Friday, November 13, 2009

Shining Inheritance #3

I don't think there's ever been a better statement of rugged individualism than this. This was the American sense of life, back when America was great.

I don't know what to make of the line, "I grant him a white man's room on earth." It is shortly followed by "all clean men are as good as I," which does not exclude anyone on the basis of race. If the first statement is racist, I condemn it. At any rate, the rest of the poem is magnificent.

The Westerner,
by Badger Clark, 1947

My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,
And each one sleeps alone.
Their trails may dim to the grass and rains,
For I choose to make my own.
I lay proud claim to their blood and name,
But I lean on no dead kin;
My name is mine for the praise or scorn,
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

They built high towns on their old log sills,
Where the great, slow rivers gleamed,
But with new, live rock from the savage hills
I’ll build as they only dreamed.
The smoke scarce dies where the trail camp lies,
Till rails glint down the pass;
The desert springs into fruit and wheat
And I lay the stones of a solid street
Over yesterday’s untrod grass.

I waste no thought on my neighbor’s birth
Or the way he makes his prayer.
I grant him a white man’s room on earth
If his game is only square.
While he plays it straight I’ll call him mate;
If he cheats I drop him flat.
Old class and rank are a worn-out lie,
For all clean men are as good as I,
And a king is only that.

I dream no dreams of a nursemaid State
That will spoon me out my food.
A stout heart sings in the fray with fate
And the shock and sweat are good.
From noon to noon all the earthly boon
That I ask my God to spare
Is a little daily bread in store,
With the room to fight the strong for more,
And the weak shall get their share.

The sunrise plains are a tender haze
And the sunset seas are gray,
But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
Over me and the big today.
What good to me is a vague “maybe”
Or a mournful “might have been,”
For the sun wheels swift from morn to morn
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shining Inheritance, #2

Under this title, I'm going to post continuing tributes to the great artists, intellectuals, and heroes of the past.

A young girl's thoughts at Christmas time:

Santa Claus has come once more,
Though not quite as he came before,
We can't celebrate his day
In last year's fine and pleasant way.
For then our hopes were high and bright,
All the optimists seemed right,
None supposing that this year
We would welcome Santa here.
Still, we'll make his spirit live,
And since we've nothing left to give,
We've thought of something else to do
Each please look inside his shoe.

As each owner took his shoe from the basket there was a resounding peal of laughter. A little paper package lay in each shoe with the address of the shoe's owner on it.

From The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, an entry from December, 1943.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Shining Inheritance

There is a Korean drama called Shining Inheritance. I haven't seen it, but I like the title. It applies nicely to our intellectual and cultural inheritance from the Aristotle's and Michelangelo's of the past. One shining example, one of my favorite scenes from Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac:

And I - I have done
This to you! All my fault - mine!

You? Why, no.
On the contrary! I had never known
Womanhood and its sweetness but for you.
My mother did not love to look at me--
I never had a sister-- Later on,
I feared the mistress with a mockery
Behind her smile. But you - because of you
I have had one friend not quite all a friend--
Across my life, one whispering silken gown!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Separation That Couldn't Start

A beautifully lyrical performance of a touching Korean song from the OST of My Lovely Sam Soon. The song is Ibyol Mothan Ibyol (A Separation That Couldn't Start) by Loveholic, sung by Ji Sun.

**Ibyol Mothan Ibyol**

Idji anhassuni hemalgun usum
bitnadon uri yennaldurul
imi jiwossuni sumgappun nunmul
kamahge byongdun ne moyangun

Gude goun ne saranga sonul jabada oh
dashi negero waso gobdigoun kotnorechorom

Gadugkin monjirul toro on goul
hurin dalbiche shisobone
sewore giphun jam pusoghan olgul
sebyogisullo danjanghago

Gude goun ne saranga sonul jabada oh
dashi negero waso gobdigoun kotnorechorom

Sarang ajig gu jarie
hanbondo ibyol mothan ibyol sogeso
dashi doraonun gunal
gutte ne norega i sesangul da gajilteni

Gude goun ne saranga sonul jabada oh
dashi negero waso gobdigoun kotnorechorom

**A Separation That Couldn't Start**

I haven't forgotten your bright smile
Our youthful past
I've already let go
The tears from my heart turned me into a dark figure

You, my delicate love, hold my hand
Come back to me like delicate flower song

I wiped the dusty mirror
The moonlight shines upon it
Plenty of deep sleeps comfort our face
A midnight slowly approaches

You, my delicate love, hold my hand
Come back to me like delicate flower song

Love is still at that place
Where separation couldn't start
When that day returns
This song will take the world

You, my delicate love, hold my hand
Come back to me like delicate flower song
And smile

Friday, July 17, 2009

Glamour Photography: Hedy Lamarr

In the old days Hollywood photographed actors and actresses in ways that made them look stunningly beautiful. The stylish clothes, the hats, the lighting, whatever techniques they used, the result was a Romantic style of photography, showing people as they could be and ought to be, at their best. It was most effective in black and white photographs. Modern color photography just doesn't have the same glamourous look as black and white.

