The Power of Music

by Qui-Phiet Tran

Things calm down after a year of nightmare and terror after the loss of Huế and another year of grief and suffering.  Now and then I hear from home via France where mail from Vietnam arrives before it is forwarded by friends or charity organizations to stranded students in the US.  It is a great relief to know that my family is safe and that Nga occasionally—not always—receives the money I send through illegal channels.  (Because the US government has cut off all communications with the South, now annexed to the victorious North, former South Vietnamese nationals living in the US give cash to the new regime’s sympathizers who alone are allowed to visit the country, but then there is no guarantee that their money will reach their family or be given in full amount.)  The sense of relief, which is no other than the pretension that I am doing enough for my family, makes me feel comfortable for the first time when seeking amusements and entertainments.  A year ago, a single thought of trying to enjoy myself would have made me cringe and suffer for hours.  I no longer shut myself in my room after getting back from school but occasionally I go to see some movies.  As I am getting out of myself, I start attending some parties.  My young Vietnamese friends who had left me alone before because of my penchant for solitude now come to take me out every now and then.  Being around with these people is a pleasure, a great comfort to me.  Their situation is not better than mine, and yet they don’t seem to let it interfere much with their living.  This makes me feel better.

I am experiencing a sort of rejuvenation.  I feel as if I was on a recovery from a long illness.  The more extended a sickness has been and the younger the body is, the quicker and surer its recovery becomes.  I am amazed at my being back on my feet, at my sitting here and looking back at what has happened to me with such a detachment as if it was somebody else’s experience!  It is this base part of human nature, as far as I am concerned, that makes humans prone to forgetting, to being immune from suffering, eventually getting callous to it, and assures the survival of their race.  People who fare well, that is, who are sane, are those who don’t suffer, and in order to not suffer you have to forget.  Conversely, those who remember are usually those who bear their grief alone.  We have seen this especially in ancient Western literature.  Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid  and Phaedra in Racine’s Phèdre, for example, find their memory of their sweetheart endearing but so unbearable that in their insanity they take it with them to the grave.  This theme of female unconditional love and loyalty is also popularized in Vietnamese classical and modern Vietnamese literature but with a difference: women not only take their unrequited love to the grave but even beyond it when they swear their steadfast loyalty to their men in their next life. Forced by adversity to annul her conjugal vows to her lover Kim Trọng, the protagonist of Nguyễn Du’s The Tale of Kiều swears to be reborn as a slave to him in their next life.  Similarly, Diễm in Nhã Ca’s Giãi khăn sô cho Huế swallows her engagement ring to tell her fiancé that in death she is still married to him and loves him.  And to this category I can add Phượng who wrote such heartbreaking pages in her diary because she could not get Bình out of her mind and still remembered him minutes before she died.  Since 1975 many women, including Nga, have courageously assumed the role of breadwinners for their family while their husbands are in re-education camps or are stranded overseas.  Still never do they fail to love and be loyal to their men and hope for an eventual family reunion. 

It has been two years now since the fall of South Vietnam.  Most Vietnamese students I know are already resigned to what has befallen them.  They accept their new status as newest Americans.  Some get married and start a family, planning to live here permanently.  Older students, especially those with US government scholarships immediately cut off after the change of regime, have real difficulty making the transition.  They either quit school and work  menial jobs to support themselves and their family at home, or stay in school but switch to fields that can help them fare better in the job market. The transition is quite smooth for those with a previous background in math and science.  Training in new skills enables them to land good jobs and they have no qualms about their decision.  Not all former US government scholarship recipients are so lucky.  Feeling too old to start over again or not qualified to learn new skills, these scholars or former South Vietnam government officials choose careers they had never thought they would make a living with in their life, such as selling cars or life insurance.   

I consider myself luckier than these former Vietnamese nationals.  In my middle age and incapable of changing my career goals, I stay on to get my terminal degree and upon graduation get an appointment at the UT English department. Since my salary is much better than  my Fulbright grant, I lead a comfortable life like many educated Americans, feel like a full-fledged American!  I live in an apartment, commute to and from work in a used car (I never owned one before), enjoy teaching (students say I have great enthusiasm for literature, which makes them like my classes) and doing research for my book (my passion for literature comes back unawares), and much more.

