Took a walk around the Old Quarter yesterday evening. Lots of dogs, as I noted earlier, but this one struck me by his self-possession. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but he’s sitting in a narrow alley where motorbikes regularly whizzed by six inches from his nose while he practiced a Buddhist sort of equanimity. Perhaps some old bodhisattva radiating peace & quite in a noisy city.
The soundtrack for this post is Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” Dreams are out of fashion in psychiatry these days, but I’m still a Freudian at heart and I pay attention to my dreams when I remember them. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” writes Yeats, quoting “an old play,” a sentiment then echoed by Delmore Schwartz in what is probably his single most successful piece of writing, unless you figure that he “wrote” Saul Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift. Talk about intertextuality!
First dream: I’m an adult in my childhood home, having returned to live there with C. We have our usual crew of scruffy, noisy dogs with us and we’ve settled in — been in residence maybe two or three days. The house is a big Victorian affair with a balcony and a turret & a sweeping sun porch, etc. C & I are standing on the porch when an older woman, elegantly dressed, with an upswept gray coif, approaches across the driveway. She’s a neighbor & is leading a little schnauzer — as elegant as she is — on a lead. As she comes up to us, our terriers start barking & leaping around. The woman begins to greet us, but is clearly bothered by our unkempt, delinquent dogs. She raises her eyebrows, throws her head back nose-in-the-air style, & says, “Completely lacking in class & breeding.” Up to this point I’ve just been interested in meeting this neighbor, but at this point in the dream I become enraged & begin shouting at her to “Get off my property, get off my god damned property! ”
Second Dream: I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, except that it is located where Ottawa ought to be; that is, close to where I actually live. I’m with some other people who have never been there before & I am explaining how to get around, where to go. It is the day before I have to leave for home & I am saying to one of the people I’m with, “It always breaks my heart to have to leave this place. I breaks my heart.” Then I’m by myself in a part of town I’m not familiar with and I stop at a food stall to order bun cha (grilled pork & noodles), but either because of my poor Vietnamese or the perversity of stall owner, along with the pork and noodles I receive a grilled songbird and a frog. I decide to eat the pork but not the two more exotic offerings.
I see both these dreams as taking control dreams. One of the main themes of my dream life over the years has been loss of control — lost in big cities, cars that won’t steer correctly or in which the brakes don’t work, elevators that go sideways, buildings that double back on themselves just when you think you’re getting to the exit, etc. In the first dream here, I return to the scene of my childhood anguish and helplessness, move in, and defend my turf against the sort of people my parents desperately wanted to be. I woke from that one feeling proud of myself. In the second dream, set in HCMC, not Hanoi, which is my “home town” in Vietnam, I’m getting along well despite some uncertainty. The business with the food suggests to me that I don’t have to accept every aspect of Vietnamese culture & that I can love the place without having to embrace everything about it. (I actually have been served whole grilled songbirds in HCMC, but never frogs.)
And speaking of dreams & Freud & all that, I love this response by Phillip Levine to his then teacher Robert Lowell, who had complained about Levine’s use of Freud, accusing him of lifting it from Auden. “Mr. Lowell,” Levine said, “I’m Jewish. I steal Freud directly from Freud; he was one of ours.” Well, I’m not Jewish, but I found Freud early and under the influence of my teacher Larry Frank made him my own. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents — these have been maps to the world for me over the decades. Freud has been, in Lowell’s own words, one of my “Masters of Joy.”
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.