TRUMP AND KIM JONG-UN, what do they have in common with me and you?
Reading Fire and Fury, just one in a line of several books I have read about the mystery Donald John Trump. As a person, Trump does not appear as being mysterious. I do not doubt that he is a full-fledged narcissist. The mystery consists in the fact that such a person has been elected president of the US and remains in power; an unlettered buffalo, with a buffalo's limited emotions. Actually, it was probably quite unfair to liken Mr. Trump to a buffalo. A buffalo is, after all, a herd animal and thus have to be sensitive to the feelings of others, though the mob that surrounds Mr Trump, as well as the careerists who helped him to seize power, do not seem to be driven by any feelings of care for others. Trump´s entourage resembles a chaotic horde caught up in a self-destructive stampede, which threatens to destroy their own habitat ̶ the United States of America. Making America worse!
Is Trump a victim of his personal background, his class and nation? A man who grew up in the shadow of a dominant, callous father and took over his economic empire. Is that therason why Trump is able to sympathize with Kim Jong-un, another strange character who was born privileged and is endowed with inadequate empathy? Certainly, Kim Jong-un comes from a completely different environment than Trump, raised as he was within the innermost circle of a totalitarian regime, which twenty years ago observed how a tenth of its oppressed subjects succumbed to a famine that was allowed to continue almost unabated while their tightly controlled state machinery spent millions on the well-being of the Kim family and a money devouring nuclear program. This while people who had been forced to steal for their own and their families´ survival were interned, starved to death and executed. By the way, this piece of history, as well as the current existence of deplorable concentration camps, were not mentioned by the propaganda that Trump supporters unfurled in anticipation of his meeting with the Rocket Man.
By the mid-1990s, when the North Korean famine was at its worst, villages and cities were pasted with posters announcing:
Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Hoard food! Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity! Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Cut Military Communications Lines! Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Hoard State Resources!
We still do not know enough about who this Kim Jong-un really is and the grotesque environment in which he grew up. What does Trump know? Does he know anything, or does he not want to know? Why does he otherwise avoid mentioning the at least 200,000 human beings who are currently detained in Kim Jong-un´s concentration camps, as well his regime's constant and blatant abuse of fundamental human rights? Ignorance or disinterest?
Trumps world, like Kim Jong-un´s, consists of a grotesque lie. It is fake, but hardly fake news, we all know that it is all nothing more than a smoke screen, an illusion constituted by gorgeous magazines, glamour, boastfulness and show business. A pathetic showcase, covering a rotting swamp of money laundering and other forms of illegal business transactions. Kim Jong-un´s world is also a bizarre sham, where an unpleasant reality is hidden behind imaginative Potemkin façades. Certainly worse than the capitalist society described by Guy Debord in his La société du spectacle, The Society of Spectacle from 1967. A hard-to-read book in which our western civilization is portrayed as an "incarnated ideology” where critical thinking has been replaced by a passive intake of manipulating messages and mindless consumerism, not different from a reality that currently is taking shape in Putin's Russia, Erdogan´s Turkey, Trump´s US and not the least in an increasingly nationalistic/populistic Europe.
A playacting society? One aspect of the unscrupulous and grotesque North Korean personality cult is the cultural interests of the ruling Kim family, which manifests itself primarily in extensive film production, operas, circus performances and the meticulously choreographed mass gymnastics of the Arirang Festivals. To obtain an insight into the latter phenomenon, the extremely detailed preparations and advanced child abuse behind the spectacles, I may recommend the movie On the Green Carpet.
A propaganda film based on an ideologically approved and chaste love story between two charming youth leaders, it unintentionally reveals the defects of a totalitarian system where people compete to become perfect, well-oiled, operating parts within an inhuman system. The film inadvertently depicts how thousands of children, under the leadership of youthful, fine-looking and sprightly mentors are forced to torment their juvenile and still undeveloped bodies to become self-sacrificial units in mass demonstrations, which praise ruthless despots, who are denying them their human worth.
Kim Il-sung, Eternal President of the Republic, who now has a divine status, claimed in his memoirs that during the Japanese annexation he wrote a play, The Flower Girl. Thirteen years after the liberation from the Japanese, whose control of the country lasted from 1910 to 1945, the play was turned into an opera. Kim Il-sung's son ̶ Guiding Star of the 21st Century, Heaven´s Resplendent General, Unvanquished and Beneficent Commander, The People's Father and Sunbeam ̶ Kim Jong-il, produced in 1972 a movie based on his father's opera.
Since uncertainty dims almost everything connected with the ruling Kim dynasty it is impossible to know if Kim Il-sung really wrote The Flower Girl. However, it has to be acknowledged that Kim Jong-il has a fervent interest in movie making. In any case, The Flower Girl became a hit, not least in neighbouring China.
