Vietnam Seems Far Away

Vietnam seems very far away at the moment. It’s below zero here and I’ve been running for ten days to catch up from . . . being in Vietnam. In a few days’ time I’ve gone from the leisurely life of a poet in a tropical clime to being a professor of literature living beside a frozen river and teaching, in addition to a class about Vietnam, an American Literature course. The distance, both physical and psychic, is considerable. Perhaps surprisingly, I have felt on top of things in the classroom despite my preparation being a little on the thin side — my students have filled in any gaps I’ve left, bless them. Also, I came home from Vietnam filled with enthusiasm for various projects that I’ll get too as soon as things settle down a bit over on the teaching side of life.

I’m teaching the first half of the American Lit survey, which in twenty years at Clarkson I’ve never done before, and while I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the likes of John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, we’re quickly moving on to Emerson next week and I’m rereading some of the central essays with real pleasure and greater understanding than previously.(I’ve found Emerson something of a pious pill in the past, I confess.) Emerson sometimes seems tantalizingly like an American Buddhist, but then he starts talking about superior and inferior intellects in a way that seems contrary to the spirit of enlightenment,i.e., that while there may be quick and slow people that all are capable of enlightenment; the slow require “indirect” teaching (rituals and chanting, etc.) while the quick can grasp the truth sometimes from a single sentence or the way light glances off a bowl. Emerson, on the other hand, seems to condemn “the mob” to live their unenlightened lives as best they can — and women as well, though he never comes right out and says this, perhaps because he had lively daughters. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the audience for “Self-Reliance” consists of young men of a certain class.* In getting ready to teach thias essay, I find myself wavering between asking students to defend themselves against Emerson’s charges of conformity and questioning Emerson’s assumptions about the “nature” of the individual. Of course, I’ll do both.

There is an provocative complication to this observation in “Self-Reliance.” When Emerson compares the “Vermont or New Hampshire” country boy to the effete city boy he seems to be making room for a broader distribution of “genius,” but this strikes me as more of a rhetorical flourish than a heartfelt sentiment; that is, Emerson seems to be using the figure of the farmboy to beat up the city boy a little bit.

More on “Framing” Vietnam

When I get back to campus on the 12th of January classes will have already begun. I have arranged for a colleague to show a film to my Understanding Vietnam class and pass out the syllabus. In working out that syllabus I followed chronology and convention in dividing up Vietnamese history, but also in the back of my mind were a number of “frames” through which to view the conventional and chronological (which are themselves frames, of course); there is the frame of my personal involvement, my narrative, but while that animates much of my passion about the subject, it only really has content for me. As I swing my camera around on the streets of Hanoi, I am framing my own experience and am all to aware of the conventional categories into which that experience so easily falls.

The film, Thirteen Days, that I’m having my colleague show on the first two days of class, though, illustrates what I mean. It’s about the Cuban Missile Crisis and only mentions Vietnam twice, in passing, once at the beginning and again at the end. But the portrayal of the politics of the Cold War provides a way for me to frame certain preconceptions Americans have about Vietnam and about “Communism.” I want to lay those preconceptions before my students right from the start, as well as get them used to the idea of shifting frames. For instance, we’ll also look at Vietnamese history as a series of conflicts internal to Vietnam; and we’ll use literature to frame certain pervasive cultural attitudes. And so on. The frames are important in themselves, but perhaps even more important is for my students to become proficient at shifting between frames and superimposing frames as necessary when trying to think critically about the “objective” and conventional stuff from the textbooks.

Big Snow

Winter is trying to catch up after its late start. We got a foot of snow overnight. I’m going to spend the day, or at least the morning, curled up with a virtual stack of student essays that need grading before the Sunday deadline. Hanoi seems very far away at the moment.