Monday, March 24, 2014

The Ghost Monologues, Caligula, Stalin And Kim: Men Like Gods


So, I have become a ghost, the nearest I shall ever be to a God again; for, in life, I was a God. Divinity, you know, is the highest form of politics. What is higher or nobler than a God? … But wait: Nobility has nothing to do with it, as if nobility and Godliness could ever share the same stage; a God is above that sort of thing.

As a former Emperor – now, God and ghost – everything for me was permissible, and understandable. I comprehend by grasping my subject from the inside; nothing was alien to me. I am solid as earth now because I know everything; I am in everything, and everything is in me. That is how I know; through a process of identity and self-revelation. I become the thing I want to know – say, a tree, or a young boy, or a virgin – and then, at will, I revert to Godliness.

You, on the other hand, seem very transparent to me. I’ll bet I know what you are thinking. You are thinking: He’s mad.

Well, in a sense, you are right. What is permissible for the God is forbidden to men. There are borders; but God is He who transgresses all borders. And in my time, no God/Emperor – there were a few of them -- transgressed more gloriously than I.

That is all you need to know about God: He is opaque and impenetrable. Nothing can pierce His surface. And yet, He is accessible to men, glad, as they say, to be of service – for a price. And, of course, I – as God – set the price; it is my Godly prerogative. Madness is only Divinity’s middle name. When Dionysius entered men, he drove them mad, and they knew what it meant to participate in Godliness – much to their surprise.

Some lessons come hard, others are hard. Men always think God favors them; pile sacrifices at His feet, and He will look favorably upon you. But God is other than you; the thing so large and so far above you it cannot be comprehended, which is why priests and prophets speak of God in a kind of storied poetry. Since God is ineffable, He must be worshipped.

It was my responsibility, while I lived, to convince men that God was neither for nor against them. He was merely indifferent to men. And so, penetrated by God, I was also indifferent to men. One day, I would be laughing with them; the next day, I would have them for my supper. Ah, you understand me! God the cannibal!

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking: He is mad … But we’ve been through that. Anyway, all this must bore you. You moderns have gotten away from God, and He, always a slippery fellow, has gotten away from you. You are hiding from each other, playing hide-and-seek, as children sometimes do. You have become practical atheists; perhaps it is better so. You do not know God, and he does not know you.

I was a divinity in my time and place. I became God so that men would know God. So, you want God, I said to my fellow men: I’ll give you God, Goddammit!!!

There is no one like me in your poor spiritless world, though there have been fraudulent copies. Your world, however, is not much different than mine. Do you realize how modern Rome was? Just for a minute, forget all the foreign surface oddities, the window-dressing of the culture that haunts and misleads you, and think of Rome as a modern empire: We had armies, you have armies; we had marriages and divorces – too many divorces -- you have marriages and divorces; we had abortion and infanticide, you have abortion and … not infanticide yet, but you are steadily progressing and some day you will have it; we had condominiums, you have condominiums; we had a plague of lawyers, you have a plague of lawyers, lobbyists, contractors corrupting senators, senators corrupting contractors, publicists, enraged political commentators, queers, actors, musicians, mimes, disturbed artists, drug dealers, witches, savants, priests, even tender young lovers, troublemakers all – we had them all. And you have them too … How are we different then?

If you had looked out your condo window on a bright Monday morning in ancient Rome, and saw attorney Livio pounding up the pavement heading to his office near the government complex to file a brief for the widow Rostia, carrying in his hand a laptop computer, breathing heavily – for he had been neglecting his workouts at the gym – and dressed in the height of fashion, splendidly attired in , let’s say, a Pal Zileri suit and a Zegna tie – would you not think you were in any large city in Europe or America, circa 2014?

So then, it is the funny robes that mark the age -- and the era too. It is the dress and improvements in technology that puts distance – You call it history – between Caligula the God and, shall we say, your lions of the Seante. Do you know that Gore Vidal, once said about your Senator Edward Kennedy, “I do not mind Kennedy; every state should have at least one Caligula.” How  good it is not to be forgotten.

Distance! So very important! One does not want to get too close to a God, an era or an emperor. That is why I have come to you dressed this way (He appears in modern suit, very conventional), so as to abolish the alienating distance between us. You have a saying: “Don’t be a stranger.” Well now, am I so very strange in this modern get-up? I know what you are thinking: You are thinking – he is mad. But we’ve been through all that.

