Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Knee-deep in History



I have placed this piece in the travel category rather than in politics because my reflections were written during a recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I did no research except to clarify a detail or two; my observations arose from looking about, talking to people, and my imperfect general knowledge. All writers have one bias or another; anyone claiming to be objective is either dissembling or unaware of his or her own blinders. My point of view is at least explicit.


Just as all people are bound by very specifically human perceptual and psychological apparatus, we cannot step outside of history. The traveler may be beguiled by novel cuisine or a white sand beach; deferential hotel staff and hustling vendors may make the tourist feel at times like a benevolent deity and at others like a ridiculous chump, but one is always knee-deep in history’s stream. Even while gazing entranced at the islands in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, the American visitor, particularly one over sixty, will be thinking of what the Vietnamese call the American War. And even when one is transported with the glory and grandeur of Angkor Wat, the horrors of the Pol Pot regime will rise in the mind like those most fearsome of monsters, reality’s demons.

How long will it be before Americans can hear of Danang, Hue, or Hanoi without thinking of the destruction our mighty country brought to this far smaller one? The history of Vietnamese nationalism is unbroken during millennia of struggles against the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, but in the end, the invaders were from Alabama, New Jersey, and California. The legacy of the American stage of their resistance to foreign domination remains grim. Apart from the death of six percent of their population, and the crippling of many survivors, one tenth of US bombs and mines remain unexploded, now and then maiming victims nearly forty years after the treaty in Paris. Twenty million gallons of Agent Orange defoliated great swathes of land and will continue to cause birth defects for generations to come.

While their battle did finally expel those who had come halfway around the world to bring them suffering, the defenders of the homeland had their own problems. At the war’s end, not only were large numbers of potentially valuable citizens sent to harsh reeducation camps for years only to flee when they had a chance; in addition, the NLF and their Provisional Revolutionary Government were shunted aside by the North, and the economy foundered under the American embargo and heavy-handed Soviet patronage. Though Vietnamese peasants were accustomed to traditional forms of mutual aid, collective farms proved inefficient. Due to local politics, corruption, and greed, the system produced a new privileged class rather than equality, conflict rather than solidarity.

Since the “renovation” of 1986, the old collectives are gone, but corruption of all sorts has flourished. It is perhaps not so bad that people know that they can generally evade a traffic ticket by paying half of what the fine would have been to the officer on the spot, but one also hears that subsidies for the poor are appropriated by the well-to-do. I was told that when the government sent fifty dollars to every family in need with which to celebrate the new year, to buy new clothes and the like, enough was skimmed by successive levels of bureaucracy that, in the end, each family was given only a handful of candy.
The present rulers claim to be pursuing officials who use their position to enrich themselves, but they are unapologetic about their turn toward Chinese-style rampant capitalism while maintaining an iron-fisted political control. Both are betrayals of the history of the struggle. The National Liberation Front was a multi-party coalition including the Democratic Party, the Peoples Revolutionary Party, and the Radical Socialist Party, as well as the Workers Party (that became the Communist Party) and a good many other trade union, youth, and religious groups. Yet today only one party is allowed even on the village level. Fruitful criticism and discussion will remain elusive and cronyism and peculation can only continue under one party rule.

Since the collapse of the USSR, this undemocratic political system has retained only the tawdriest pretense of socialist intention and has welcomed foreign investment, openly inviting neo-colonialism. Indeed, Vietnam is now more ruthlessly capitalist than Europe, lacking a national health system, unemployment insurance, and guaranteed pensions, and putting all faith in cash from abroad rendered more attractive by payoffs to cooperative politicians. Even the beaches always used by fishermen and enjoyed by local swimmers are being purchased and walled off one by one by big hotels and resorts owned by American, Korean, and Chinese interests. If Uncle Ho were not embalmed and put on public display (contrary to his wish to be cremated), he would surely be frowning, if not calling for yet another insurrection.

While it is true that the United States has not yet seriously acknowledged its guilt for waging a vicious and losing war against this valiant nation, the Vietnamese victors have themselves betrayed the ideals for which so many people shed blood for so many years. Much of the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, was razed to make room for a huge and expensive hotel (though not the Hilton which is a short distance away). A few blocks from either hotel are Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King.

