- Dialectics of Aesthetics and Politics in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace
The softest things in the world ride roughshod over the hardest things. Only the least substantial thing can penetrate the seamless. This is how we know that doing things noncoercively is beneficial. Rare are those in the world who reach an understanding of the benefits of teachings that go beyond what can be said, and of doing things noncoercively.—Lao-tzu,
Daodejing: "Making This Life Significant"1
The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation.—Charles Sanders Peirce,
Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings2
After the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the new millennium, 11 September 2001 exploded and kindled a "hot" war on global terrorism, preemptive and seemingly endless, until the election of Barack Obama in November 2008 as the first African American president. This did not signify the end of U.S. imperial global hegemony, as witnessed by the fighting in Iraq and the accelerated interventions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. The imperial legacy of capital and its "civilizing mission" still darkens humanity's horizons. The lessons of the Vietnam War, and earlier, the orgy of genocidal slaughter during [End Page 181] the U.S. conquest of the Philippines (1899–1903), have not been learned.3 The trauma of the Vietnam disaster lingers in the collective psyche of the American body politic, as Maxine Hong Kingston diagnoses it in her hybrid testimony conflating fiction and history, creative fantasy and destructive reality, The Fifth Book of Peace.
In this essay, I argue that Kingston's etiology of the trauma combines the analytic mode of an oppositional mass-line politics with the synthesizing logic of her astute Asian American sensibility to shape a narrative of reconciliation with a difference. Its immanent intertextual logic may be discerned in the imperative nuance of her thought at the start of the last chapter: "Things that fiction can't solve must be worked out in life."4 This corresponds to the "pragmaticist" maxim first enunciated by Charles Sanders Peirce, the original founder of "pragmaticism" (popularized by William James into pragmatism5): "In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception."6 Social practice and truth are thus indivisible. Kingston's aesthetic performance foregrounds the contradictions inherent in the alienated and reified social structures of capitalist society, underscoring the racial, gendered, class-inflected differences among her personages. The material differences among her characters are not erased or obscured by didactic or pedagogical elements; rather, they are accented, sharpened, and sublated so as to situate them in the totality of the sociopolitical system that reproduces them, without whose radical transformation the syndrome of war trauma and all the symptoms of social decay will persist.
Most of the reviews and glosses on FBP have focused on the theme of art's efficacy in healing war wounds, loss, and trauma.7 Classifying Kingston's text as "life writing," Te-Hsing Shan, for example, concentrates on how Kingston redeploys the mythical Fa Mu Lan legend (used in The Woman Warrior ) to convert a "war story" into a "homecoming story" for the veterans and a story of personal growth for the author.8 Whereas Shan flattens the personal and political in an eclectic mix of religion, ethics, and aesthetics, I would accentuate the process of dialectical sublation;9 that is, canceling but also preserving the negative (loss, pain, suffering) into an enriched level of communal dialogue and reflective solidarity. Kingston's art conveys a radical politics of personal redemption through communal change, with her narrative striving to encompass manifold layers of polarities and contradictions endemic to a class-divided, commodified, militarist social order. Peace, for Kingston, is not passive assent to the reigning consensus but a constructive intervention: imagining an ecumenical "brave new world."10 Peace for her means a vigilant and militant [End Page...