Plato thought that art was detrimental to the soul. At least, this is the theory put forward by the character of Socrates in book 9 of the ‘Republic’, a work on the development of the human soul and civilisation. The probem with art, Socrates alleges, is that the very qualities which make it enrapturing necessarily dull the edge of reason and the moral compass, and furthermore that an artist necessarily lacks the ability to convey true knowledge. Hence, poets and artists were banned from the ‘ideal city’. In closing, Socrates expresses a deep regret to have reached this conclusion, but interestingly leaves a challenge to future generations to prove him wrong.
Dae Jang Geum, released in 2003, is a famous Korean historical drama, which enjoyed great popularity in East Asia but is not particulary well known in the West. At 54 hours in length, it was something of a commitment, but having just cancelled my LoveFilm subscription I decided to order the box sets. I had seen other Korean dramas which I had been greatly impressed by, and I was expecting to be impressed again.
While the other dramas had been romantic comedies with an unexpected third dimension gradually materialising as the story arc progressed, this was the first ‘serious’ drama that I had watched, and also different from any other television drama that I had seen.
The closest equivalent would be I, Claudius, a BBC production from the 1970’s starring Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, and most other famous British actors you can think of. I, Claudius is brilliantly scripted, superbly acted, and has a sort of magic about it which seems to have been the product of the particular people involved at the particular time.
Dae Jang Geum also ticks all of the boxes that you would hope a period drama would tick. The script is intelligent and free from cliché, the costume and scenery are exquisite, the language used is accurate for the period concerned, and the narrative is balanced with joy and sorrow, with the concluding episodes painstakingly measured to prevent a sense of anticlimax, all of which I appreciated.
But there was something else about this drama which caught me by surprise and felt distinctly unfamiliar. It is hard to express in words, and it is also hard to define what sort of drama it is. Although it has comic elements, it is clearly not a comedy. Although there is a romantic element, this is clearly not the point of the story. It is not a tragedy either. It is not, I believe, primarily an underdog story, because I am familiar with this from many other stories with this theme.
I came across one possible answer in an online review, which noticed that love featured heavily in the story. Apart from the romantic element, there is the love between a student and teacher, between mother and daughter, between adopted parents and their child, and between friends, but the primary theme is ‘self-love’. Self-love has negative connotations, but with an Eastern perspective this phrase I think means fulfilling one’s true destiny – i.e. something to which all other goals, romance, success, revenge etc. are secondary.
Multi-dimensionality in the portrayal of characters is a recurring feature in the other Korean dramas I have watched. Characters who initially appear to be a certain ‘type’ later reveal a depth which belies the initial impression. I am amazed at how this continually caught me by surprise. It is I think pyschologically convenient for characters to be simply good or evil, because that is the simplest way to view the world, and it is how the human brain is wired. It is unusual to see an example of ‘popular’ fiction which goes against this innate human tendency.
The arch-villainess in Dae Jang Geum is Lady Choi, who acts ruthlessly and remains unrepentant in her final moments. However, her moment of nemesis was for me the most moving and tragic scene in the whole series. Thinking about it, I suspect it was because the story behind her ruthless attitude – the subjugation of her conscience in favour of honouring her family’s power and traditions – was made clear throughout the story, and the internal struggle she faced with herself and ultimately lost, were laid open for us to see. This meant that I could identify with her, and identifying with something that is evil is always uncomfortable.
One speech from earlier in the drama goes some way to elucidating this underlying philosophy of understanding ‘evil’. At a time of great personal danger, the elderly Head of the Kitchen is giving some parting words of instruction to Lady Han, Dae Jang Geum’s teacher. Beset on all sides by the plotting of her opponents who are out to get rid of her by any means possible, she says:
I came to the palace even though my father tried to hold me back
But the beautiful palace I saw in my childhood was just an illusion.
Though always crowded with people, the palace has been lonely.
Envy and jealousy existed amont the court ladies probably because were weary of loneliness.
Weary from loneliness, they probably fought to be recognised by the King.
Weary from loneliness, they probably flattered others to gain wealth.
Weary from loneliness, they probably had to use trickery to gain power.
Have some sympathy, have pity on them.
Treat others with sympathy as much as you want to follow your principles.
I don’t know what Plato would have made of Dae Jang Geum, but I suspect that it had a positive effect on my soul, and that if this is the case, then presumably art has a future even in Plato’s ideal city.