, what really troubles Choe is the kind of poetry that fails to engage readers’ interests and affect their minds, as we see in the following statement where formal criticism strangely bleeds into affective criticism: “The greatest challenge of a long poem resides in attaining unity and tension through inspiration and strong affect” (99). For Choe, in the end, Romanticism is less about the expression of the solitary poet’s genius and creativity than about the intimate relationship between the poet, the world, and the audience brought together by a work of literature that gives form to human experience in such a way that it truly inspires and changes its readers.

6.        In the discursive sphere of colonial Korea, Choe’s political ambiguity and academicism set him against the strongest anti-colonial literary movement of the period led by KAPF (acronym for Korea Artista Proleta Federacio, which denotes “Korean Federation of Proletarian Art” in Esperanto). [3]  This group of Marxist writers and critics organized in 1925 with the goal of liberating the Korean people from colonial subjugation through class struggle. Their activities mostly consisted of writing and distributing socialist literature for the purpose of educating and promoting the literacy of the working classes. KAPF’s mission statement called for action against feudalism, capitalism, and colonial autocracy, for which art was explicitly utilized as a political tool. It was against KAPF’s ideological rigidity and politicization of literature that the School of Foreign Literature (Haewoe Munhakpa) began its movement in 1927 to depoliticize art and bring focus to literature’s aesthetic qualities. Its members were mostly students of Western literature from various universities in Tokyo, [4]  congregating to translate and introduce to Korean readers select works by nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and America. [5]  With the aim of refining the literary taste of the masses, contributing to the development of Korean literature, and playing a part in world literature, the School of Foreign Literature worked to provide accurate and high quality translations of original works against secondhand translations of Japanese translations.

7.        As it were, the literary scene of Korea’s colonial period was preoccupied by a dichotomous view of art and politics, and today’s assessment of Choe’s critical stance is curiously inflected by this very dichotomy. Korean literature scholar Kim Yun-sik, who argues that Choe is the mainstay of Romanticism in the early stages of literary modernization in Korea, regards him as an independent voice against the political agendas of proletarian and nationalist literary movements. Here Choe’s Romanticism becomes a purely academic interest inherited from his professors at Kyungsung Imperial University, and Choe is exempted from a judgment of his ambiguous politics. Yet, Choe’s career taken as a whole makes it problematic to label him simply a Romanticist. Choe’s early interest in Romantic poetry soon faded into the background as the focus of his critical works shifted to contemporary writers like Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and E. M. Forster. On a more fundamental level, Choe began to absorb the philosophical and aesthetic theories of Modernism, which apparently collided with the organic worldview of Romanticism. When Choe, just out of school, debuted as a professional critic in the Japanese literary circle, he published a paper on T. E. Hulme, whose distinction of Romanticism and Classicism had a great impact on Modernists like T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. In fact, it was this paper that gave Choe the enduring reputation of being an advocate of “intellectualism,” a term coined by the Japanese critic Abe Tomoji to characterize Hulme’s anti-Romantic aesthetic theory calling for “hard and dry,” anti-sentimental, and imagistic works of art (Kim Heung-gyu 279).

8.        What are we to make of this drastic change in Choe’s critical position? Is he merely an opportunist chasing after academic trends? Is he a detached student of different critical standpoints, explicating and analyzing them without personal commitment or conviction? Coming back to the question of art and politics, Choe’s foray into Modernism may simply look like an extension of the kind of academic thought experiment Kim Yun-sik saw in his Romantic criticisms. However, what I think needs to be more clearly understood here is the complicated position of a colonized intellectual whose political stance has less to do with will to power than with bearing witness to the conflicting powers that usher in a complex of clashing ideas from distant places and times. Korea’s process of full-fledged modernization began almost a century later compared to Europe, and under the control of a colonial power. Ideas that took more than a century to develop progressively in step with various political and cultural changes in the West flowed into Korea almost simultaneously when its gates opened under the political pressures of the outside world. There is a shift in the sense of temporality as the accumulated time and history of the modern West become a synchronic presence in their newly transmitted location. This does not mean that Western ideas lose their historical significance, but that they gain a new sense of history as they are transplanted in different processes of modernization. When it comes to Western influences on thought and art, Korean intellectuals were far more than passive recipients of institutional education under the Japanese colonial policy. Rather, they showed a certain agency and a sense of urgency as they actively sought Western ideas for their liberating possibilities. Choe’s advisor Sato, in his retirement speech made after twenty years of teaching at Kyungsung Imperial University, recalls how shocked he was at finding students thirsting after knowledge of foreign literature in their search of a road toward the Korean people’s liberation and freedom (Kim Yun-sik 406). Choe was one of them, finding resonance in the Romantic poets’ own engagement with a burgeoning modern culture and politics; Romanticism was still a highly relevant mode of thought in the historical stage that Korea was in. [6]  However, the more skeptical and disillusioned worldview of the Modernists also resonated with Choe as he understood the hopeless state of world affairs in the early twentieth century, when Japan took part in the current of totalitarian militarism sweeping across Europe and Asia. The inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in Choe’s wide-ranging literary criticism are perhaps the most evident signs of a point in colonial history when Romantic and Modernist worldviews collided by ironically being both valid.

