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After the Massacre
Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai
By Heonik Kwon
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
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The Bipolarity of Death
Dead people, in popular Vietnamese culture, can be powerfully sentient and salient beings who entertain emotions, intentions, and historical awareness. The ethnological literature about their mortuary customs and religious imaginations confirms this. Remembering ancestors means, in Vietnam, according to Le Van Dinh, relating to them "as if they were alive." A French Jesuit missionary to Vietnam and author of classical studies on Vietnamese popular religions, Léopold Cadière, wrote that the Vietnamese perception of the world incorporates the awareness that the life of the dead is intertwined with that of the living, and that the Vietnamese idealize a harmonious relationship between the two forms of life. Their social life consists in both relations among the living and interactions with the dead, according to Nguyen Van Huyen, and it follows that the history of war, for the Vietnamese, can be as much about what to do with the dead here and now as about how to interpret the past events of destruction. In Vietnamese mortuary knowledge, the souls of the dead may refuse to depart from the living world, and their unwillingness is expressed when, for instance, the coffin suddenly crushes the shoulders of the pallbearers with unbearable weight.
In a funeral that I saw in a suburb of Da Nang, the pallbearers complained of the excessive weight of the coffin of an unmarried man when they were passing by a particular house in the community. People speculated that the problem was caused by the young man's affection for the daughter of the family in the house. The man's family persuaded the reluctant young woman to come out to the street and console the deceased so the journey could continue. She was instructed to speak to the coffin, to say she regretted having stolen the man's heart, and her parents supplemented this gesture of apology with gifts of votive objects. Whether the woman knew about or had anything to do with the man's feelings was not an issue. It was the feeling of the dead man, with or without her knowledge, that made the woman culpable for the complication in his fateful journey. The drama about a spirit of the dead with unfulfilled wishes may take on an explicitly political meaning. At the funeral of a young schoolteacher in the city of Quang Ngai, the family was alarmed by the state of the corpse. They believed that the man's corpse refused to close its eyes for an unknown reason. The crisis continued until the school principal arrived at the scene. The principal approached the corpse of his junior colleague and acknowledged publicly that he had bullied the hardworking man for years. Apparently the principal had conspired against the wishes of the schoolteacher, who had wanted to join the Communist Party.
If personal anguish and unfulfilled desires complicate a funeral, death without a funeral complicates even further the deceased's afterlife. The dead who do not benefit from an appropriate burial continue to inhabit the space between am, the world of the dead, and duong, the world of the living—expressing the Vietnamese concept of the duality of life. The dead whose final moments were violent also have problems in making the mortal transition, and a violent, "unjust" death whose fate is not ritually recognized presents particularly critical problems. Such a tragic death means the deceased does not really leave duong nor really move to am, a condition that Arnold van Gennep conceptualizes as perpetual liminality. In popular Vietnamese knowledge, the souls of those who died a tragic death roam between the margins of this world and the periphery of the opposite world, and being unsettled in either world, they can be unsettling to the inhabitants of both. The Vietnamese address these unattached and undetached mobile spirits of the dead with the kinship and interpersonal referential term co bac ("aunt" and "uncle"; more precisely "[paternal] junior aunt" and "senior aunt/uncle") in distinction to ong ba ("grandfather" and "grandmother").
The distinction between co bac and ong ba, or between displaced wandering ghosts and ritually appropriated ancestors and deities located in designated places, relates to the contrast between "bad death" and "good death." The Vietnamese mortuary culture shares with other agrarian traditions a house-centered morality of death. Dying a good death is "to die in the house and home," writes James Fox about an Indonesian society, and "in his hut, lying on his bed, with his brothers and sons around him to hear his last words," according to John Middleton's description of the Lugbara in northwestern Uganda. This is called chet nha in Vietnamese and contrasts with chet duong, which literally means "dying in the street and outside" but has the connotation of "dying accidentally" or "dying in violent circumstances."
The "house," which is central to the moral classification of death for the Vietnamese, refers to two separate but interrelated forms of dwelling. The tomb is a house for the dead that shelters the body and demonstrates the deceased's social identity, and this is made explicit in Vietnamese mortuary art, in which the place of the dead is built in the form of a house. Ideally, people should exhale their last breath under the roof of the living house and move to the roofed tomb to live their life after death. In both places, the dead are not alone but surrounded by relatives, and hence the transition from one to another place is supposed to have elements of continuity. Janet Carsten and Stephen Hugh-Jones argue that the house and the body form a unity in Southeast Asia, and I add that this is particularly the case with the dead body. A dead body without a house of its own is the body of a nonperson, and a physical condition such as this is associated with the imagined state of tragic afterlife. The shallow burial of an unknown soldier in an alien place is one of such tragic conditions of afterlife—as Shaun Malarney points out, "Death on the battlefield was the quintessential bad death"—but so is the burial in a mass grave of people unrelated in kinship, even if it is in their home village.