Across the border in Cambodia the people also rebelled against foreign domination and local tyrants. While the Vietnamese endured systematic bombing of civilian populations and the Pentagon itself has confirmed three hundred and twenty incidents of what even the military calls American war crimes, including the well-known massacre at My Lai, the Cambodians experienced the all-but-unique ordeal of auto-genocide in which over a quarter of the population perished. This almost incredible crime was intensified with perverse torture having nothing to do with politics of any sort, suggesting some inexplicable causal residuum even a rationalist is tempted to call the demonic.

As part of French Indochina, the Cambodians were attacked, subdued, and exploited just as Laotians and Vietnamese were, but their histories diverge with the success of the insurgent forces. In spite of the glories of Angkor, in modern times, Cambodia had played little brother to the Vietnamese who had benefited from their closer relation to the high culture of China and the French choice of Hanoi as the seat of their rule. By the nineteen-twenties, far more Vietnamese were educated and a greater number had embraced a socialist and anti-colonial stance. In the early nineteen-seventies, while Lon Nol, who had earlier served as the willing tool of the French, led a client regime and stole from his people, the Khmer Rouge had a membership of only a few thousand in stark contrast to the national unity of the Vietnamese behind the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.
Then the opportunist Prince Sihanouk, ever-ready to affiliate with any faction that would benefit him personally, threw his support to the small soi-disant communist movement, and many peasants, motivated by archaic awe for royalty as well as the crimes of Lon Nol’s government, swelled the ranks of the insurrectionists.

The ensuing battles were fierce. Lon Nol’s troops were merciless to the peasants and often tore out their dead enemies’ livers to eat and acquire their power. As the rebels gained territory, the US began aiding the government by bombing rural areas held by the Khmer Rouge. Nixon justified his role in the country, calling it “the Nixon doctrine in its purest form.” More and more peasants were driven to take up arms against the foreigners raining bombs on their villages and the Americans’ corrupt Cambodian friends. Unlike the long-term and broad-based movement in Vietnam under an all-but-universally admired leader, in Cambodia it took this combination of the vicious Lon Nol clique, Prince Sihanouk’s self-interested support, and American intervention to bring Pol Pot to power.

The world knows the horrors that followed. Apart from the myriad deaths, they include bizarre and utterly nonfunctional humiliation and torture, hardly explicable by purely historic forces. Nor can the period be explained by abnormal psychology as the perpetrators can hardly have been a pack of sadists. Even the frightening revelation of Hannah Arendt that ordinary people may do horrific deeds does not explain the glee, the twisted sexuality, the enthusiasm of lynch mobs and mass murderers.

Just as we use spiritual rhetoric to approximate the heights of human experience, nothing less will do for the depths. One need not believe in the devil to acknowledge the diabolic. Like the Nazi death camps, the Khmer Rouge regime leaves one at first speechless, then obliged to confess some dynamo of wicked aggression deep in the subconscious. The Christian may call it original sin; to the rationalist it corresponds to what the later Freud called the death-drive. Far from unique to Cambodia, it seems to be part of what makes us human.

For nearly the entire period since Pol Pot’s ouster in 1979, the country has been ruled by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected only when he feared he would himself be purged. This country, while still behind its neighbor Vietnam, has also submitted entirely to corruption and foreign economic domination. All the principled struggles of the past are forgotten in the pursuit of consumerism which in Cambodia includes large-scale prostitution including the exploitation of children.

In many Vietnamese pagodas the altar is flanked by figures representing benevolence and malevolence. It is between such powers, symbolic yet all too real, that we negotiate our passage through life. Making our way in history’s stream, we are limited not by strong currents and sudden violent storms alone, but also by blindfolds of thick gauze that allow only the most uncertain sight. Hand in hand if we are fortunate, step by step in any case, we do our best to move forward, while at any moment we might find ourselves heading backwards or dropping precipitously to the most dreadful depths.

Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories

I follow Birch's transliteration of names.



Of the mysteries interrogated by literature, surely the greatest are love, death, and the divine. [1] The modern reader in particular is likely to understand the first of these as referring primarily to romantic and sexual love. In antiquity, however, and through the Middle Ages, friendship had a position nearly as prominent in constituting significant affective attachment. In Stories from a Ming Collection [2] friendship appears a primary measure of virtue while romantic love plays a far more dubious role. [3] The neo-Confucian model of friendship is not without Western analogues.


