Truth as Resisting the Longing for Return

Yeonmi Park, in telling of her escape from life in North Korea, describes the depth to which she was shaped by North Korean propaganda. Though starvation and cannibalism were commonplace at the time of her birth, Park says she presumed she was living in the best country on earth, a socialist paradise. She presumed that all countries and peoples worshipped the Dear Leader, and that North Koreans had nothing to envy but were the envy of the world. She describes the great pride and gratitude she felt in being among the chosen. She viewed the Dear Leader with pure love and knew nothing of what she was deprived. She had never seen a map of the world and had no concept she was Asian – she just knew she was of the race of Kim. Time is not marked by B.C. and A.D. but begins with the birth of the Kim dynasty. There is no history before this beginning. Concepts such as love or freedom, which one might assume are instinctive, she claims are nonexistent in North Korea. She says, there is no concept of romantic love but all affection is directed to Kim Jong-un. So not only love between wife and husband but between mother and daughter or between family members or between friends is forbidden. Even love for the self is denied. The Dear Leader is the center and definition of all affection. Thus, when she saw the film Titanic, an alternative world began to open to her. She describes North Korea as if it existed on another planet. Good and evil, in this Animal Farm like society (the book that opened her eyes), are subject to engineering and manipulation, such that it becomes clear that human thought can be shaped to any mold by the form of life to which it is subjected.[1]

In this political moment many have been made aware of this “manufactured consent” (left and right) on the part of cultural elites – and she compares what she encountered at Columbia University and the promotion of political correctness with North Korean tactics, but it is not just that we are all susceptible to deception but there is a shocking depth to the degree deception might be at work upon us. What the North Korean experiment reveals, like the Stalinist and Nazi experiment before it, is that there is no human concept that is not open to manipulation.  One’s basic humanity, experience of the world and of self, what is seen and heard is subject to manipulation and interpretation.

Park quotes the other George Orwell classic, 1984, “He who controls the language controls the thoughts.” Where there are no words for liberty, justice, or human rights, these concepts do not arise – they have to be taught. There is no direct access to a world of truth apart from the filter of language and cultural-political-religious construction. There is no built-in or biological world of instincts and concepts which we might fall back upon. The objects and ideas which make up subjective experience are enmeshed in a world which can be undone or redone. Park says she feels as if she now exists on a different planet and that she is completely disconnected from the person and experience which defined her in North Korea. But then surprisingly, she does not indicate that she completely likes having left this other world and other self behind. She says she longs for home. She longs for this lost world and this lost self but she feels the only way she could return to it is by returning to North Korea and certain death.  

Her ideological shift describes what Helen Keller reports at an even more fundamental level. Where the words are absent the objects of water, doll, teacher, and mother, are also absent. It is only upon learning the names for objects that they become a distinct entity in experience. The world opens for Helen with her discovery of words and language including the world of other people and her own sense of self. Strangely, she reports the sensation of guilt as the first of experiences which comes with her discovery of her sense of self. The specific guilt is over having broken her glass doll, which she reports as coming with a feeling of delight, as it seemed to be the breaking apart of the world she formerly inhabited. Helen, two times over, remarks on the “keen sense of delight” she felt at the shattering of the doll but then she feels guilty for this lost world.

Park reports a longing for home which she saw in her father, who decided he would rather go back and be executed in North Korea and be buried in his home country. The interviewer suggests to her that the United States might be this new home for her but she indicates it is an idea to which she is still adjusting. Is her reported longing of return made of the same stuff as every child’s feeling of having given up one world at the expense of another?

As Lacan and Freud describe, there is an imaginary violation the child passes through, in which there is a relinquishment of a sort (the castration complex) in the process of language acquisition. It is not that sight or sensation provide a first order experience to which language is then attached but the objects of sight and sensation, up to and including the self, become recognizable only with the acquisition of language but with this acquisition there is also the sense of a relinquishing of a world. Prior to recognizing the body as the self, there is the realization of separateness and the possibility of disintegration and dismemberment (the first stirrings of death). The linguistic medium, connecting the child to the world, establishes at the same time the subject/object or self and world between which an exchange is made possible.

 As we pass from one world to another, from one home to another, the longing for return (repetition) may be the most pronounced of sensations. Is it not a longing for unfreedom for an absence of ambiguity and choice (the longing for the North Korea of the unconscious – a return to the womb of pre-subjectivity)? To refer to this as a false consciousness may be slightly inaccurate (are their false sensations?) but are the stirrings and sensations, which may sometimes overwhelm us, to be trusted? Does the discovery of truth entail also a capacity to recognize and name that which would block us from entering the truth? Are our basic desires reliable guides or is our conscience to be trusted?

I have previously referred to this initial human subjectivity, following Lacan and Žižek, as a deception, but maybe this seemingly necessary passage is only a deception where the impulse to return or the compulsion to repeat or the longing for home overwhelms. The truth would be to forge ahead and to not give way to death drive (the compulsion to repeat), to the longing for the indistinguishable sensations of a loveless pre-subjective existence.

[1] Yeonmi Park: North Korea | Lex Fridman Podcast #196