This photograph of Hedy Lamarr (downloaded from the website Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans) is a perfect example of the old glamour photography. Thin, arched eyebrows and long, curved eyelashes draw attention to and enhance the beauty of her eyes. The round, very wide brimmed, black hat acts as a virtual picture frame for her face. The hat is rakishly slanted to one side to throw a dramatic shadow across her face, one eye in shadow, the other in light. Her shining black hair has enough light focused on it to make it stand out, even against a black background. She wears a strapless dress that exposes her soft, fragile shoulders, and a black velvet choker that circles her slender white neck. A pair of black lace evening gloves extend above her elbows, for added feminine delicacy and allure. There are three pieces of jewelry: two large, pendant pearl earrings contrast with her black hair; a thick bracelet (I can't tell if it is silver or gold, in this black and white photograph), adorns her left wrist; and what appears to be a diamond encrusted ring sparkles on one of her fingers. Her hands are clasped gracefully together in front of her right shoulder, putting her slender lace-gloved arms and the bracelet prominently on display.

The overall impression is of a woman of great beauty, with an elegant and alluring sense of style, a bit of mystery, and the confidence to display herself to the world. And that is the way glamour photographers tried, generally speaking, to make all of their subjects appear. Which is why I like old Hollywood glamour photography so much.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Beethoven Virus

Beethoven Virus is a Korean Drama that aired in 2008, and consisted of 18 hour-long episodes. It tells the story of an unlikely group of people trying to form an orchestra, and the world-famous conductor they enlisted to help them achieve their goal.

There are several interesting aspects to Beethoven Virus. It is a story about the art of leadership, in which a leader, in this case a conductor, molds a less than promising group of individuals into a cohesive and skilled team. In this respect, it has similarites with a favorite Western of mine, Only the Valiant. But the conductor, Maestro Kang, is also pushing these people to "seize the day," to try to achieve their own goals, instead of always sacrificing their own goals to those of everyone else in their life. Listen to him exhorting them, from Episode 4:

Conductor: Mr. Kim Gab Yong.

Mr. Kim: Yes.

Conductor: You had worked before in Shin Hyan Ri, right? Why did you retire?

Mr. Kim: My age.

Conductor: Did you leave because they told you to leave? And still at your prime of 57?

Mr. Kim: It’s the rule.

Conductor: Then why didn’t you join another Orchestra after that?

Mr. Kim: My age.

Conductor: That’s an excuse.

Conductor: Why didn’t you[to the Contrabass player] go into the Orchestra after graduating college?

Contrabass: There was no place that wanted me.

Conductor: Excuse.

Conductor: Why didn’t you[to the 2nd trumpeter] go to the music college?

2nd Trumpeter: I had to work because my father was ill.

Conductor: What about your mother? Your siblings as well?

2nd Trumpeter: I’m the only child of a three generation family and my mother just knows how to dance. My father was lying in bed.

Conductor: He can’t work just because he was sick? He can’t cook noodles because he had to rest in bed?

2nd trumpeter: But my father is already lying in bed like a child---

Conductor: Why must all these be your concerns? Children, parents, we don’t need all of these. You can only think of yourselves! And you [turning to the 1st trumpeter, a self-taught genius], why didn’t you go to college? That’s right, what can I expect of such an arrogant fellow like you?

You must be selfish, all of you are too kind-hearted. No, it’s not kindness, but foolishness. You sacrificed because of your parents and kids. These are illusions. In the end, look at what you have become. You couldn’t do what you wanted and were unable to make a living. You only grew an inferior heart because you sacrificed for them. This is not kindness, not even foolishness, but inferiority. You all merely set your hearts on making 100 kinds of excuses and ran away!

From now on, there are no more places to escape to. As you can see, this is the roof top, on the edge of a cliff [they were meeting on top of the church where they rehearsed]. But then, if there is anyone who feels that they can’t do it all . . . I will not hold you back, just leave. This is your last chance to run away . . . [one begins to leave] But, I’ve already locked the door over there. You will have to jump down from here if you want to escape. I’ll give you all three seconds. One . . . two . . . three . . . No one? Good, it’s the choice of everyone, there are no objections, right?