The book, a selection from the stories published by Feng Meng-lung [4] in 1620 as Stories Old and New, was written in vernacular language at a time when most literary works used Classical Chinese. During the Sung Dynasty (and even in the Yuan) prompt-books of professional oral story-tellers were collected and appreciated by the educated. By the early Ming scholars such as Feng were composing stories in the vernacular that imitated the traditional style, including addresses to the audience.


Most of the stories’ lovers are married couples, but the husbands’ and wives’ relationships strike the Western reader as singularly dispassionate. For instance, in “Wine and Dumplings” Ma Chou, when he moved in with Madame Wang is said to have “no hesitation in accepting her services, and seemed to regard it all as a matter of course.” (109-110) After declaring positively that he is “merely” her lodger, he is rapidly persuaded that marrying her is a prudent decision. (112) The same lack of passion is evident in the first story of “The Lady Who Was a Beggar” in which Chu Mai-chen’s wife leaves him solely because of his low social status. In the companion piece Mo Chi is approached by others who suggest he be married, and he considers the possibility in the most calculating terms: “I am not very well off . . .” (25) Not long after his marriage he attempts to kill his wife whom he has come to consider an embarrassment. In spite of his murderous attempt against her, when they are rejoined they live together “twice as amicably as before.” (35) Whatever level of affection that would come to, the reader hopes it will be sufficient, at least, to prevent assaults.


“The Pearl-Sewn Shirt” does portray sexual passion, but in a cautionary exemplum. Opening with verses recommending stoic acceptance and opposing sensuality, and a quatrain specifically counseling against adultery, the storyteller points a moral: retribution will come to those who give way to their desires. Chiang Hsing-ko is described as a young man of singular good looks and intelligence. When his father dies, the neighbors suggest his immediate marriage to Fortune to whom he had been betrothed as a child. They suggest quite sensibly that as a couple they could “help each other” (47), and he submits. When they are married, however, they are captured by passion. “From dawn to dusk they devoted themselves to pleasure.” At first this seems wholly positive. They are described as “a happy husband and a devoted wife” who “excelled other married couples ten times over.” (49) When he finally departs on a commercial trip, she behaves with scrupulous modesty for a time. An inadvertent exchange of glances with Ch’en Ta-lang, however, leads, through his bizarre and drawn-out stratagem, [5] to their love-making, followed instantly by their mutual infatuation.


In their first sexual encounter, when she believes him to be her older lady friend with a dildo, her pleasure is described in the most lyrical and extravagant terms. Their meeting is called the coming of rain to parched earth; the are the equal of legendary lovers of the past; Ta-lang “sent the girl’s soul winging from her body.” They are said to feel “a greater joy than the meeting of old friends far from home.” (74) This sentiment echoes the extravagant delight she had felt in the company of her husband. Even though they might have seemed a model of connubial bliss, it is now clear that the couple had taken too much pleasure in each other. Her very physical longing for her mate, the enjoyment they had found in sex, makes her vulnerable to an adulterous dalliance.


Through extraordinary coincidences, Chiang Hsing-ko discovers her infidelity and divorces her, then marries the widow of his wife’s lover, a certain Madame P’ing. He later remarries his first wife and the two wives and he are said to live together “in the greatest happiness,” “all joined in mutual love.” (96) The narrative’s unashamedly sensational and unlikely turnings are to the characters evidence that their lives are governed by fate.


If marriage is for the most part a practical matter and eros to be viewed with suspicion, what then becomes of the tidal flow of human attachment? The sort of friendship in “The Journey of a Corpse,” while very idealistic and philosophical, is at the same time this-worldly. Though little appreciated today, similar ideas about friendship were once current in European culture as well.
The theme of friendship is announced at the outset with a poem contrasting the “contract between hearts” that was friendship in the old days with the selfish egoism of the present. Wu Pao-an is a paragon of this sort of ennobling friendship even with a man he has not met. Seeking advancement, he writes a convincing job application letter to Kuo Chung-hsiang. His prose makes a sufficiently good impression that he is offered a post, but his patron Kuo moves out with the army and is taken prisoner before Wu can arrive. Feeling linked in mutual obligation, Wu Pao-an undertakes to ransom the man to whom he had written, devoting ten years to the labor and neglecting his wife and child. He eventually achieves this goal, and Kuo Chung-hsiang prospers after being set free. When his own wife dies, he sets out to repay Wu and endures arduous ordeals but finds his benefactor is no longer alive. All he can do is provide a funeral and care for Wu’s son “like a brother.” Eventually he retires and passes his position on to Wu’s son, fulfilling his “friend’s” request in the next generation.


