Ha Jin, “Missed Time”

I want to write about joy, but I wonder how other people conceive their legacies. I realize this sounds like a strange combination. For not a few of us, though, the relation between one’s personal happiness and a legacy is direct. You may think you’re leaving this world in a slightly better state than you were born into, or your life has been marked by the fight against some evil. You may feel you took advantage of what life had to offer, doing so cheerily, or that you bequeathed your family and friends all you could possibly give.

Yet even if you’re nodding along with my descriptions, how do we know we’re truly in agreement? A legacy encompasses every facet of our lives, and happiness is a state that should not have to be recalled. You and I know plenty of people who have road rage that could turn murderous or would lock themselves in a basement for 30 years if they heard a news report which confirmed their paranoia. If I ask someone about to take a bat to the head of the guy in front of him on I-35 “Hey, do you think your life has helped make this world a better place?”, I wager he’ll angrily mumble “yes” before at least breaking a car window.

The relation between a legacy and happiness is not a thought experiment. It depends crucially on how one lives. What we say and what we say we think are not the same as how we live. It’s that discrepancy between what is said and what is lived on which I want to focus. In love, our poet thinks himself so happy that his life cannot be described. Therefore, he has committed his reasoning, um, to paper:

Missed Time (from Poetry)
Ha Jin

My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning—
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.

In more than one way, the poet confesses. Not only is he in love, but he has not been writing: My notebook has remained blank for months thanks to the light you shower around me. Love creates a curious solution to the problem of being joyous and leaving a legacy, as it proclaims itself alone a single joy, a single legacy. No other thought or statement required. Except here we are, reading a love poem. This statement, then, is at once a truth and a lie: I have no use for my pen, which lies languorously without grief.

Why might we accept the poet’s statement about his pen? We’re in love with love. It’s awesome that he’s been blinded by light, not writing anything! If he wrote, the only thing he would write about is grief! We go further: we want to declare this poem an anti-poem, a simple declaration the form of which undoes itself. It’s not really writing, we want to say.

Joy, the insistence of love in the present, is literally incredible. It commands belief to the degree that it cannot be believed. It destroys time. There is no past (“my notebook has remained blank for months”) and there is no future. Nothing is better than to live a storyless life that needs no writing for meaning. Nothing can be conveyed to another human being other than “he was happy.” Again, this is an illusion we want, and while nothing seems wrong with it, it is ironically another story. It did need to be written down for meaning.

No, we object. You can have a love beyond speech! You can have an experience that justifies your existence entirely. The problem with such an experience is fairly obvious, we realize now. You’re insisting on a legacy, a story, with no content whatsoever. Your joy is everyone else’s joy — why you were loved, why you loved, is not communicable. It’s a beautiful thing, but is it good? Let’s just assume it is, as it seems better than rage or a million and one other hatreds: when I am gone, let others say they lost a happy man, though no one can tell how happy I was.

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