9.        Korea continued to go through a series of sea changes: its liberation from Japan in 1945, divided occupation by Soviet and American troops, establishment of two separate Koreas in 1948, and the eruption of the Korean War in 1950. Only after the violent storm of historical rupture had passed and settled into an uneasy reconciliation was Choe able to write his critical masterpiece Theory of Literature in 1957. In the preface to this work, Choe writes a deeply personal account of what literature has meant for him through the turbulent years. There is a certain poignancy in his confession that, when he fled south from the advancing North Korean and Chinese forces on the Christmas morning of 1950, he took with him just two books—a Concise Oxford English Dictionary and the collected works of Shakespeare—and that he was able to find value in life and hang onto a desire for life by reading Shakespearean tragedies. Life after Korea’s liberation has taught him “the sweet taste of freedom,” writes Choe, but it has also taught him “the value of order” (1). From this historical lesson Choe develops a theory that the function of literature is to give formal order to human life, experience, and feeling so that value and truth can be transmitted to the reader. Despite his reluctance to designate what this value or truth may be or where it may lie, Choe certainly reassesses what literature can and should do against a postcolonial situation in which both literary and national histories must undergo reconstruction out of the rubbles of calamity. Interestingly, English Romanticism serves as a somewhat ambiguous foundation for Choe’s literary theory and cultural critique, causing tension in its belatedness and yet not failing to give force to his sense of urgency in questioning the possibility of literature in the aftermath of modern catastrophe.

10.        One of the few places where Choe touches on contemporary Korean culture in Theory of Literature is the section where he quotes Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” to draw an analogy between the corrupted states of popular taste in nineteenth-century England and in twentieth-century Korea (58). Like Wordsworth, Choe has embarked on a cultural mission to save readers from the evils of vulgar and sensationalist popular literature. Where this undertaking takes him is another question for the postcolonial critic, however, since he cannot avoid comparing the vastly different literary terrains and traditions of the two nations maintaining different possibilities for a cultural renewal:

Even in England, where a literary tradition of nearly a thousand years stands under the two great peaks that is Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth felt something close to despair. Even without such a tradition, our society embraces foreign literature uncritically and the murky waters of shamefully obscene literature flow gallantly without reserve. I cannot be the only one who cannot resist hopeless thoughts about the future of our nation’s modern literature. (59)
Much is at stake for the future of Korean literature, in Choe’s opinion, because there is no literary tradition to act as a buffer or remedial force against the inflow of tasteless literature from abroad. With their tradition no longer relevant or even surviving in the throes of violent change, Korean authors cannot afford to rely on their own heritage to build a new literary tradition as Wordsworth had done. On this note, it is significant that Choe looks to Chaucer, rather than Shakespeare and Milton, as the cornerstone of England’s literary tradition. After a pointed reflection on a society, presumably Korean, that can neither go forward from a state of cultural anarchy for lack of tradition nor break clean from the dogmatic tradition of a fossilized culture like that of pre-modern Confucian Korea, Choe turns to Chaucer for answers (96). Choe’s emphasis falls on the fact that Chaucer’s “English” literature was the product of actively sought literary influences from advanced foreign cultures. Chaucer had established the English verse form by creatively adopting the decasyllabic meter of French poetry; refined the literary English language by translating Roman de la Rose and cultivating a more sophisticated form of his native language; absorbed the styles of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio in his literary creations; and even summoned the inspiration of Eastern literature when modeling The Canterbury Tales after The Arabian Nights (97–99). What captures Choe’s imagination in the case of Chaucer is the vitality and suppleness of a tradition that comes alive through a creative engagement with its other—what was most critically needed in the cultural wasteland of post-war Korea.

