Jim Feast What Is a Sensual Culture? Da Nang, Hoi An, 2014
A leftist commonplace of the Vietnam War era was: America is a culture of death. I don’t think this was strictly accurate. It’s not that mainstream culture lacks life or vitality, but that it is missing the sensual. Perhaps, this goes without saying in a world of Facebook and Internet interactions, which force the user to face a screen, posture locked to type or move the mouse, eyes cut off from all but that small screen. As Alan Kaufman points out in his brilliant essay about Kindles electronic readers, with a book, your body gets more play since, for instance, you can read it upside down, in the bathtub, walking, over someone’s shoulder. And you can physically match wits with it by writing in the margins, tearing out pages. But I say all this, not to talk about America, but to begin a travelogue. For these thoughts were grounded for me by my trip to another kind of place, to Da Nang and Hoi Nan, cities of deep, un-reflected sensuality.The Non-Sensual
Before getting to that, let me say a word about the non-sensual U.S. As Morse Peckham underlined in Victorian Revolutionaries, the U.S. started out without a hereditary aristocracy, which would have, in keeping with its world view, encouraged a love for the arts, an appetite for splendor, and a cultivation of grace. Our society lacks that penchant for sensuality so deeply inlaid in the aristocratic cultures of Europe or, say, China. Moreover, as H.L Mencken pointed out, the dominant bourgeois produced a no-nonsense, rationalized burgher mentality, that dominates the American outlook.
This disdain for the sensual has proceeded in waves, deepening over time. In the first wave of early mass production, taste was homogenized to synchronize desire to the crudely simplified products it was essential the public consume. Fast foods, ticky-tacky suburbs and squared off refrigerators were the order of the day. To take one specific, in a book I edited for Gary Null (Seven Steps to Perfect Health), he discusses the debasement of American taste buds: Perhaps the unenlightened American eats without true enjoyment in tacit acknowledgment that the American diet lacks natural, pleasurable tastes because it is packed with refined and processed foods. The nature of processing strips food of its nutrients (and natural flavors) through agitation, pressure, and extreme temperature changes. More importantly, processed and packaged foods are stuffed with unnatural additives and preservatives, artificial colorings, sugars, and fats. … Many have a single, simple flavor, boosted up by additives, as opposed to the more subtle, complex and satisfying taste of a natural unprocessed substance, such as a carrot or blueberry.
The second wave occurs as capitalism moves into flexible production. It might be thought that our new era has reintroduced heterogeneity into the world. It certainly provides the consumer with a sea of choices. No longer the few TV networks, but cable and Internet options. No longer just American cars dominating the highways, but a proliferation of foreign makes: Japanese, European, Korean. Look at all the craft beers. But shouldn’t we distinguish between the relation to a commodity, no matter how intimate the setting or contact, and a non-commodified relationship, epitomized by the movement between friends and gifts? Take sitting at Steve Cannon’s old Tribes at a pay-what-you-can reading, where you know the readers up front, maybe join in with Steve’s heckling, and certainly hang out with the readers afterwards in the space. Compare that to attending a reading at St. Marks where a celebrity author intones to rapt fans. Come to think of it, though, my example is ill-chosen. For at St. Marks, in comparison to a reading at Barnes and Noble’s, say, there is some oscillation between the commercial and the populist. At St Marks, it’s not unknown that a famed poet, after reading, will invite listeners to the nearest pub. By contrast, another poet will disdain interaction. This oscillation is common under wave one where the gift and capitalist economy are not fully separated. My contention is, then, that in our current period such overlaps become less possible. Or, better yet, a dual operation sets in. On the one hand, the ability to maintain an operation endowed with values from the gift economy ends, as have Tribes and the Bowery Poetry Club. On the other hand, more and more practices that were outside of the whole field of commerce have been colonized. In Cyber Marx, Dyer-Witherford puts it like this: “The desire for cultural diversity, subversively expressed in the 1960s, has over the subsequent decades been subjected to unrelenting commodification converting rock music, fashion, style, personal growth and popular culture into highly variegated zones of vertiginous commercial development.” If mass production coarsened appetites, batch production creates a more refined yet deeply blunted sensorium, one attuned to carefully delineated, controlled, non-sensous surfaces, say, to that of the visually bereft computer screen. Whereas the book forces the reader back onto her or his own submerged imagination to provide fleeting sensual backgrounds to the text, the computer game, say, provides inert, stylized counters, lacking the impenetrable, myriad nuances the body experiences in physical contact with the environment. Most people understand these things, but I would like to go further. Whether it exists purely or in oscillation with the economic exchange, the gift economy is the realm of sensuality. The more it is compromised, the less sensuality exists in society. Do I have to say these things? My wife Nhi’s voice is husky, fluty, with an underlying lilt of Cantonese when she speaks English. It is a sensual experience to listen to her. I lose this if we communicate by other means, by emails or tweets, even over the phone. But none of this is what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Vietnam. Vietnam and motorcycles.
