I have struggled with how to use these tools – the endeavor of making art and the paradox of trying to share it with others…
Something in my instincts has never been comfortable with turning art into a commodity and all the “shoulds” we are advised to do, to be “successful” as artists, especially in our over-saturated consumer society. The basic philosophy of free market enterprise seems to be built on – foremost – a materialist conception of Nature – that survival is paramount and dependent on consuming, forging ahead, strength, physical superiority… & I can’t say I agree with this as an accurate or even close-to-comprehensive conception of what might be the true laws of Nature.
I was living in Juneau, Alaska, in 2008 when the idea first came to me that I might try writing songs that directly – in both form and content – dealt with the issue of “Vietnam.” This word is not just a country or a culture or a geographical location for many of us: it is an event, a debacle, a milestone & a marker….. a chasm & a chaos into which the world (temporarily, some think; still falling, others think) fell and witnessed awful truths about our Nature nearing the end of the 20th century. Vietnam was the first of our television wars. (& The mainstream media has since gained enough command of that mechanism – the eye – to keep us now better shielded from the realities of present wars, it might seem). For whatever it is worth, though, “Vietnam” is a complex subject, a modern world relevant subject, not easy to articulate, for Americans and Vietnamese alike, I believe.
There is a translation of a line in a Sigur Ros song that I am told means ‘You suffer alone.’ And the line is repeated for much of the vocal part of the song. Of course, the concept of suffering is one I am drawn to – the long-suffering, desire and attachment as source of suffering, the Buddhist knowledge of suffering as a fact of human/material existence….. But what occurred to me was that I would like to write a line that said ‘We will suffer no more.’
In the context of the Vietnamese story (and history) – which is one of long-proud and necessary fighting – I envisioned that these lines – ‘We will suffer no more’ and ‘We will not carry your war’ – should be sung in the voices of the children.
I am a child of wars. To varying degrees of separation, all of us are. For the Vietnamese specifically, war was a fact of daily life for nearly all of the twentieth century. But looking further back in Vietnamese history, if you ask any Vietnamese person, you will learn of how Vietnam since the beginning of the first millennium (and perhaps earlier) repeatedly fought off invasions from other nations – various emperors of China, notably. For over a thousand years, Vietnam had been fighting to call herself her own, to call herself (that other catch-word of modern thought) independent. The Trung sisters fought to their deaths against the invaders: at all costs, we would herald our cause of self-exaltation. You see how we were separatists and fatalists long before the West even arrived on our shores.
But when I try to ask ‘What is the character of Vietnam beyond her historical fighting self?’ — I do not get a clear answer. Even the mythological answer is an old legend of division: the mountain-mother and dragon-father dividing between them their 100 offspring, and each forgoing union (marriage) in order to abide in their separate/opposing territories.
So my answer – in the voice of one of the father’s children’s descendants (who are always depicted moving south – seaward) – is this: I will not carry on your myth. Of the fighting self, of noble suffering, of the efficacy or necessity of wars. Nor of self-definition based (largely) on that long history of wars — fought under the same banner even on different sides: Independence.
But too – I understand there is an idealism to the ‘exaltation of self’ that Independence represents. It is an ideal that can be profoundly human-e — as in: we actualize and exemplify the positive and powerful abilities of being human. But will we really arrive at this ideal through the means of our lower, instinctual – fight-or-flight – enactments of the laws of Nature?
The experiment of freedom – free market, self-invention, the self-made man or woman – that defines America and the West has the potential of that idealism of the “exalted self” behind it. It seems like a good idea. (This can be misconstrued as hubris or solipsism, but I think in a more positive light it can also be interpreted as the true manifestation of realizing “God is within” — we are powerful, self-realizing, and thus responsible for all that we create.) But in an atmosphere where anything is possible, anything becomes possible. The field is open. Some will fare better than others; some will manipulate and take more than they need, and for the wrong reasons. Many will cultivate envy in place of positive action or trust. Success and winning will often become measurable in only concrete – and not subtle – terms.
I am slowly trying to work myself back to where I began – the discomfort I have felt with the “shoulds” of how to sell oneself and one’s work as an artist. I am at soul an Easterner, I suppose, and not authentically a child of the West, just an inheritor of this position by circumstance. I became American, but I was born Vietnamese. I grew up being taught, as American children are, that you can accomplish anything, be anything you want to be, by sheer force of will and hard work (and, also, lesser admitted, possibly by luck, chance, exception/exemption), but that you have to fight for it to make it happen. These are the myths of the American dream and of the American dream-er. But I think that something of the Eastern concept of Nature — anti-materialist, self-annihilating, mind-before-matter? — has also still lived on in me. There is a sense that these things that we strive “to accomplish” do not in fact matter, might even be detrimental, even demeaning to, our survival — our integrity — on another level. (One of truer laws, perhaps?)
There is a part of me that worries, or at least wonders, whether attempting to write/express about “Vietnam” from within the American system of capitalism, using the American philosophy and “rules” and hopes – really – of “free market” success, is not somehow paradoxical to the deeper truth that the whole conundrum of “Vietnam” sought to introduce into the ‘debate’ of what our place/our roles in the world, as modern beings striving toward that ideal of “independence,” really ought to be.
In the most simplistic terms, I am wondering whether we have not unquestioningly entered the belly of the beast, in striving to turn our endeavors (esp. as artists) into sell-able, desired commodity. And if there is a way now that we can still take the tools that exist and use them yet conscientiously.
(Editor’s note: Part two will follow, two days from now.)
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