The emphasis on friendship is familiar to the reader of Chinese poetry. Countless lyrics lament the pains of parting from a friend or the joy of reunion. The relationships among learned men, even excluding any explicit homoerotic element, must still have had something in common with the passionate friendships of ancient Greece. Indeed, the circle of Socrates’ disciples, united in admiration of the master’s mind, has much in common with Confucius and his crew.


If the quality of an individual may be gauged by his friendships, the “friends” in “The Journey of a Corpse” are an extreme test case. Their loyalty to each other has nothing to do with pleasure or social recreation or mutual benefit. It is based on men of virtue recognizing in each other value that justifies devotion even without personal acquaintance. The friendship recounted in the story is said to have excited such general admiration that Wu and Kuo acquired saintly status. In time a temple was built in Lanchou dedicated to them. (149) The word li, which in more ancient times had signified the proper magic ritual to accomplish sacrifices and the like, the sort of concern one finds in the Vedas, came for the Confucians to mean a new sort of ritual propriety that could be expressed in the transactions of everyday life. A story like “The Journey of a Corpse” concerns sages who are not hermits or monks, but householders in ordinary life, ordinary men who by their behavior rise to nobility.


The Analects opens with an appreciation of friendship and later details how friendship can be advantageous. [6] The network of hierarchical social relations that stabilize society are based on respect and mutual gain, but in the case of Wu and Kuo, loyalty required a display of self-sacrifice and fortitude to maintain a most exalted sort of friendship. Their philosophic dedication to principle would, perhaps, have found a sympathetic observer in Aristotle for whom the highest friendship can only be based in goodness of character. [7]


An amateur in Greek philosophy, I am even more at sea in Chinese thought, so I will not seek to untangle the notions of Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and Confucius and Mencius on the other. [8] The reader of the stories published by Feng can hardly avoid noticing, however, the most unromantic approach to most relations between the sexes and, in one story at least, the heroic model of friendship between worthy men, a friendship so demanding that it constitutes, for both friends a sort of heroic moral athleticism.




1. By this last term I mean to entail no necessary faith. I readily include essentially non-theistic views. Perhaps the term Ultimate Reality is preferable.


2. For a survey finding celebration of romantic love in spite of its obstacles in the society of the time, see Katherine Carlitz' review of translations by Patrick Hanan "Falling in Love: Stories from Ming China," in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews, Vol. 29, (Dec., 2007), pp. 169-171.


3. Subtitled The Art of the Chinese Story-teller, translated by Cyril Birch. I use the Grove Press edition. The question of the relation between this text and traditional oral story-telling is disputed. To Birch it is close indeed in spite of the fact that one of his stories derives instead from a wholly literary Tang Dynasty tale. To Patrick Hanan, Feng’s narratives derive not from village performers but from casual social story-telling among the educated. See “The Making of the Pearl-Sewn Short and The Courtesan’s Jewel Box,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 33, 1973. 124-153.


4. Apart from Stories Old and New Feng is the several vernacular novels as well as a variety of other works. He acted sometimes as a compiler of anthologies such as a book of folk songs and as a reteller of earlier stories as well as writing musical dramas and jokes.