Somewhat overly sentimental as it is, it cannot be denied that The Flower Girl is a passable movie, with professional acting, beautiful songs and a rather effective pace. The story is simple and straightforward. The beautiful Kotpatnum is daughter of dirt poor serfs. Her father is dead and to support her ailing mother and blind sister she sells flowers in the square of a small town, probably sometime during the Japanese occupation, maybe in the 1930s. However, the story could just as well take place during the Middle Ages, not much more than the dresses worn by some of the townspeople and the construction of a railroad suggest anything else. Kotpatnum´s little sister has become blind after the wife of their landlord had thrown boiling water in her face. The older brother of Kotpatnum finds himself far away in a Japanese prison, after he in revenge for the blinding of his sister had burned down the landlord´s barn.
Things get worse. Kotpatnum's mother dies and under the threat of being sold to the town's brothel to cover her mother's debts to the wicked landlord, Kotpatnum leaves in search for her imprisoned brother. Meanwhile, her blind little sister is taken care of by an aunt. However, when the wife of the landlord becomes mad due to her bad conscience, her husband assumes that it is the blind girl who, with the help of a demon, has bewitched his wife as a punishment for causing her mother's death and her own blindness. He orders one of his subordinates to put out the blind girl to die in the winter cold, while assuming the girl is dead the landlord´s wife recuperates.
After a year, Cotpatnum returns to the village. She has found out that her brother has died in Japanese custody and she is now told that her little sister has disappeared, probably frozen to death in the wilderness. Furious from rage and desperation Kotpatnum breaks into the house of the landlord and throws boiling water in the face of his wicked wife. Her enraged husband orders Kotpatnum to be tied up and locked in, to be sold to the brothel the next day, and if it does not want her ̶ have her drowned in the river. However, it turns out that Kotpatnum ´s brother has not died, but escaped his imprisonment to join the Communist insurrectionists. He returns home at the right moment. With an old huntsman, in whose hut he has found shelter for the night, the brother encounters his blind little sister, who previously had been taken care of by the old man. The next day, the brother of Kotpatnum convinces the oppressed serfs that they have to rise up against their feudal lord and liberate Kotpatnum. Under his leadership the peasants lynch the landowners, their henchmen and the Japanese soldiers who protect them. The revolutionaries finally drive away the Japanese oppressors and a glorious socialist era begins.
Kim Il-sung's heroic deeds have been overly exaggerated by himself and his acolytes. Apparently, were Kim Il-sung's guerrilla achievements during the Japanese annexation quite limited. Nevertheless, his alleged heroics have been told in five volumes of memories, With the Century, and several action movies. He spent most of the WWII in Soviet exile. When Korea in1945 was freed from Japanese rule, Soviet forces entered from the north, while US troops moved up from the south. The armies met at the 38th parallel, which eventually divided the Korean peninsula in two territories.
Kim Il-sung was by the Soviets installed as leader of what became the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and in 1950 his forces invaded the southern part of the peninsula. Initially, the North Koreans were successful, but after the US army , with UN support, interfered in the fighting, Kim Il Sung's troops had to retreat and it was only with Chinese and Soviet support they were able to retrieve lost ground and the war ended in the same deadlock as before ̶ a border along the 38th parallel. South Korea had then lost an estimated one million people, roughly the same number of North Koreans had perished, while China lost 600,000 soldiers, the United States just over 36,000 and the other UN countries 3,000 men. Soviet support was concentrated on providing material and air support to the North Korean war effort, making Russian losses almost insignificant.
It is a mystery that a man like Kim Il-sung is said to be the author of the play/novel/opera/movie The Flower Girl, which story is concentrated to the plights of one single Korean. A beautiful girl plagued by being born poor and oppressed. Whether this story really was written by Kim Il-sung remains an open question. Maybe he was just as much the author of this popular tale as Donald Trump was to The Art the Deal ̶ i.e. not at all. Nevertheless, Kim Il-sung was exceedingly proud of “his” book, just like Trump is extremely proud of his. The American president has on several occasions stated that it is his favourite book, “after the Bible” he likes to add. Kim Il-sung´s Flower Girl is even featured on North Korean banknotes.
Well, it is possible that Kim Il-sung wrote the original play, but how could he then behave even worse than the feudal lords he condemns so passionately? Like them, his power was supported by foreign superpowers ̶ China and the Soviet Union. Like former Korean kings Kim Il-sung also lived in luxury, with exotic foods and concubines, while his minions subsisted in fear and oppression. In his play, Kim Il-sung makes the landlord's wife become sick by her bad conscience, though I wonder if Kim Il-sung for a single minute was overwhelmed by his own crimes and injustices.