Tragic death has many specific forms, and the classical literature and the traditional ritual knowledge of Vietnam list at least seventy-two such categories. All these categories, which constitute a vast spectrum of human destiny stretching from death on the battlefield to death by a mad buffalo, fall under the general notion of tragic or bad death. If a man suffers a violent death while away from home, according to this conceptual scheme, his soul will remember the pain of death and the sorrow of solitude, and it will yearn for opportunities to ease this "physical" pain and spiritual sorrow.
The Vietnamese express this undesirable state of afterlife as "grievous death" (chet oan), in which the agony of a violent death and the memory of the terror entrap the soul. The human soul in this condition of self-imprisonment does not remember the terror as we the living normally would, but relives the violent experience repeatedly. Memory of death for the tragically dead, in other words, is a living memory in its most brutally literal sense. This perpetual reexperiencing is conveyed by the idea of "incarceration" (nguc) within the mortal historical drama. The grievance of oan and the self-imprisonment of nguc describe the same phenomenon, but from opposite sides. Grievance creates the imaginary prison, but once established, the prison arrests the grievance and augments its intensity. Acts of liberating the suffering souls of tragic death are called giai oan (to disentangle the grievance) or giai nguc (to break the prison). These expressions are used interchangeably, but this does not mean they are identical. Breaking the prison by force and helping the captive free itself from the grievous memory (although the two acts have a common objective of emancipation) can take on different meanings and forms. In Vietnamese ritual tradition, a genuine liberation from the incarceration of grievous memory should be a collaborative work. It ought to involve not only the appropriate intervention of sympathetic outsiders but also the inmate's strong will for freedom from history. The growth of self-consciousness and self-determination on the part of the prisoners of history is in fact fundamental to a successful process of liberation from grievance.
Tragic death that falls out of the established mortuary order is unwelcome to the commemorative order. In Debbora Battaglia's account, the Sabarl Islanders of Melanesia conceptualize the spirits of violent death they call piwapiwa as "an unintegrated, untamed existence in the bush," in contrast to those of good death, baloma, "which have legitimately severed ties with the living." For the Merina of Madagascar, Maurice Bloch observes, "there is no worse nightmare than that one's body will be lost.... 'Bad' death occurs at the wrong place, away from the ancestral shrines to which the deceased's soul cannot therefore easily return; and at the wrong time so that the orderly succession of [obituary] speech cannot occur." In the conventional sociology of death, the presence of fertility symbols marks "good death" as opposed to "bad death." Good death is a socially constructive and regenerative death: it reinforces corporate solidarity, revitalizes historical continuity, and can renew symbolically the ecological resources. The burial of particular ancestral bodies in the ancestral land is believed to "fertilize" the land in some cultures. The body that experiences a bad death—the untimely death of a child, for instance—takes on the opposite meaning in these cultures and is believed to adversely affect the productivity of the land. Given this background, it is argued that "bad death" signifies not only an absence of regenerative potential but also a threat to social continuity. About the aftermath of a socially negative death, Middleton writes, "Deaths that are considered as bad lead to a condition of confusion and disorder but without the means for removing and resolving them." In the words of Robert Hertz, "Death will be eternal [in the sphere of bad death], because society will always maintain towards these accursed individuals the attitude of exclusion."
What happens to the moral and symbolic order of death, however, if "bad death" becomes a generalized phenomenon rather than an isolated event? Can society still exclude the "accursed individuals" eternally even if virtually everyone in the society is related to their memory? The dual symbolism of death derives from an investigation of social conditions that we may call stable. What happens to the ideal of "good death" and the related principle of "social triumph over death" if the social practice of grieving has to come to terms with a historical reality in which the ideal has become an almost unattainable goal? If the scale and magnitude of tragic death is such that it becomes a universally shared legacy, this historical background may affect the conceptual moral hierarchy of death. Otherwise, what kind of social order can we possibly conceive of?