He is actually exhorting them to be selfish. When's the last time you saw that in a modern story? One of the musicians in particular, a trumpeter named Kang Gun Woo (which happens to be exactly the same name as the conductor), also wants to be a conductor. But like many of the other musicians, he has not committed himself fully to this goal, and when the job from which he had been suspended (traffic cop) calls him back, he reluctantly goes back to it, and withdraws from the orchestra. Maestro Kang sees something special in this young man, however, and goes out of his way to find him and try to change his mind (from Episode 5):

Conductor: Your form looks great [he's "conducting" traffic]. Are you incorporating the baton technique that I taught you here? To tell you, for the idiot who can’t even keep track of the concert date. The concert starts at 6 o’clock and your solo’s the first song in the second act.

Are you happy? Are you happy to squirm and struggle in the heat, directing traffic in place of a faulty traffic light and breathing in all the exhaust? Ah, of course, I accept it. There are many different types of people. The people who think money’s the best in the world. The people who are ok with eating rice with just a piece of kimchi. The people who save up all their money to send to the destitute in Ethiopia, so that they can sleep with peace of mind. They are all different. There’s no right or wrong. Just living by your values.

So, you, Kang Gun Woo, by your values at this moment, are you happy? Let me ask you one thing. What about your wanting to learn how to conduct?

Kang Gun Woo: I wanted to learn.

Conductor: So, then?

Kang Gun Woo: I’m just going to leave it as a dream.

Conductor: A dream? How’s that your dream? It’s immovable. That’s a star, in the sky, something that you can’t have, something that you can’t even strive for, something you can only stare at---a star. Look who’s talking about some ridiculous and absurd story about stars now. You need to do something. You need to, even for a little, struggle, try hard, or at the very least, make plans to make a change . . . a change as small as your smell or color. By doing all that, you can call it your “dream.” Do you think it’s your “dream” if you just use the word to describe any idea? If it was that easy, then why don’t you make being a doctor, professor, lawyer, and prosecutor---everything---your dream? Why not? I’m not telling you to achieve your dreams. I’m telling you to at least dream the dream by trying.

Actually, all this talk is useless. What should I have to care about? The one who’s going to regret it the rest of his life is you. “I’m nothing more than this.” “I don’t have any dreams.” “I couldn’t even dream anything.” “I’ve been eaten up by life.” Live the rest of your life while tormenting yourself. By the time you die, maybe you’ll die with your last word being “Conducting?” and a scream.

As you can see from these excerpts, Mastro Kang is depicted as not only selfish, but very harsh and blunt in his language and communication with others. In some degree, he embodies Ayn Rand's injunction: Judge, and be prepared to be judged.

At one point in the story, the mayor of the town where the orchestra plays is trying to get the Maestro to apologize to the musicians for some rude remark or other, and he wheedles and cajoles him:

Mayor: There's a saying that "losing is winning."

Conductor: That's just something the losers came up with to feel better.

Later, when a new mayor is elected and orders an unwilling Maestro Kang to celebrate his election with a concert of music of the new mayor's choosing, the Maestro agrees to do it. But what he plays at the concert is not what the mayor was expecting . . .

The other main character is a young woman named Du Ru Mi, a violinist whose idea it was to form the orchestra, and to get Maestro Kang as its conductor. She, Maestro Kang, and the young trumpeter/conductor, Kang Gun Woo, form a love triangle. This exposes another aspect of Maestro Kang's personality. He is ruthlessly wedded to his music, and doesn't have time for personal relationships. He even denigrates love as a purely "hormonal" aspect of man's nature. This is where the story lets me down, as if a selfish, rational man has to be some Spock-like character without emotions.

In the end, Maestro Kang does undergo some changes to his personality, and the writers soften his image to make it more palatable to the public at large. This reminds me of Ayn Rand's one criticism of Calumet "K", that Bannon is shown being kind to one of his workers in a hospital, simply to make his love interest admire him---as if his magnificent achievements were not reason enough to admire him! The same appplies to Maestro Kang, and the way the writers soften him through the course of the story.

But I don't want to make it sound worse than it is. He is still Maestro Kang, brilliant and blunt in his judgments, at the end.

In sharp contrast to the Maestro, young Kang Gun Woo wants to be a conductor, but he wants to do it without being mean and blunt with people, but just by being a nice guy as he is in his normal life. This contrasting style is emphasized throughout the story.