11.        The same openness applies to Choe’s own critical theory, which is based on a broad knowledge of Western literary criticism. Working up from Plato and Aristotle to Kantian aesthetics and scrutinizing the core ideas of Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist literary criticisms, Theory of Literature functions also as an encyclopedic compilation of European aesthetic thought. In that context, Choe takes Romanticism with a historically nuanced grain of salt, and Romantic literary criticism gains a renewed force against not only late modern but also postcolonial history. Choe’s sense that we are now living in an age where it is impossible to write poetry departs from his understanding of the Romantic predicament that there is no work for poets in the age of industrialization (149) and expands to an awareness of the stifled individual genius and personality in the modern age (87). If the principle of individual imagination and feeling has returned to the center of Choe’s theory of literature, it now entails the burden of knowing its belatedness and anachronism. As a way of addressing this problem, Choe is saliently upfront about his scientific and positivist methodology, pronouncing in his preface that he will desist from an idealistic admiration of such concepts as personality, genius, imagination, intuition, inspiration, and creativity only to treat them as demonstrable phenomena or experiences (2). He thus resorts to the scientific method of modern psychology, most notably that of I. A. Richards’s physiological psychology and John Dewey’s biological psychology, to overcome the Kantian method of faculty psychology (158–59). Choe’s assertion that literature is the ordering of feeling is inspired by Richards’s idea in Science and Poetry that the experience of reading poetry brings about a psychological equilibrium by harmonizing multiple human impulses into emotional responses and attitudes, i.e., “the impulses towards one kind of behaviour or another” (Choe 167; Richards 28). On the other hand, when Choe calls for a literature that organizes human experience, he is relying on Dewey’s concept of experience in Art as Experience:

Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, it [experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events. Instead of signifying surrender to caprice and disorder, it affords our sole demonstration of a stability that is not stagnation but is rhythmic and developing. Because experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievements in a world of things, it is art in germ. Even in its rudimentary forms, it contains the promise of that delightful perception which is esthetic experience. (18–19)
For Dewey, experience in its organic connection with the world is essentially aesthetic, and art in turn is merely an intensified form of experience. Resisting theories that separate art from ordinary experience or that put art on a pedestal, Dewey revises the Kantian system of compartmentalizing and hierarchizing human faculties for the sake of aesthetic autonomy. Choe inherits Dewey’s unifying vision in his interpretation of Coleridge’s organic theory, expanding upon the conventional analogy between genius and plant to assert the necessity of absorbing and digesting diverse nutrients for both genii and plants to produce “beautiful and nutritious fruits” (89).

12.        Choe’s reinstatement of Romantic organicism to add pressure to the individual’s active engagement with the world is in the interest of a critic who is reconsidering the function of literature in a world disillusioned with the power of individual genius. However, Choe cannot sever himself wholly from the Romantic notion of aesthetic autonomy because he is extremely wary of a distorted way of imbuing literature with social or political significance—namely, the totalitarian regime’s use of literature for propaganda. As Choe notes in Theory of Literature,

It was not only in the past that literature’s utility was stressed. Even today, literature under a dictatorship assumes a propagandistic function, and only then is literature allowed a reason for being. However, that literature can never be valid as propaganda rests on the simple reason, once stated by De Quincey, that affect dies [when literature becomes propaganda]. This is in fact beauty’s vengeance against power. (31)
Faced with an Adornian impasse in the aftermath of totalitarian devastation, Choe still believes poetry can be written and literature possible. Along with Coleridge’s organic theory, Wordsworth’s “worthy purpose” in poetry (59), Shelley’s moral sympathy (61), Keats’s negative capability (78) all serve as ways through which Choe can reflect upon literature’s disinterested interest in exerting its affective and moral power over the given reality. In fact, Choe himself can no longer be a disinterested critic when it comes to literature under the shadows of authoritarian power, pondering upon art’s vengeful strength over political violence. Reading into the political implications of Choe’s literary theory is an important yet tricky task, mainly because he himself was writing Theory of Literature after a blatant alignment with Japanese militarist propaganda during the period of escalated warfare and cultural indoctrination throughout the Pacific War. To discuss the politics of Choe’s aesthetics without politicizing him would be the key challenge here—a challenge that is heightened by Choe’s post-war return to Romanticism, a cultural phenomenon prone to ideological labeling, reactionary or revolutionary, precisely because of its inherently oblique and tension-ridden relationship with politics.

