In Memory of Writer Pi
There was a gathering of about two hundred people before a modest grave at the Moran Cemetery Park on the outskirts of Seoul on May 25.
They gathered there to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Pi Chyun-deuk, former professor of English at Seoul National University, famous poet and essayist. He passed away at the ripe old age of 97.
All the people present seemed fully entitled to be there. Most were his former students who revered, admired and loved him, and some from other walks of life who made special kinship with the deceased during his lifetime.
The event was arranged by his devoted son, Dr. Pi Soo-young of Asan Medical Center.
The anniversary was especially marked by the unveiling ceremony of a memorial stone on which one of his beloved poems was engraved. This special votive stone was offered by some of his old students. Their individual names were inscribed on the opposite side of the stone. Mine was one among them.
After the ceremony all the guests were cordially invited to the anniversary dinner party spread on the beautiful lawn garden adjacent to the cemetery.
There were speeches made by several distinguished guests in remembrance of the deceased and musical performances by a pianist, a violinist and a soprano who volunteered to pay homage to the departed.
The son knew what his father liked. Everything was exactly what the late poet would have liked to have. His father would surely be immensely pleased to see all his admirers assembled together in one place.
I felt as if he was somewhere among us enjoying his party.
The mood of the anniversary was predominantly that of a celebration for the man who lived well and died well. All knew he lived a long and happy life. He was physically healthy and mentally acute to the last day.
He was always surrounded by his old students, followers, and admirers. And he was famous. His name was known to almost all throughout the country. Most of us have read some of his poems or essays and liked them. His book of essays was a bestseller.
By the time of his death he has made himself something of a national figure, a unique brand of celebrity in our country. To be seen with him was a great honor.
I was lucky enough to be with this famous man long in my life from the time when I met him first as a student of English in the classroom at college to a few hours before he breathed his last on Earth.
For the last 10 or more years before he died I dropped in on his apartment at short notice as often and frequently as time and occasion allowed, and had the pleasure of talking with him on any subject under the sun. He liked talking. Our conversation did not exclude gossip.
On the contrary, we enjoyed it immensely. He was unique in many ways, but never eccentric, odd or queer. More than anything else, he prized common sense and naturalness in every aspect of life.
He did not like unnatural or uncommon conduct and behavior. He was mostly alone, but he was not lonely. He was cheerful always or tried to be so at least before me. He was rarely solemn or serious. He laughed well and often. I never saw him depressed or dejected.
He never lamented about the world. He said often that the world was progressing for the better in the long run. He was an optimist.
He was more of a humanist than a moralist. His concern and attention was always here and now. He was religious but he did not talk much about religion or God. He did not seem to believe in the afterlife. He did not seem very much concerned about heaven or hell either.
He was a Catholic formally, but did not attend mass or observe any Catholic rituals in his lifetime. He was free in thinking, doing and believing. He was a free man and a writer seeking literary fame.
As a writer of poems and essays he achieved it and enjoyed it more than any other literary men in our country, but he wanted more.
He was wise and intelligent enough to see the danger, vanity and the futility of it, but he could not be so indifferent to this ``last infirmity of the noble mind,'' as John Milton said in his elegy ``Lycidas.'' He could not transcend this human weakness or desire. Like you and me, he was a man.
Last week I made an impulsive visit to his apartment in Banpo, southern Seoul, where his 90-year-old wife is still living. She had been suffering from some illness even when her husband was alive, and she is now being taken care of by a nurse.
I was greeted by the nurse whom I knew, and shown to the room where the invalid woman was lying. The nurse woke her up and told her who had come, helped her sit for a while and asked her to speak to me. She made a very feeble response to my greetings as was her want.
I was given a cup of tea as I used to be when Pi lived. As I expected, everything had undergone a sea change during that time.
To my great sadness, all his belongings ― the desk, chairs, collections of books, photographs of the famous English poets whom he loved in his lifetime, and Chinese calligraphy ― were gone.
The room in which he always sat and greeted me was hollow and empty. The telephone, which rang ceaselessly once upon a time, was also dead and silent.
But I could see something which I could not see when he was alive. Man dies, but not alone, for that which each man loved and prized in his peculiar nook of the earth dies with him and very soon there is not a memorial left.
We wish otherwise, but how foolish are such thoughts! Most probably my steps will not approach this door again. Soon even the old woman and the nurse who welcomed me today will be gone too.
He is dead, the light is extinguished in the house, and the house itself will be taken by strangers. And, I saw his smile, heard his voice and laughter, felt his warm hands clasping mine for the last time.
Lee Chang-kook is an emeritus professor at Chung-Ang University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.