As soon as the Korean War had ended, Kim Il-sung separated friends from enemies. The founders of the Communist party were purged and killed. The same fate was also met by several others who had helped Kim Il-sung to power. North Korea became more like an ancient Chinese empire with Kim Il-sung as the Son of Heaven, a sovereign of a country, with an appetite for more. When he had cleansed his Worker´s Party, Kim Il-sung turned his attention to the people. Each citizen was subjected to rigorous background checks and classified in accordance with his/her ancestry and family ̶ parents, grandparents, even first and second cousins, their occupations and beliefs. Had any of them collaborated with the Japanese, South Koreans, or Americans? Were they “pure” Koreans born in the country, or was Japanese or Chinese blood running in their veins? Were they, or their relatives, peasants, landowners, workers, or civil servants?
Loyalty check-ups were conducted in various phases and became increasingly complex. A classification system was introduced as the basis for a variety of privileges and obligations, at least as rigorous as the ancient Indian caste system. Like in the old Korean class society your songhan affiliation determined your human dignity and your development potential. Individual ownership was prohibited in principle, the rural population was divided into collectives. The State controlled all production and distributed food and wages. If you belonged to the lowest level in the songhan system, you were banned from higher studies and could not be employed within governmental administration.
Until 1994, when the big famine was at its worst, North Koreans were dependent on a distribution system through which the government dispensed both household items and food. The rations´ size, regularity and content were determined by which songhan you belonged to. The highest ration was distributed on a daily basis and was assigned to party secretaries, the directors of central party units and high ranking officers. Further down in the hierarchy, the distribution took place every third day, once a week and finally once a month. The majority of the North Korean citizens received monthly rations, a distribution which definitely came to an end in 1994, while the food deliveries continued to those who earlier on had received their quotas more than once a week.
Neighbours spied on neighbours, friends on friends. Any sign of disloyalty towards the State and the Collective was immediately reported to the all-powerful authorities, who could reward informers with a TV, or a refrigerator. Neighbourhood committees were established to control each individual and were led by a chairman, or just as often a chairwoman, inminbanjang, who received complaints and continuously reported irregularities to the authorities. Every crime against society was punished hard and ruthlessly. It could be a theft, treachery against the state, hoarding or other crimes against the wellbeing of the Collective.
Criminals could be detained in ordinary prisons, jibkyliss, managed by the People's Security Bureau, or to work camps, rodong dallyeon dae, which interns dug dikes, laid asphalt and carried out heavy farm work. Criminals could also be detained in kyohwaso, "Enlightenment Centres", where they were supposed to be trained and rehabilitated through political indoctrination and hard work. Kyohwaso were concentration camps rigorously controlled and enclosed by barbed wire and detainees died from starvation and hardship, though the punishment was generally time-limited. The worst fate was to end up in a kwanliso, "Control and Surveillance Site", their detainees did not escape alive. Children born in a kwanliso remained there for the rest of their lives. There may still be more than 200,000 North Koreans living within the current kwanliso system.
The Almighty Leader Kim Il-sung had given his people its faith and guiding principle ̶ Juche, "Self-Confidence". A philosophy proclaiming that Koreans are completely unique creatures. An ideology that denies that it was with the support of China and the Soviet Union that Kim Il-sung came to power and that they had guaranteed his reign. Neither Marx nor Engels are mentioned in the school books, songs are still sung to honour Kim Il-sung's legacy and every North Korean is obliged to bow in morning in front in front of him and his son. They are constantly present, in the form of large, gilded statues in every town and as portraits in every North Korean home. The most common hymn glorifying Kim Il-sung is:
Our father, we have nothing to envy here in the world.
Our house is within in the embrace of the Workers´ Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes towards us, sweet children
do not be afraid.
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.
In order to maintain such a harmonious society, external enemies are required. The fatherland is protected by a ten-year military forced conscription (which means that men are recommended to marry at the age of thirty) in charge of the alertness and preparedness to face constantly threatening chaos and war. Especially the Americans are considered to be a constant threat. In museums, books and pictures they are generally portrayed as terrifying demons. Children sing:
Our enemies are the American bastards
who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.
With guns that I make with my own hands
I will shoot them. BANG, BANG, BANG.
Despite its Juche ideology, North Korea proved unable to manage on its own. By the end of the 1970s, economic development was slackening. Insufficient investments resulted in a stagnation of agricultural production, as well as in mining and heavy industry. By the beginning of the 1990s disaster had become a fact. Major trading partners and donors, i.e. the Soviet Union and China, abandoned an increasingly isolated Korea. The Soviet Union collapsed and to stimulate its own economy China turned inwards. North Korean soils were rapidly destroyed by drought and depletion, lack of improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides proved to be disastrous. Soon the famine harvested ever increasing numbers of victims. People collapsed and died in streets and fields, in schools and unworkable factories ̶ workers were still forced to arrive in their workplaces, even if nothing was produced and no salaries were paid.