13.        The last five years of colonial occupation, during which Japan concentrated all of its military and spiritual efforts on imperialist expansion in Southeast Asia and China, constituted a state of exception for Korean authors and critics in many ways. Since the mid 1930s, the Japanese government had quickly grown dogmatic and censorious in its nationalist ideology, forcing the disintegration of the insurgent KAPF and establishing Korean literary associations that promoted propagandistic war literature. Under the unifying nationalist motto “Japan and Korea are one body” (naeseon ilche), Japan aggressively obliterated the cultural identity of Korea by forcing the colonial subjects to use the Japanese language exclusively, change their surnames to Japanese names, and pledge allegiance to the Japanese emperor. In 1941, the two leading literary magazines of Korea, Munjang [Sentence] and Inmun Pyeong’ron [Criticism in the Humanities], were closed by force and integrated into the solely government-authorized Gukmin Munhak [National Literature], which soon became a Japanese language only publication. Choe was the chief editor of this new magazine, working under an editorial guideline that emphasized representing the “national” spirit and voluntarily cooperating with Japan’s war efforts and cultural programs. In Chosun Literature during the Transitional Period, a 1943 collection of essays Choe published in Japanese to promote the cause of National Literature, we come across what looks like a flagrantly collaborative attitude toward the authoritarian cultural regimen. The watershed moment for such unreserved ideological conversion, Choe confesses, was Japan’s conscription of Korean male adults to the war, [7]  which may have been the last straw that ruined all hope for a historical turn after a long period of conscientious resistance and suffering. To reference this moment Choe uses the term “crisis,” which he traces back to the original medical terminology signifying the decisive moment between death and recovery (25–26).

14.        Choe, who has long been stigmatized as a pro-Japanese collaborator, is enlisted along with 4,775 other names in The Encyclopedia of Pro-Japanese Figures published by the Research Center for National Issues in 2009. The exorbitant number of enlisted names, screened and extracted from a group of 25,000 people suspected of collaboration, points not only to the fact that the political settlement of the nation’s colonial past is still a delicate issue in Korea but also to the fundamental ambiguity that entails the political categorization of colonized intellectuals and their activities. [8]  Critics vary in their assessments of Choe’s stance in colonial politics, but one thing they do agree on is the aberrant state in which intellectuals like Choe found themselves during times of extreme foreign dictatorship. Song Seung-cheol, who notes the political ambivalence of Choe’s literary theory, still finds fault with Choe’s failure to make atonement for his deviant betrayal of his people and collusion with the colonial powers. On the other hand, Ryu Bo-seon, who acknowledges the structural inevitability of collusion for colonized intellectuals caught in the void between traditional and modern histories, still stigmatizes Choe’s submission as symptomatic of an age of unprecedented madness and irrationality. The exceptionality of this age rests, however, on grounds more radical than mere breach of patriotism or loss of sound judgment. Writers and critics had in fact met an epoch where literature itself was no more possible. As Lee Hye-jin astutely points out in her analysis of Choe’s wartime criticism, there is only silence in the fundamental gap between war propaganda and literature proper, and between an individual’s reaction to an ideological structure and the structure itself (172–94). Lee’s main premise gains clout here: it is indeed impossible even to raise the reductive question of whether a certain wartime author or critic is pro-Japanese or pro-Korean.

