Deviant Bodies and Dynamics of Displacement of Homoerotic Desire in Vietnamese Literature from and about the French Colonial Period (1858-1954)
Xuân Diệu opens his poem "Love of men" [Tình trai] from the collection Poésies
[Thơ Thơ] (1938) by invoking as precedents and inspiration two archetypal homosexual figures borrowed from French romantic poetry:
I remember Rimbaud and Verlaine,
fellow poets of dazzling bacchanalian spirits
intoxicated by strange rimes, infatuated with friendship,
they scorned well-worn paths and forsook the usual ways!
Defiant and direct though it is, this desire is in effect situated not only within a representational realm of cultural Otherness, but also outside the realm of libidinal normativity. It thus exhibits dynamics of displacement and a condition of deviance, which are salient issues to be explored in this paper.
By focusing on homoeroticism rather than homosexuality, I hope to put greater emphasis on the psychology and aesthetic rather than the physiology and act of same-sex attraction. Since "desire" is a hopelessly slippery term to define, I'll keep it to an intuitive usage which refers to a relational state characterized by the drive to appropriate so as to define a Self (as desiring subject) in terms of an Other (as object of desire). This definition of desire as relation thus allows me to explore a curious pattern of displacement I've come to identify in representations of homoerotic desire in Vietnamese literature. For the most part, I prefer to look at displacement in terms of effect rather than agency, and take it to mean an effect of slippage and dislocation in the positioning of the locus of articulation of desire -- homoerotic desire, in this case -- in the discursive space of the sexual and social symbolic. A modestly growing and rather diverse range of Vietnamese materials from the 17th century to the present day has allowed me to trace a rich variety of patterns and types of displacement of homoerotic desire, but for the sake of organizational focus and thematic unity, I will limit my paper to examples from and about the French colonial period, and focus on constructions of the deviant body as a site for the articulation of a displaced homoerotic desire.
Though the medical discussion of sexual deviants in Vietnamese language is almost entirely translated and derived from foreign languages during the early years of its appearance, there are occasional journalistic and fictional representations of diseased bodies in terms of deviant desire. Though set within a frame narrative of a male-bonding bachelor party riddled with sexual bantering, the short story "The Body" [Thân thể] in the collection Golden Pollen of the Pines
[Phấn thông vàng] (1939) by Xuân Diệu is curiously erotophobic as well as mysogynistic, in both content and tone, as it culminates in a denunciation of all sexual activities, especially with women, as the cause of man's descent into depravity and sickness of the body as well as the mind. More concrete and grotesque is the portrait of a mentally retarded and sexually deformed hermaphrodite [ái nam ái nữ] found in the serialized documentary feature Concubines and Maidservants
[Vợ lẽ nàng hầu] (1943) by Trọng Lang. Accursed with a beastly homeliness so as to earn the scornful rejection of her husband, Thộn, the pitiful “daughter of a maidservant,” can find no fulfillment from either men or women for her frustrated sexual desire, and only incurs disgust and fear on the part of those who think of her as no better than "a crazed faun, perhaps a tigress pining for the wilds, or a bloated swine on a day of her ‘period’"! (pp. 59-62)
More often than not, though they are depicted as sexually malfunctional, hermaphrodites are not devoid of sexual desire, and may well come to grief over their unfulfilled homoerotic impulses. A case in point can be found in the novel Frame of Moss
[Khung rêu] by Nguyễn Thị Thụy Vũ (1969). Chiêu, the androgynous teenage son of a retired prefect and absentee landlord during the waning days of French colonial Cochinchina, agonizes over his growing homoerotic attraction to a ruggedly handsome and virile boarder in his parents' mansion. Resenting family pressure to raise him as a boy over and against his irrepressible feminine instincts, Chiêu subtly acts out his secret desire to present himself as a girl even as he continues to take advantage of male homosociality to get closer to his object of desire. And yet he knows his is but a futile desire before the intense competition from a female cousin, against whom Chiêu only feels more self-consciously miserable about his well acknowledged physiological deformity. Caught in a libidinal as well as social impasse, just as his family gets sucked ever more deeply into a vortex of decadent self-destruction, Chiêu decides to leave home and join revolutionary guerillas in the maquis in the hope to displace and channel his frustrated sexual desire into a more positive outlet. But having found no tenable foothold for himself in either the social space of his contemporary world or the fictional space of the novel, this hapless character meets his end in a death without trace, reportedly guillotined by the French somewhere.
