Transgression, Transcendence, and Identity in Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor

Jenny Drai
ANMLY
Published in
11 min readOct 7, 2016

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Coffee House Press, 2016

1.

“Many of us know something about transgression,” Sun Yung Shin writes in “The Limit Case,” one of three pieces that make up the third section of Unbearable Splendor, her hybrid collection of linked lyric essays, poetry, and story from Coffee House Press. “Something is wrong with us,” she continues. “What can we do but embrace the makeshift, assemble ourselves as we go, sometimes the punishment exceeding the crime.” This essay, like the other two pieces in the section, is based on a piece of critical writing about the figure of Antigone, who the author suggests is “the original cyborg.” What, the reader may wonder, does a cyborg, an organism that is both biological and machine, have to do with a character from an ancient Greek play? As it turns out, maybe everything. In Unbearable Splendor, a book that integrates autobiographical writing about the author’s experience of being a Korean adoptee (a word that does not officially exist as we learn in “Orphan: The Plural Form”) with and through pieces that feature creative literary criticism (as in the Antigone pieces), revisionist science fiction (for example, “In the Other Future,” where the speaker appears to be Rachael, the replicant from Blade Runner who believes herself to be human), Korean history (“One Hundred Days in the Cave,” “Exactly Like You,” “Harness”), parallel text (“The Other Asterion, or, The Minotaur’s Sacrifice,” which uses Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The House of Asterion” as a starting point), and etymology and the history of language as a doorway into questioning the guest/host dichotomy itself (“The Hospitality of Strangers,”). The figure of the cyborg stands in for the adoptee. It is the cyborg, after all, who may wake in us the feeling of Freud’s unheimlich (that sense of the strangely familiar as opposed to the outright mysterious). As Shin writes in “Exactly Like You,” “Abandoned and then re-en-familied, re-kinned, an adoptee is many things, including, I would posit, both a form of ongoing transit and a re-territory, a re-form. This form takes on different meanings, depending on the place, the language, and the people looking, listening. If our form is different, if we are no longer recognizable, if no one speaks our language, who are we?” Here, we learn that an adoptee is an ever-evolving entity, forever in motion, but also newly made. If we read the language above beside the following language from “The Limit Case,” we can draw parallels between the experience of the adoptee and the existential question contained within the body of a cyborg, a body, it seems, that is also in transit. “What is a cyborg but a hybrid creature of excess?” Shin asks, even as she answers her own question. “A thing that exceeds the sum of its parts. A thing that has extended its powers, enhanced, even superpowered. Antigone, the supernatural. The uncanny. Unheimlich, Freud’s word. Un-home-like. Antigone the homeless, Antigone the stranger, Antigone the royal, Antigone, in place of mother.

2.

Perhaps centering observation (the “people looking” from “Exactly Like You”) is key to understanding Freud’s concept of the unheimlich (uncanny). “I was an uncanny guest,” Shin writes in “Valley, Uncanny,” the first essay in the book, a piece that weaves her sudden presence in her adoptive family into and through a verbal fabric made of charts demonstrating Masahiro Mori’s 1970 Uncanny Valley hypothesis (basically, humans will show more empathy with robots as the robot approaches the human but then a point will quickly occur where humans will feel revulsion at the humanity of the robot, but then once the robot again becomes distinguishable from a human, the disgust will abate) and the concept of the hole as both universal (black holes) and personal (“I was a hole and I brought it, myself…I carried a train of holes — holes of smoke, holes of sky. Holes of water, holes of rice milk”). Shortly thereafter, in the same essay, the author adds, “There is a limit to canniness, but not to being uncanny — it is infinite…” (much like a black hole in our popular imagination). In German, unheimlich, which literally translates into English as un-home-like, is the opposite of heimlich, which means secret (a bit different than canny, the English opposite of uncanny, which usually simply indicates that someone is shrewd). Unheimlich (or uncanny) (or un-secret) therefore represents that which we observe that unsettles us precisely because the perceived object or entity is strangely familiar, rather than simply strange or simply familiar. What we observe is not secret, and therefore perhaps wakes within us (as observers) a certain sense of recognition. For example, if we take some liberties with Shin’s lines, replacing the English with the translated German, we get, “I was a [strangely familiar] guest” and “There is a limit to [secrecy], but not to being [strangely familiar].” Like a cyborg, which consists of enough humanity to remind us of ourselves, but also of enough machine to remind us of how it is different, therefore engendering a boundary, the adoptee herself may awaken feelings within us of the unheimlich, as we, the observers, are faced with issues of un/known boundaries and origin, and in the case of foreign adoption, questions of foreignness/native-ness itself. All of this brings us back to transgression, because what is the observation of transgression if not an insistence on the existence of lines, of demarcation? If not a reminder that what is transgressed upon (the familiar) (our version of things as they are) is not merely a construct propped up by the observer herself? Shin maneuvers this territory masterfully throughout Unbearable Splendor, visiting and revisiting tropes to create a layered collection of great thematic scope, composed in beautifully rendered phrases and sentences. (“The invisible lungs of the universe.” “A woman is like a hollow horse. All made of doors. All made of space.” “I am like one hundred electric eels. Our skin is an extravagant tongue, tasting everything, making the dark things inside us jealous.” “Paper soaked in milk.”)

