Corean Music

In his 1895 study Corea, the English Victorian adventurer (and anthropologist, painter, etc.) Henry Savage-Landor writes about Korean music:

This music is to the average European ear more than diabolical, this being to a large extent due to the differences in the tones, semi-tones, and intervals of the scale, but personally, having got accustomed to their tunes, I rather like its weirdness and originality. When once it is understood it can be appreciated; but I must admit that the first time one hears a Corean concert, an inclination arises to murder the musicians and destroy their instruments.

I found this quote while trying to finish a book I wrote while visiting Korea, a book about the destabilizing effect the country had on me (I wrote the book at night, during insomnia, after days of brilliant poetry and art). I decided never to publish the book, but the quote sticks with me as a revealing quote about art and the way the artistic experience is involved with all kinds of fascination, violence, humiliation, and the foreign.

The foreigness of Korean music fascinates Savage-Landor, but it is also “diabolical”—it bewilders him, humiliates him and prompts him to have murderous fantasies. This fascination that leads to a multivalent violence (toward the listener, toward the musician, toward the very instruments) is so intensive it seems hard to say if it’s joy or pain. It is often what theorist Leo Bersani calls a “self-shattering” experience. (Savage-Landor’s quote is also obviously totally racist and invokes issues of imperialism and culture, and I’ll touch more on that in the next post.)

This shattering artistic experience seems more public than the kind of private experience generally portrayed in contemporary poetic discourse. According to a lot of discussions of contemporary poetry, the readers are complete agents who “access” the interiority of the artwork (something you find by transcending the stuff, the language, the metaphors, etc.) of the poem. Or we fail to access the meaning, either because the artwork fails to make itself available to us, or because we are not in possession of the proper learning. All of this takes place in the private study of the ideal, well-educated reader who has learned how to close read—or “access”—the poem’s meaning.

In “Corean music,” Savage-Landor has to struggle to gain control by learning its conventions and gaining some distance from the work, and that seems like the ethical thing to do as an anthropologist. But as an allegory about the experience of art, I find that it’s the murderous impact before learning to appreciate the artwork, before gaining that distance from the music that is the most intense, that gives the best example of how art affects me. While gaining distance makes the artwork intellectually accessible to him, it is when he’s most bewildered by the art that he’s also most close to it. This certainly is a different model, where affect takes you out of the private intellectual sphere of the study and into the circuit of the foreign.

American poet Chelsey Minnis gets at this dynamic of violence and humiliation in her sharp-as-an-ornate-dagger aphorisms in Poemland:

If you want to be a poem-writer then I don’t know why…

It hurts like a puff sleeve dress on a child prostitute.


But if you are weak …

Then this is a poem because it squeezes you …

It is a shimmer like flushing sequins down the toilet …

These little aphorisms open up the “deformation zone” of art: a zone which both hurts and is hurt, a zone of “puff sleeve[s]” and “sequins.” It’s humiliating to be a  “poem-writer”—and it “hurts”—but it also means wielding a certain violence (does the puff sleeve hurt the child prostitute or the author? Is the author a child prostitute?). As in Sianne Ngai’s super-influential essay on “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” the figures of cuteness here elicit the violence; it’s part of their dynamic.

I want to insist that this is not merely theoretical. “Fictional violence” is not “fictional”; it’s violence. Here I might refer the reader to Carl-Michael Edeborg’s screed, The Parapornographic Manifesto, which draws together Marquis de Sade, Andrea Dworkin and Valerie Solanas as authors not of the pornographic or post-pornographic but the “parapornographic.” He is interested in the way that Dworkin is opposed to but also related to de Sade “by seriously accepting pornography’s darkest possibilities.” Edenborg argues that Dworkin is related to Solanas’s SCUM manifesto “through its hyperboles, its exploded affection theory, its obsession with the mixture of the mechanical and organic, its violent obscenity and pollution.” These common elements make both Solanas and Dworkin “parapornographic.” Edenborg argues:

One of the most provocative aspects of the radical feminist anti-pornography movement is that its discourses do not always make a distinction between signified and signifier. In the early 1990s,  a wall in Stockholm bore the graffiti “Porn is murder.” This is an example of how the difference between image and object can be removed. The drawing of a child who is being raped is seen as an abuse of real children, the massacred, ketchup-covered rubber doll in the splatter film Snuff actually is a murdered woman…

I would add that it’s not just the image, the representation that enacts violence in art. As Joyelle McSweeney recently argued on Montevidayo, “sound” is a kind of violence:

Sound may seem to give a poem unity but it is also the place where something non-rational, even inhuman takes over the poem, a compulsion, a forcefulness as ready to shake it to death or flip it into the afterlife as stroke it to sleep with dulcet, sinister tones. It would be a mistake, however, to associate Sound’s irrationality, it’s nonsense power with the a-political. For Sound’s irrational force, its appetites, its drives, its greed, its bloodthirstiness, its pratfalls and its violence are politics itself.

I am invested in this violent aspect of art: it fascinates and horrifies me. There are of course a number of political contexts for art, and the violent, fascinated encounters it engenders. For example, the context of Savage-Landor’s encounter with Korean music importantly includes the fact that Savage-Landor is an imperial European visiting a foreign land in the orient, the source (via imperialism) of much of what we still view as Beauty (silk, opium, spices), and a context like Korea in particular which has so often been colonized and abused. Art is of course involved in this violence too.  In future posts I will explore some of these troublesome connections for Art, as well as suggest how art might provide alternatives to both easy “tolerance” of otherness and the violence against otherness that seems so common.

Originally Published: August 1st, 2013

Poet and translator Johannes Göransson emigrated with his family from Skåne, Sweden to the United States at age 13. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of several books,...