Hermaphroditism is most traditionally identified with eunuchs, be they castrated or congenital. Their hermaphroditic physiological condition notwithstanding, these eunuchs are recognized to have normal emotions and desire "just like everybody else": most tellingly the desire for reproduction and the acute sense of loneliness which combine to precipitate their turning to one another for solace to find a substitute for the conventional kind of familial happiness of which they are denied. Homoerotic desire and homosexual practice [đồng tính luyến ái] on the part of these physiologically deformed and therefore sexually deviant eunuchs in general, and the phenomenon of eunuch marriage in particular, can be readily recognized only to be displaced and dismissed on grounds of circumstantiality [đồng cảnh luyến ái], but even then such sexually active eunuchs aren't spared of society's opprobrium and ridicule and their deviant bodies and desire must be subjected to various strategies of displacement and containment. According to one such paradigmatic story, repeated in a collection of vignettes about Palace life of the Nguyễn court
[Đời sống cung đình triều Nguyễn] edited by Tôn Thất Bình (1991), on the wedding day of two eunuchs, the married couple was toasted by some Princes of the royal family with an impromptu classical parallel couplet. Seeking a good laugh at their hosts' expense, these mischief-makers came up with a doubly convoluted and vicious pun embedded in a linguistic displacement not only into classical Chinese but also the phonetic inversion [noi lai] of its vernacular translation. Further displaced semantically onto a bestial allegory, the original couplet reads innocuously enough in complementary succession: "Make a blind for the blackbird" [Vị sương tu dịch = Làm sương cho sáo] and "Use hair to sew it together" [Dĩ phát tu phùng = Lấy tóc mà may]! The intended punchline hits rather hard in vernacular Vietnamese as a mercilessly tongue-in-cheek commentary on the deviant physical condition and thereby the perversely humorous expression of homoerotic desire on the part of these marrying eunuchs: in response to the pertly question "How do you find your thrill?" [Làm sao cho sướng] comes the saucy repartee "Scratch it with my hands!" [Lấy tay mà móc]!
Transgression of gender identities and sexual dimorphism can take place not only at the physiological level of hermaphroditism and eunuchism, but also at the sartorial level of transvestism. The paradigmatic example of transvestism in Vietnamese literature is unquestionably that of the traditional Northern music theater piece about Boddhisatva Avalokitesvara Thị Kính [Quan Âm Thị Kính] on which an intriguing modern variation, with gender reversal and all, can be found in Khái Hưng's novella Butterfly Soul Dreaming of an Immortal
[Hồn bướm mơ tiên] (1932). On the way to visit his uncle who is head bonze at the Long Giáng Temple, Ngọc, a student from Hanoi, meets Lan, a runaway woman disguised as a young male novice at the temple, and they quickly develop a deep attachment and close companionship. Puzzled by conflicting hints and hunches, Ngọc embarks on an escalating path of flirtatious advances in the hope of prodding Lan into revealing her true sexual identity which he steadfastly believes to be female. (Ngọc even takes the trouble to taunt Lan with a pictorial rendition his exoticized vision of her as a female beauty in the style of the Japanese ukyoe master Utamaro.) Though repeatedly thwarted by Lan's outwardly impassive attitude and behavior, Ngọc clings on to the heterosexist sublimation of his homoerotic feelings which prompts him to conjure up visions of the sartorially male novice turning into an exquisite female beauty in his fantastic (as well as patently deceitful) dream accounts. The confirmation of Ngọc's suspicion about Lan's sexual identity, however, comes rather unexpectedly when, after a passionate tussle caused by a heated argument, Ngọc accidentally rips loose the buttons of Lan's religious tunic and catches a glimpse of her tight-bound female chest. Though it's reasonable to expect that once the sartorial cover is finally exposed, and when dynamics of transvestite displacement is thereby brought to a halt, that there will be no barrier left to the articulation of erotic desire, of hetero- rather than homo-erotic desire, between the two parties. But this unexpected denouement brings disillusionment and regrets rather than fulfillment of Ngọc's erotic fantasies as he ruefully admits to himself: "What's the point of seeking to prove her to be a woman? It was more fun before, and now who knows!" As if to underscore the inherently homoerotic nature of his desire, Ngọc even confronts Lan with a startling confession of his love for her "ever since [he] still thought of [her] as a man." Thereupon he curiously pleads with her to sublimate their love to a platonic dimension.