So, although I have reservations about the story's portrayal of a selfish man, I still recommend this excellent drama. The Beethoven Virus is catching the passion to pursue one's dreams, and make them real.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Musical Interlude

Under the Water, by Merril Bainbridge

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Dead End of Appeasement

I've been watching a Korean drama called Jumong. It does not compare with Dae Jang Geum, because Jumong is filled with fatalism, and there are Sorceresses who can predict the future, heal injuries with some sort of faith-healing, etc. However, it does have an interesting plot, and many interesting characters, in spite of the flaws.

Episode 41 is of interest for its examination of the idea of appeasement, something relevant to our situation in America today, with regard to our relations with Iran and North Korea. The scene involves the deposed King of Puyo (a Korean kingdom), named Kumwa, lecturing his son, Taeso, who had forcibly taken over from him. Taeso has refrained from killing the King, evidently, because the people would revolt if he committed regicide. So he is ruling under the fiction that the King is incapacitated from a wound received in a recent war against the Han (China), in which Kumwa was attempting to recover lands taken from Korea by the Han in an earlier conflict.

Kumwa: I heard the Han demanded a hostage. Is that true?

Taeso: Yes.

Kumwa: You might be my representative, but shouldn't you have told me earlier?

Taeso: I was going to, after giving it enough thought.

Kumwa: So, are you done thinking?

Taeso: Yes.

Kumwa: What will you do?

Taeso: I'm going to send a hostage.

Kumwa: Don't you have any pride?

Taeso: Why wouldn't I have any?

Kumwa: Yet you're going to send a hostage and accept that we're a tributary state?

Taeso: We can't afford to talk about pride. The Han is just waiting for a chance to make us pay for the war. I had to marry a woman I don't love just to put an end to it. If one hostage will save thousands of lives, why not? Your Majesty, pride won't stop a war. I'll reap the benefits of not starting one.

Kumwa: Give up one thing to avoid a war and the Han will demand something else. You'll use Puyo's peace as an excuse to back out again and again until you're at a dead end. What will you give them then? Will you let them conquer us if they want to? Will you die for them if they ask you to? Can't you see the reality hidden behind the so-called benefits?

This is indeed the fruits of appeasement. Bush did it too often, and for Obama, it is the only option he considers. How long before we reach the dead end?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Road Builders

As Ayn Rand said about Calumet "K," this novel could be subtitled: This Was America.

Samuel Merwin, with Henry Kitchell Webster, was the co-author of Calumet "K," (1901) Ayn Rand's favorite novel. Merwin and Webster collaborated on two other novels, The Short Line War, (1899) about the struggle for the ownership of a railroad, and Comrade John, (1907) about a religious huckster. Both men also wrote novels individually, and I will summarize and review one of Merwin's best here, The Road Builders,(1905).

As with Calumet "K," a few years earlier, The Road Builders was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, under the title A Link in the Girdle. (As a sidenote, Frank Spearman's Daughter of a Magnate was also serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. It must have been a wonderful magazine back at the turn of the last century.)

The Road Builders is about the construction of an extension of the Sherman & Western railroad to the town of Red Hills, set in Texas circa 1875. The man in charge of the construction project is Paul Carhart, who accepted the job because "it promised to be pretty work, in which a man could use his imagination." The "prettiness" of the work was due to a number of complicating factors. First, the line had to be finished at breakneck speed, however shoddy the construction, in order to defeat another railroad company with designs on the same territory. The quality of the work could be improved at a later date. Second, the territory through which it was to be laid was a largely uninhabited stretch of Texas desert. All supplies, including water, would have to be carried along with the construction crew, and the line of supply would get longer and less reliable as the work progressed. Third, a strong river would have to be bridged near the end of the extension. And finally, the rival railroad company was expected to do everything in its power to stop the construction by legal injunctions, board room intrigue, Wall Street manipulations, or outright sabotage and force of arms. Carhart was given a "free hand" as to methods and expenses for the project. So commenced an epic battle of man against nature, company against company, laborers against employers, and even brother against brother.

The main theme of the novel is the art of leadership. Carhart is the standard against whom others are compared. He is literally "the spirit of the enterprise." His energy and confidence, his fairness to the men and mastery of the art of railroad construction inspires everyone else. When he leaves the site for a few days, the life seems to drain out of the laborers, and work slows to a crawl. Railroads are his passion, and while he is among them, all the laborers are infected with the same enthusiasm.