Motorcycles Someone told me that Vietnam had a deal with China where by it supplied the rubber and China gave back cheap motorbikes. True or not, everyone with any money in the country seems to have one. There are five adults in our niece Phong’s family, five cycles. What an unimaginable distance between traveling in a car and riding a motorcycle. In the first, you are in a refuge, sheltered from any contact with the outside. On a bike you move through the elements, pelted by rain or burned by the sun, always in a flux of wind. In the jam-packed streets, one is jockeying, weaving toward and away from other cycles. Who knows what goes on in a passing car? But the postures, clothes, even snatches of conversation from one’s fellow riders are evident. Often whole families of four or five are astride one bike, including infants. In fact, in Vietnam they have a small, animal-shaped pillow, which has special straps on it to put over the handlebars for small children seated in front of the driver. Think of the variations of how a single passenger rides behind the driver. Think of how much more intimate this is than the relationship between a car’s passengers. Some will put their arms around the pilot in a hug. Others, more discreetly, have their hands placed lightly on the driver’s hips. Still others brace themselves not on their partners but on the seat or, as Nhi does, put both hands behind, gripping the cycle’s back bar. Occasionally, you see a woman in skirts riding sidesaddle. There are riders who don’t brace at all, sitting as if on a bus, perhaps using their arms to cradle a parcel or a baby. Once I saw a woman passenger with her arm lashed over the shoulder of her driver. Another time, I noted two teenage girls on a bike, the passenger in white blouse and pink shorts. She did not have her feet on the rests, but held them out, skimming near the ground as if she were gliding. One night in Da Nang we rented motorbikes to drive along the Hàn River. We had three cycles with Ah Phong (the driver) and me on one, the younger daughter Ah Ling driving Nhi on the second, and son Ah Jun with the older daughter Ah Poi on the last. Willowy Poi, with her long slit skirts and filmy jackets, had set up the tour. But she didn’t know the city and it would have been awkward, I think, to try and read a phone GPS while riding, so, before we left the hotel Poi took out a pen and street guide. I asked her what she was doing. She said. “I’m drawing a map on my hand.” Just as do Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Chung Qing, the Da Nang riverfront has an artistically lit, almost choreographed riverfront. Along the shore, facing inward to the street, are a series of marriage banquet halls whose facades are concoctions of gold, white and blue neon, one or two, appropriately enough, with fronts resembling spectacular wedding cakes. The city’s lights flash in a way that makes them seem to be moving. Colors slowly change across the spectrum or, while staying one tone, flow, river-like. This last effect was spectacularly achieved on the neon outline around the Sun Ferris wheel, said to be the largest in Southeast Asia. The color changes varied in tempo, sometimes a red gradually dissolving into purple, at other times a silver would suddenly become gold. Viewing this from a distance, talking between bikes, I said the wheel must be closed since it was stationary. Poi corrected, “It’s working, but it just moves very slowly. A revolution takes 15 minutes.” Because of the melting colors, bridges, too, seemed to be rippling in slow motion. One, a cabled affair with two lines of strings arranged around a central pillar, contrasted the two sides. On one end, the cables would be a forest green, on the other, a thick red. Or they might be orange against yellow. Most spectacularly, one side would begin to glow a resonant chalk white, while on the other, the lights would shut altogether, throwing a pure black against the luminescence. The most famed of the spans is Dragon Bridge. This is a multi-pillared span, to which is attached a mammoth sculpted dragon, the curves of its body following the up and down loops of the cables. Once a night, the head spews fire and smoke. We didn’t see that, but rather the light show. The colors travel in sinuous procession from the tail forward. A new color, like a brassy yellow, would smooth out the previous one. Light green replaced pink, whose place was then taken by a dark blue. As one after another peeled off, it seemed as if the Chinese-style dragon, which is basically a snake – it lacks the wings of the European version and only has tiny legs – was in a process of shedding multiple skins. To continue describing our night, even though Poi had a map in her palm, she was still shaky on directions, so she would slow and call Phong and Ling to pull forward. Boxing her in, steering and talking, she would refer to her hand, holding it either way from them to check. Jun, Phong, Ling and Poi, discussing and laughing, in tandem, in flight. We took a long dip turn at a