Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, and BTS: How 20th Century Swiss Literature Influenced K-Pop’s Biggest Band
The East captivated Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung. They interlaced their work with concepts drawn from Buddhism and Hinduism, peppering their prose with ideas of enlightenment, Maya (illusion), and the duality found in the symbolism of the Yin and Yang. Almost a century later, these Central European figures' work spread back across the globe eastwards, infusing itself into an unlikely art form: K-Pop.
Chances are high that you've heard of BTS, the Korean septet topping the worldwide charts, and who in pre-Covid days were packing the world's largest stadiums. Maybe you're even an "ARMY," a collective name adopted by the adoring fans. Or perhaps you've dismissed them as just another boyband, a K-Pop group with saccharine songs and an unapologetically bright color palette. Or you're in the middle—you've caught yourself tapping to Dynamite when you've heard it on the radio, maybe you can name a couple of the members.
If you're an ARMY, you'll know the literary influences on BTS's work. However, if you're not, you'll probably be surprised to discover the group released a concept album centered around a Hermann Hesse novel and another on Jungian themes. Say what you like about BTS, but at least it's got their fans reading Hesse, Jung, and philosophical fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin (whose short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, served as the inspiration behind the video for Spring Day).
But let's back up a little. Perhaps you're struggling to imagine it. I'll try to make it easy for you, so picture this: Seven Korean boys stroll across a tiled-marble marble-tiled floor of an empty art gallery. They are dressed in satins, silks, and velvets, a nod to the old world, yet it's still playful. One boy, Jin, stops in front of Breugel's, The Fall of the Rebel Angels. With fair hair, an innocent and beautiful face, but something dark and lost about his manner, he has something of Dorian Gray about him. The other six boys pair off, RM and Jungkook read together, V and J-Hope look at art, and Jimin and Suga engage in child-like games. Classical music swells. There is a pause. Then the song kicks in. It's an upbeat bop with a poppy tune; however, the music's cheerful melody is an illusion, Maya.
"Kiss me on the lips
A secret just between the two of us
Deeply poisoned by the jail of you
I cannot worship anyone, but you and I knew
The grail was poisoned, but I drank it anyway,"
read the English subtitles as the video goes on. The translations peel back the lyrics of Blood, Sweat & Tears, which are anything but fluffy and feel-good. The song evokes images of masochism and bondage, of temptation and desire. Appearances can be deceptive. However, the dream-like video tumbles into a vaudeville of decadence. Scenes of absinthe consumption, fallen angels, religious iconography, sin, and desire populate the dizzying narrative. Nietzsche's quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "One must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star," is inscribed in German on a gilded mirror. Amongst the delirium, a quote threads the dizzying video and its lyrics together. Jin releases a balloon representing his innocence as RM recites a passage from Hermann Hesse's Demian:
"He, too, was a tempter.
He, too, was a link to the second.
The evil world with which I no longer wanted to have anything to do."
The video ends with Jin kissing a statue of an angel with black wings, and the scene cuts to V with a wound where his wings once were. Jin then looks in the above mentioned mirror, only to see his face crack like a broken china doll.
When I first saw the video, I scrolled through the YouTube comments trying to figure out what the hell I'd just watched, and I saw many telling confused viewers to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian. Demian is one of Hesse’s less famous novels, at least in the West. It’s the story of Emil Sinclair, a young boy who befriends the mysterious Max Demian, whose rejection of Christianity and almost supernatural character intrigues Sinclair and tempts him away from life in the mundane, daily world that surrounds him. Through this narrative of a highly unusual friendship, the book explores a struggle between two worlds: the world of illusion, which Hesse drew from the Hindu concept of Maya, and the real world, one of spiritual truth. Sinclair’s life is torn by the duality of these worlds, and depends on Demian and later Demian’s mother, Eva, to learn to exist in them. As a lover of Hesse's work, I became intrigued by the band and fell down the rabbit hole of the BTS theories, a series of non-linear narratives and references linking most of their videos.
Hermann Hesse's influence doesn't stop with a quote for the Blood, Sweat & Tears music video, but the concept album Wings wraps its roots around the Swiss author's coming of age novel grappling with lies, evil, and temptation. However, rather than refer explicitly to Emil Sinclair and Max Demian's story, BTS's concept album dissects the book's core themes and folds them into contemporary social issues drawn from their own storyline, all while set in a parallel world where each member has an alternative back story. BTS's videos are not just about pretty boys jumping around, but there is a complex underlying narrative rooted in class issues, domestic abuse, self-harm, suicide, growing up, and the power of friendship. The story is non-linear and even hints at the concept of time travel or parallel universes without getting too sci-fi about it. ARMYs spend hours trying to decode the storyline that seemed to carry on until recent videos. And for me to even try to explain them would require another essay, so let’s turn back to Hesse.
