Viet Nam War Studies: A Cultural Materialist Approach, Part II
Albert Auster and Leonard Quart, How the War was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1988).
John Carlos Rowe and Rick Berg, Eds. The Vietnam War and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith, Eds. America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1990).
Philip D. Beidler, Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation (Athens, Ga: The University of Georgia Press, 1991).
Reviewed by Tony Williams, Dept. of Cinema and Photography, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale
America Rediscovered also contains several essays using various approaches to film, literature, theater, and poetry. Several of the offerings originally appeared in The Popular Culture Association's Vietnam Panels. Like Philip D. Beidler's Rewriting America, the work focuses on Vietnam's intersections with the above realms of interpretations. While many writers have expanded their original papers, others appear not to have developed their panel presentations. The final result is not cohesive, the weaker essays strongly contrasting with their more developed neighbors.
Gilman and Smith divide their anthology into three sections--"Text," "Vietnam and American Culture; Looking Glass Texts," and "Genre Overviews." After an editorial introduction, the first essay by Philip Beidler outlines the thesis of his recent book. Michael Bellamy's "Carnival and Carnage: Falling Like Rock Stars and Second Lieutenants" presents interesting insights into David Carradine's neglected 1981 film Americana. He views Carradine's attempts to repair the broken-down carousel as offering a Bakhtinian carnivalesque alternative to a post-Vietnam fragmented American society. With his references to Hawthorne, Herr, The Ugly American and
Apocalypse Now, Bellamy provides revealing insights into the imaginative structures motivating this highly unusual film. Noting the confusions endemic within any social understanding of gender, Milton Bates contrasts Coming Home with Donald Pfarrer's novel Neverlight within the context of a turbulent period challenging conventional thought patterns. He is incisive concerning In Country's flaws.
Whether Neverlight provides a convincing alternative still remains an open question. Despite Bates's championship in the light of the feminist axiom combining the personal and political, the work may contain too much of the former and little of the latter. In any case, further debate is needed here.
Influenced by Foucault, Donald Rignalda criticizes the discursive associations surrounding "truth" and "fact" in "Unlearning to Remember Vietnam." Hailing Herr as Foucault's archaeologist, he suggests, "Perhaps the Vietnam War was simply too monstrous for import. Perhaps it simply is too chaotic" (72). However, there is a great danger in moving too far away from history. Using such techniques often leaves the door open for conservative historical erasure strategies. Rignalda does not move towards such a conclusive direction. Instead, he argues for recognizing the complex issues beneath verisimilitude techniques. As his final passage suggestively states, "But once we unlearn to simplistically remember Vietnam according to the old untroubling geometry, it means altogether too much" [73/ italics mine]. We must, of course, remember the value of "truth" and "fact," especially in the light of a recent revisionist review essay in The Journal of American Culture, 14.4. 80-81. 83 validating the Gulf intervention and the contemporary relevance of America's role as the "City on the Hill." We must not hand the enemy too many weapons.
Philip K. Jason's "Vision and Tradition in Vietnam War Fiction" opposes Heinemann/ 0'Brien and Hasford's new literary mixture of fictional strategies to the old past narrative modes of Del Vecchio/Webb/ Huggett. Lorrie Smith takes a similar position in "Disarming the War Story," noting the tendency of certain realist techniques to convey the "erotic allure of battle," (91) applauding the innovative devices within Going After Cacciato, Dispatches, Paco's Story, Meditations in Green, and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Marilyn Durham's "Narrative Strategies in Vietnam War Fiction" and David J. De Rose's "A Dual Perspective: First Person Narrative in Vietnam Film and Drama" also question realism's validity in depicting a fragmented post-Vietnam America.
All the above approaches are interesting. But do we have, necessarily, to abandon realism particularly when the form can lend itself to radical dislocating strategies? George Eliot, Mikhail Bakhtin and James Jones do present these alternative strategies. Also, as several critics (Jeffords, Melling) show, even supposedly oppositional works such as Paco's Story, The Short Timers, Going After Cacciato, and Dispatches do contain conservative elements within supposedly progressive anti-realist techniques. Discussion needs to focus on the specific validity of any formal technique within fiction.
Three suggestive essays conclude this section. Cynthia J. Fuchs's "Vietnam and Sexual Violence: The Movie" examines Full Metal Jacket's innovative triple collapse of Otherness onto enemy onto Woman. J.T. Hansen's "Vocabularies of Experience" interrogates the limitations of certain literary techniques to engage active reader participation while H. Palmer Hall's "The Helicopter and The Punji Stick: Central Symbols of the Vietnam War" provides a basic taxonomic classification of these central images.