Ayn Rand's comments on Charlie Bannon, protagonist of Calumet "K," apply equally well to Paul Carhart:

"It is interesting to note that Bannon is not an industrial tycoon, but merely an employee of a building contractor; he is presented, not as a rare exception, but as an average man. I doubt that a man of Bannon's stature could be average in any society; and, in a free one, he would not remain an employee for long. But he represents, in its purest form, the characteristic which a free society demands of all men, on all levels of ability: competence.

"The story demonstrates in many skillfully subtle ways that that characteristic runs through the whole social pyramid. On the lower levels, it depends on the quality of the leadership involved in a large, cooperative undertaking. Bannon's leadership is the decisive factor in the issue of morale or lethargic indifference on the part of all the workers on the job. His self-confidence, his demanding standards and his strict fairness bring out the best in them: pride in their work, conscientiousness, energy, enthusiasm . . . . . Their potential virtue is like an inert, responsive mechanism that can swing either way; Bannon is the spark plug. They respond when they know that their best will be appreciated." (From Ayn Rand's Introduction to Calumet "K.")

Like Calumet "K," The Road Builders is light fiction. Paul Carhart has no inner conflict, he does not grow morally or intellectually through the novel--but the railroad grows under his sure guidance. All his conflicts are external, and designed to show his admirable qualities. For instance, when the superintendent in charge of forwarding supplies to the construction crew sends forward more excuses than supplies, Carhart journeys back to their supply depot, investigates the situation, and finds the superintendent is diverting trains and supplies to the rival railroad. He sends the man a note: "I am sure you will agree with me that I can spare none of these [railroad] cars, least of all to supply a rival line. And in consideration of your future hearty cooperation with me in advancing this construction work, I will gladly take pains to see that my present knowledge of the use that has been made of these cars shall not interfere in any way with your continued enjoyment of your position with the Sherman & Western." He shows good humor, even in trying and desperate circumstances.

When the rival railroad company cuts Carhart's line of supply by occupying one of the stations behind them, he is left without the rails and ties he needs to go on with the construction. What to do? He literally tears up a branch line of the Sherman & Western that is little used, and uses it for the new line. These and other events demonstrate his resourcefulness.

There is a subplot that does evidence some inner conflict in one of Carhart's lieutenants, Gus Vandervelt. Young Van, as he is called, is Carhart's aide-de-camp. Gus's older brother, "Old Van," is one of Carhart's construction chiefs. Old Van is "old school," and believes in one form of leadership: the whip. While Carhart is no pushover himself, he is a reasonable man. He is not the slave driver Old Van is. Young Van must wean himself from his older brother's familial influence to become the kind of leader Carhart is--because he knows Carhart's way is better. The subplot documents his struggle between these two strong influences.

A line from the novel, when the construction expedition was about to begin, sums it up very nicely: "There was about the scene a sense of enterprise, of buoyant freedom, of deeds to be done."

The book is of course out of print. However it can generally be found on any of the better used book sites on the internet. It is probably the most available of Merwin's novels.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Great Jang Geum

This lovely drawing, by Singapore artist Shirley Png, is from a video capture of the drama, Dae Jang Geum. It is a portrait of the hero of the story, Jang Geum. Although it is of a fictional character, it has universal appeal such that anyone, whether they have seen the drama or not, can understand and admire the portrait.

The portrait captures Jang Geum at a moment of drama, in which her character and virtues shine through. There are tears beneath her eyes. Clearly, she has suffered some recent emotional pain or sadness. But she does not break down completely, in spite of her tears. She does not throw herself on the ground, or a bed, and give way to a flood of tears, or beat her breast in fruitless anguish and frustration. Instead, she holds her head up, facing the painful emotion, but not giving in to it. Something has hurt her, but her face shows a serenity that comes from the knowledge that life is a wonderful gift to anyone willing to make the most of it, as she is. Pain, physical or emotional, is only a temporary setback, to be overcome in the course of living and pursuing one’s happiness and one’s goals. She is stronger than the pain inflicted upon her.

Courage, determination, benevolence---all these and more are virtues of Jang Geum on display in this portrait. It hangs on my wall, an endless source of beauty and inspiration.

It happens that one of my favorite songs, Hold Your Head Up, by Argent, is an almost perfect description of this beautiful work of art:

And if it's bad
Don't let it get you down, you can take it.
And if it hurts
Don't let them see you cry, you can make it.

Hold your head up, woman,
Hold your head up, woman,
Hold your head up, woman,
Hold your head high.

And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes on you moving.
And if they shout
Don't let it change a thing that you're doing.

