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.
Attended the opening ceremony of the translation conference this morning — hundreds of people in the new, monumental National Convention Center. There was dancing and singing and speech-making and then lunch. I met a lot of the writers — American and Vietnamese — that I’ve corresponded with over the years, or seen in passing on one of my trips. I’m not crazy about being stuck out at the West Lake compound, but I’ve been able to get off on my own enough to get some work done on the classes I will begin teaching next week. And I’ll spend the last couple of days of my trip back down town, so it’s all good. I feel energized and excited about developing some translation projects, work that will begin tomorrow when we begin doing small-scale workshops.
I’m sitting in the Syracuse airport waiting to get on the plane to JFK and thence to Anchorage, Taipei, and then Hanoi on Christmas day. It’s snowing, but they are keeping the runways clear and the flights are running on time or just a little late, so I don’t have the sense that I’m going to be stranded.
Well, the full craziness of taking a two-week trip to Vietnam over Christmas break has now sunk in, at least partly. It will fully sink in, I suppose, next week when I am in the think of grading final exams and essays. I wouldn’t have chosen to make a trip like this at this time, but I really could not turn down the invitation from the Writer’s Association. And it will be good to meet others interested in Vietnamese literature in translation — there will be writers and scholars from Japan and China as well as the US. I’m also looking forward to some real down-home Vietnamese feasts — when I’ve been out with folks from the Association previously, they took me to some of the best places in Hanoi, often around corners and down alleys where I never would have found them. So, I’m feeling like a very lucky man, but also anticipating being exhausted when I return to my classes, which will have begun without me! Thanks to the internet and helpful colleagues, I’ll be able to kick my Understanding Vietnam class off with films and an online chat.
Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.
I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more intensely religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)
I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others interested in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.