In contrast, a rather striking incident of playful transvestism is recounted by Quách Tấn in his collection of reminiscences on the fellow poet Hàn Mặc Tử with whom he shared an intimate emotional, if not altogether physical, relationship (in view of the latter's subsequent affliction with leprosy). On one of their earlier outings during Hàn Mặc Tử's visit to Nha Trang, Quách Tấn had gently caressed Tử's hair and jokingly wished aloud that "If only that you were a female beauty [giai nhân]!" Hàn Mặc Tử reportedly answered but with a mischievous smile. Upon his return to Qui Nhơn, he sent Quách Tấn "a picture of a pretty-looking girl with flowing long hair": it was no one but Hàn Mặc Tử himself in drag! But the photo was so well done that Quách Tấn good-humoredly remarks in retrospect that: "Tử cross-dressed so well, indeed, that even with those lines of photo caption it was not easy for me to recognize him!" Most intriguingly, the mischievously provocative caption reeks of homoerotic flirtation: "You wished for a female beauty, so here she is, all yours! Can your wishful heart be satisfied by this wishful sentiment?" (Quách Tấn, p. 34) It is important to note, however, that his playful yet affectionate recognition of an unmistakably homoerotic element in the rapport of these two best friends, takes place in the displaced realm of pictorial representation of the complicitous wish-fulfillment of a well-understood homoerotic desire.
Though the posthumous prison memoir [hồi ký] "Love in dark jail" [Tình trong ngục tối] by Trần Huy Liệu (1950), a veteran revolutionary, has been cited as indicative of the deep-seated erotophobic nature of Vietnamese communist historiography (Zinoman 1996), this example is well worth reexamining in terms of the manifold displacement of its homoerotic desire directed at a transvestite body. More elaborate corroborative accounts can fortuitously be drawn from the epistolary docu-novel Letters from Poulo Condore
[Thư Côn Lôn] by Nguyễn Đức Chính (1937). While displacing the blame on his residual petit-bourgeois sentiments, Trần Huy Liệu nonetheless admitted to a fleeting yet intense infatuation with a fellow inmate named Thọ ("brother T") whom he had once seen in the role of a female courtesan in one of the few theatrical productions in prison. Interestingly, those prison shows were all Vietnamese translations or adaptations of such French classics as Le Malade Imaginaire, Les Fourberies de Scapin,
and L’Avare by Molière
and La Dame aux Camelias
by Alexandre Dumas fils. In recounting the theatrical events on the occasion of the French national holiday in 1935, Nguyễn Đức Chính didn’t forget to tease Trần Huy Liệu about their mutually recognized object of homoerotic desire:
Beside the French spoken drama, we brothers also produced an opera in the reformed-theatre style. We performed an adaptation of the novel La Dame aux Camélias, entitled “Entangled until Death” [Tơ vương đến thác]. There was a brothel scene in which the courtesans and their patrons danced in close embrace. Had I known that Thọ would play a courtesan then I would have loved to play a playboy for the heck of it! That way I could stay in close embrace of that person to whom some years ago a certain someone had passed on love notes, and had jokingly said: "Were there a garden in the prison, I would gladly sacrifice a few days in underground confinement to pick a flower as a present for you, miss!" (pp. 29-30)
It is worth noting that this homoerotic desire has been displaced manifold, firstly to a prison on a distant offshore island, secondly to a transvestite body, and thirdly to a wishful vision of an idyllic realm that existed only in the imagination. But this instance can arguably be discounted as circumstantial in view of the short supply, if not altogether the lack, of actual women to serve as objects of desire on the one hand, and to play female roles in prison theatrical productions on the other. Otherwise, unlike in Chinese opera, gender crossing is quite rare in Vietnamese traditional theater, especially for men to play female roles.
