Young, beguiling & free: Vietnamese intellectual thought and experience in French expression, 1920-1950s
Michel Foucault wrote in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” (1984) that it was not a set of values to be retained from this period, in the same way that modernity is not to be considered a period in time, but rather that the Enlightenment marked a change in attitude, a relationship with and a mode of thinking of contemporary reality. This relationship begins with /returns to the self, for the “Modern man,” citing Baudelaire as a quintessential example, “is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.”
Now it remains debatable whether the Vietnamese intellectuals of the 1930s could be equated to Enlightenment thinkers prior to the French Revolution. But taken as an attitude, critical of one’s surroundings but also always confronting that reality, this activation of thought very much stirred the Vietnamese of the 1930s in a way that set them apart from previous generations. These French-educated Vietnamese intellectuals played a pivotal role in cultural and political legacies due to their unprecedented reflection in domestic and international politics, Vietnamese identity, ambivalent colonial experience, and regime transitions. Their access to French humanist thinking was a great contributor to this change in attitude and perspective. Underlying the Franco-Vietnamese relationship is therefore a colonial irony that juxtaposes Enlightenment discourses of freedom and equality with colonial versions of civility.
My dissertation explores a period of francophone writing that escapes the contemporary categorization of Vietnamese francophone literature, namely because the texts that I have found compelling border between archival findings and literary expressions. I analyze works that detail the intellectuals’ youth experience and their definitions of freedom in nonfiction writing such Volontés d’existence (Cung Giũ Nguyên, 1954), journals like Cahiers de la jeunesse (1935-1942), and creative essays such as Sourires et Larmes de la jeunesse (Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, 1937).
Central to my research more generally is also the question of situating Vietnamese literature, including its francophone, anglophone, and Vietnamese ‘varieties’ in relation to a discipline or field. How does it respond to post-colonial or colonial identifications, what is its role in understanding complex colonial relations beyond human interaction, where does it stand now in a curriculum?