major intersection but then pack leader Jun pulled across three lanes to park at the curb. The other cycles berthed on either side of him. Again Poi’s hand was consulted. Next thing I knew, Phong said to get off the bike. Everyone dismounted and the drivers slowly pushed their steeds backward in single file along the edge of the road, so we could re-enter the traffic at the intersection going another way. I’m suggesting that on a bike not only can you see what other riders are doing and wearing, but you can cross talk between vehicles. And I don’t mean simply in the interaction of family groups. There was a natural, spontaneous solidarity between bikers, at least when the situation called for it. Let’s go back to the Sun Wheel, which is standalone. There are no other attractions or even buildings in the vicinity. It is isolated, way back from the street on acres of waste ground. When we drove up near it, we saw that along the road there was a queue of motorcycles, mainly seating dating couples, which had pulled to the curb to view the sight. Apparently this is a no parking zone where security cops roamed, telling people to leave. But as cops passed down the line, kicking bikers out -- the cycles taking off like shooed pigeons -- another set of scooters would pull into the vacated zone, to gape and laugh till the cops found their way back. I know these anecdotes cannot fully (really) convey the niceties of motorcycle protocol. All I want to express is the notion that the sensual doesn’t depend simply on sensations, like the breeze on your face, but on the existence of situations which allow you to experience the spontaneous unfoldings in front of you so you can off-handedly respond to the openings of life’s shifting, hovering possibilities. This, the motorcycle gives you.
More Light Seeing the choreographed lights of Chinese cities, I’ve wondered at how little Americans understand light as part of urban textures. Do Americans lack some primal artistic horse sense? It’s hard to even imagine in America the beauty of, say, the fragments of the old city wall in X’ian, which at night glows with lovely outlines of gold and jade greens. Hoi An, Vietnam, is similarly lovely. Perhaps readers are not familiar with this town, which has recently found itself a go-to hotspot, packed with tourists, in particular from Australia. Charmingly small scale, Hoi An centers its game with lights along the Thu Bon River. Across the river from the small, recreated ancient city runs a market street thick with strollers and shoppers, which threads past a river edge park that, at night, doubles as a zoo for electric neon zodiac animals: the rat, the cock, the tiger. On the other side of this thoroughfare emporiums and restaurants each have its own lighting scheme, playing across facades crammed with goods and foods, and with, inside, gaudy, neon-decorated shrines to Buddha or Kwan Yin or Lord Guan (or all three). Lights, too, are on the trees in and outside of the park, spangled with cords and dots of gold. And across the water on the wall that rises from the river are large, lit lion heads. Gaudy Chinese lions, looking more like pugs than beasts of prey, whose faces throw fierce reflections on the dark water below. All these accents led to the highpoint, the pedestrian bridge connecting old and new, a long structure whose sides were decorated with glowing blue dragon faces. When we mounted the bridge on a Saturday night, we had a better view of how the river’s surface served as an incandescent mirror. Bobbing along its surface were innumerable flame-lit lanterns, the kind Chinese float during the August moon festival. Each lantern had a small candle propped inside; its wayward flickering picked up and splattered by the undulations of the water flow. And this light scheme was constantly altering as people crossing the bridge would stop and pay a vendor for a lantern, which was then hooked on a notched pole and lowered to the passing tide. Moreover, tourists rented small boats, whose prows were stacked with lanterns, which the passengers could plop overboard, further redefining the river’s illumination. As a side note, related to light, let me describe the Tam Tam Club, a coffee shop in the old city owned by someone Poi knew. The Tam Tam is an odds and ends place: its front a beautiful showcase of pastries and cakes, surrounded by lacquered wood tables. The back room had a pool table, rougher wooden tables and louder music. As we sat drinking late night coffee, the owner dropped over. She talked about how she had acquired the place, in partnership with a Parisian restaurateur, and how she had been prospering. That last explanation ended up truncated because the room suddenly faded to black. The lights in the club had shut off, and, as we learned as we made our way out, guided by cell phone light, the whole city was powerless. We stumbled back to the bridge. This span was the one place where walking was easy for the lanterns on the railing and in the river created a funhouse effect of dancing shadows.