And yet there is a strong sense of theatricality and a great deal of transvestism as well as gender-crossing exhibited in the popular religious practice of trance-sitting for spirit posession [lên đồng]. To the accompaniment of ritual music and laudatory chants before an altar, the spirit medium goes into a trance to impersonate a hierarchy of popular deities from Mother Goddesses to Heavenly Grandees, Queens, Kings, Princesses and Princes parading down quite spectacularly in an elaborate series of physical embodiments vividly characterized by gendered and role-specific costumes and choreographies (Durand 1959). By means of prayers and flatteries, occasionally verging on flirtation, devout followers in the audience interactively seek favors both spiritual and material from the various deities being impersonated by the spirit medium. Even though a medium can impersonate a wide range of deities in a trance session, each of them seeks to establish a spiritual identity whereby to cultivate special affinity for a particular patron-deity in whom they are said to have “spiritual root” [căn đồng] and whose characteristics are often carried on into real life. Particularly temperamental are the gender-crossing spiritual roots in the junior deities of Princes [bóng cậu] and Princesses [đồng cô]. By extension these terms have become the rather derogatory slang words for transvestism [đồng cô] and implied homosexuality [bóng] in modern Vietnam. However, the term “bóng” [shadow/reflection] (denoting the “mirrored reflection” of the “shadowy spirit” possessing the medium) in particular has been slightly transformed from the usual appellation of gender-crosing female mediums spiritually rooted in the junior Princes [bóng cậu], into a generic slang word for effeminate male homosexuals, as an abbreviation of the more gender-specific variant "bóng lại cái" [female-contaminated shadow/reflection].
By the early 20th century, however, ideas of Western progress have prompted many Vietnamese to look down on spirit posession as a shameless embodiment of vulgarity, superstition and backwardness (Phan Kế Bính 1915). With the rise of the documentary novel as vehicle for social criticism, this practice was mercilessly ridiculed by Lộng Chương in the satirical novel Trance-Sitting for the Deities
[Hầu Thánh] published in 1942. Around the home-wrecking adventures of madame Sính, the wife of an honorary Academician, the author provides a wealth of colorful details about the bizarre “social world of spirit mediums with many a bunch of half-wit half-crazed people.” Of particular note are several references to same-sex “marital pairings” between spirit mediums of complementary “spiritual roots” [kết căn]. An exemplary case is the widow Đào, a school teacher’s wife, who has abandoned her family and children “to seek the affectionate caress of a bizarre love with another woman,” in spite of the fitful jealousy and domestic abuse from this “female husband,” a spirit medium named Châu. Could the refuge in “spirit bonding” with a same-sex partner in “a coupling to soothe two chilly hearts” be a psycho-physiological solution for this young widow to “satisfy her inner stirrings” against the social prohibition of remarriage (ch. 7)? A less happy coupling is that between the Chinese widow Năm and her housekeeper Hai who turns out to be a con-artist and money-stealer preying on the affection and trust of a gullible widow (ch. 11). Ironically enough, the female-dominated world of the novel reserves its harshest judgments yet on the “effeminate” male spirit mediums, “who also twist and spin around, also pair up as ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ also show jealousy and sometimes even dress up as women”: for “they only use the name of deities to fool the world” (ch. 20, 7).