Of the twelve Caesars of Rome, I am the one least hedged about by firm facts -- though, God knows, rumors abound. It has become accepted lore, through that notorious scold Suetonius, that I thought of nominated my horse to the Senate. But Incitatus was a very bright horse, much more patriotic – and, I may say, less ambitious – than the average senator. And why not a horse to keep company with the horse’s asses in the Senate? If not much is known of me, that is because I was defaced after my death; that is to say,  my historical presence was removed from all public places.

Oh, what I suffered. You don’t know the half of it. Rome was a dead Republic long before I became emperor. In my time, there was no one living who knew the glorious Republic, except in their too lively imaginations. But the Republic had always been an emotive idea, very popular among the people. The Republic, the Republic, the Republic – the Res Publica Romanorum, assassinated long ago by ambition, by people like me, by men like Gods -- and of necessity. It lasted from the overthrow of the monarchy in 510 BC until Julius Cesar and Octavian put an end to the business in 44 BC. But the Republic was buried with the corpses of the Gracchi brothers a hundred years earlier.

After them, mobs and money ruled Rome. It was this corrupted Republic, spotted with rot on the injside, that turned to Caesar for order and peace. And it was Caesar who delivered to the people of Rome the Republican reforms of the Gracchi -- a Republic, one popular Roman actor friend declared, without the bother of a Republican government. First Julius, then Octavius – then Caligula, the God.

It was an inevitable and logical development, though some people, taking the libels of Suetonius as fact, persist in thinking me mad. But I was an honest-to-god God, without subterfuge. Gods must not stand on ceremony with their worshippers. The movement from Caesar to God is not a lateral one; it is an upward thrust that necessarily must change the nature of things. When God appears, dead nature blooms. Before my time, Caesars used to parade themselves before the public as Princeps, “equals among men.” But, in fact, they were far removed from the common folk and simply pretended to be ordinary, so as not to alarm those below them, who were more numerous and collectively more dangerous.

Since the death of the Gracchi, Rome was moved only by organized mobs. “Let them hate,” I said, “so long as they fear.” And they feared me – because I ruled by contraries, in the manner of a God. And what does a God have to do with men? God moves men by terror and love. So, to be a God is something different than to be an emperor; and an emperor is different than a Princeps, an “equal among equals.” When God is among men, equality is of no account.

To be God is to be other. Augustus Cesar established the Cult of the Deified Emperor and promoted it, especially in the new colonies in the Western Empire. Augustus, however, always insisted that he was not divine. The Cult worshiped his numen – What would you people call it? – the personal spirits surrounding him, and his gens, the spirit of his family and ancestors. The Cult of the Deified Emperor languished under Tiberius and came to full flower only under my hand.

I made the temple of Castor and Polix in the Forum a part of the Imperial Palace. There I appeared on occasion transfigured in Godly form, magnificently appareled. You cannot tell from my present appearance how numinous I was. My religious policy spread like fire throughout the empire. I replaced the heads of the statues of the Gods at Rome with my own, including, of course, the female deities. In the godhead, sexual differences are abolished. The people, awed by love and fear, worshipped me, not merely in spirit but in truth; not merely some idea of me, but me myself – in the flesh.

Judea, as usual, resisted. A plan to place a statue of myself as Zeus in the Holy of Holies, the Jewish temple at Jerusalem, was stalled by the Syrian governor. And Herod Agrippa forecasted riots here in Rome and an insurrection in Judea should my plan go forward. Who needs riots? Since the demise of the Republic, only mobs and money move Rome. And on the point of my deification, it was necessary that Rome remain immovable. I know what you are thinking: He is mad. Yes, of course, if you like…

Rumors and half-baked truths swirled furiously around me. Some said I was mad; these I disposed of. Others whispered I had suffered a mental collapse because I had lived a reclusive life before being thrust on the public stage. Like an actor coming into the foreground from a twilight background, the bright lights of empire and notoriety wounded my mind. Well, reclusive, yes. When one is hunted as a child, in constant danger of death and destruction, one tends to prefer invisibility and solitude. One wants to disappear into the background, or go masked like an actor.

