On Susan Sontag, Trip to Hanoi
by Mark Chmiel
Journal, July 2005
Susan Sontag spent two weeks in North Vietnam in 1968, and wrote 90 pages about her experiences. (Perhaps I will cull from those notebooks I kept in Gaza and the West Bank to feed my imagination as to what the truth is about Palestine. Would it be a long essay? Would it be something that I work into a novel, with all my students mixed up together? Will it be a series of short articles that I post at CTSA?) I wonder if Sontag didn’t just brainstorm a list of questions and then primed her pump thereby, so that her notes responded to her questions. Ah, to have her Surplus Attention Disorder, her “moral appetitiveness and lust for variety,” her “intense, uncomplicatedly attentive concentration.” I don’t think this is the same thing as Mindfulness, though.
Sontag is “a stubbornly unspecialized writer who has so far been largely unable to incorporate into either novels or essays my evolving radical political convictions and sense of moral dilemma at being a citizen of the American empire.” And she admits she is “one more volunteer in the armchair army of bourgeois intellectuals with radical sympathies in the head.” Still, she went where she was not supposed to go, even though it appears that she could not get out of her head for very long.
Alas, North Vietnam was not what she expected: “Made miserable and angry for four years by knowledge of the excruciating suffering of the Vietnamese people at the hands of my government, now that I was actually there and being plied with gifts and flowers and rhetoric and tea and seemingly exaggerated kindness, I didn’t feel any more than I already had ten thousand miles away.” Just a couple of years before in South Vietnam, the Order of Interbeing became a reality, as the young people tried to live according to precepts like this one: “Do not think that the knowledge that you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.”
An intellectual may be, as Camus said, someone whose mind watches itself, but if only Sontag could have relaxed more and learned how to breathe in the present moment. “The first experience of being there absurdly resembled meeting a favorite movie star, one who for years has played a role in one’s fantasy life, and finding the actual person so much smaller, less vivid, less erotically charged, and mainly different.” When traveling to another land, there’s unending inner work to do, like letting go of expectations and illusions and delusions and projections.
She gets points for candor and points off for self-consciousness in the extreme: “My problem was that I (luckier than Godard) was now actually in Vietnam for a brief time, yet somehow was unable to make the full intellectual and emotional connections that my political and moral solidarity with Vietnam implied.”
And how hard it may be to express solidarity by checking one’s intellectual presumption: “My first reaction to the didactically positive way the Vietnamese have of recounting their history is to find it simple-minded (‘Childish’) again.” I suppose they weren’t raised on the profound European and ironic sensibility of Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, like she was. She admits as much here: “Despite my admiration for the Vietnamese and my shame over the deeds of my country, I still feel like someone from a ‘big’ culture visiting a ‘little’ culture. My consciousness, reared in that ‘big’ culture, is a creature with many organs, accustomed to being fed by a stream of cultural goods, and infected by irony.” How difficult it is to transform our “big culture” habit-energy!
“How odd to feel estranged from Vietnam here, when Vietnam has been present in my thoughts every day in America.” I am reminded that when Simone said to me on the phone when I was in Gaza, “it’s amazing what you all are doing,” she had an idea of Gaza, but I was living it, and the days and nights there were full of ordinary moments.
An elite education can evidently have its downside: “The moment one begins to be affected by the moral beauty of the Vietnamese, not to mention their physical grace, a derisive inner voice starts calling it phony sentimentality.” When as a sophisticated teen-ager she got to the “Sermon at the Stone” at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, did Sontag’s system react violently to all that “sentimental slop”?
Maybe the Vietnamese were like the Nicaraguans we met in 1984. They could make a distinction between the policies of our government and the American people: “it seems to me a defect that the North Vietnamese aren’t good enough haters. How else to explain the odd fact that they actually appear to be quite fond of America?” “Poets read us verses about ‘your Walt Whitman’ and ‘your Edgar Allen Poe.’” Did the Vietnamese contradict themselves, very well then, they contradicted themselves, they contained “both/and” multitudes.
As U.S. poet Gary Snyder observed, “Occidentals always run the risk of falling into simplistic dualism.” Especially the most sophisticated and incisive of them.