Help arrived from the outside world, not least from the United States. The ruling and consuming class first seized the food supplies, but soon they were reaching the most affected areas. However, it was already late. The unimaginable catastrophe had become a horrid reality. Between 1990 and 1997 between 600,000 and two million North Koreans died from starvation. Despite the State's once rigorous control of the population, there are no official statistics available about the magnitude of famine victims. Through large posters and constant propaganda in TV, radio and movies the State urged people to endure their horrific suffering. Through cynical comparisons with the Great Leader Kim Il-sung's self-sacrificing (but largely imaginary) battle against the Japanese, the state provided a name to the famine. Posters and media declared that The Ardous March would soon come to an end and like Kim Il Sung's pursuit it would eventually be rewarded with success and prosperity.
Barbara Demick, whose eyewitness sources provide horrifying accounts of the ravages of hunger, injustice and tyranny, describes how dockers scraped fat from cargo holds to find something edible, hungry families collected faeces in streets and fields and dried it to find residues of rice and corn. Throughout the country, hordes of abandoned children, kochebi, wandering swallows, tried to survive by begging and stealing. Boys were often the sole survivors of a family, since parents and siblings saved what little that was left to eat for them. Demick's eyewitnesses describe the symptoms of lethal starvation; bony bodies, enlarged heads, flaking skin, white spots around the eyes, the stench, exhaustion, mental decay and disintegration of all bodily functions. Rotting corpses at railway stations, in the streets and in the fields, rampant violence and criminality. Though also compassion and ingenuity born out of a fervent will to survive, a development that soon threatened the cynical, self-promoting Kim regime, which answered with increased terror. Highly positioned party members and the military leadership persisted with their mouths' confessions and pathetic submission to the Kim family, whose luxurious life style continued unabated.
Kim Jong-il, who had become ever more powerful through his father's worsened health and lack of social skills, cynically undermined Kim Il-sung´s power while he furthered his megalomania with increasingly grotesque tributes to his father´s superhuman greatness. Kim Jong-il himself soon developed into the prototype of a mad dictator. He lived detached from reality in seventeen different, rigorously guarded palaces and luxury apartments. Along the railways there were stations exclusively serving his personal needs. Every day Kim Jong-il ate lobster with his exclusively designed silver chopsticks and enjoyed other exotic dishes prepared by his Japanese chef. This chef had a foreign passport with a feigned name that made it possible for him to travel all over the world to identify dishes and recipes that would appeal to his husband. This Kenji Fujimoto is one of the main sources to what we know about Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un. However, the cook was a spy working for the Japanese intelligence service and he eventually managed to escape to Japan and write his memoirs. Fujimoto´s descriptions of Kim family vices were generally perceived as grossly exaggerated, though experts have increasingly come to consider them to be true to reality, especially since they have been confirmed by several high-ranking North Koreans who have managed to escape from the country in recent years.
Kim Jong-il was a movie enthusiast, demonstrated by two volumes about film, which he apparently wrote himself, and his more than 20,000 DVDs, among them his favourites ̶ James Bond movies, Friday 13th, Rambo, Godzilla and action movies from Hong Kong. The latter is a taste he shared with Donald Trump. USA's own Great Leader does not get tired of watching his favourite movie Bloodsport, in which Jean-Claude van Damme with great variety of kills his opponents in various martial arts staged within underground fighting dens.
Kim Il-jong's taste for apocryphal monster movies is somewhat extraordinarily, particularily while considering the state of the country under his rule. His interest prompted him to order the kidnapping of the South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok, who during eight years directed seven Kim Il-jong produced films. Shin Sang-ok was able to escape while he was in Vienna to promote his latest North Korean movie, Pulgasari, an infantile monster film in the Godzilla genre, which as well as several other North Korean films is available on Youtube. Due to the suspicion that he had voluntarily collaborated with the North Korean dictator, Shin Sang-ok chose to live in the US, where he among other movies directed some martial arts comedies.
Kim Jong-il was fascinated by all Western glamour. His idol was Elvis Presley, whose speech and appearance he imitated during private gatherings. Like his son, Kim Jong-il was also a big basketball fan and, also like his son, he organized a pop group consisting solely of female artists, but unlike Kim Jong-un, he enjoyed their appearance and music only in closed company.
The contemporary North Korean popular music success Moranbong Band, is organized by Kim Jong-un himself based on his selection of 20 young women from all over North Korea. With their miniskirts and colourful outlook, Moranbong Band has become a trendsetter in North Korea, where women increasingly are abandoning their drab grey or brown uniforms in synthetic materials, for increasingly colourful outfits. The group is said to have gotten its name from a hill, Pony Heights, in Pyongyang, though older Koreans are well aware of the fact that in the past Moranbong was the name of the Capital's infamous red light district.