Others said I was brilliant, disposing of a sometimes caustic and cruel wit. Philo of Alexandria, the philosopher, was of this mind. Caligula was mad; no, Caligula was a vicious jokester; he was dissolute, arrogant, egotistical, cuttingly witty … So it went.

God has many faces but escapes all attempts to imprison him in finite categories. Speaking of jokesters, the comic genius Aristophanes, a real gadfly, once was rebuked by an offended and pious patron. Said the furious patron – who likely was politically connected – “Don’t you take anything seriously?” Aristophanes replied, “Of course, my dear: I take comedy seriously.” In the same way, I took divinity seriously – and found myself utterly alone in an ocean of agnostics. I was serious, you understand, about my Godly prerogatives, which were limitless. Emperors – and still more Gods – are bound only by the limits they impose upon themselves. Is this madness? Is it not rather extreme sanity? Other emperors before me had plumbed the extent of their powers; only I realized it.

My death was disappointingly pedestrian to me. The emperor Tiberius had left Rome very much in the black. I blew through this public fortune quickly, recovered from the Senate some of the imperial powers ceded to it by Tiberius – quite the Republican, that one -- expanded the imperial court, and grievously disappointed the people. I gave them everything but one thing. They had bread and circuses; they wanted a Republic. The people had been spoon-fed the notion that the Republic inhered in the Senate, which had become, by my time, thoroughly corrupt.

“How I wish,” some near contemporaries misquoted me, “their heads were mounted in one neck; so that with one swift blow of the sword, I could decapitate them all.” Fantasies are often more fruitful than truths, and the Romans, it must be said, were never comfortable with Divine prerogatives. Most of all, they wanted to believe that their emperor was, like them, an “equal among equals.” Other emperors had encouraged this noxious fantasy.

And so, at 37 years of age, I, Caligula the God, was murdered by officers of the Praetorian Guard, it has been said, for purely personal reasons. What a joke! Cassius Chaerea, joined by others, did the deed. Suetonius, who sometimes told the truth, claims Cassius had been stung by my caustic wit and nursed in his shrunken soul a vicious revenge. We had known each other since infancy. How ironic that it was my many attempts to put the two of us on the same footing – my joking – that finally did me in.

In the service of his country, Chaerea had suffered an unfortunate wound in his genitalia. Whenever Chaerea was on duty, I gave out the watchword “Priapus,” which means “erection,” or “Venus,” Roman slang indicating a “eunuch.” Late in January, Chaerea requested the watchword of me, and I responded as usual. I had been addressing an acting troupe of young men. Enraged, Chaerea struck the first blow, and before my German guard could respond, the other conspirators quickly moved in and slew me. They carved me up pretty good. Another conspirator, Cornelius Sabinus, murdered my wife and disposed of my infant daughter by smashing her skull against a wall. I had become emperor at thirty-seven, and was ghosted after nine short years. Good Gods die young, don’t they?

It was revenge that killed the God, the pedestrian snit of a former school chum. Can you believe it? We Romans love our revenge more than life itself; a dish, it is said, better served cold. And it is this emotion, coiled in the heart like a serpent, that explains everything you need to know about the God Caligula, whose life went by contraries.

An Afterword by Chaerea

Don’t believe a word this fraud says. It’s true Caligula lived his life by contraries – because he was perverse. He was always so, even as a young frightened boy. And it’s true that those in Rome who often claimed to be Republicans were no friends of the Republic; a Republic would have swept the whole lot of them into the dustbin. And that bit about revenge – too true. Of all the emporers, Caligula was the most artful in his vengeance. Vengeance is the justice of the powerless. But Caligula was not powerless, and his vengeance was not just. The very fact that it was not just was to him a spur and a permission. Have you noticed about men – not merely emperors, but ordinary men as well – that before they do good or evil, they give themselves permission?  There was no bar Caligula would not cross; his only friends were sycophants and actors. But what is an actor? A mask, an empty vessel, a significant gesture. How he acted! What a show he put on! Vengeance was his audience, Rome his theatre. Two things you must know about Caligula: First, that he was a sublime actor; second, that he told the truth, and told it in such a way that no one would believe him.


Khrushchev, that clown, ruined everything. (He wiggles his little finger) With this little finger, I could have destroyed him, if I had not died. The tragedy of my life was that I died. It was the greatest geo-political tragedy of a century full of tragic stumbles.

