Pensees at 59

By Nam June Paik

I told Manfred Eichel of NDR  that the five principles of the media are:

  1. Sex
  2. Violence
  3. Greed
  4. Vanity
  5. Deception

He said, ‘’I cannot agree with you more. You must write about it!”

Manfred Eichel has aired three hundred and fifty cultural TV shows. He knows the practical difficulty of transmitting reasonably important television without unreasonable boredom. He is not like those armchair strategists who just talk about media behind their academic screen.

Before Age Eighteen

You do not need Freudian to tell you that most of our spiritual landscape is well defined before we reach age eighteen. I lived in Korea until I was seventeen and a half years old. Two big influences I picked up there were Karl Marx and Arnold Schoenberg.

Karl Marx – I do not need to explain – Marxism was a worldwide vogue, and there was good reason for it: We had just come out of two world wars caused by capitalistic greed. Marx provided us with the scientific reasoning and blueprint for a Utopia.

As for Schoenberg, I am still quite proud that I was able to discover him in the information-starved Korea of 1947 when I was only fourteen and a half years old. I was studying composition with Kon-Woo Lee and piano with Jae-Dok Shin, who were both in the inner circle of the great Soon-Nam Kim. Both Lee and Kim were excellent composers of atonalist music, and both voluntarily went to North Korea with retreating North Korean Army in 1951. Certainly these naïve young composers did not expect the hell of a Stalinist regime.

Later, in New York, I learned that Milton Babbit of Princeton University, today’s foremost Schoenbergian, did not find Schoenberg until 1948, although he was born in the cultural milieu of New York’s upper class and was many years my senior. I discovered Schoenberg in Korea and made him my guru one year before Milton Babbit discovered him in New York.

This most likely had something to do with Seoul’s bubbling atmosphere, in which people had the illusion of choice from a wide menu of Bakunin, Bukharin, Proudhon, Marx, French Syndicalism, Fabian Socialism, etc. From today’s point of view, it reflects the immaturity of the Korean intellectuals, because we were actually just a chip on table played by Stalin and John Foster Dulles.

Also, I knew of Bartok, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Sibelius – all were famous mid-century contemporary composers. I opted for Schoenberg because he was the most radical one. I guess this qualification alone let me choose him, even before I had a chance to listen to him. This reflects the social atmosphere of Seoul, which was like a tinderbox before explosion.

In 1947, the only actual musical score of Schoenberg that I had was the small piano piece ‘’Opus 31.’’ I had to extrapolate the whole universe of my ‘’guru’’ from a single work, just as Richard Leakey based his fantastic conclusions about evolution on a few ‘’Lucky-like’’ bones. I t took two tears to beg the owner of Swan record shop in Seoul to let me hear his Schoenberg record Verklaerte Nacht Opus 6. However, I was at least educated enough to judge this piece to be just a Wagnerian pretension.

Then, on a sleepy afternoon in 1051, in Kamakura, Japan, I turned on NHK radio. There was a sensual soprano weeping with very dry dissonant sounds. I thought it must be Schoenberg, it cannot be anybody else. It was Pierrot Lunaire. I can still see the small, brown plastic radio box I was listening to.


Lenin said the imperialist does not leave unless kicked out. Now, post-Leninists are inviting the imperialists back in order to retro-capitalize the post-Communist society, in the same way as the post-Lumumbaists did with the Belgians in the Congo in 1970.

Imperialists have been good teachers in India, Ethiopia, Africa, and Asia. Shridar Bapat said, ‘’India is an invention of British Empire,’’ which inspires me to suggest, ‘’India invented the wheel but Fluxus invented India.’’ George Maciunas chuckled at this joke.

Koreans have had many ‘’teachers,’’ including the American imperialists who force-fed democracy. However, the foremost teachers were the Mongo-Mancurians horseback people who brought us the two most important communication mediums of the nomadic times:

  1. grammar
  2. the horse

The importance of grammar was clear in the imperial dominion; for example, Queen Isabella ‘’made’’ Spanish grammar immediately after the expulsion of the Arabs and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1942. Korean imperialists invaded Japan and gave them Ural-Altai grammar and the name of its first capital, Nara, which means nation in today’s Korean.

It is morally unfair to vilify only Japanese imperialism and forget about Manchurian-Mongolian and Chinese imperialism. The Japanese were not in a position to ‘’return the favor’’ to us until the sixteenth century, because the technological flow was always from Korea to Japan. However, when Portuguese brought guns to Japan first, before Korea, things changed.

Last Question

I have asked many friends why we intellectuals tried to support Karl Marx for so long? Nobody has given me a satisfactory answer. Why is it chic to embrace Karl Marx and not Keynes? I do not know.

But I am allowed to ask this question, because if I had been loyal to my ideology, I would have died in Korea in1 951, or I would now be a grade-school teacher in North Korea – at best. We did not have the luxury of being hypocritical café-revolutionaries.