3.

Let us revisit Antigone for a moment, if for no other reason than it is Antigone’s “unbearable splendor” that lends the collection its name. Shin bases the poem, “The Error of Blood Relation,” on the William Robert’s essay, “Antigone’s Nature.” (Originally published in Hypatia, the essay concerns itself with Antigone as “not simply across the line” but as “the other that challenges, disrupts, or even ruptures the possibility of the line as a demarcation,” who does so “not by neutralizing difference but by maintaining the play of difference that cannot be collapsed or neutralized” and “in so maintaining, [remains] cryptic, which makes her systematically indigestible.”) Shin writes (of her own Antigone) as someone who experiences life “across her mortal limits” of “the terrain of the impossible” so that “we can follow her strange latitudes.” And later, in the same poem:

Can’t you be quiet and just live?

Antigone, speaking and acting from the other side

beyond altars and thrones, into the crypt of heart and home

a woman who improperly speaks

who makes marriage with the systematically fatal

Take me with you.

Here, in lines that sway back and forth across the page like smoke from the funeral pyre prohibited Polynices, the subject’s brother, Shin uses the figure of Antigone, who in Sophocles’ play of the same name, transgresses by virtue of her sex against the male polis (Greek public political life), as a stand-in for the fascination we, the observer, have with limits, boundaries, what or who falls on either side, as well as what or who straddles those very limits and boundaries, delegitimizing them even as they highlight them. And perhaps it is precisely because the original Antigone commits her transgression (again, entering the public male sphere) while remaining wholly female (a concept explored in depth in Robert’s essay) that drives this point home. What the author writes in “My Singularity,” the book’s final chapter, may as well apply to Antigone (as well as to the cyborg, as well as to the adoptee, as well as to any person or entity who awakes in the observer a sense of the strangely familiar, thereby calling into question notions of belonging and boundary, of what fits where and what doesn’t): “I am here to solve your problems./I am here and I am your problem./Your problem is that I am.” It is precisely because of the interconnectedness of the entries (chapters?) in Unbearable Splendor, that the reader may draw this conclusion. And ultimately, the question, or at least one of the questions, placed by the book as a whole concerns itself with how prepared any of us are to rethink or reframe the divisions we see, the lines we draw in the sand, and on what side of those invisible lines we place ourselves.

4.

