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Hoi An from East of Eden: Vietnam

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Hoi An

Pipo Nguyen-Duy

Part of a series called East of Eden, Hoi An displays a war veteran sitting among the lush, verdant landscape of Vietnam. This photograph is immediately biblical. The central figure, dismembered and scarred, appears to radiate light—a glorious saint in the Garden of Eden. His face turned upward, the man gazes to the sky, the heavens. His body on display, the audience is immediately drawn to the life-altering injuries he suffers from the war. 

Biologically speaking, the subject is not 'whole'. He has lost his legs from the war. At one point or another, those who have lost a limb experience what is called phantom limb pain. Phantom limb pain is characterized by any painful sensations in the absent limb (Nikolajsen & Jensen, 2001). Nevertheless, phantom limb pain decreases significantly over time. Thus, it is more likely that the pained expression on the subject's face is not from physical pain. Rather, his expression suggests an emotional pain, one that highlights the trauma of war. In the case of this man, the memories of his war experiences could be activating old pathways that were active during the time of his injury.

The positioning of his body and the unmistakable hope and pain in his expression appear to communicate the unforgettable last words of John Steinbeck's similarly religiously-inspired novel, East of Eden (1952). The phrase "Thous mayest," in other words, the subject is neither compelled to pursue martyrdom through his injuries nor is he doomed to an average human existence. Rather, our veteran shows but a shadow of pain in light of his injuries, an indifference to the past that becomes an indifference to his audience, so enveloped is he in the transcendental gaze. The subject is beyond the viewer, beyond the human capacity for pain, so steeped in martyrdom he seems.