The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Society that invites a Mona Lisa smile

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Jan. 22, 2019 - 17:13

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Leonardo Da Vinci’s monumental painting “Mona Lisa” is one of the most widely discussed paintings of all time because of its subject’s ambiguous smile. People have argued that depending on the viewer’s distance and angle, her smile looks different. Sometimes it looks happy, other times sad. Some people find the smile to be deriding and sarcastic, while others perceive it as a smile of condescension, like someone who knows everything. That is why Mona Lisa’s smile always refers to an enigmatic smile.

Living in Korea, I have often been forced to wear a Mona Lisa smile myself. For example, as a literary critic and scholar of the humanities, I have served as a judge for a number of literary awards and academic grants. Perhaps I am not good at politics because I have never called awardees right after the final decision in order to take credit myself or to emphasize the favor I have done for them. Therefore, whenever the recipient of an award proudly tells me about the award he has received, not knowing that I was the one who made it possible, I smile a Mona Lisa smile.

A few years ago, I was invited to give a series of talks at the Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series sponsored by the National Research Foundation of Korea. The audience consisted of ordinary people interested in the humanities. I have frequently lectured for ordinary people, so I was quite used to talking to a general audience. When I arrived at the lecture venue, however, the coordinator, who obviously thought I was an inflexible academic from the ivory tower, told me, “You have never lectured in front of ordinary people, have you? You should know they are different from scholars or students.” At the time, I had to silently wear a Mona Lisa smile.

When I was scheduled to videotape a series of online lectures for diplomats of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, I had a touch of a cold with a stuffy nose. I took a Sudafed pill before I went to bed the night before. The problem with Sudafed is that it can make your throat momentarily dry. When the videotaping began, my voice became a bit squeaky. The producer offered me a glass of water, saying, “Relax. First timers are always tense in front of cameras.” Once again, I smiled a Mona Lisa smile. How could she know that I had done online lectures hundreds of times already? How could she have known that I had stood before the video cameras of KBS, MBC and EBS frequently, even before she was born?

As I grow older, I have found that my left hand tends to shake slightly when I do not grasp a small object firmly. When I visited the office of the blacklist investigation committee last year, a young lawyer offered me a cup of tea. As I was holding documents with my right hand, I took the cup with my left hand, which then became a bit shaky, as usual. Noticing it, the lawyer assumed that I was nervous and said, “Please make yourself at home.” Again, I had to smile a Mona Lisa smile.

Why should I be nervous? As president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, I financially supported 101 writers who were on the so-called blacklist, against the wishes of the former government. That was why lawmakers could not find fault with LTI Korea at the 2017 National Assembly audit over the blacklist scandal. But how could she know? How could she know that, even before she was born, I fought for the democratization of Korea? For example, by signing the anti-dictatorial government protest that ultimately brought forth the June 29, 1987 Democratization Announcement, at the risk of losing my job at Seoul National University. How could she know that she could only enjoy freedom and democracy thanks to my and my generation’s protest and sacrifice?

As president of the American Studies Association of Korea and director of the American Studies Institute at Seoul National University, I used to frequent the US Embassy, visiting US ambassadors and cultural affairs officers. In addition, I have lived in the US for a long time both as a student and a professor. However, when I visited the US Embassy in Seoul to get a US visa recently, I was amused that the Korean staff there tried to teach me about America and the US Embassy as if I was ignorant of them. But I majored in American literature and taught at American universities even before they were born. Once again, I had to wear a Mina Lisa smile.

In today’s Korean society, amateurs tend to be so presumptuous that they often do not seem to know or care about who they are dealing with. Then, professionals cannot help but smile a Mona Lisa smile. In such a situation, what else can professionals do anyway? 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. -- Ed.