The challenging radiance of the beautiful young girls makes it easy to associate them with other phenomena of North Korea's sexually suppressed culture, for example is kissing not allowed neither on film nor publicly. Nevertheless, like Trump, Kim Jong-un likes to surround himself with beautiful, young women, especially those who enthusiastically expose their devotion to him.
Nor has it escaped foreign observers that female soldiers in North Korea's massive and impressive military parades in are goose stepping in mini-skirts.
Events that may not be so far from the exposure of well-shaped females in American beauty contests or the cheer leaders and baton girls who appear during sporting events and giant parades.
Huge spectacles and film production (albeit not as prolific as in the 1980s when 15 to 20 movies were produced annually) continue under Kim Jong-un, while the big city Pyongyang increasingly assumes the appearance of an oversized Hollywood film set, like something made for a Disneyland-inspired mastodon movie, a kind of glamour version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Visitors marvel at the city's vast squares and largely empty boulevards, its pastel-coloured skyscrapers dominated by the gargantuan Ryonyong. This huge, unfinished construction site may be likened to the entire Kim Jong-unregime. The building was designed by the end of the 1980s and intended to be the world's largest hotel, 300 metres high with 3000 rooms. At the top there would be luxury restaurants and a casino housed within a rotating tower. The building is now nothing but a huge shell, covered with glass windows. Very few know what is inside, probably it is empty.
Ryonyong Hotel's crystal façade conceals a vacuum, a cover-up like the one that has been erected around the lack of compassion and the commitment to nothing else than the power and wellbeing of a cynical clique of self-serving autocrats. A make-believe world presented to controlled tourist groups, who are introduced to Pyongyang's Moscow-inspired subway and gilded giant statues of the beloved leaders, monument after monument paying homage their supernatural characteristics.
and impressive shows staged within surreal youth and science palaces. They are seduced or disgusted by an avalanche of propaganda praising North Korea's ambitious nuclear weapons program. Depictions and models of missiles appear almost everywhere; in museums, in squares, in work places, schools and day care centres.
Tourists are completely in the grip of their minders who along on empty highways take them to visit model farms, or even to be welcomed in the homes of "ordinary Koreans" whose sterile abodes lack any sign of normal family life and thus may be suspected to be just another aspect of a North Korean society of spectacle where actors pretend to be “commoners”.
Behind these fabulous facades lies a desolate countryside where most work is carried out without any help of machines, not only by farmers but also by state prisoners and conscripts. Tractors seem to be largely missing and ploughing is still done with wooden devices drawn by oxen, or by peasants bending over spades and hoes. Invisible to foreigners are the concentration camps where hundreds of thousands of unwelcome elements and regime critics are starved, beaten and killed. To get an idea of what is happening in this hell, I recently read Blaine Harden´s book about Shin Dong-huk´s upbringing within a kwanliso concentration camp, a wretched existence worse than I could have imagined.
Recurring cleansing of people who are becoming too powerful or annoying for Kim Jong-un continues, including the killing of the husband to Kim Jong-un´s only aunt, a fate shared by the victim´s wife and several other members of his family. Power and social control still reside with the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), an agency of the Central Committe of the Worker´s Party of Korea, which effectiveness was perfected during Kim Jong-il when he patiently and systematically removed his father from power and influence while turning him to God. Kim Jong-un´s control of State and Army is based on his father's repressive system, which engine is the Organisation and Guidance Department. Kim Jong-un has effectively used the ministry's refined terrorist methods to punish opponents and eliminate competitors to his unrestricted power, most recently his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who was murdered at Kuala Lumpur's airport last year under mysterious circumstances.
When I watch and listen to what has been created in North Korea, my first thought is that it is completely absurd. Its sheer ludicrousness fascinates me. A clinical interest? Psychologists and psychiatrists often explain their examinations of mental patients and abnormal states of mind by explaining that a thorough knowledge of extremes increases our ability to understand what we perceive as normal. Might North Korea serve as a magic mirror that reveals the absurdities in our own environment?
It is often said that reality exceeds fiction. I have my doubts, assuming they are often on equal footing. I find that García Marquéz's fictional, Colombian small town of Macondo in his One Hundred Years of Solitude to be a fairly adequate depiction of my wife's birthplace in the Dominican Republic, just like my daughters, who lived in that country for many years, assure me that Monty Python's Flying Circus provides a quite correct impression of England. In my bookshelf I found Martin Esslin's Theater of the Absurd. When I read it more than 40 years ago, while studying Drama, Theatre, Film at Lund University, I found it to be the best textbook I had been forced to read. It still fascinates and in it I encountered a lot that may be applied not only to Trump and North Korea, but to my own existence as well.
I read about the first play Harold Pinter wrote ̶ The Room. Before writing that play, Pinter had struggled with a novel he was unable to finish. One evening, he told a friend that he had found out how a really engaging play ought to be like:
Two people in a room. The curtain goes up on the stage, and I see it as a very potent question. What is going to these two people in the room? Is someone going to open the door and come in? Obviously they are scared of what is outside the room. Outside the room there is a world bearing upon them which is frightening. I am sure it is frightening to you and me as well.