In such cases of transvestism as discussed above, homoerotic desire is displaced onto a heterosexist model of complementary binarism in which the opposite gender role is projected onto one of the involved parties, be it the desiring subject or the object of desire, in the homoerotic pairing. A broader pattern of transgendered displacement of homoerotic desire can be similarly discerned in another kind of role-playing and identity formation/attribution free from the sartorial trappings of transvestism. To wit the traumatic boyhood experience of "bride fight" in school as recollected by Tô Hoài in his memoir Dusty Sand on Somebody's Footsteps
[Cát bụi chân ai] (1991):
I recalled the love between us boys, in the village and in class, when we were growing up. I was in primary school at Yên Phụ, my voice had just broken and it sounded hoarse, my face was bursting with pimples, and the guys would call me a girl. Several of them paired up with me and insisted on us being a married couple. There were days when the guys would fight with one another over their "bride". Some guy would rush over and grab me tight, groping to the point that my pants' crotch got ripped open. Many a day I would not dare to come to the school yard early. I had to hide out in Trúc Lạc alley, and only upon hearing the starting drums would I run over to line up for class. (pp. 176)
By contrast, it is amusing to note a rather peculiar instance of displacement of heteroerotic desire onto a homoerotic outlet, as recalled by the folksy southern author Hồ Trường An (who's openly gay) in his memoir A Blue-Moon Realm of Memories
[Cõi ký ức trăng xanh] (1991). A childhood buddy named Khương Hữu Vi (who would later regrouped to the North and rose up the ranks to major colonel) was timidly and secretly in love with Hồ Trường An's sister (the novelist Nguyễn Thị Thụy Vũ) but given vent to his pent up erotic impulse on his buddy instead!
On one occasion when we went river-bathing, with only he [Khương Hữu Vi] and I [Hồ Trường An] splashing around in the water, he grabbed me tight and spoke as though in tears: "You look so much like your sister!" He kissed me all over my face, his hot tears streaming down on my face. Overcome with emotion, I gently pushed him away, saying: "Come on, it's so queer!" [Kỳ thấy mồ hà!] Later he pleaded with me not to tell my sister about it. (p. 23)
In contrast to the schizophrenic role-playing and gender-crossing exemplified by spirit possession (whereby an individual impersonates many others), homoerotic desire can also be displaced and thereby contained in the narcissistic projection of the Self onto a disembodied Other. Prefigured in Tản Đà's solipsistic poem "Talking to my shadow" [Nói chuyện với bóng] (1925), this possibility is developed to new heights by Xuân Diệu in a series of related poems and prose pieces lamenting the passage of youth that verge on pederastic narcisicism. The most vivid example of which is perhaps the prose poem "Adieu, my youth!" [Giã từ tuổi nhỏ] from the collection Epics
[Trường ca] (1944) in which the poet hallucinates about an eroticized night time encounter with his youthful self.
Needless to say, narcissism is not the only instance of displacement of homoerotic desire onto oneirically and spectrally disembodied figments of the imagination, regardless of the nature of its subliminal connection to the reality of lived experience. For example, Xuân Diệu's life-long companion, Huy Cận crystalizes his memories of schoolboy homoeroticism in the poem "Sleeping Together" [Ngủ chung] from the collection Divine Fire
[Lửa thiêng] (1940) by sublimating them to the spectral dimension inhabited by hungry ghosts "sleeping around on the run to escape loneliness." During the eternal night of their banishment from the human world these displaced specters nostalgically yearn for an irretrievable human past when their bare-boned embodiments have known "tender love of yore" together in bed where "sprawling arms once made for warm pillows, ... breaths make for cushions, skin for warm covers, and bone rubbed against bone to seek relief from the cold."
An even more striking example of this kind of spectral displacement can be found in Tô Hoài's account of his homosexual encounters with Xuân Diệu in the highland jungles of the Northwest during the War of Resistance against the French (1946-54). Such is the force of this corporeal homoerotic desire that it can't fully be displaced to and contained in the realm of spectral hallucination And it is interesting to note that this account, taken from Tô Hoài's memoir Dusty Sand on Somebody's Footsteps
[Cát bụi chân ai] (1991), like Trần Huy Liệu's posthumously published prison diaries, could only make its public appreance under the more permissive conditions of recent years, and long after the death of one of the involved parties (Xuân Diệu having died in 1985). Some of the graphic (and almost pornographic) details of this remarkably frank account are well worth quoting at length here:
The dripping sound of the rain over the thatched roof recalled macabre nights, nights of terror and passion. What's this ghastly hand groping about. No. It's a human hand, a firm and warm human hand. A pair of soft hands caressed upon my face, my neck, then gradually downward all over my naked body under the felt cover. Darkness flared up like a dark flame without rays, the chill of nightly jungle rain soon made way into warmth. I no longer knew where I was, who I was, who he was, the two human bodies writhing, twisting, clinging to one another, the arms, the legs, like ropes winding, tightening, stretching out. The pleasure within me burst out, violently rolling over the other body.