Listen to him, this clown, bloviating to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 on the Personality Cult and its Consequences. (He reads from Khrushchev’s speech):

“We have to consider seriously and analyze correctly this matter in order that we may preclude any possibility of a repetition in any form whatever of what took place during the life of Stalin, ... who practiced brutal violence, not only toward everything which opposed him, but also toward that which seemed, to his capricious and despotic character, contrary to his concepts. Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed these concepts or tried to prove his [own] viewpoint and the correctness of his [own] position was doomed to removal from the leadership collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation."

Brutal violence, eh? The sniveling little turd.

We used to make Nikita dance for us. I’d call him on the phone, usually late at night. Well you know, when you got a call from Stalin, you were instantly apprehensive. “What does the ogre want me for?” They knew that Stalin, “Breaker of Nations,” rarely called to chit-chat.

“Nikita, we need you here.” And so his rotundity would amble over.

“Nikita, dance for us, won’t you?”

And then, after we had our fun with him, we’d all settle down to watch a gangster movie from Hollywood. Everyone would breathe a sign of relief; at least this night won’t end for me in the Lubyanka.

Every great country should have a Hollywood -- and a Lubyanka. With a proper propaganda instrument and an effective rack, I could have ruled the world.

But this Khrushchev: There was always something odd about him – his eyes; they were not stone dead. Behind them was a little shiver of joy. Even when he danced, in his humiliation, his eyes danced too. Now, Lavrentiya Beriya had the eyes of a dead fish. He was a competent administrator too, a suburb revolutionary.

The true revolutionary, the indispensable foot soldier, not the always disposable theoretician, is like one of those Russian boxes within boxes; you open one that reveals another inside, and yet another inside, mysteries concealing mysteries. It is proper for the Father of his people to present a mysterious face to his children. No man willingly becomes the servant of the thing he knows, because as soon as you know something, you attain mastery over it. Mystery, capriciousness some people called it, and terror -- always terror -- were my true ministers of state.

The people, busy about their lives, will always be easy to control; I never once worried about them. But these viper theoreticians represented a danger to me and to the Soviet State. I dealt with them -- capriciously. Trotsky, that blockhead, I dispatched by sending an assassin to Mexico, where he was hiding out, awaiting an opportunity. Trotsky went there to escape this (He wiggles his little finger), but our assassin found him and parted his hair with an ice axe.

Tito, on the other hand, survived the assassins we sent to Yugoslavia. None of them were successful. One day I received a note from Tito. Comrade Stalin, it said, if you send one more assassin here, I will send to Moscow one man with one pistol and one bullet – and he will not fail.

Who needed that? A most unaccommodating man was Tito, a real terror. We tossed him out of the Cominform. But after I died, he snuck in through a back window, with Khrushchev’s blessing.

Trotsky’s assassin was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison in Mexico for 20 years; then, in 1953, ten years after the assassination, his true identity was discovered. His NKVD connections had remained hidden until after the fall of the Soviet Union. Can you imagine? Now, that assassin was a formidable revolutionary: Tell him to go and he goes; tell him to come and he comes. He doesn’t think. He is pure action, a little God.

Ah, it was joy to be alive before the walls came crashing down – at least for me. We hid everything in broad daylight; no one noticed. We knew how to shut up and, more importantly, how to shut others up – even Westerners not entirely committed to the Soviet vision. If you want to know how it is possible to tuck under a rug a few million corpses without anyone noticing the lump, ask Khrushchev, our main-man in Ukraine during the famine and subsequent purges that followed in the 30’s and 40’s.

Of course, I have no right to cry “hypocrite” in connection with all this. But it would be criminal of me not to mention that Khrushchev, who denounced me for brutal crimes committed against certain anti-Soviet elements, was my primary instrument of destruction in Ukraine. And what an efficient murderer he was! How energetically he set about the business of destroying his own back yard! Khrushchev’s parents, you know, were agricultural peasants in Ukraine. He was never able entirely to kick the clogs of dirt from his shoes. He was barely literate until he reached manhood, though few regarded him as stupid. No man who crawls over so many corpses to become Premier of the Soviet Union may be called stupid.

Let’s see: I have a list here of Khrushchev’s casualties in Ukraine. (Reading from a report) “Human deaths, 4,800,000; livestock dead, 5,300,000 horses, 8,600,000 cattle, 7,000,000 swine …” – not a bad job. Pity the swine did not include Khrushchev.