Wings played a significant role in this BTS world-building. The band released seven short experimental art films for each member and their respective solo tracks on the album to promote the album. Except, these are not your usual music videos, as the songs themselves fade into the background soundtrack and sometimes are only present as a sample. Each film has a story that ties in with a chapter and a quote from Hermann Hesse's Demian while somehow staying true to the BTS storyline from past videos. There are clear homages to the book—Jungkook painting a portrait of a face not unlike Emil Sinclair's picture of Max Demian, before finding the image of the winged god Abraxas (the Gnostic deity that features heavily in the book); Jimin imprisoned by the consequences of a lie, referencing the story of Emil's careless lie about a stolen apple, except Jimin is detained in a mental institution rather than bound in servitude to bully Franz Kroemer; and Suga with his piano is a clear nod the character of Pistorius, an organist with whom Emil Sinclair seeks the tutelage on the god Abraxas; while J-Hope's character who was abandoned by his mother as a child and also institutionalized and put on medication (with the shameless product placement of Snickers bars often acting as a metaphor for this in other videos), finds solace in a portrait of a mother and child with the name Eva, the name of Max Demian's mother, at the end. The parallels are closely named and quoted but take their own shape and specific narrative in the surreal BTS universe.
In an article for the LA Review of Books, Colin Marshall, a writer who moved to Seoul, discusses the significance of Demian in Korean culture. Surprisingly, Hermann Hesse's lesser-known novel is taught in many schools on the literary curriculum, especially as the book resonates with many social issues prevalent in Korea, it’s supposedly made its mark. One such element concern’s Sinclair’s choice between keeping up appearances or embracing his "Mark of Cain" fate to become his true self, even if it means stepping outside the strict rules imposed on society and becoming an outcast. The segregated world of class and social hierarchy—a concept beautifully expressed in the Academy Award Winning Parasite—is also a theme running throughout Demian. Considering how BTS's previous narratives were a social critique of Korean culture, especially youth marginalized by class or stepping outside the stringent rules, interweaving the pre-existing BTS narrative with Demian makes more sense than it seems.
With the themes of archetypes, the Animus and Anima (a concept Jung derived from the Eastern Yin and Yang), the collective unconscious, Demian is a novel that draws on Jungian concepts, so it's unsurprising that in a future BTS album, the group found inspiration in the Swiss psychologist's writing. The Map of the Soul 7—named after a book of the same name on Jung by Murrey Stein, with the number 7 referring to the seven members of the band—moves beyond the social commentary and delves into psychoanalytical themes.
BTS is made up of four vocalists (Jungkook, Jimin, Jin, and V), and three rappers (RM, Suga, and J-Hope), and Map of the Soul 7 features three rap solos that are a little in your face with the Jungian concepts, titled Persona, Shadow, and Ego. There is a strong layer of the concepts of persona—a mask designed to make an impression on others and conceal one's individual nature—, the shadow and the ego. But some of the songs are more subtle and even tackle inner anxieties, like the death of an artist's passion for his art. Black Swan is one such song, taking its essence from Martha Graham’s, an American dancer, quote: "A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is more painful." The song unfolds like an inner monologue, "a confession of an artist who has truly learned what music means to himself," according to a press release. Black Swan represents the band's inner selves, and their shadows once obscured even to themselves.
Two videos accompanied the song. One with the band in a lavish Los Angeles theater, where members represent each other's shadows in the choreography and the voices are layered on top of each other to create a mask, a single entity that makes the group one being rather than a group made up of individuals. Like with Wings, Black Swan also has an accompanying art video, with a classical arrangement of the song and the Slovenian modern dance troop MN Dance Company's performance.
BTS's narrative seems to have been put on pause since Map of the Soul 7. Covid took the band in a different direction as the band put out the single Dynamite purely as a feel-good track to get spirits up, followed shortly by the reassuring Life Goes On, a song to remind fans there is light at the end of the tunnel. But the story in the BTS universe is far from over, and perhaps the band will return to their literary roots, maybe bringing Hesse or Jung back or drawing inspiration elsewhere. Either way, whether or not you like their music, the South Korean boy group is anything but shallow.