The war in Vietnam that formally ended in 1975 increased the numbers of displaced, troubled, and ritually "uncontrolled death[s]." The violent mechanical destruction, on the one hand, and a mass-mobilized mobile guerrilla war, on the other, created countless instances of "death in the street," death with memory of extreme violence, hastily and improperly buried bodies, death without funerary atonement, and dead denied even the possibility of a ritual transformation. In this historical landscape of generalized violence, as a number of observers have noted, people perceive that ghosts of war proliferate. According to Derek Summerfield, "In Vietnam, the 300,000 still missing twenty years after the war ended are considered wandering souls.... They have lost their place in the order of things, in the social and historical fabric. There are personal memories of them but no external evidence or sign to embody these memories. Who can show that these people once lived, had values and causes, and thus what their deaths mean?" Malarney states, "The deaths of young soldiers on the battlefield posed serious dangers [to the families and communities] as their prematurely terminated lives created an army of wandering souls." Lady Borton writes of her experience of meeting war widows in southern Vietnam:
She leaned forward. "If I knew the location of my husband's grave," she said, "I would visit it before Tet and invite his spirit to join us. I'd offer food and fruit to nourish his spirit. But where do I go?" She paused, examining her fingers. "And if I knew the day he died, I would invite neighbors and family to honor my husband's spirit on the anniversary of his death. But what day should I choose?" She ran her hand across her face, a common Vietnamese gesture. "All that's left," she said, "is the Fifteenth Day of the Seventh Lunar Month."
The idea of "good" regenerative death, as Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch correctly point out, "can only be constructed in antithesis to an image of 'bad' death, which it therefore implies. It requires and must even emphasize what it denies, and cannot obliterate that on which it feeds." In the expression of Louis Dumont, "If uniting through differences is at the same time the aim of anthropology and the characteristic of hierarchy, they are doomed to keep company." It follows that there is no inherently negative death as such and, as Parry and Bloch mention, that the moral hierarchy of death and the fear of bad death are meaningful only within the specific ideological orientation of a society. This is an important point, and it is unfortunate that Bloch forgets it in his later work, where he launches an ambitious, generalizing argument that the empowerment of collective fertility symbols is necessary because a social order is created through it, and that this is done through the conquest of the uncertain, ambiguous vitality.
I find this idea of "symbolic conquest" problematic and the attempt to generalize it as a human religious universal untenable (see chapter 5). Bloch argues that the symbolism of conquest is inherent in the structure of religious ritual, whose purpose, across cultures, is to construct a transcendental ideal in sacrifice of impure vitality. This reduction of ritual to an instrument of social control is empirically unsustainable, and it misrepresents the very idea of symbolic conquest, which means, in its original formulation by Robert Hertz, strictly an ideological phenomenon and hence is itself a subject for analytical scrutiny, not to be confused with the nature of society.
Robert Hertz, a student of Durkheim and a formidable independent thinker, opened a way to rethink moral symbolic dualism. Whereas Durkheim was mainly concerned with how social solidarity was created and maintained, Hertz "took upon himself the task of studying the responses of society to breaches in that solidarity." His promising life was cut short in Marchéville, in 1915, in circumstances that would bring about a sea change in the way mass death was viewed—the mass slaughter of European trench warfare. One of Hertz's central concerns was semantic opposition between two apparently identical objects—such as the right hand and left hand. He questioned why the right side represented, in the French language and beyond, positive values of strength, dexterity, faith, law and purity, whereas the left stood for all the opposite values and meanings—including "bad death," which is closely associated with the left hand in the ethnographic material Hertz drew upon. Right and left, for Hertz, was often expressed in terms of inside versus outside and, as such, this was both a complementary bipolarity and an asymmetrical relationship, which Dumont later called "hierarchical opposition." Furthermore, he inferred from ethnological literature that right and left was "reversible dualism" in archaic or egalitarian societies. Based on this observation, Hertz proceeded to argue that the polarity was universal but not the asymmetry. He wrote, "The evolution of society replaces this reversible dualism with a rigid hierarchical structure." In the spirit of the time, however, Hertz was fundamentally optimistic about social evolution:
The tendency to level the value of the two hands is not, in our culture, an isolated or abnormal fact. The ancient religious ideas which put unbridgeable distance between things and beings, and which in particular founded the exclusive preponderance of the right hand, are today in full retreat. Neither aesthetics nor morality would suffer from the revolution of supposing that there were weighty physical and technical advantages to mankind in permitting the left hand to reach at least its full development. The distinction of good and evil, which for long was solidary with the antithesis of right and left, will not vanish from our conscience.... If the constraint of a mystical ideal has for centuries been able to make man into a unilateral being, physiologically mutilated, [nevertheless,] a liberated and foresighted society will strive to develop the energies dormant in our left side and in our right cerebral hemisphere, and to assure by an appropriate training a more harmonious development of the organism.
Excerpted from After the Massacre by Heonik Kwon. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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