Jealousy Is My Strength (질투는 나의 힘) is one of Ki Hyung Do (기형도)’s most widely known poems. Although it is not his last work, it does have the tone of summing up one’s life, looking back and taking stock of his journey so far. He blurts out what comes off like a final assessment of his life, in blunt words with an air of mock declaration. His conclusion is rather glum and no hint of redemption is offered. The brutal honesty is painful. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the poem is starkly compelling. While the reader does not know how such an intense self-doubt came to be, one feels the all too real anguish, in which one might see an inkling of himself. It is an existential poem of desperation that make the reader somberly search for answers in his own soul.
질투는 나의 힘
Jealousy Is My Strength
The poem opens with what sounds like the author’s reminder to himself, as if saying to himself that he’ll slip a hand written note in the book so he can come back to where he was at at this point in time after decades have passed. While odd on the one hand it has the pronounced effect of bringing attention to the gravity of this particular juncture.
In the second paragraph, he says he had too many things going on in his head, recording so much not so important things. Without stating why, he is disparaging the entirety of his work, his passion and probably his reason for being as well. It is not entirely clear whether he is turned against literature itself or just agonizing over the inadequacies of himself.
Then he goes As a dog will wantonly roam about under the clouds, so I have tirelessly vacillated about up in the air, continuing the disparagement about his work. In Advice From A Bus Stop (정거장에서의 충고), dogs symbolize the mundane way of life as opposed to that of a devotee to literature as Ki was. Taking dog to mean the same thing, the author appears to be calling both paths of life futile. A dog wantonly roaming about certainly can’t portend anything worthwhile, and his own calling literature made him tirelessly vacillating up in the air. He is seeing both as meaningless.
Next he sadly laments that he has left his youth standing alone on dusky street corners. Another bleak statement that drops your heart to the floor.
Then he goes I have counted the days I lived with amazement, which appears to be a sardonic derision on his own life, in the sense of Wow I have lived so many day but look what I’ve got now after all that. The next line I realize no one has ever feared me either confirms this sentiment, as he is calling himself an insignificant someone never to fear.
He then declares in the next paragraph that all his aspirations were only full of jealousy. What exactly is jealousy here? I take it as that common nagging sentiment one feels where what you have in your possession now seems useless, a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. He seems to have been tortured by this sense of uselessness even as he was writing and publishing his works. It is hard to imagine exactly how he came to be this way, but on another level, I think it is also perfectly understandable as most of us have this sensation every so often in our lives.
He makes another author’s declaration saying So I hereby leave a few lines of my thoughts first. It has a slightly comical effect because of its solemn tone coming after such a scathing sarcasm on his work, almost like a contrast made for comedic effect.
And next comes the conclusive statement, that he has desperately searched for love throughout his life. Yet never has he even once loved his own self. Again he is lashing out on himself for going on a quest for meaningless and hollow endeavor while neglecting himself. Again the reason he is gripped with such an acute case of nihilism is not found in or out of his works, and I have not seen any convincing explanation anywhere either, except the general unhappiness of his upbringing and the tragic death of his sister that seared his soul permanently, which may not necessarily answer this question. But one thing appears to be certain - he anguished with a sense of meaninglessness in his work and life. And many people seem to identify with it, since if you look hard at this thing called life, you are bound to wonder what it really is all about. The myriad big and small things in it will all eventually pass, and what seems so pressing and important at one point in time will have become an insignificant trifle in the end. It appears like a kaleidoscope of meaningless flashes of patterns that loom and disappear in turn making those endless events and their memories which are interesting and boring, happy and sad, meaningful and insignificant. But what for. In the end the answer is hard to come by except that that is just the way it is. And if you are an especially sensitive soul, as the poet Ki seems to have been, you may suffer more than others from it.
Whatever the truth or hidden meaning, the title Jealousy Is My Strength has caught on, partly because of the already popular expression of so-and-so is my strength and also thanks to a hit movie which adopted it as the title. Perhaps jealousy brings on an odd feeling in people when they think of it as something, of all things, that gives someone strength.