Gotham Diary:
Forty Years New
13 December 2012

Last night,  after dinner, I pulled down a book that I’ve been meaning to revisit, Frances FitzGerald’s Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. The book came out in 1972, and was covered with awards. I read it the next year, after it came out in paper. I read it very quickly, apparently. In those days, I wrote the date of acquisition on the front flyleaf, and the date of consumption on the inside back cover. It’s hard to believe that I had time to do anything but read this book between 27 September and 1 October 1973. Certainly I didn’t notice that my marriage was about to end. That would happen at Thanksgiving, when (as I recall it, anyway) a discussion of where to spend the holiday — with which parents — spiraled into something much more grave. I was twenty-five years old, and when I read the FitzGerald, Megan was not even one yet. Ever since, though, Fire in the Lake has stood prominently on my bookshelves, its Imperial yellow background making it very easy to spot.

Fire in the Lake was the first book that I read that could, it seemed to me then, have been written by a man. I had been waiting for such a book, because I believed that women’s minds were as good as men’s. But few women expressed themselves with the understated authoritative swagger that distinguished the alpha-male writer. I see that now, that that’s what it was, the elusive quality that was possessed by men only — by very few men, but men only — “understated authoritative swagger.” It was a kind of sex appeal, really, but nobody would have seen it that way in those days; aside from Cary Grant and Elvis, men weren’t supposed to have sex appeal. This was a sex appeal that led to dens, not to bedrooms. With the texture of tweed and the fragrance of pipe tobacco, it was not a good look for women. Frances FitzGerald trumped it with formidable good looks and patrician nonchalance. The look, I mean. She certainly had the understated authoritative swagger down pat.

The first chapter of Fire in the Lake hums with it. “States of Mind” is a model essay about the fundamentally antithetical worldviews of traditional Vietnamese and Americans in the postwar world. It demonstrates, with the grace of a Euclidean proof, that there was really nothing that the United States could do for Vietnam in the latter’s struggle for a post-colonial identity — if, that is, the Americans remained incapable of grasping the ways in which those worldviews differed. FitzGerald shows the folly of dismissing Confucian civics as primitive or passé, at the same time that she shows how Ho Chi Minh adapted Marxism to fit and fill the dimensions of a Confucian society (an achievement never attempted by Mao). She never scolds the Americans for neo-imperial ambition or exceptionalist egotism. She has no pacifist agenda. She simply lays out a cogent analysis that makes it easy for us to see that the impossibility of a practical alliance between the government of the United States and the people of Vietnam.

It is, startlingly, a cognitive analysis, a kind of mapping out of fundamental preconceptions that has become much more familiar today.

It was this very coherency of man and society that was to Westerners trhe most bewildering and unsympathetic aspect of the Vietnamese — Communists, Buddhists, and Catholics alike. … While generally admiring of the North Vietnamese leader, [Ho’s biographer Jean] Lacouture could not get over the suspicion that he was “playing a part,” that he was, to put it more harshly, insincere. Lacouture was right in a sense. But the very terms he chose to describe Ho Chi Minh showed exactly how Westerners and Vietnamese differ in their view of the function of the individual. To Westerners, of course, “sincerity” means the accord between a man’s words or actions and his inner feelings. But to Vietnamese, for whom man is not an independent “character” but a series of relationships, “sincerity” is the accord between a man’s behavior and what is expected of him: it is faithfulness not to the inner man, but to the social role. The social role, in other words, is the man. To many Vietnamese, therefore, Ho Chi Minh was perfectly sincere, since he always acted in the “correct” manner, no matter what effort it cost him. And it was the very consistency of his performance that gave them confidence that he would carry the revolution out in the manner he indicated. Ironically enough, because of this very intimate relation of man to society, it was precisely those Vietnamese military men, such as Nguyen Cao Ky, who had no notion of a political system and who did not therefore “hide their feelings” or practice the Confucian “self-control,” who seemed to Westerners the most likable, if not the men most fit for the job of government.

This could be an example of inadvertent misconception taken from a book like Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong or Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance. FitzGerald is also brilliant about the nature of revolution in Confucian society: it is the redress, not necessarily violent, of macrocosmic disorder, the correction of imbalances between all the levels of being (family, state, heavens) and the restoration of fertility. Its manifestation in society is the final, not the initial step. FitzGerald quotes a story about Confucius that establishes an identity between revolution and recognition. It explains the speed, baffling to Westerners, with which many Vietnamese switched allegiance, often multiple times.

Sadly, my copy of Fire in the Lake began to fall apart before I finished the first chapter, and I have to decide between replacing it, with another book, and supplementing it, with a Kindle edition. I do so like reading it as a book. But if I replace it, I’ll have to throw the old copy away.