15.        One of the signs showing that Choe’s wartime criticism was essentially about the ideological politicizing of literature rather than literature itself can be found in Choe’s active condemnation of Romanticism in his theorization of the “national literature.” In the course of instituting a literary program based on the doctrinal idea of a nationalist literature, he negates the contemporary pertinence of a literature devoted to the liberal idea of artistic and critical autonomy—what Choe particularly denounces in the name of Romanticism. [9]  Understanding what Choe stood against helps us explain that curious passage constituting the first stipulation of the editorial guideline to National Literature: “Not only must all ethnicist and socialist tendencies antithetical to the national constitution be rejected; individualist and liberalist tendencies which obscure the concept of a national constitution must also be absolutely denounced” (qtd. in Choe, Chosun Literature 69). The very spirit of individualism and liberalism, both political and aesthetical, is detrimental to the constitution of a totalitarian regime. It is interesting to note the different registers through which Choe defines the political significance of individualism and liberalism in Chosun Literature during the Transitional Period. Most narrowly, they represent the spurious ideology of British and American imperialism pitted against the new nationalist order established under the alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan (33). The fall of Paris in 1940 had been the critical turning point for Choe’s historical vision, bearing the sign that such milestone events do not rely on the ambition of just one or two dictators but on a much broader historical turn (22). Choe has clearly read the direction that world history has taken, which allows him to reconsider his colonial position in the global context. Individualist and liberal ideas more largely become symbols of Western thought, whose abstract idealism and alienating divisionism has caused the cultural disintegration and moral corruption of the West. Here Choe sets up the West against the new Asian order that Japan has put forward as the mainstay objective of its “civilizing mission.” Japan was moving to organize its colonies into a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere to unify Asia politically and economically against Western powers.

16.        Romanticism serves Choe well in politicizing and moralizing the modern Western culture. For Choe, Western literature of the twentieth century is riddled with problems: disintegration of personality, impotence of intelligence, prevalence of decadent moods and reactionary satire, loss of the critical spirit, to name a few (26). Modern literature shows the symptoms of a culture that is anemic and anomic, catering to the delusional egotism of so-called geniuses—a “disease” Choe sees originating in the Romantic age (38). Percy Shelley is the icon of such narcissism, irresponsibly gratifying his desire for freedom (44) and indulging in neurotic and melancholy moods (104). What I find truly interesting about Choe’s take on Romanticism as the main culprit of modern dissociation is his association of this literary trend with cosmopolitanism—a curious tactic Choe uses to politicize Romanticism against the national ideology of the colonial regime. Historically, the Romantics entered the literary scene as cultured cosmopolitans, whose idea of culture signified the free spirit of finding a home wherever the heart goes “just like a bird resting on a tree branch it fancies” (107). Like the Romantic spirit, cosmopolitanism is itself decadent and irresponsible since its abstract notions of universality and humanity disregard the fact that man is tied to blood and earth from the moment of his birth (83). According to Choe’s diagnosis, however, “because such abstracted humankind is not an abstract man but a being insisting on acting as a cosmopolitan harboring a certain ideology, he cannot but be hostile toward the people and the nation, which make up the total body of life, and ends up bringing about their disintegration” (83–84). Choe’s politicization of Romanticism through an emphasis on its catastrophic cosmopolitan spirit sets the stage for designating national literature as the harbinger of a new age and world. For Choe, the epoch of nation has arrived to overturn the epoch of culture, and the clash of literary perspectives has become nothing less than a clash of worldviews (81).