But that is what it took in the golden years of the Soviet Union to subdue nations clinging by their bloody fingertip to outmoded forms; for there was no question that the future was ours. All this earned me the title: “Stalin, Breaker of Nations.” Khrushchev was more modestly known as “The Butcher of Ukraine.” We waded through oceans of blood together, Khrushchev and I – Beriya too. In the end, I also became a victim. Me, can you believe it?

Khrushchev and Beriya had learned their lessons well. They got me with rat poison, some said; poetic justice, others said. And then Khrushchev eliminated Beriya; more poetic justice. The Soviet Union stumbled forward under Khrushchev’s stewardship. He was followed by others, each softer and more merciful than his predecessor, and finally it ended in that swamp of sympathy -- Michael Gorbachov.

Terror, terror and fear were the main joists of our structure. Remove them and the whole edifice was bound to collapse. Before me there were other Russians who inspired fear; believe me, Ivan the Terrible was no slouch. But none used terror so efficiently as "The Breaker Of Nations."

During the famine in Ukraine, there was an Englishman in Moscow who I thought understood me. “Watch Stalin,” he said to the West, “he’ll yoke the peasants to the plows” -- to accomplish my Five Year Plan. And later, visiting his friends in the United States, some of whom were queasy about the number of corpses upon which the Five Year Plan was built, he’d say, “Well, you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.”

I liked that one. But the Plan was a convenient mask. So long as Stalin was pulling Russia into the 20th century by its peasant beard, the West seemed to understand that every great nation is founded on a great crime. And then there was the depression, which helped to draw people’s attention away from the work of revolution. Really -- we got away with murder. Apologists popped out of the Western woodwork; one could see that enlightened opinion was with us. We hid everything in plain sight; no one saw. People see what they want to see. In the West, they saw Stalin fighting Hitler, and forgot all about the pact we had formed with the Fuehrer, which was easily repudiated. Over here of course, the people saw what we wanted them to see. Those who looked at us through their fingers were led straight to the Lubyanka. Terror focuses the mind wonderfully. The curtain was rung down by the denunciations of the terrorists. It became possible to think, to breathe. Finis!

What a run though: An Empire of lies and terror such as the world has not seen since Cassius Chaerea murdered Caligula.

An Afterword by Gareth Jones

We were a small knot of journalists living, thinking and writing together in Moscow in the early 1930’s. Some – Malcom Muggeridge, for instance – came from the socialist camp. Muggeridge’s wife was related to the Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice, English Fabians, like George Bernard Shaw, who later on played a walk-on role in the Terror Famine. The event that parted us was the 1932-33 famine itself -- not the first time food had been used as a weapon of war. To bring Ukraine within the Soviet orbit, Stalin knew he would have to destroy all resistance. First he and his agents decapitated Ukraine: He murdered all the intellectuals – teachers, scientists, politicians, the clergy, anyone attached to the nation through their remembered affections. The peasantry was a hard nut to crack though. From Roman times until the Terror Famine, Ukraine was known as “the bread basket of Europe.” Under cover of modernization, Stalin’s Five Year Plan, private farms were displaced by collectives. When the peasants proved intractable, Stalin destroyed them by creating and sustaining a famine. Communist cadres went into the villages and collected all the seed grain for the following year; they even destroyed the ovens used by the peasants to make bread. Famine stretched its boney hand over Ukraine. Whole villages died out; trees were stripped bare by starving peasants who boiled leaves for nourishment. Rotting corpses of people and farm animals made the air unbreathable. That is what was concealed from the rest of the world by the mask of Stalin’s Five Year Plan – murder on a mass scale. I saw what lay behind the mask when I defied the censors in Moscow, boarded a train and went into the countryside; so did Muggeridge. And we saw the sickening sight, Stalin’s hand lying over Ukraine, the swollen belies, the silenced screams. We got the story out, Muggeridge in diplomatic pouches.