Part II--"Looking Glass Texts"--begins with Robert E. Bourdette's "Rereading The Deer Hunter: Michael Cimino's Deliberate American Epic" noting the film's ritual and metaphoric devices. However, it is an archetypal "lit crit" essay avoiding the racist implications within the notorious Russian roulette sequence in favor of metaphorical interpretation. In "Style in Dispatches: Heteroglossia and Michael Herr's Break with Conventional Journalism," Matthew C. Stewart argues that Herr's Bakhtinian "multivocal" text allows him to undermine journalistic discourse and speak on behalf of disaffected grunts. This is an interpretation deserving comparison with W.D. Ehrhart's more scathing approach contained in In The Shadow of Vietnam (1991). Robert M. Slabey and Catherine Calloway examine Going After Cacciato, the latter regarding it as a postmodernist work designed to "reject any over-simplifications of the Vietnam war's inconsistencies and discrepancies" (222).
The remaining essays provide several launching pads for future investigation. David Everett Whillock examines Apocalypse Now using Levi-Strauss' structuralist methodologies and also attempts to define the various components of a Vietnam War Film Genre. The volume reprints W.D. Ehrhart's essay, "Soldier Poets of the Vietnam War" from the 1987 Virginia Quarterly Review--an eloquent argument for considering this usually neglected corpus, while Vicente F. Gotera analyses Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau. William Palmer's argument that Platoon's nihilistic battle scenes undermine Stone's realistic discourses clashes with Claudia Springer's 1988 Genre article which suggests that any war movie's spectacular battle scenes really undermine critical comprehension.
America Reconsidered is a useful collection. However, all the different contributions really need framing against a better introduction which would more suitably suggest the necessary cultural studies perspective towards which they could individually donate. The Rowe/Berg collection provides an important model here.
According to Viet Nam Generation 4.1-2 (1992): 5 Michael Bibby is calling for a special issue, The Viet Nam War and Postmodernity. This is especially welcome as the term needs specific examination in regard to what it denotes and how it is relevant to Viet Nam studies. Although one does not wish to label the entire movement as "The Myth of Postmodernism: The Bourgeois Intelligentsia in the Age of Reagan" as Andrew Britton did in his provocative assault in cineACTION! 13/14 (Summer 1988): 3-17, one is certainly aware that some of its tenets are recuperable by that very ideology Rowe and Berg define in their collection. It is possibly too early to tell whether postmodernism is a negative movement or one capable of providing potential discourses capable of undermining rigid gender, ideology and power structures. However, the movement does need further interrogation.
Philip D. Beidler detects a postmodern current in the writers he scrutinizes in Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Following his 1985 work, American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, Beidler argues that Viet Nam war authors have done much to re-energize American creative writing, leading it out of a poststucturalist impasse of texts as endless critiques of language, representation, and authority. Approaching the fictional constructions of 0'Brien, Caputo, Robert Olen Butler, James Webb, Winston Groom and Heinemann; David Rabe's drama, the poetry of John Balaban, W.D. Ehrhart, David Huddle, Yusef Kommunyakaa, Walter McDonald, and Bruce Weigl; and the journalistic literature of witness such as Gloria Emerson, Frances Fitzgerald, Robert Stone, and Michael Herr, Beidler regards them as applying "many of the hard-won lessons of literary sense-making learned in initial works attempting to come to terms explicitly with Vietnam" (2). Beidler's investigation therefore concerns a re-writing of the American experience, believing that "Vietnam authors in their generation have carried their crucial enactment of that mythic self-critique into the very center of our national literature and consciousness at large" (xiii).
Within its perspective, this book is extremely interesting and suggestive. Well-written and informative, noting the boundaries of postmodern experience, the work contains much of value. One cannot argue with the findings within its particular context. However, the context does need to be far broader covering issues of history, politics, ideology and gender. The exact nature of postmodernism needs closer definition. Beidler's work unfortunately falls into the tendency of neglecting the cultural and historical significance of Viet Nam and its people. The country, again, forms the background for a particular American experience--this time of a cultural revisionist project of re-writing. While this is informative, counter-arguments such as those of Philip Melling in Vietnam in American Literature concerning historical retreat and self-referential escapism also need considering. Wholesale "imaginative reshaping" (12) also has its dangers.
Laudable enough. But one is tempted to ask for the presence of other culturally materialist dimensions of thought or one risks inserting Viet Nam within the conservative terrain of New Criticism.
The dangers are certainly present in his description of Going After Cacciato's textual significance.