17.        By way of fighting ideology with ideology, Choe has reduced the concepts of culture, Romanticism, and cosmopolitanism to political tenets. However, the irreducibility of such concepts is revealed ironically in the strangely cosmopolitan turn of Choe’s own argument in marking a space for Korean literature in the context of colonial nationalism. Even in the process of accusing the false consciousness of abstract universalism, Choe cannot politicize away a true cosmopolitan call for universal liberty and tolerance, which extends to his perspectives on a certain autonomous role Korean literature should play in constructing national literature. To clarify the relationship between Japanese and Korean literatures in such context, Choe resorts to an analogy with the relationship between English and Scottish literatures: “although Scottish literature is one part of English literature, the former contributes largely to the latter by adhering to its Scottish character” (72). As in the Scottish case, Choe sees an irrepressible character unique to Korean literature, whose potential for autonomy and originality rests precisely on that character. This is far from a chauvinist stance, since Choe attributes the same unique character originating from tradition, customs, and sentiments to the literatures of Taiwan and Manchuria (74). The literatures of the colonies will not disturb the order of Japanese literature but rather enrich it, saving the imperial literature from the dangers of a Nazi-like purism (75). To avoid such self-defeating homogenization, the centralization of colonial cultures around Tokyo should be prevented: cultural resources and talent should be evenly distributed beyond the metropole and the originality of each colonial culture should be cultivated (77). Ultimately, Choe redefines national literature as “one that every citizen supports, loves, and perfects,” resisting the idea that national literature “exists as one mass” and passes top-to-bottom from Tokyo to Kyungsung (78). Choe’s national literature requires “each citizen’s critical and creative capability” through which “a national culture can be interpreted and constructed from the peripheries” (78). This last point is telling since it brings us full circle to Choe’s original faith in the Romantic spirit of creativity and critical thinking. And it is in Choe’s tortuous engagement with Romanticism through the barbaric stage of our world history that we come across the possibility of a Romantic cosmopolitan criticism.

18.        To conclude this essay, I return to two seedling writings in Choe’s career that point to the Romantic and cosmopolitan foundation of his literary criticism. In a 1936 newspaper piece, Choe reassesses the Romantic revival in the Tokyo literary scene, concluding that the Romanticism of Japanese proletarian and aestheticist writers is merely a reaction to the vulgar realism of the age. What is wanting in contemporary literature is a “Romantic spirit,” which Choe defines as “affective perception” and “creative expression.” This spirit is “an essential part of the human mind” and “blows new life into atrophic literature.” In another newspaper piece written in 1937, Choe calls attention to Oswald Spengler’s distinction between regionalism and megalopolitanism by way of arguing that the literary spirit of Korea should be cosmopolitan. In other words, the writer’s morality and the work’s vitality depend on the writer’s ability to position him- or herself in the context of world history. Even when an author chooses to write on the countryside of Korea, he or she should be aware of the historical situation of, say, Madrid or Shanghai, and have the open-mindedness to exchange thoughts with a stranger in London or Paris. In a way, Choe was a student of his own teaching as he grounded his literary theory on a sharp understanding of his nation’s position in the global context. Romanticism and cosmopolitanism were the two modes of thought that carried the weight of Choe’s historical consciousness throughout the turbulent century. It is through history that the two “spirits” enforce each other’s power to vitalize a critical consciousness against the false ideology of colonial oppression and totalitarian violence. An askance view from the peripheries offers acute insight into the critical possibilities of those originary ideas that broached our modern history.

Works Cited

Choe, Jae-seo. “Megalopolitanism.” Chosun Ilbo [Chosun Daily], 24 Oct. 1937, pp. 5+.

---. “Misukhan Munhak” [“Immature Literature”]. Shinheung [Rising], no. 5, Jul. 1931, pp. 96–103.

---. “Mundan Ugam: Nangmanjuui Buhwalin’ga” [“Passing Thoughts on the Literary Scene: Is Romanticism Coming Back”]. Chosun Ilbo [Chosun Daily], 25 Apr. 1936, pp. 5+.

---. Munhak Weonron [Theory of Literature]. Chunjosa, 1957.

---. Jeonhwan’gi ui Joseon Munhak [Chosun Literature during the Transitional Period]. Translated by Noh Sang-rae, Yeongnam UP, 2006.

---. “Si ui Hangye” [“The Limits of Poetry”]. Gyeongseong Jaedae Yeongmun Hakhoe Hoebo [Kyungsung Imperial University Bulletin for the English Literary Society], no. 5, Jun. 1931. Quoted in Kim Yun-sik, A Study of Korean Modern Literary Thought, Part 1, pp. 355–62.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Perigee, 1934.

Em, Henry H. The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea. Duke UP, 2013.

Hanscom, Christopher P. The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea. Harvard UP, 2013.

Kim, Heung-gyu. Munhak gwa Yeoksa jeok In’gan [Literature and the Historical Man]. Changbi, 1980.

Kim, Yong-jik. Han’guk Geundae Munhak Non’go [A Study of Korean Modern Literature]. Seoul National UP, 1985.