Hold your head up, woman,
Hold your head up, woman,
Hold your head up, woman,
Hold your head high

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Romantic Screen: Dae Jang Geum (2003)

“I’ll tell you this: no one can ever persuade me to give up. I’ll never give up!”
Dae Jang Geum
, also known as Jewel in the Palace, is a Korean television drama of 54 one hour episodes that originally aired in 2003 and 2004. It tells the story of Jang Geum, a young orphan girl, who is an outcast even among the lower classes of Korean society, and her remarkable rise to become the personal physician of the King. It is a work of Romantic art of the top rank, well worth the attention of anyone who values Romantic art.

The screenplay was written by Kim Yeong-hyeon, and it was directed by Lee Byoung-hoon. The main characters are: the child Jang Geum, who becomes the adult Jang Geum after episode 5; Keum Young, Jang Geum’s greatest rival in the palace; Lady Han, Jang Geum’s mentor in the palace, and her mother in all but name; Sir Min Jeong-ho, Jang Geum’s love interest and versatile defender of the realm; Lady Choi, Keum Young’s aunt and enemy of Jang Geum; and Lady Jung, the Highest Kitchen Lady, who is not the puppet the Choi clan had hoped she would be.

Korean television dramas are not like American drama series, in which one episode generally has little connection with the one that came before, or the one that comes after, and which only end when the ratings get too low. Korean dramas are a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and every episode builds upon the one before. The producers of the drama know ahead of time how many episodes the story will be, and there it ends. The closest comparison on American television would be a mini-series, such as Roots. But Korean dramas are much longer and more in depth. They are what a novel would be like, if it were fully dramatized on film.

When I say Dae Jang Geum is Romanticism of the top rank, I am referring to Ayn Rand’s standard for that ranking:

“The distinguishing characteristic of this top rank . . . is their full commitment to the premise of volition in both of its fundamental areas: in regard to consciousness and to existence, in regard to man’s character and to his actions in the physical world. Maintaining a perfect integration of these two aspects, unmatched in the brilliant ingenuity of their plot structures, these writers are enormously concerned with man’s soul (i.e., his consciousness). They are moralists in the most profound sense of the word; their concern is not merely with values, but specifically with moral values and with the power of moral values in shaping human character. Their characters are ‘larger than life,’ i.e., they are abstract projections in terms of essentials . . . In their stories, one will never find action for action’s sake, unrelated to moral values. The events of their plots are shaped, determined and motivated by the characters’ values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals and by profound value-conflicts. Their themes are fundamental, universal, timeless issues of man’s existence---and they are the only consistent creators of the rarest attribute of literature: the perfect integration of theme and plot, which they achieve with superlative virtuosity.” [“What Is Romanticism?” p. 91-92, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand]

Dae Jang Geum meets all of these criteria, and is therefore in a class with the works of Hugo, Rostand, and Dostoyevsky, and above the lesser Romanticists. There is not a trace of bootleg romanticism in the story, no cynicism, no mock-heroism, no apologizing for portraying heroic characters. The protagonists take themselves, their goals and ideas, seriously, and never laugh at themselves.

To begin, the title of the story is Dae Jang Geum, which means “The Great Jang Geum.” Clearly, it is not a story about the folks next door, but about a hero of Korean history. Little is known of the actual historical person, Jang Geum, which makes it easy for the author, Kim Yeong-hyeon, to make her into a heroine of her own devising. Jang Geum and the other major characters that are her allies all live life as it could be, and ought to be lived, in the context of sixteenth century Korea. When faced with moral dilemmas, each of them looks to their own hierarchy of values to determine what to do, then takes the proper action, regardless of risk.

Dae Jang Geum has been described as the story of Jang Geum’s persistence and curiosity. While she certainly exhibits both of those traits, a more accurate description of the theme of Dae Jang Geum is the same as Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three: man’s loyalty to values. Just as in Ninety-Three, this theme is dramatized in the subplots as well as the main plot, in the minor characters as well as the major characters.

One of Jang Geum’s values is using the scientific method to discover new knowledge, and she does this over and over again in the story. When this comes into conflict with the authorities, such as when she is trying to heal a member of the royal family, she insists on following her own methods, in spite of all threats or ridicule about not following the “accepted methods.” She has an independent mind.

When her mentor, Lady Han, is put under house arrest for serving plain, healthy food to a Chinese epicure whose preference for more lavish fare is notorious, Jang Geum takes her place – and serves exactly the same plain, healthy food, at tremendous risk to herself. They both are determined to serve the envoy healthy food because he has diabetes, and needs the healthy food. Their principle is that one should only serve food that is appropriate to the one who will consume it, and they stick to that principle no matter who wants it done differently.