The friend, who was in charge of an amateur theatre group at Bristol University, became enthusiastic:
̶ It's brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! Write a play based on this. Write it down at once. Already within a week we need something new and tumultuous. It as if you've been thinking about this for a long time. You should write it down now.
Pinter hesitated and the following day he asked his friend to forget about the whole idea. Nevertheless, he sat down and finished the play in four days: "I don´t know how it happened, but it did."
Rose is a fairly common, aging lady whose husband Bert never talks to her. Nevertheless, she pampers him, engulfing the grumpy man with her motherly care. The room is in a large building. Outside reigns winter and night. For Rose, the room constitutes a safe and cosy haven, placed within a dangerous and threatening world. A warm, bright and sheltered place, just right for her. The cellar would have been far too cold and humid and higher up in the building she would be exposed and vulnerable. Rose's only fear is that someone should invade her secure space, drive her out of her home. Rose and her husband are visited by a certain Mr. Kidd. We do not really understand who he is, whether he is the landlord or the janitor. Rose asks how many floors and rooms the house has. Mr. Kidd answers evasively: “Well, to tell you the truth, I don´t count them now.” When he is asked about who he really is and where he comes from Mr. Kidd is just as vague: “I think my mum was a Jewess. Yes, I wouldn´t be surprised to learn that she was a Jewess.”
Mr. Kidd and Bert leave the room. In her solitude, Rose becomes increasingly agitated. After a while she opens the door and finds that a young couple is waiting in the staircase. What are they doing there? They have heard that there is a room available in the building and are waiting for the landlord to come and show it to them, but he never turns up. What room is it? Number seven, that's why they are waiting outside Rose's door, it's the number of her room. The young couple apologizes and disappears down the stairs. Rose returns into the room. She is now violently upset. What if she would lose her safe haven? A knock on the door. Rose opens, it is Mr. Kidd who has returned. No, he does not know if Rose's room is up for rent, he just came to inform her that she soon will have a visitor. Mr. Kidd leaves the room. A by now horrified Rose stares at the closed door. It knocks again, she opens. A blind, black man enters. He presents himself as “Riley” stating that he has a message for Rose: “Your father wants you to come back home. Come back, Sal!” Rose does not deny that her name is Sal, though she demands: “Don´t call me that.” Rose´s husband, Bert, comes in through the open door and utter his her first lines: “I came back, after all.” He tells his wife that it is pitch-dark out there, though his van has brought him safely back home. Then he discovers the black man sitting by the kitchen table. Furiously Bert attacks the defenceless, blind man and beats him mercilessly until he ends up lifeless on the floor. The hysterically screaming Rose covers her eyes. Curtain.
As a truly absurdist play Pinter's work is opens to several interpretations. Who is the black man? Is he Death entering Rose´s lair? An illegal immigrant violating her privacy, triggering the unprovoked wrath of her otherwise indolent, constantly newspaper reading husband? Is the visitor an indication of the fact that status quo, how sad and miserable it might be, cannot remain the same? May we thus consider Pinter's play as a comment on North Korea's current situation? A fake façade covering up a secluded state of misery that cannot be kept away from outside intervention. Perhaps is Pinter acting as some kind a prophet while describing an existence that reminds us about the kind of society a populist party like the one of the Swedish Democrats wants us Swedes to strive at ̶ a deceivingly cosy existence removed from the realities of the world we all live in?
The Room was written in 1957, four years after Beckett's ground breaking Waiting for Godot. Post-war Europe was ripe for the absurdists' gloomy view of life and their gallows humoristic mockery of morality, religion and other obsolete ideologies. What can you do? What are we waiting for? Socialist or capitalist utopia? The Apocalypse? Godot? My oldest daughter, Janna, who for a while was fascinated by Beckett's gloomy humour, found an astute interpretation of whom Godot could be. Who, or rather what, we were waiting for. She did not assume that the name might be a reference to an absent God, but rather a composition of the English phrase go-do-it, Go and do something! I found it to be a brilliant suggestion. What the clumsy, constantly squabbling tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, really lack is initiative. They are utterly unable to do anything about their hopeless situation. They have lost faith in their own abilities and are waiting for an alien, illusive power that will change their wretched existence.
In that sense I agree with Esslin ̶ Absurdism, from Kirkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus and onwards, tackles the question of whether we, after all the insane violence and totalitarianism, have something left to believe in. Where was God when we needed him the most? Is it really worthwhile to engage in art and aesthetics in a world where we, with Beckett´s words are born with our mothers crouching:
astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener.