Mixed Use I want to talk about other sensual things, obvious things like food and clothes, but before that let me go over what has already been established. Talking of motorcycles, I said that sensuality depends on the creation of a civil society in which it is possible to “respond to the openings of life’s possibilities.” Maybe, this is not clear. Go back to the old, pre-eviction Tribes. There things swung with a certain flexibility of roles, statuses, actions. At a poetry event, a reader would recite and then join the audience. An audience member might be asked to read a poem. A heckler, such as Steve himself, would not be a distraction as much as an added attraction. I’m saying such a stark lack of rigidity deepens one’s appreciation of the moment, flushes it with sensual surfaces. This in some way connects up to Jane Jacobs’s discussion of the value of mixed use in cities whereby residences, small-scale commercial and productive facilities mingle, making for an enlivened richness. This variety is ideal for the full development of sensual experience. Now, if one compares the concrete examples in Jacobs’ book, drawn from her 1960s Greenwich Village community, with the practices of neighborhood mélanges in Vietnam, then, to mix metaphors, one must conclude that she has only scratched the surface of such use’s boundary stretching. Let’s go back to Ho Chi Minh City. Most mornings there we ate a breakfast of congee (jook) at Ah Kum’s vegetarian restaurant, which backed onto an open air market. The eatery was partially in the first story of her two-level house. The other part, including the mobile street cooking cart, was in front of the building Her indoor place was small, one and a half tables. Bigger restaurants put everything outside, principally, aluminum tables and chairs under umbrellas. At the end of the sales day, around 1 pm, the cart would be rolled inside, and tables, chairs and awning folded up and all brought inside the house. Kum’s food cart was beside a display table on which she had cakes and large pieces of “guat” root. Also directly in front of her house was a children’s clothing store run by Kum’s friend Ah Hoa (Flower), consisting of one large display board on which her merchandise was hung. Inside the first floor of the house, next to the tables were motorcycles, a refrigerator and two altars. To me, the overlap on one table where, on a sample morning, two customers were eating jook while Ah Kum was cutting vegetables next to them symbolized the place’s fluidity. Since we spent many mornings, let me note other things that suggested the porousness of the space. A man walked in carrying a soup bowl, went to the large pot of jook, dipped out an ample helping and left. Kum continued slicing choy sum. “But he didn’t pay,” I said. Kum said, “He owns the meat stand down the way.” In a half hour’s time, he came back and handed her a money. Another time when Kum was preoccupied cooking, a customer came to the front table – this was someone she didn’t know – and picked up a sizeable chunk of guat. Seeing Kum was busy, the customer came back to the rear table, picked up a cleaver and sliced off a piece of the root’s outer skin to examine the vegetable’s quality. Satisfied, she cut a chunk for herself and waited for Kum to weigh it. As I said, this woman was a stranger. Steady customers, ones who would drop in most mornings, were even more active. Once when Kum was taking things from the refrigerator, a new customer asked for soup. One of the diners, a daily customer, seeing the situation, got up, collected dry noodles and put them in a bowl, added vegetables and garnish, poured in the hot broth and took the money, which she brought to Ah Kum for change. I asked Nhi how this customer knew the proper way to prepare the soup. Nhi said laconically, “Anybody can do that.” You can see the roles of customer and server were rather loosely worn in this shop. I also saw, particularly as U.S. restaurants are placarded with signs warning customers “No Outside Food Allowed,” how slack the boundaries were between stores. The market where Kum’s vegetarian restaurant was located was a side street packed with a mini stores and noodle shops. Entering from the main street, one passed an area crammed with tiny clothing stores, nothing but a front counter on which jeans or other items were stacked, with the walls behind and hangers overhead also displaying wares. The sales clerk sat directly on top of the counter since there was no other place to stand. Next came food and beverage shops, and lastly came fresh food. In the latter section were piles of vegetables, pastries, meats and fish. Meats lay unwrapped on the counter to be picked up, hefted and inspected by wary shoppers. Nothing was packaged. So all the perfumes, stinks, textures and other qualities of the foods were visible, palpable. But I was talking of relaxed boundaries. The congee house where we ate was vegetarian. Some