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Sailing to Byzantium
Lee Jaewon  |
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[145호] 승인 2017.12.04  
트위터 페이스북 네이버 구글

Heading into the first semester this year, I found myself lucky enough to be given the opportunity to run a mentoring class for a small number of first-year students who had applied looking to improve their English writing skills. On the first day, when we met for the orientation, I entertained some eccentric and out-of-the-blue ideas to tap into the insights of their innocent minds. I ended up preparing a more or less puerile (or, rather, “wicked”) questionnaire in the shape of an English proficiency exam. The test itself turned out to be a great excuse to do so, since it came highly recommended for its overall efficiency by the professor in charge of the tutoring programme. Please don’t get me wrong; everything was genuinely instructed, save only for one tricky topic that finally asked the question “What’s your take on the fear of immortality, namely apeirophobia? And provide any advice to those suffering from it.” Although intended simply for the sake of my own personal and academic inquisitiveness, I could not help but admit that I garnered some intriguing responses from the naive tutees. It transpired, much to my surprise, that nearly all students appeared as if they couldn’t care less about what mortality or immortality would have meant to them. Their benign suggestions, albeit scribbled in broken English, were remarkably thought-provoking. At least they were to me, who unfortunately had a difficult time suppressing the unnerving, macabre feelings of a so-called blank emptiness after death. These feelings had occasionally encroached on my daily life and, in the end, “scared the hell out of me”.

“Fear ye not: This too shall pass,” said the wise man. It may be true, but therein lies the conundrum: if we knew only time could help us overcome whatever obstacles are put in our path, wouldn’t facing the irrefragable end of time also be causing a fear of the eternity? Delaying or fighting the inevitable remains a far cry from reality. Yet, I have come to realize that most people in Korea, for instance, are incredibly hell-bent on setting their life goals high. These goals could include everything from pursuing more education, to getting married, to having kids (to name just a few). In doing so, they appear desperate to be swamped with duties and even more overwhelmed in this already hectic, competitive world.

This is despite how frequently they cry aloud how they wish to avoid such a fate at all costs. On the flip side, there are a myriad of devastating consequences from such actions that our very finite life brings about, not the least of which is what I refer to as “identity crisis”. This phenomenon results in people incessantly discriminating against and excluding (“othering”) one another. In doing so, we are more often than not viciously inculcated into believing that our fixed, shared-identity somehow proves superior to others. This superiority can occur for no other reason than as a means to escape from the fear of mortality by defining what becomes of us in a straightforward way. When harking back to the image of “good old” social strife around the globe, things like gender, skin color, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation all seem to be nothing but chicanery that society has put in place for us. This is particularly remarkable if you consider that many of these social constructs are unconscious in our daily lives. Social strife works mainly in one of two ways: either by exacerbating a rift amongst people pitted against each other who otherwise could have lived in harmony and solidarity, or, ironically, bolstering a strong bond in a small group of individuals. Fine. Accuse me of being red-pilled and grossly pessimistic, but people’s desire to rise above their station, and to form cliques based on immutable human traits, undoubtedly more complex than we perceive, may have stemmed from a denial of a harrowing mortality.

For me, turning to literature has been a good source of respite. In spite of this, literature has yet to give me any solid, definitive answer on whether or not there is an after a life. This is something which many of us are waiting for science to bring about, elixir-like, through anti-aging techniques. Perhaps someday there could even be way to immortality! A discussion on the coming Singularity aside, one of W.B. Yeats’ masterpieces, “Sailing to Byzantium”, is telling me that there are scores of stages in life akin to a quest. Having not reached each and every one of these stages, I dare not say how I could anticipate how my perspective on life and death will sway. This is indeed sound advice for anyone. There is no need to cite the entirety of Yeats’ verse here. Suffice to say, it culminates in the praising of a being that “set upon a golden bough” to sing to the people of Byzantium “of what is past, and or passing, or to come” In other words, by becoming a depository of wisdom, astute and sagacious beyond your physical years, you can proudly recount, in whatever form, what you have so far experienced on your own terms. Such self-trust, with courage and confidence in the past, is, therefore, all that paltry human beings should need in order to stave off a fear of nothingness. With neither a blind hatred against someone, nor a staunch belief in the importance of money or social status, one can now sally forth on the journey to Byzantium, no longer appearing as grim.

Lee Jaewon
Dept. of Korean History, ’12

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