After leaving the library today I take a leisurely stroll on the UT drags.  This area is like a fair on Saturday afternoons with many activities that students don’t want to pass up. They come here to relax and to have fun after a long week of hard work at school. Vendors, most of them married students, try to supplement their family income by selling their original work, such as paintings, handicraft, bric-à-brac.  Food stands and restaurants that serve American and exotic foods at reasonable prices that students cannot afford at other places are one block away.  Added to the cultural richness represented on the UT campus is a dance performance by some Hare Krishna members which is colorful and exotic but does not seem to attract much attention probably because of their uncommon appearance and weird message.  Nearby in front of the Co-Op Bookstore an unkempt, hairy violinist is executing the tunes of a Beethoven.  While obviously the artist tries to make some money probably for his living (scattered at his feet are some one-dollar bills, apparently rewards of his performance), there is no indication that he makes his art a profane practice at all.  He is totally engrossed in the music, beside himself quite like a soloist in a concert.  Just at the moment I am overcome by a great joy and gratefulness to be in America, having completely forgotten who I am and what I have been through just recently, I am caught off guard by an acute pain that shoots through my body and clutches at my heart. That anguish that I thought had gone away since I haven’t   felt it for quite a while now comes back to strike me with undiminished force.  It is the same old pain, but it now takes on a more complex nature.  It has to do with the shame I feel upon realizing that I am a stranded exile, not a participant in the American mainstream.  It comes from my guilty feeling about forgetting my family, especially my little ones, who are hungry at home at this time while I am an instructor at this prestigious university and pampering myself with a comfortable life. 

 As soon as I have recovered a little from the attack, I discover to my amazement that the pain strikes at me the moment I hear the Beethoven piece. The attack would have occurred sooner or later because the chance is my sorrow, latent but always keen, will gush out even more violently the longer it is held in check. The music makes the pain come back faster.             

 Like many who were born in the peaceful pre-war period, I was immersed in and grew up with music.  First of all, music is what every Vietnamese infant is unconsciously exposed to while cuddling in its cradle, and I was no exception.  When I heard my mother sing nursery rhymes from her country in Bình Định to my baby sister, instantly I found them very familiar and could recite some of the lines.  My mother said that she used to sing the same rhymes to rock me to sleep, so does it mean that I might have heard in my crib and unconsciously committed to memory?  She had an accent that was unmistakably Bình Định—thick and slow, but sprightly and cadenced —that could make a happy child fall asleep fast, whereas my father’s way of reciting lyrical poems, which was always prolonged and melancholy, guided me away from the real world—his life—marked by sorrows and wistfulness to a dreamland that exists only in his poetry.  Since I spent a great part of my childhood with Father, and it was he who lulled me to sleep every night, this sort of music was my main nourishment because I grew up with it and his love.  Father’s sad music soothed me and suited me because after my mother had left us I always considered myself an orphan.  More importantly, my long immersion in it created in me a passion for literature, especially poetry, a deep attachment to Vietnam, in particular Father’s native land, and an incorrigible infatuation with the fantastic. Today these elements are still essentials of my nature.

My love of music and lyrical poetry became dormant after I started my family.  My father, who lived with me after I got married, never recited his poetry again.  I had thus lost my paradise but wasn’t aware of it because I had no time to think about it. Three years of burying myself in study for my Fulbright program and subsequently another two years of living in nightmare after 1975 were certainly not a good time for music and entertainment.  

My love of music revives today as a result of my brief exposure to the Beethoven tune on the drags.  I am amazed that the concerto could hold me under its spell so long though I had no experience with Beethoven and classical music.  As I walk back to my apartment the tune follows me. The music is now gone, but I still hear and feel all its reverberation and simultaneously a tidal wave of immense sadness in my soul.  I am amazed at the magic of the Beethoven piece (and most classical music, as I later find out).  Judging by their facial expressions, I guess the concerto must have provoked different reactions in the audience depending on their emotional condition when they are exposed to the music.  No writer describes better the power of classical music—its ability to release the penned up feelings in the heart of a human—than Marcel Proust.  In Swann in Love, for example, the same little phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata to Swann is a celebration of love when he first meets Odette, but later hearing it makes him writhe in pain when he feels betrayed by her. Beethoven’s music reawakens the sorrow I have unsuccessfully repressed by engaging myself in self-indulgence or trying to sleep away the painful reality.  But the grief this sort of Pandora’s Box releases isn’t the same as the one that tormented me two years ago. Though the Beethoven piece doesn’t drift me to my childhood dream world as my late father’s songs did when I fell asleep in his lap, it sort of transcends my suffering, exacerbating it, distilling off its harmful effects, making it not only bearable but also significant and pleasant.  It is that same plaisir de la douleur (joy of sorrow) that Lamartine and other French romanticists have spoken of in their creative experience.  I have also sought temporary oblivion of reality in work and in literature over these two last years.  But today it is music that for the first time creates in me a delectable sensation—sad and soothing—like a sobbing child being comforted by his mother. When it comes to instantly soothing an injured soul, music is far more effective than art and literature because its curative sounds can quickly penetrate the deepest recesses of the human heart.  What I discover after hearing the Beethoven concerto today is that I cannot get by without music, especially music of sorrow.  It resuscitates emotions and memories that have been lying dormant in me, provokes my tears of repentance.  It makes me feel sad but it also fills me with joy—the joy of knowing that I am not callous to my memory of the past and my loved ones. Music of sorrow is the sweetest music of all time.  

*From Pangs of Memory and Love, unpublished autobiographical novel.


Editor’s Note on The Power of Music

The Power of Music is not the first piece that Eastlit has published by Qui-Phiet Tran. The following work has also featured in Eastlit:

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