days, after the jook, Nhi wanted Vietnam’s signature dish, beef noodles. Without getting up, she called to the “next-door’s woman,” who had the adjoining store, and asked for “two bowls noodles.” In a little while, the proprietor brought a tray with two steaming bowls as well as spoons and chopsticks. There were also plates of sprouts, banana stem slices, mint leaves, and lettuce to add to the soup, two slices of lime to squirt in (as an aid to digestion) and, lastly, plastic envelopes containing a small napkin and two toothpicks. Earlier we had been accosted by another salesperson, one Nhi called “an aggressive old woman,” who was at our side even as we were ordering our first course. She ran a drink stand. From her, we ordered iced coffee and a hot soybean beverage. Every morning she could be seen flitting around the market like an old hawk, pouncing on anyone who sat down for breakfast. And if the various businesses mixed together different strands of this world commerce, they also mixed in transactions with the heavenly realm. Hoa, the children’s clothing spot owner, was quite religious. Before opening her store, she would light three sticks of incense. One day she brought a large metal bowl and laid it on the ground. She took out some “ghost money,” bills that are to be sent to the dead, which she dropped into the bowl to be eaten by the flames. We were visiting in late July, Ghost Month. As Nhi said, “In this month, the doors of hell open, and all the ghosts come up here to look for food. That’s why people give offerings” Parenthetically, after leaving Vietnam, we went to Guangzhou, still during ghost month. I remember one eerie night around 9 pm when we walked back from the Pearl River down a deserted street. All was dark except for the vivid orange of a small paper fire, throwing textured shadows against a barrier fence. A man was feeding the flames with crimson and green “ghost clothing,” paper pants and shirts to be burnt as a way of dispatching them to hell. To return to the vegetarian restaurant, I mentioned how religion intertwined with daily practice. Buddhism itself led Kum to sell only vegetarian dishes. Hoa, after she burned incense for her store’s prosperity, later offered incense at the two indoor shrines. One morning she, Kum and Hoa decided to have iced coffee. Kum kept her glass at hand while Hoa laid hers on the altar to Kwan Yin. That seemed quite a sacrifice for a cool drink on that hot morning would certainly have been welcome. An hour later Hoa retrieved her coffee. I asked Nhi if it wasn’t disrespectful to grab the goddess’s coffee that way. Nhi said, as if she were talking to an idiot, “The god already drank it, so now we can drink it.” A last point about the intertwining of different realms. It was about 10 pm and we were walking home from eating nearby. I noticed some people standing in front of a residence, whose grill was thrown up. Glancing in, I saw a man lying on a cot whose feet and legs were wrapped in white bandages. Nhi was walking briskly ahead. I asked her about the storefront. “That was a funeral,” she said. “You should not linger around them.” “So the man on the bed?” “That was the body, the dead body.” To me, this was a bit disconcerting. To lay out a corpse like that, open for public inspection. I had trouble to adjusting to the anarchy of mixed use. Comfortlessness William James, among others, has argued that the strenuous life, the readiness to endure hardship, is a character trait of any authentic individual. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he writes, “Is not the exclusively … facetious way [that is without being offered any real challenges or discomforts] in which most children are brought up today … in danger of developing a certain trashiness of fiber?” I don’t know about that, but I think to be in touch with your body, you have to have intimate appreciation of discomfort. Isn’t this what sensuality is all about, immersion in the full range of bodily states, high to low? Vietnam is a very hot. In New York City, as far as I’ve seen, only the poor are without air conditioning. Vietnam is not like that; neither our middle class relatives nor friends nor stores for that matter had anything but fans to dispel the thick air. Fans. In one single room of Phong’s house, there were four fans affixed to the walls. Going into a restaurant, people would angle to get tables close to the wall fans. Indeed, in the former presidential palace, host to all those American dignitaries during the Vietnam War, the indoor corridors that circle the building are stifling hot, cooled only by a breeze that came through the half open, fluted outer walls, which were constructed as if out of a row of oversized chess pawns. Heat, lightly punctuated by fans, keeps you constantly aware of your skin, your back, your brow. As you shift your day’s focus, from eating to working to shopping, you stay back-grounded by the body’s watery presence.