5. In the course of this unlikely plot, which takes months (and dozens of pages) Dame Hsüeh becomes Fortune’s intimate to such a degree that the virtuous housewife is willing to, in effect, have sex with the older woman. When she discovers her lover was in fact a man, she seems altogether undisturbed, merely wondering “What am I to do if my husband should find out.” (74)


6. Analects 16, 4.


7. Nicomachean Ethics VIII. This view was widespread. See for instance, Cicero On Friendship or Laelius, 21.


8. Feng, I understand from secondary sources, was identified with Li Zhi whose philosophy was based upon Neo-Confucianism, though a critic of the orthodox Cheng-Zhu School. He is said to have been influenced by Wang Yangming (1472–1529), as well as the Taizhou School. Among the places I might begin reading on this topic are Tim Connolly, “Friendship and Filial Piety: Relational Ethics in Aristotle Early Confucianism,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 39:1, 71-88 and Shi Chang-yu, “Wang Yangming’s neo-Confucian School of Mind and the Growth of the Ancient Chinese Popular Novel,” Frontiers of Literary Study in China, vol. 3, no. 2, (2009), 195-217.

Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song]

Sacred Language: The Nature of Supernatural Discourse in Lakota (Powers)

William Powers’ book, though a scholarly anthropological work, engages the poet and the literary theorist as well. The author, who is fluent in Lakota, had, at the time of the book’s publication, spent thirty-six years in field work on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

His primary focus is the special language used for sacred discourse, both among the group’s spiritual leaders and between an individual “medicine man” and supernatural entities. (The term may sound out-dated, but it seems it is a direct translation from Lakota.) Other Lakota maintain that the language of such utterances is wholly unintelligible to them, though this is not literally true. Reaching the spirit realm is certainly an ambitious task for words, but even the secular poet generally strives for some level of discourse set apart, lexically, rhythmically, and formally from other uses of language. He covers as well the extreme case of verses in vocables without any ordinary words, rather like scat singing or Dada sound poetry.

Powers provides a good number of song texts to demonstrate the character of this poetry, though the words seem weak isolated from the performance situation. In addition he comments on the significance of numerological patterns to the community and on a variety of other fascinating topics, among them the complex and dynamic interplay between Christian and indigenous religious thought, the relationship of ritual to song, and the role of the cross-dressers often (misleadingly) called berdaches. His exposition of each of these topics is supported by precise and convincing evidence. He is explicit about his debts to Lévy-Bruhl, often disregarded now, on the one hand and the still-fashionable Lévi-Strauss on the other.


Cloud Gate Song (Zhang Ji, trans. Jonathan Chaves)

Impressed as are many other Westerners with the great Tang Dynasty Buddhist poets, I read with interest Chaves’ versions of this Confucian, the first book-length presentation of the poet in a European language. Much of the poetic sensibility is familiar: the pleasure in retirement, in observation of nature, and in friends. Here the lens is more worldly, less mystical, than in the Buddhist Wang Wei, for instance. Zhang was known for “Music Bureau” poems mimicking folk forms which purport to express popular sentiments. A good number of poems comment on contemporary history, in particular the wars resulting from Tibetan incursions.

Chaves’ book is valuable not merely because it allows a glimpse of a significant Chinese poet. His introductory remarks defend his choice here to preserve the rhyme schemes of the original texts in his translations. He ably discusses the issue in general, noting the overwhelming choice of free verse among European translators of Chinese in spite of the fact that, as he notes, all classic Chinese poetry is rhymed. His thoughtful work should be welcomed by all who love Chinese poetry, even those who lack Chaves’ apparent sympathy for the New Formalists among American poets.
(Zhang Ji, the Tang Dynasty poet from Jiangnan whose work Chaves translated, should not be confused with the poet of the same name from Hubei who lived a few decades earlier.)


Ca Dao Viet Nam (trans. Balaban)

John Balaban did alternative service in Vietnam and later returned to collect the folk songs of the countryside. He provides an adequate introduction to place his texts in context, but the reader is left wanting far more literary and anthropological information as well as notes on the individual songs. As it is, Balaban is a competent poet in English who provides a heterogeneous collection of material of a sort that had not at the time been published even in Vietnam. His simple, easy, direct language seems appropriate for a book whose range encompasses the proverbial saying, the wistful lament, the evocative image, the love-note, and a variety of other sorts of utterance. Readable though he is, I feel I have little sense of the style of the originals or the characteristics of the genre. Creditable as Balaban’s story is, very likely only a specialist scholar could provide such information. Still, one can only thank him for going out into the villages in the midst of war to preserve an art threatened by modern mass media even more than by armed conflict. It seems almost a golden age when every laborer had a favorite poem.