Esslin refers to Nietzsche´s Thus spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche had in The Birth of Tragedy claimed that it was merely “an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” and that “without music, life would be a mistake.” However, in his Zarathustra-book Nietzsche seems to have changed his mind. Neither art, nor music, are able to give us any relief from our existential suffering.
When Zarathustra descended from his mountain peaks to preach about his insights among the people, he met in the deep forests a hermit. The old man advised the prophet to remain in the wilderness. He knew that it was not worth trying to persuade any townspeople about the truths of life. They were full of themselves, their own personal striving and would not care one bit about any what any truth-teller had to say. When Zarathustra wondered what the old saint was doing his loneliness, he replied: “I make up songs and sing them; and when I make up songs I laugh, I weep, and I growl; thus do I prise God.” Zarathustra did not follow the hermit´s advice to remain in the forest and when he resumed his wanderings Zarathustra asked himself: “Can it be possible! This old saint in the forest had not yet heard that God is dead!”
According to Nietzsche we humans are free to both search for and blame God, though after all it is a meaningless endeavour. It is far better to forget all about God and assume full responsibility for our own acts. For sure, an extremely difficult task ̶ "human, all too human". Who might be able to gain such strength and independence? At least not Nietzsche. He had to give up the struggle, was broken and spent the last ten years of his life as a vegetable.
We humans are limited by our own shortcomings; by our language and our environment. Another exceptional individual, Ludwig Wittgenstein, acknowledged the inadequacies of language, how it limits our thinking and actions. Wittgenstein was a man who mastered more languages than regular human beings, he was familiar with both logic and mathematics, He suggested that we are all restricted by our language games, Sprachspiele. This means that not only words and sentences are affected by rules established through human interaction, even our entire way of thinking is enclosed by Sprachspiele:
A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.
If the Sprachspiele are controlled by a totalitarian regime, like the one who now holds North Korea in its iron grip, our thinking and behaviour also become affected. Someone who clearly realized that was George Orwell, who in his novel 1984 explained how important it is for a totalitarian regime to transform the language of its subordinates. In an appendix to his scary novel Orwell explained how the dictatorship's Newspeak was constructed. Most characteristic was that the amount of words was constantly reduced, in order to cleanse it from all subtleties and implications.
The vocabulary had to be transformed and limited and become as precise and direct as possible. Everything that was not in conformity the State doctrine had to be cleared away. There should be no other means of expression than those intended and controlled by the Government. Such policies are also found in another dystopian novel about an oppressive regime's attempt to limit people's ability to think - Ray Bradbury´s Fahrenheit 451.
In his novel Brave New World from 1932, Aldous Huxley divides the people of a distant future into different categories. People categorized as Alfa and Beta occupy the high and medium positions of society, while those of the Gamma, Delta and Epsilon categories are like bees and ants unable to think for themselves and act as individuals. The North Korean regime has also divided its citizens in a similar manner.
In an appendix to 1984, Orwell stated that language could, within a meticulously controlled social structure, be divided according to class affiliation and centrally appointed roles The vocabulary of Newspeak is divided into three different categories; A for everyday speech, B for political contexts and C for expert use. The latter means of expression is divided by subject, meaning that each specific expert is provided with a strictly limited list of the words s/he needs to use during her/his allotted professional activities.
Newspeak´s simplified vocabulary was deliberately created to be as remote as possible from an earlier, more dynamic, often literally influenced language. An example ̶ to express appreciation you had to use the word plusgood, meaning “great” or “very good”, or even doubleplusgood, “incredibly good”, “wonderful.
Newspeak contained various sets of expressions, like Duckspeak, literally meaning to “quack like a duck”, i.e. talking without thinking. Duckspeak might be both good or bad, ungood, depending on who uses it and whether its use is in accordance with Big Brother's political stipulations. Talking and cheating could often benefit the Party.
Orwell's observations seem to be applicable to Donald Trump's limited vocabulary. He uses linguistic ineptitudes and abundant hyperboles, such as “bigly”, “winning”, “tremendous/tremendously”, “incredible”, “millions and billions”. When he does not know what to say Trump uses insipid phrases like “we're looking into it” or “you'll find out”. Even when it comes to invectives Trump has a quite limited vocabulary, his most common vilifications are “loser” or “moron”. However, he reveals a slightly more advanced imagination when it comes to finding epithets for his opponents. Here the list can be made wuite long, some examples may suffice to give a general idea of the extent of his capacity: Crooked Hillary, Slippery James Comey, Wild Bill Clinton, Low Energy Jeb Bush, Lyin´ Ted Cruz, Cheatin´ Obama, Pocahontas (Elizabeth Warren), or Mr Magoo (Jeff Sessions). He also uses his not so particularily witty epithets on various organizations, especially newspapers and news channels, such as the Failing New York Times, the Very Fake News (CNN), and the Fake ABC News.