Kim, Yun-sik. Han’guk Geundae Munhak Sasang Yeon’gu 1 [A Study of Korean Modern Literary Thought, Part 1]. Iljisa, 1984.

Lee, Hye-jin. Sasang uiroseoui Joseon Munhak: Jeonsi Chejegi Han’guk Munhak ui Yunri [Chosun Literature as Ideology: The Ethics of Korean Literature under the Wartime System]. Somyeong, 2013.

Richards, I. A. Poetries and Sciences: A Reissue of Science and Poetry (1926, 1935) with Commentary. Norton, 1970.

Ryu, Bo-seon. “Chinil Munhakron ui Gyemong jeok Damron Gujo: Choe Jae-seo ui Bipyeong eul Jungsim euro” [“The Enlightenment Discursive Structure of Pro-Japanese Literary Theory: A Study of Choe Jae-seo’s Criticism”]. Han’guk Munhak gwa Gyemong Damron [Korean Literature and the Enlightenment Discourse]. Edited by the Society for the Study of Literary History and Criticism, Saemi, 1999, pp. 79–110.

Song, Seung-cheol. “Choe Jae-seo ui Munhak Weonron: Woe jeok Jilseo wa Nae jeok Hoehan” [“Choe Jae-seo’s Theory of Literature: External Order and Internal Remorse”]. Yeongmi Munhak Yeon’gu [Journal of English Studies in Korea], no. 27, 2014, pp. 85–115.


[1] See Henry H. Em’s fifth chapter for more details on this tumultuous period in Korea’s modern history. BACK

[2] Beginning with a two-year preparatory program in 1924, the first class of Kyungsung Imperial University (or Keijo Imperial University) was admitted in 1926. This was the first imperial university to be established outside of Japan, soon followed by Taipei Imperial University (or Taihoku Imperial University) founded in 1927. Kyungsung Imperial was dissolved and merged with nine other institutions of higher education to form Seoul National University as part of the reconstruction efforts of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), which took over the southern half of the Korean Peninsula after Japan’s retreat (Em 147). BACK

[3] Esperanto was widely used by Korean writers during the colonial period, with many newspapers and literary journals regularly publishing critical pieces in the language especially during the 1920s. Writing in Esperanto became a popular practice when the Japanese government suppressed the use of the Korean language and instilled Japanese-only policies throughout schools and official institutions. BACK

[4] Prominent members like Lee Ha-yun and Kim Jin-seop were from Hosei University; members also included students from Waseda University and Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (Kim Yong-jik 114). BACK

[5] Most were works of poetry, particularly biased toward European Symbolist poetry. The school’s Romantic bent can be detected in the selection of poems by Goethe, Shelley, Tennyson, Whitman, and Pushkin. Poet laureates (Robert Bridges, John Masefield) and Nobel Prize winners (Anatole France, Maurice Maeterlinck) were also popular. Poe’s short stories and Bernard Shaw’s and Chekhov’s plays added to the variety of the translations. BACK

[6] As late as in 1943, Choe writes a commemorative essay celebrating Sato’s teachings and original poetry (Chosun Literature during the Transitional Period 177–91). According to Choe, his professor had always regretted the lack of imagination in Japanese literature, which he strived to correct through his poetic compositions and studies of Romantic literature. Sato channeled knowledge of Western literature to the students of Kyungsung Imperial University, and as Lee Hye-jin asserts, the English department here functioned as a sanctuary where Korean students can directly access and study Western literature and its liberal thoughts without going through Japan (163). BACK

[7] The conscription occurred quite late in the colonial period, publicly announced on May 8, 1942, and implemented on August 1, 1943. BACK

[8] The Encyclopedia of Pro-Japanese Figures, while including active political agents who gained power and wealth by collaborating with the Japanese government, significantly comprises figures from such fields as religion, academia, the arts, and the media. The ambiguity involved in identifying and categorizing political loyalty has deepened as debates began to center on questions of volition and intention—whether or not these collaborators colluded with the Japanese of their own accord. BACK

[9] It is interesting to note here that Choe translates Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism from the English into Japanese around this period (1939–40). The change in Choe’s stance toward Romanticism is reflected in his choice of Babbitt, who sees Rousseau and his Romanticism as a major corrupting influence on Western culture. BACK