Much good it did… We tried to say the truth, but it was smothered with lies, manufactured most effectively by Walter Duranty, the chief correspondent in Russia for the New York Times. Other journalists called him “The Great Duranty.” Muggeridge called him the worst pathological liar he had ever met in all his years in journalism. Duranty knew about the famine but suppressed news of it in his dispatches to the Times. Privately, he guessed that as many as six million people died between 1932-32. Publicly, he joked that “you couldn’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” For his reportage on Stalin’s Five Year Plan, Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a prize won at a great price. Stalin himself finally was murdered by two of his henchmen, Beryia and Krushchev. Funny, Beryia kicked the corpse and swore at it. But when it twitched, probably the result of involuntary movement, the marrow of his bones ran cold, and he ran off. As for myself, I went to China following Moscow, and there I was murdered by communist bandits. Such were the times we lived in – bloody Times. I received no Pulitzer Prize.

Kim Jong Il

Shin Sang-ok enters the stage and approaches a large standing mirror with great trepidation. At the end of his monologue, he will fade out and only the mirror, with Kim Jong Il’s image in it, will be seen.

Shin Sang-ok: I am not Kim Jong Il, though people have told me I look a bit like him; it’s the pompadour, I think. Kim could not be here. That would be impossible.

To understand Kim, you must understand something of the uses of imagery. I have a comprehensive understanding of the science of imagery, for I was a movie producer in South Korea, before I was abducted and taken to the North. One of Kim’s agents put a bag over my head and spirited me off. Well, you know -- North Korea; it’s not Hollywood… Having tried and failed to escape several times, I was put into a reeducation camp for four years.

Why is it always four years, I wonder? Why not ten, or eleven and a half? (He laughs) You are surprised, perhaps, that the camp did not rob me of my sense of humor? But believe me, when you are in camp – and everything that has brought you joy is stripped away from you, so that what remains is nothing but a naked, shivering ego, shorn of all its comforting illusions – a sense of humor may be your only saving grace. It took me years to become serious again.

I suppose the North Koreans, who have next to nothing, find themselves in similar circumstances; or at least they might, were it not for the reality bending enchantment of imagery. Once I was released from camp, thoroughly re-educated, I was treated well enough. I was conducted from the camp straight to Kim Jong Il’s … I will not call it a palace; but neither was it a hovel. Kim greeted me like an old friend. Here, in the permanent blackout of the North Korean peninsula, a light glows in the darkness. Kim Jong Il, you can be sure, is the light of this world, a product, mostly, of his creative imagination.

On the day of my liberation, Kim was light in every way: jovial, witty and bright, even though he has had little formal schooling. Light on his feet, he danced across the floor to greet me, one old school chum embracing another after a long absence. “Hello old fellow! Good to see you.” Would you believe it? The women of the country consider him “cute.” I cannot forget the image of Kim dancing to greet me, his face suffused with light. I know sincerity, and this scene was sincerely warm.

After the camp, where many of us had survived on a diet of corn flour and grass, to be received so cordially was (smile) somewhat disorienting, until I realized, almost at once, that here was a man who had no independent existence apart from his imagery. He was a living film. Kim opened a door and waved me into a room – and there it was: the largest private collection I had, until then, seen anywhere – fifteen thousand films. It is somewhat of an understatement to say that Kim is a film buff. He is, at once, the producer, director and principle actor in the film that records his life and the recent life of his crippled country. And here I was, a film maker -- a minor deity, to be sure -- in the presence of this maestro of image making. How could we fail to get along?

He was generous -- after my rehabilitation. He bought me a Mercedes, and reunited me with my wife, who also had been kidnapped by his imps and impets; she too had the marks of the prison camp on her. But our days of deprivation and re-education, we were given to understand, were now over. Apparently, Kim had need of a film maker. I was paid three million dollars a year. He settled upon me as his Leni Riefenstahl. Not a bad deal; Riefenstahl lived to be 101, outlasting Hitler by some 45 years, convinced to the last that she was an artist, not a propagandist. Perhaps she was an artist – one of those who create dangerously.

As for myself, I was impressed into service; I was not a willing subject. In the absence of freedom, it is somewhat arrogant to speak of free choices. In the prison camps, we had no choice of meals; flour and grass were on every menu. But the citizens of North Korea, so many of them, have had even fewer choices. Even here, in Pyongyang, the very center of Kim’s imagination – for the entire country is an imaginary construct -- there has been whispered talk of starvation.

In refugee areas across the Chinese border, boney children stare with eyes floating in sunken sockets at the desolation of their villages. Odd: One expects monsters such as Kim to be monstrous always. But it is not so. With me – perhaps because I was from the South, and a film maker – Kim was honest, after his own fashion. He could be brutally honest. Perhaps he wanted to have near him one man to whom lies could not be other than lies.