Several of my friends are constantly watching news with and around Trump, of course hoping to hear that he is going to be ousted from office, but also for the pathetic entertainment value of watching and listening to how a grotesque clown is managing the world´s mightiest nation. It has something of the desperately dark humour of the theatre of the absurd; laughing at the edge of the abyss.
In Orwell's 1984, Ministry of Love is the name of Oceania's sinister Interior Ministry. Through fear and propaganda, an effective bureaucracy engineers the massive brainwashing scheme of Big Brother. Surrounded by barbed wire, high walls, steel doors and guardians, the officials of Ministry of Love work separated from "ordinary" people. Most feared in the huge complex of the Ministry is the infamous torture chamber ̶ Room 101, which Orwell named after a conference room at the BBC where he had suffered endless, tedious meetings. The English artist Rachel Whiteread once exhibited a concrete copy of a hermitically sealed room, which she called Room 101, naming it after Orwell's torture chamber.
The Korean writer Jang Jin-sung also ended up in a place called 101, actually a department of the North Korean Organisation and Guidance Department. Office 101's name had nothing to do with Orwell's novel. The designation was based on the establishment of the Department in early October 1970, more particularly 1/10, making it 101. Just like Orwell's Room 101, Jang Jin-sung's workplace served as a tool for an absurd, oppressive regime trying to adapt reality to its distorted ideology and is thus another example of how literature unintentionally can be reflected and even surpassed by reality.
Jang Jin-sung and his colleagues´ task was to write poems, novels and newspaper articles praising the North Korean system, its leaders and especially the Kim family. Their concoctions had to give an impression that they had been written by South Korean writers and then been leaked to the North Korean press. To make the authors of Office 101 able to think and write like South Koreans they spent their working days completely isolated from North Korean society. Their food supplies exclusively consisted of imported products and on a daily basis they read a large amount of articles and books produced in South Korea. After working hours, all material had to be locked up. Office 101 employees could nevertheless borrow an occasional newspaper or book over night, though only after the loan had been carefully registered.
Jang Jin-sung's tragedy consisted of lending a South Korean magazine to a good friend. The friend had had the publication in his briefcase, but on the bus ride back home someone stole the portfolio and with it the dangerous magazine. Diffusion and possession of foreign literature was punishable by death, both Jang Jin-sung and his friend had to flee for their lives. Against all odds, Jin-sung succeeded in escaping to China and then South Korea. In a well-written book, he tells about his plight and dramatic escape.
As in North Korea, the language of the West is becoming depleted by media and advertising. In Sweden, public space is filling up with bad language, appalling stereotypes and shallow reporting. The increasing specialization of information and interests is strengthened by limited interests of different populations. During my childhood and youth there were only three radio stations in Sweden and first one, but later two TV channels. Certainly, that was a big limitation, but most Swedes had quite a lot of conversation topics in common.
Now the supply of information is so extensive that it has become possible for all us to limit our information intake to narrow fields of subjects and interests. When I for a few months of time recently worked as a high school teacher, I found that some of my students spent most of their time, both inside and outside of the classrooms, by following up on Kim Kardashian's rather uninteresting life and interests, while others devoted their attention to follow a ball´s, or a motorcycle's, virtual journey through an imaginary landscape.
The universe of words has shrunk. The verbal flow in social media is decreasing. Newspapers and magazines are disappearing. Investigative journalism is replaced by short, snappy slogans and catch-words. The Fourth Estate is losing punch and credibility. The intranet is changing character, becoming depleted and less verbal than before; Email shrank and became Facebook, which turned into Twitter, to Instagram, ending up as Snapchat. At the same time, words are replaced by visual signals and markers, such as different network symbols, Smileys and Emoji.
Trump is a child of his times. He does not read any books and gets the most of his stimuli in the form of pictures, mainly television. His written means of expression essentially consists of Twitter and the signing of Executive Orders. It would not surprise me if Kim Jong-un is found to be living in the same limited sphere of communication. As early as 1959, the undoubtedly somewhat too provocative Norman Mailer stated that:
The sickness of our times for me has been just this damn thing that everything has been getting smaller and smaller and less and less important, that the romantic spirit has dried up, that there is no shame today … We're all getting so mean and small and petty and ridiculous, and we all live under the threat of extermination.
I do not think it was better before, but when I found that my students are no longer able to keep their interests awake during an exciting movie, and even less so to read a novel, without after five minutes becoming plagued by an uncontrollable urge to grab their mobile phone to learn what Kim Kardashian might have been doing during the short period of time they have not been able to follow her, or been hindered from driving an imaginary motorcycle through an artificial landscape for a thousand times, then I wonder if Mailer's concerns were not justified.
Perhaps we are becoming too indolent to be able to influence not only our surroundings, but ourselves? Perhaps we are losing our language and thus our independent thinking? Perhaps Big Brother is watching us awaiting the right moment for taking command over us and the entire world?
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