And as if in a dream, I fell over, in bliss. In silence. I listened to the nightly rain falling on banana leaves, and to the tender exhaustion within myself. At that moment, the two hands as soft as silk once again caressed upon my face. A pair of lips and a breath burning like coal crept over my eyes, down to my nipples, my navel, my crotch ... The pleasure went up aflame once again until we both fell over and huddled tight against one another. Then the hand once again caressed upon my face. Dead-beat this time, I slithered off moaning on and on like a delirious prostitute who couldn't remember who's who one person after the next.
Dawn was breaking out. Unbeknonwst to me Xuân Diệu had already returned to his bed. I half-opened my eyes, recalling the terrifying raptures. The intense and excited feelings in the dark had shown their ugly face in the broad daylight. I rush out into the fields under the rain ....
But I would once again return to the scene the following night. In the macabre night I once again felt different from my usual self, and I also didn't know when dawn would once again break out. Only when I saw the broad daylight would I feel a spine-tingling shiver. (pp. 177-178).
Another type worth noting is racial displacement. Due to the curious circumstances of the colonial experience, the displacement of homoerotic desire onto racially defamiliarized bodies actually takes place not so much at the level of object choice but rather that of reversed agency. In contrast to more recent examples, representations from and about the French colonial period almost never show Vietnamese in the position of desiring subject but rather only as object choice for their foreign masters. This is true not only in the case of French patronage of Vietnamese male prostitution discussed in passing by Trọng Lang in his 4-part documentary feature about Destitute Hanoi
[Hà Nội lầm than] (1938), but even more graphically so in cases of rape, be it a drunken French sergeant raping a Vietnamese rickshaw puller as recounted by Tô Hoài in his collection of Old Stories of Hanoi
[Chuyện cũ Hà Nội] (1986), or foreign légionaires on the prowl during the First Indochina War (1945-54) who were all too willing and ready to hit on anyone or anything, "from women to men, cows, and even banana trees," as reported by Trọng Lang in another documentary feature entitled Mad People of the Time
[Những người điên thời đại] (1964)!
Indeed, it is not uncommon for deviant desire to be displaced onto animals and objects, and in the case of homoerotic desire, this kind of displacement can transpire either in terms of allegorization or transmogrification. In his pioneering Abridged Essential Dictionary of Sino-Vietnamese
[Giản yếu Hán Việt từ điển], compiled in 1931, Đào Duy Anh vividly underscores the bestial cognate of "kê gian", which he glosses as: "A boy with a boy, or a boy with a girl, copulating at the arse like chickens; this practice is very widespread in civilized countries." In a parenthetical gloss attached to the end of the entry, he further provides the French lexical equivalent "sodomie" (I:417). Of course, "kê gian" (or "jijian" in mandarin pronunciation) literally means "chicken lewdness" and has long gained currency (probably ever since the Tang dynasty in medieval China (Hinsch, pp. 88-89)) as the well-known classical term for "sodomy" which broadly indicates "anal intercourse" mostly, but not exclusively, characteristic of homosexual practice. Đào Duy Anh's gloss is an uniquely curious example in the whole Vietnamese lexicography of the term, not merely for the primacy it gives to homosexuality, nor for its well-worn displacement of this primarily homoerotic desire to the natural analogy with fowl-like sexual practice, but for the rather gratuitous comment appended at the end almost as an afterthought: "this practice is very widespread in civilized countries"! As a result, the full force of identifiably homoerotic desire and homosexual practice in the Sino-Vietnamese term "kê gian" (in contradistinction to its Chinese antecedent "jijian") is thereby effectively displaced from the Vietnamese socio-cultural context.