But must transgression necessarily end in the negative, as in the case of Antigone? What other possibilities, if any, are offered by transgression? The answer, at least the answers provided the reader in Unbearable Splendor, may be somewhat open-ended, and may, in the end, rely most on how much work the reader (observer) is willing to do to renegotiate the metaphorical geography of inner territorial markings, or boundaries, or limits, or lines. Because, as we learn in “Orphan: The Plural Form,” the entity (in this case, the adoptee ‘orphan’) at the heart of one matter that may wake within us, the observers, the impulse to engage in demarcation as a response to inner unease, isn’t the problem. As Shin writes, “Orphan is a gorgeous word. Sublime. The first syllable or reminds me of gold ore, or simply the word or, which means the possibility of alternatives, the certainty that another choice is to follow the little word or. English has so many of these tiny words that mean so much — and, the, an, if, so…” And there we have it. The orphan as sublime. Here, Shin herself engages in the act of subliming, in the sense that ‘sublime’ is also a verb, meaning “to make higher, nobler, or purer.” Becoming sublime (“complete; absolute; utter” in the sense of the word as adjective) therefore involves an evolution of some sort, a process of transformation, and this is how the text in question approaches the idea of transcendence. But because we are also faced with a text that interests itself with transgression, and with, perhaps more specifically, the spirit of transgression inherent to our experience of the unheimlich, we find that even the concept of evolution is subverted. In “Exactly Like You,” an essay that concerns itself with, among other things, fetal dreams, memory, and the specific greater historical context surrounding the author’s birth in Korea in 1974, the figure of Gregor Samsa, from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, serves as an archetypal figure of one who finds himself abandoned (“by his employer, father, mother, sister, and ultimately one could argue, his god”) by virtue of his transformation into an insect, which we may view as a sort of devolution. But the author does not stop here. “Did he transcend?” Shin asks, before cataloguing some of Gregor’s petty concerns. She poses the question again. “Did he transcend by the end of his life — with his radiant embrace of music, with his peaceful, solitary death in the light?” Samsa the beetle, we discover, may represent one self becoming another self, perhaps somewhat unrecognizable to the self it once was (even while containing that self), but nonetheless, now also fully the self. Because this essay is part of a series of essays grounded in an epigraph — each of the six sections in Unbearable Splendor begins with a series of carefully-curated epigraphs — from Kim Hyesoon’s “Shadow Janitor” that posits the recognition of self, or identity as one’s self, as linked to the concept of being at home (as, I think, both a physical and psychological site), we can also draw conclusions about what links may exist between transcendence and identity. Identity in turn, at least in this book, can be read as both individual (for example, as the author considers her own status as a Korean adoptee) and collective (for example, as the author considers her own experience within a wider historical context), but also as connective. Throughout Unbearable Splendor, the figure of the cyborg (or the wooden puppet, in the case of “My Singularity,” the book’s final, magnificent essay) reminds us also of the human, of what is human, of how we do or do not integrate what is essentially human into our own lived experiences and/or identities. Possibly, we learn, one part of being human is to devolve/to subvert/to transgress/to transcend. “If I were a dog I would mate with a wolf,” Shin writes in “In the Other Future.” “Devolve. I think humans remember being wild, too. I could eat all this light and turn into a white room.” What this room could contain might be said to be space, and more particularly, the space needed to re-postulate and reconsider not only what was there, in that space, before it, but also what comes after.

5.

As a book, Unbearable Splendor works on multiple levels. On perhaps its most obvious, superficial level, it’s a text full of beautiful, haunting, lyrical language and interconnected themes that wind in and out of each other to weave a coherent fabric of many strands. Under that surface, though, lives a veritable dissertation (with plenty of angles that the reader can research) on otherness and transgression, and in turn, on how what or who that is other, or what or who that transgresses, problematizes the existence of the one who observes. In his essay, “Antigone’s Nature,” William Robert quotes Derrida as asking, “isn’t there always an element excluded from the system that assures the system’s space of possibility?” In Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, that other is the adoptee (and more specifically, the transnational adoptee), who questions the space of family and national identity. That other is the cyborg (or puppet), who questions the space, and even the relevance, of our humanity. (Other essays and stories not discussed in this review widen out notions of system, space, and possibility even further, using clones in one instance as a starting point to discuss how the self may become uncanny to itself, or in another instance, presenting the births of our consciences as that which may make us, in turn, truly monstrous.) How we view these entities, or any other reminder of that which is strange to us by virtual of its uncanny, slightly unsettling familiarity, depends on us. What is, after all, in the end, the separation between observation and participation, this book seems to ask. And, is any such separation good, or even remotely useful? Can we reshape ourselves, and in the process, challenge ourselves to transgress against our own impulses to decide, to draw lines, to shut passageways, to sketch locks? After all, as we read on the book’s final page, “If there is a door between us, you cannot say what I am.” But even this statement is subversive, followed as it is by, “You cannot say that I am pure or impure.” In Unbearable Splendor, identity will not be subsumed or spelled out. Remaining transgressive, identity is wrested from the eyes of the observer even as it challenges the nature of observation itself. Identity is, however, always something that is acutely felt, wholly known, as it is, by its own subject. It is, perhaps, through this state of constant being that transcendence may ultimately occur. Thus, Unbearable Splendor is a beautiful, intelligent book that poses question after question and does not let any of us off the proverbial hook.

[6.]

You can read an excerpt from the book at The White Review, here.

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Jenny Drai
ANMLY

Jenny Drai is the author of three collections of poetry, two poetry chapbooks, and a novella. She lives in Dortmund, Germany, and works as an English teacher.