The Interior Life: R. L. Stevenson Writes About North Korea

Surprisingly, an English author who died in 1894 knew a great deal about North Koreans. I was re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s little-known essay “The Lantern-Bearers” and it perfectly called to mind the people of North Korea (maybe that’s weird?). I feel like a broken record harping on about how we shouldn’t trust initial impressions of North Korea, but I found this great illustration and I have to share it.


Plus it’s such a great essay. More people should know about it.


Stevenson writes about his boyhood in Scotland, where in the summers at a seaside village he and the other boys would have a contraption called a bulls-eye lantern. They wore them on their belts and would venture forth after dark with the lanterns carefully concealed under a top-coat. He writes:


They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more.


A Dietz “police regular” tin bulls-eye lantern. Photo credit Dutchman Dick via

Stevenson explains how he would walk through the streets, every now and then encountering another boy. They would each anxiously check to see that the other had his lantern, and once a group of them was collected, would head away from civilization:


Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a ten-man lugger, with nothing but the thwarts above them—for the cabin was usually locked—or choose out some hollow of the links where the wind might whistle overhead. There the coats would be unbuttoned and the bull’s-eyes discovered; and in the chequering glimmer, under the huge windy hall of the night, and cheered by a rich steam of toasting tinware, these fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or on the scaly bilges of the fishing-boat, and delight themselves with inappropriate talk.

       But the talk, at any rate, was but a condiment; and these gatherings themselves only accidents in the career of the lantern-bearer. The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.


As ordinary as each boy might seem on the outside, walking through the streets at night in an ordinary top-coat, what was inside was completely different.


With this as his ammunition, Stevenson takes down the realists:


Say that I came on some such business as that of my lantern-bearers on the links; and described the boys as very cold, spat upon by flurries of rain, and drearily surrounded, all of which they were; and their talk as silly and indecent, which it certainly was. I might upon these lines, and had I Zola’s genius, turn out, in a page or so, a gem of literary art, render the lantern-light with the touches of a master, and lay on the indecency with the ungrudging hand of love; and when all was done, what a triumph would my picture be of shallowness and dulness! how it would have missed the point! how it would have belied the boys!…

       For, to repeat, the ground of a man’s joy is often hard to hit. It has so little bond with externals (such as the observer scribbles in his note-book) that it may even touch them not; and the man’s true life, for which he consents to live, lie altogether in the field of fancy…. [T]he poetry runs underground. The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad. For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb up after him like a squirrel, and catch some glimpse of the heaven for which he lives.

       And, the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing.

       For to miss the joy is to miss all…. [to] miss the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes what is naked and seems to ennoble what is base; in each, life falls dead like dough, instead of soaring away like a balloon into the colours of the sunset; each is true, each inconceivable; for no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.


I think he could be talking about observers of North Korea. If all we imagine when we think of a North Korean kid is a child stunted by malnutrition, coughing from some preventable disease, learning rote propaganda about the Kim dynasty, then we have missed too much. The externals are important, but they don’t tell us anything about the life that is lived inside the mind. If we never imagine the North Korean child with a bulls-eye at his belt, “soaring away like a balloon into the colours of the sunset,” we’re missing the life that is, in most ways, more real than anything else.


I’ve only quoted bits and pieces of the original essay (even if it seems like I’ve quoted much more); the whole thing is well worth reading, and you can find it at


Jay McNair


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