Our conversations sometimes were confessionals – not often, but sometimes. Even the great kings of Europe had their fools, and sometimes kings would permit their fools a certain license denied to even the most privileged courtiers. The people to whom Kim has dedicated his life and his most sacred honor, after all, live in the future he has imagined for them; they know little else. But me, I am from the South. I do know better. And Kim knew that I knew better, that I had a frame of reference different than those North Korean children, with distended bellies, who risked their lives crossing the Chinese border for a bit of rice they might bring back to their starving families.
Can’t fool me. “What did he want?” I often asked myself. Those children who crossed the border to gather food were ashamed that they had fallen so far short of their Dear Leader’s extravagant expectations of them. They were not self-reliant enough to starve quietly; their bellies told them that self-reliance was a sham. Kim threw a party for my wife and me when we were rejoined after the camps. Two bands played, a male and a female band. When the women in the band cheered him, he patted my hand and said, “Mr. Shin, all that is bogus. It's just pretense.”

What did he want with me? Affirmation, I finally decided. He wanted to be able to affirm to someone that he knew the truth, that he was not a captive of his own imagination, that he was not mad. That and, of course, he needed someone to jump start a propaganda effort. Propaganda is to these tyrants what cosmetics are to aging actresses: When the crow’s feet begin to appear around your eyes, you apply a little paint, and they appear to disappear. But underneath the propaganda, things remain as they are: Children starve and whip themselves because they are not self-reliant. (Fade out)

Kim Jong Il: (Kim appears in the mirror. He steps out of the mirror) There is a little truth in all lies. First there was the testimony of my cook – that freak! That ingrate! Now this!

One thing you can be sure of: People outside North Korea will always be ready to believe the worst of me. But here – where people know me – I am universally loved… Well, to be honest, not universally loved, but deeply loved. The people loved my father as well.

You see, in North Korea, heroism is still possible. We are brought up to identify with heroes, such as my father and – if it is not too immodest to say it -- me. But in the West, your heroes exist only in your films, which is why I have such a large collection of Western films. I have learned a good deal from them. They are my university.

There are differences between Western heroes and Eastern heroes – and similarities too, though I think the differences are more important. The Western hero is a loner; he takes his courage from what he believes to be right. But the ethic of the West is fast changing, don’t you think? What he Western hero thought right is not what, say, any modern hero more representative of the West thinks is right. There is something defective about this loner theory too, don’t you think? A man alone is not a blank sheet, because a man is never alone; never an island unto himself, but always part of the mainland.

And, as to the propaganda value of films, well intelligence has always been used that way. It was, after all, Hollywood that won World War II, Hollywood and George Patton, a true American hero. Film is a kind of collective intelligence. I value it for that reason.

But I meant to say… What was it?... Oh yes, the Eastern hero is different; the wellsprings of his heroism are different. We are not afraid of insularity, self-development, self-reliance – but always within the context of serving the greater good. Apart from the greater good, what is self-reliance but selfishness? It is not given to everyone to know what the greater good is. When Shin Sang-ok was here, I tried to explain all this to him. But his time in the West had corrupted his soul. South Korea is the West; it is the West as surely as New York, or any large city in America, Paris or Germany, is the West. And, sadly, he agrees with me. In South Korea, the external promptings – entirely Western – have overcome internal resolve. Even in the West, the traditional Western messages – notes of conscience – are daily being overwritten by the emerging social environment. The Western hero is no longer one who struggles against his environment; he yields to it, the way a weak man yields to a beautiful woman. 

That is the truth. The West is losing its struggle with the East. It may not seem so. But the West is weak, faint of heart. That is the truth. Externalities are deceptive. Rome was rich and technologically proficient when it fell. You see: I study the West; but you do not study the East. If you had studied us, you would know that isolation is our strength. The more you isolate us, the stronger we become. We are like Antaeus in the Roman myths. Our strength comes from the earth -- from the people. To kill Antaeus, the son of the earth, Hercules had to hold his feet above the earth, and strangle him; for, when his foot touched ground, Antaeus grew in strength. Are you surprised I know these things? Do you think I spend all my time in the cinema? (laughs wildly).

c2006 Don Pesci

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