David Brooks has the first installment of his annual Sidney Awards column up. It highlights his picks for the best essays of the year. Here’s one of them: a slice of life from North Korea. The author begins by talking about how his government handler took him to her country’s fanciest shop, which to her was a gallery of great luxury, but to him was like “a Beijing dollar store.” She could not understand why he wouldn’t buy anything. He said there was literally nothing to buy. She couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t purchase a flimsy electric fan made of molded pink plastic. The author puts himself in her shoes, and considers briefly what it must be like to be a North Korean for whom a cheap box fan seems to be a golden chalice.
Then, back at the dismal tourist hotel, he finds that the only other person in the bar is a Japanese businessman. More:
He was quite drunk, and I had stumbled upon his central issue in life. It was with surprising candour that he explained to me his unrelenting desire for North Korean women, that he’d set up his entire career to enable him to visit the DPRK from Tokyo to be in their presence, to study them, to breathe their air. He said it was his cruel fate to be forever thwarted by their elusive nature. He went on and on about their beauty, about how they were uncorrupted by the shallowness of the rest of planet Earth, about how their sheltered status meant they were as close to ‘real’ women as could be found in our century.
‘They are the only pure women left,’ he said.
Moths circled outside the windows. Occasionally a bird would slash through the dark, picking moths from the air. I could almost hear the clicking of their beaks.
‘Have you ever had a conversation with a North Korean woman?’ I asked. ‘I mean beyond minders and translators?’
With great pain, he said, ‘No. We’re the enemy here.’
I didn’t know if ‘we’ meant all Japanese, or if it included Americans like me.
I said that perhaps there were more accessible women to meet in Japan, women he could get to know. Women of Korean descent. Even women who had defected from North Korea. This only seemed to increase his isolation, as if it was proof that I didn’t understand anything.
As a joke, I said, ‘You could always defect to North Korea.’
He snorted and gave me a look that said, You think I haven’t considered that?
The North Korean Woman, immaculate, was that man’s idol, and he would not let anything compromise that vision. In a much more minor way, pitiable and poignant, the box fan might have been that deprived North Korean woman’s idol. In both cases, they constructed — or had constructed for them unawares — a belief that possessing the idolized thing would complete what they find lacking within themselves. To be clear, I think this far less likely in the North Korean woman, whose poverty is real and grinding; anyone in her situation would desire relief. Not so much the well-fed Americans who have so many things, yet think and act as if acquiring more consumer goods will fulfill us.
Anyway, I read this essay at bedtime last night. Earlier in the evening, Ryan Booth and I had been talking about idol worship, and how the human condition is such that what want to believe keeps us from seeing things as they really are. Nobody escapes from it. Dante’s Commedia is about a progressive unveiling of reality as the pilgrim moves closer to God. Because we are mortal and finite, we can’t know everything, even as we grow in knowledge. As he rockets through the heavens, Dante has an encounter with Thomas Aquinas, who cautions him never to be certain that he’s got it all figured out. You never know what God’s will is, and what He will do, says Aquinas. The briar that is bare in the winter will produce a rose in the springtime. The ship that has sailed into the harbor may sink before it reaches the dock. It’s very wise counsel, one that I constantly have to impose on myself. It is both blessing and curse — blessing, because it means bad situations won’t last forever, and curse, because the same applies to good situations. The wise man will commit himself to seeking out the will of God, and God’s presence, in all things, understanding that any utopia that arrives before the End of Days is an illusion, and potentially an idol.
This is certainly what happened to me — this giving in to my own illusions about Family and Place, and this deep and abiding longing for a return to the utopia of my childhood, for complicated reasons that I explore in depth in How Dante Can Save Your Life. It is a universal temptation, this longing for utopia. I was able to discover, through reading Dante, why the Catholic abuse scandal shattered my faith: because I had made an idol of the Roman Catholic Church, just as I had made idols of other things in my life. My rigid emotional need to believe in those various utopias made my illusions, which were total, insufficiently strong to withstand the inevitable conflict with reality.
But there are many, many people who labor with Stakhanovite fervor to keep reality at bay, no matter how destructive, and self-destructive, maintaining their illusions are. In his novel The Leopard, Lampedusa meditates on why the Sicilians suffer so much, but will not make the changes in themselves necessary to secure a better present and future. He concludes that they believe themselves perfect, and are willing to endure any degree of suffering to maintain that illusion. Says Lampedusa, “Their vanity is stronger than their misery.”
This is why Dante insists that no change within ourselves can be possible without humility. The first idol we must topple within our hearts is vanity — the vanity whose false light burns so brightly that we cannot see what’s really going on around us. Dante reminds us that every reality is to some extent constructed, and that these realities cannot be other than partial — some more true than others, but all short of Reality — because we cannot see as God sees, cannot know as God knows.
This is a lifelong project, for every single one of us. Our ego is a moon that partially eclipses the light of the divine Sun, leaving us in partial darkness. We have it within ourselves the power to force the moon into its proper orbit. But you have to want it more than you want your illusions. This is a hard thing — even harder for some than going over and over to North Korea on a quest for the Perfect Woman, and ending up drunk and despairing in some decrepit commie high-rise hotel. That grotesque quest seems to that delusional and vain Japanese businessman a more promising pilgrimage than taking the road that leads within. Desolate North Korea may well be a land of milk and honey compared to the desert of his heart.