In a similar vein, displacement of same-sex desire can be achieved more abstractly by means of bestial allegorization and transmorgrification of the deviant body. The poet Xuân Diệu once borrows the voice of a "young bird from a strange mountain" [con chim non đến từ núi lạ] singing to both boys and girls about its ill-recognized and ill-appreciated love in the prefatorial poem to his collection Casting Fragrance to the Wind
[Gửi hương cho gió] (1944). On another occasion Xuân Diệu appropriates the bodies and voices of abject animals such as the "Wild Cats and Dogs" [Chó mèo hoang] in his colletion of short stories entitled Golden Pollen of the Pines
[Phấn thông vàng] (1939), to launch a poignant appeal for social justice towards the sexual deviants of his kind who can hardly find peace and mutual support even as they huddle together as bestialized outcasts from the normative social space of human existence:
For a few hours [these wild dogs] get to forget themselves as "wild". Some five or six of them would sniff at one another's hair, lick at one another's face. The one would trail after and pursue the other, no differently than one person would follow another to beg for love. They would stand in twosomes together; and after having made a go at one another, the two of them would stare blankly to separate ways, each with its own thought .... They no longer mind the world of men; among themselves they know no shame. They are very natural. That's why they would meet with people coming to throw stones and sling mud at them, to disrupt and disturb them and to violate their freedom. Won't these people also tell them to go into the desert to make love to one another? (pp. 104-105)
As I hope to have shown, no matter how still inadequately at this stage, displacement is a pervasive and recurrent pattern, which effectively serves to contain the subversive potential of homoerotic desire in Vietnamese literature. This patterns apparently holds not just for the French colonial period covered in this paper, but also across a broader sweep of time, from at least the 17th century down to the present day, as far as I can tell. The subversive force of homoerotic desire in a libidinal economy of heterosexist normativity based on sexual dimorphism is effectively contained by means of representational diffusion to some "out of place" realms of spatial and temporal liminality, linguistic incapacity, semiotic disparity, and cultural incongruity, in other words, to the displaced discursive spaces of marginality, silence, confusion, and Otherness. But it is precisely these dynamics of displacement operating at numerous levels and in so many different ways that provide for the enabling condition to articulate, and perhaps more significantly to reclaim and rearticulate, such instances of homoerotic desire for which there would otherwise be no place in the discursive space of the normative sexual symbolic. By means of the relational and non-essentializing notion of displacement I hope to have developed a strategy of reading that can engage spaces of absence and moments of silence as strategic sites, displaced sites, within a textually-mapped discursive space. By considering the conditions and dynamics rather than the mere fact of displacement of desire, it is nonetheless possible to arrive at positive knowledge, not so much as documentary evidence of the existence or the lack or even the inconceivability of actual sexual practice, but rather as representational possibilities that partake in potentially meaningful configurations of the sexual and cultural symbolic. And similarly by focusing on the deviant body in this case as site for the articulation of such displaced homoerotic desire, I hope to have found a useful entry point into the larger project of exploring the nature and place of homoeroticism in Vietnamese literature and culture and situating it in a fruitful dialogue with Asian Studies on the one hand, and Queer Studies on the other.
I began this paper by quoting the opening lines of Xuân Diệu's "Love of Men" [Tình trai] to highlight the displacement of homoerotic desire to the realm of social and cultural Otherness. And having explored a wide range of examples of such dynamics at play, it is perhaps fitting for me to come full circle and conclude with the memorable closing lines of that same poem. Just as the French poets "Rimbaud and Verlaine" have gone on to be remembered and celebrated for their embrace of a defiant homosexual companionship in open scorn for the "well-worn paths" and the "usual ways" of a normative human socio-libidinal existence, they have curiously given inspiration to an eloquent, albeit displaced, articulation of homoerotic desire in modern Vietnamese literature:
Their paths ran in parallel across the miles,
their souls entwined, aglow in floral scent,
they went weak arms in strong ones embracing
to the tune of love amidst wind and fog.
Never mind and old story retold for a latter day,
oblivious to the sight of rouged lips and gaudy garbs.
and with narry a bargain they loved one another
in utter disregard of heaven or hell.
Nguyễn Quốc Vinh
East Asian Languages & Civilizations - Harvard University