The definition is very problematic. Imagination can be "escape from," not "escape to." It provides a comforting retreat. While conservatism batters us in everyday life how easy it would be just to create in literary imagination, whether as authors or readers. While certain new literary techniques operate, one asks whether we can entirely remove the historical, political, and realistic significance of Viet Nam entirely and move into a comfortable, non-activist world of imagination? Did the authors he examine ever intend this? While it is a mistake to regard Melville's Moby Dick as merely about a whale, it is also a fatal error to regard the work as totally devoid of questions concerning its contemporary historical, cultural, and gender questions as critics such as Richard Slotkin show. Something else, in addition to the imagination, is necessary.
While Beidler subjects Caputo's works to an intense examination of their narrative structures he is disturbingly unaware of the pernicious gender mechanisms in Indian Country. He regards the climax as optimistic!
Again, we see the return of Leslie A. Fiedler's vanishing American reinscribed to prop up failed American masculinity paralleling Oliver Stone's
The Doors (1991). There are so many areas begging questions in an analysis solely confined to the text and devoid of so many perspectives that a cultural materialist project could bring to it. Indian Country ideologically restores Viet Nam literature to myth, disavowing the conflict's historical reverberations so that it fits into a typical literature class situation. One returns with relief to Lorrie Smith's discerning interrogation of Caputo in America Reconsidered, 89-91.
Beidler is certainly aware of the Vietnamese character but he views it in terms of a peculiar American agony, an agony undergoing literary reinscription (55). A writer, such as Robert Olen Butler, engages in a mode "essentially that of neorealism, closely symbolic, often with an almost Hawthornian exactitude of design, economy, and psychological penetration, with the effect often of something like a postmodern morality play" (56). Again, the terms need precise definition. There is often a tendency to hide behind literary definitions instead of looking beyond them towards a necessary cultural perspective, one involving Viet Nam (its people, its culture) as well as America.
The Rabe plays form his most interesting examination if only because the language and issues involved (family, culture, race and gender) have relevant connections with the "world outside" the text, have indelible associations within the text, and can not suffer postmodern erasure. However, Beidler's other critical definitions remain questionable. Obviously preferring the new postmodernist mode, he regards James Webb's project as inextricably related to his choice of formal technique--"the basically conservative and revisionary nature, indeed almost perversely anachronistic choice of fictional mode" (69). Again, another provocative statement! Does realism per se have to be "conservative" and "anachronistic" determining a particular political stance? The mode is capable of many inflexions and variations as writers as diverse as James Jones and W.D. Ehrhart show. His bias against realism appears in a sweeping judgment regarding James Jones and Norman Mailer as "operating within the dynamics of the traditional novel of combat" (74). They certainly used the mode. But Beidler does not consider the alternative elements they individually brought into the form. Certainly, they are far removed from the contemporary abuses of realism seen in Saigon Commando and M.I.A. Hunter.
Beidler is on firmer ground with poetry since he has an excellent sense of poetic techniques and devices resulting in his understanding how Viet Nam war poetry breaks with past traditions to articulate the conflict's emotional horror. His analysis of Balaban, Kommunyakaa and Weigl are very informative. But his understanding of Ehrhart's work raises problems. He describes Ehrhart as "the rude, angry soldier poet, early on attempting to find a voice, and the spiritually chastened culture hero whose odyssey out of memory toward imaginative sense making becomes the quest for new myth and better" (158). The first part of the sentence does befit a poet whom Beidler describes as earlier "championing a 'Vietnam' literature when there was virtually no one, so it seemed, in the United States who possibly cared to read it or hear about it" (310) . It is also true that he has a significance of which "conventional criticism will never provide an adequate account." But the same may be true of recent "conventional" postmodernist terms. Ehrhart's significance stems well beyond searching for "new myth and better" as his recent collection, Just For Laughs, reveals. He articulates historical relevance in all his work, the past warning the present certainly irreducible to the mythic.
The whole thesis of Beidlers work is American re-writing of Viet Nam. It contains much interesting argument in its thesis. But the perspective is limited. His work should represent the last in its type. In addition to leading towards an interrogation of certain recent critical techniques used to read and write Viet Nam, attention should now go to Viet Nam itself. All the above works deal with various responses to Viet Nam. But Viet Nam still remains as a shadowy structured absence determining American responses, but with the very foundations leading to those responses relatively unexcavated. Certain works have appeared over the past decade. More are needed. The recently announced Red River Press anthologies should help fill this gap, to contribute towards a critically oppositional cultural materialist project that should never be totally American in orientation.
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