In another typical example, one of the minor characters, a seamstress, displays the same loyalty to values. She is assigned the task of making a new dress for Jang Geum, who is in the final cooking competition to become a court lady of the kitchen, or be sent out of the palace if she fails. Out of the blue, the seamstress steals the flour from the ingredients set aside for Jang Geum’s use in her competition, which cannot be replaced.

Jang Geum is dumbfounded by this seemingly inexplicable act. But we soon learn the reason for it. The seamstress intends to use the flour to make dumplings as part of a beau geste toward her mother, who she has just learned is leaving the palace the next day, never to return. She wants to serve a ceremonial dinner to her mother before she leaves to show her love. She only has this one chance to do so. This act is of such value to her that she is willing to ruin Jang Geum’s chances of becoming a court lady, and accept any consequence to herself, to carry it out. The seamstress is a very timid girl, but when her highest values are at stake, she becomes uncommonly bold and extraordinarily courageous. The author does a marvelous job of showing how the seemingly improper things the seamstress does are actually the proper things for her to do, given her hierarchy of values. And Jang Geum, once she understands the girl’s motivation for her act, actually helps the girl make the dumplings and present them to her mother.

A Romantic story, above all, requires a plot: “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax,” (“What Is Romanticism? p. 82, The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand). Such a series of events, in a Romantic work, must be set in motion by the protagonist choosing a goal (final causation), and then taking the steps required to achieve it (efficient causation). Jang Geum does exactly that.

Early in the story, Jang Geum is an adorable, radiant young girl – Shirley Temple on the outside, an incipient Madame Curie on the inside. She sneaks off to school with her “betters” against her mother’s explicit orders. She is simply too eager to learn, for anything to hold her back. Then her parents’ past catches up with them, and Jang Geum is left alone to face the world as an eight year old orphan. She makes the conscious decision to vindicate her mother’s honor, which has been wrongly maligned. This is the goal toward which she directs herself. Then she methodically takes all the steps necessary to achieve it. It is a purposeful progression of logically connected events, which leads to the resolution of a climax.

Similarly, the subplots have various characters working purposefully toward their own goals. Lady Jung, for example, initially wanted to be a court lady because it seemed like a beautiful and glamorous life from outside the palace. Once inside, however, she realized that many people used their positions as court ladies of the kitchen to advance their political causes and to gain power. For example, some of them would poison the food of certain royals to help other royals gain power, thereby gaining a powerful ally. Lady Jung believed it was wrong to use food for such purposes, so she dedicated herself to eradicating the practice. Then she took the steps necessary to achieve that purpose.

Finally, as if to emphasize the purposeful nature of Jang Geum and her story, one of the episodes specifically dramatizes the value of purpose in man’s life. In the episode, Jang Geum has been exiled to the herb garden, in the farthest corner of the palace complex, for some alleged transgression. It is a place to which loafers, miscreants, drunks and criminals are sent, and no one expects to return to the palace proper from the herb garden. It is essentially a place of exile and abandonment.

At the herb garden, the workers are supposed to be growing herbs. But none of them do any gardening, or in fact any kind of work, at all. When Jang Geum arrives, she finds the workers - and even their supervisor - lying in the fields, asleep. When she asks them what she is supposed to do, the supervisor tells her not to do anything, unless she wants to drink. No one expects any work to be done in the herb garden, and all the people there are content to do nothing, wasting away their existence drinking, eating, and sleeping, without purpose. These men are clearly going to pot, their minds and bodies atrophying from lack of use. It is against this background that we are able to contrast the behavior of Jang Geum.

Jang Geum finds their behavior incomprehensible. She literally goes to bed weeping at the apparent purposelessness of life in the herb garden. Finally, she tells the supervisor she cannot "do nothing," as it would drive her crazy. So she begins collecting all the assorted herb seeds she can find in the storehouse, none of which have any identifying labels attached to them. Those she recognizes, she labels accordingly. For those she cannot identify, she bothers the supervisor until he identifies them for her. Soon she has them all identified, and she begins clearing some of the weed infested field and planting some of the herbs.

The other workers, and the supervisor, watch her and laugh at the "futility" of her actions. They begin taking bets on how soon she will give up - or worse. The last court lady sent to the herb garden had committed suicide. But Jang Geum persists in her methodical categorizing and gardening.One day she comes to the workers and asks them for better gardening techniques. One of them mentions a particular herb that no one has succeeded in growing, though they had been trying for 20 years. Immediately, Jang Geum's face brightens, and she says: "Good! I will use that!" When they ask what she means, she explains that she will use that as her goal, as a purpose toward which to strive while in the herb garden. But why that particular goal? "Because you said it was hard!"