Food I begin this point with an observation about meals which may appear so contrary to general ideas, as to be hard to believe. The first point is a common experience for anyone who travels outside this country. I went to Paris. The sauces, the new flavors, the deserts, the meats were things at a level of excellence I had never experienced, never came near to, in New York. It was a new world, like a paradise really. Both familiar foods given a heightened treatment and utterly new dishes, such as chestnut pudding, were so tasty, so succulent, so harmonically combined in meals, so crafted, in short, so dreamy. What could ever surpass French foods? Then, I visited Banjul, The Gambia, and climbed to a new peak. The chicken yassa, poultry soaked in a pepper and ginger sauce, was at a level of freshness, vigor and flavor untouched by French cuisine. The chicken and fish benachin, a mix of the meat with cabbage, pumpkin and eggplant was unsurpassable. But how explain that in this impoverished African nation, we were eating food better than we found in Paris? Yes, these were fantastic cooks, but you also have to give credit to the ingredients. No pesticides, no vitamins given the animals, no refrigerated trucks hauling the vegetables or meats over long distances. The fish we ate had been caught in the ocean off the city that day. Of course, pure food can be found in pockets in the U.S., but to find a whole culture of untarnished food one would have to go to The Gambia … or Vietnam. Food can be cooked poorly; dishes can be uncomplimentary; but, by and large, food in Vietnam, even at the smallest street cart, is hard to equal. It depends on taste, doesn’t it? In place of a discussion, let me just describe one dish, the Vietnamese crepe, banh xeo, which we ate at street vendor near the Thein Haw Pagoda. The base of the dish is a large, unfolded omelet containing bean sprouts and shrimps. One thin pancake covers a large plate. To eat, you cut off a slice of the crepe, which you lift up with a lettuce leaf. Using this as a base, inside you place mint leaves, banana stem shavings and more sprouts. Wrapping it tightly, you dip it in fish sauce. The taste is a lacing of multiple flavors, continually adjusted as you slightly alter the fixings in each bundle.
What Is a Sensual Culture? Nhi is the product of a sensual culture. She grew up in then Saigon, leaving when she was 25. Thinking about her, I can better understand two things. In terms of our society, Nhi would be called unfeminine. She wears no makeup, no jewelry, plain dress. She doesn’t like parties or festivities. Maybe she’s just idiosyncratic. After all, Vietnamese culture is awash in Buddhist festivals and parties, weddings, karaoke palaces and nightclubs where women are dressed to the nines. Even so, there is a truth here. Sensuality moves on a level. An over-concern with making the body look good blocks it. Attendance at superficial functions or hollow events, block it. Commodities block it. Second point. I think even making love, to be truly sensual, has to involve the same flexibility we saw in the Vietnamese market. Without being explicit, let me say that guided by her sense of culture, when we made love there was a slippage of roles, not between, say, passive and active, but from being lovers to talkers, as we stopped to eat fruit and discuss our lives, our plans, our feelings, and then to being language learners as she taught me Cantonese. This is what I meant by the informality vital to sensuality, an informality that allows sequences to mix sex, eating, talking, and grammar. Face-to-face contact, mixed use, purity of ingredients, life at small scale, discomfort, a willingness to be playful and immerse oneself in the multi-aspects of the surroundings, these are the components of a sensual culture. I’m not saying that to a degree one cannot live a sensual life in America, but the environment, the tide, is against it. It is much easier to live that way in a culture primed for it, as it is in Vietnam. It’s as sensual as Nhi’s voice,which is beautiful in a deeply beautiful way.