After a methodical trial and error period, Jang Geum succeeds in growing the rare herb - and finally the other workers, and the supervisor, begin to admire Jang Geum, and to want to bring some purpose back into their own lives, as well. They all recognize, once they have seen it again, the ennobling, uplifting value of purpose.Jang Geum taught them that, though it was not her intention. She simply wanted purpose in her own life. But her good example had a salutary effect on all those around her.

And not coincidentally, Jang Geum's success in growing the rare herb brings about a longer range goal: she is allowed to return to the palace as a court lady in training, her status fully restored. Thus did the writer of Dae Jang Geum - Kim Yeong-hyeon - dramatize the value of purpose in man's life.

The author’s characterization skills are everywhere apparent. The characters are constantly shown deliberating with themselves on what course of action to take, consciously weighing the alternatives, completely in focus. When they do something immoral according to their own values, they know it, and suffer a blow to their self-esteem as a consequence.

In one scene, for example, Keum Young sets in motion an evil plot, knowing it is immoral – but doing it anyway. Then in a voiceover, she says to herself:

“So this is how I’m going to live. I’m going to console myself like this . . . “

Lady Han is a character in whom love for her friends is extremely important, as well as integrity in her profession. In her early years at the palace, she saw her best friend forced to take poison after being falsely accused of some transgression. It left her alone and friendless in the palace, until Jang Geum came along and was like a daughter to her.

(Lady Han comforting Jang Geum.)

Then a situation arises in which Lady Jung has a chance to expose some of the wrongdoers among the court ladies of the kitchen. Due to complicated circumstances, however, it would also lead to the execution of Jang Geum, despite her complete innocence. Lady Han supports Lady Jung in her efforts to drive the vipers out of the kitchen. But she simply cannot accept losing Jang Geum into the bargain. She goes to plead with Lady Jung – who also does not want to lose Jang Geum, but sees no way around it – in a scene of amazing emotional intensity. Lady Han reiterates her support for Lady Jung’s policies, but begs desperately for her to use some other occasion to carry it out. Not this time, when it will take Jang Geum away from her: “Next time! Next time!” It is perfectly in character for Lady Han to act this way, given her love for Jang Geum, and her fear of losing her best friend to an unjust death - twice.

And in a scene remarkable for its moral clarity, Jang Geum forces Keum Young to examine herself more deeply than ever before:

Jang Geum: Keum Young, please turn yourself in. Please, help me forgive you. For you, self-respect is more important than the safety of your family.

Keum Young: What do you think you know about me that you speak of me like this?

JG: No? Am I wrong then? Then why are you teaching all the ladies in the same way that Lady Han taught me? Please put into action what you feel in your heart. Keum Young, I don’t like hating you. Because hating someone is as difficult as loving someone.

KY: I had to both hate and love, which was so difficult. Because of you, because of Sir Min . . . You’re the one who has hurt my self-respect.

JG: That’s just an excuse . . .

KY: Get out.

JG: Self-respect isn’t hurt by someone else but only by oneself.

KY: Get out, get out!

If there are flaws in the story, they are few and minor. The very first episode has characters who are fatalists, and these are Jang Geum’s own parents. But this is simply a character flaw in these people, and Jang Geum herself exhibits no belief in that doctrine.

Later in the story, Keum Young explicitly rejects fatalism. Her aunt, Lady Choi, exerts enormous pressure on Keum Young to perform some criminal act as part of her “training” to continue the family’s power by hook or by crook. Lady Choi says it is their family’s fate to have to do these things. Keum Young strives mightily to refuse this act, but finally the pressure gets to her, and she agrees to do it. At the same time, however, she rebukes Lady Choi and rejects the idea of fatalism:

“I’m doing this because you say it’s our fate. But this kind of fate shall end in my generation. I’ll certainly make it so.”

And in any case, all of the main characters act on the premise of volition, from first to last.

Although Jang Geum strives to achieve her own goals, there is certainly an undercurrent of altruism throughout the story. But this is common to most Romantic literature outside of Ayn Rand. While we may not have the same values, we can say, as Ayn Rand said about Hugo:

“The emphasis he projects is not: ‘What great values men are fighting for!’ but: ‘What greatness men are capable of, when they fight for their values!’” (Introduction to Ninety-Three, p. xii).

There is not a lot of Romantic art in the modern world. Nevertheless, we all need the inspirational fuel that Romantic art provides. Dae Jang Geum is a new and magnificent addition to the world’s library of Romantic art.