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Members of the government and the diplomatic corps travel the eighty kilometers from Saigon to Tanyin to attend an annual festival at the center of Caodaism, a monotheistic religion that synthesizes Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism. Travelers must pass through enemy territory to get there and must return to Saigon by the 7 p.m. curfew. After a parade, Fowler interviews a high-ranking official’s deputy about General Thé, a militant who is in hiding on a mountain near Tanyin. The deputy responds only that Thé is a rash man before going on to give a speech on Caodaism’s origins and influence. Fowler finds the man’s lip service to Caodaism as phony and corrupt as his own pretended respect for the religion.The deputy’s parting words to Fowler are, “In the Caodaist faith all truths are reconciled and truth is love
Fowler leaves the deputy and finds Pyle trying and failing to start his Buick. They dispatch a Caodaist commanding officer to summon a mechanic. Pyle comments on how the French have not yet learned how best to treat “these people” (presumably referring to the Caodaists, but perhaps meaning all Vietnamese). When Fowler protests that the French don’t trust them, Pyle retorts, “A man becomes trustworthy when you trust him which sounds to Fowler like a Caodaist maxim.
Fowler leaves, promising to find Pyle before he departs from Tanyin. He goes into the cathedral and studies the mixture of Buddhist, Christian, and Confucian ornamentation. He reflects on his wife’s faith and his own lack of desire for faith. He imagines that Helen has received his letter, even though she has not yet written back.
Fowler returns to Pyle, who is still waiting for the mechanic. He offers to give the American a ride and arranges for the car to be fixed and brought to Saigon the following day. The two men set out from Tanyin. Pyle asks about Phuong. He also mentions that he saw her sister while shopping the previous day and that she said Fowler was planning to leave Vietnam. Fowler says it is just a rumor. Pyle then informs Fowler that he has applied for a transfer and thinks he will be reassigned in six months’ time.
The car splutters to a halt. Fowler thinks that someone in Tanyin must have siphoned out the gas. They are now in enemy territory, and the car barely makes it to one of the watchtowers positioned along the road. Fowler calls up, hoping that the guards will have extra fuel, but no one responds. With darkness falling quickly, he tells Pyle to wait while he climbs up the tower. As Fowler climbs the ladder, he feels nearly paralyzed with fear.
Fowler finds two young Vietnamese men in the watchtower who appear to be as terrified as he is. He asks them if they have any gasoline he could purchase, but they have none. Pyle climbs up the ladder, and Fowler tells him that they are welcome to stay. Pyle is afraid that the Vietnamese guards are too experienced to defend the tower, but Fowler explains that they are just afraid of an attack. Making fun of Pyle’s beloved York Harding, Fowler also implies that these men have no idea that they are fighting against communism and for democracy. These are “mental concepts,” Fowler says, and hence they don’t really exist. Pyle replies that Fowler must have mental concepts of his own, that he must believe in something. Fowler says that he only believes in the reality of their present situation.
The trip that Fowler and Pyle make to Tanyin inspires questions about religion and faith. Fowler, who is an atheist, feels suspicious of Caodaism, both because it is a relatively new religion and because its followers express the articles of their faith in generalized maxims. Pyle, who is a Christian, is more readily accepting. When Fowler dismisses Pyle’s trite platitude about trust, he does so because it sounds just like the platitude about faith and truth that he’d heard a Caodaist deputy say earlier in the day. For Fowler, platitudes like these attempt to make the world seem less complex. However, platitudes do more than just simplify reality hey also idealize it. Fowler finds this idealizing tendency dangerous, because it serves to manipulate easily convincible people like Pyle and his wife, Helen, who is also a committed Christian. When Fowler explores the Caodaist cathedral, he observes the images of Buddha, Christ, and Confucius and thinks that all three figures are “play-acting” for the sake of “ambition Therefore, when individuals succumb to the “convincingness” of these figures, they are succumbing to “trickery” rather than to truth. This argument is very like the one Fowler makes about intellectual versus experiential knowledge.
One motif that relates to the problem of faith is that of the planchette, an object to which Fowler refers twice in this chapter. A planchette is a small triangular or heart-shaped board with casters at two points and a vertical pencil at the third. Much like in the game of Ouija, planchettes are used in automatic writing, which is said to be produced not by a writer’s conscious intention but by some occult or subconscious agency. Trusting the words produced by planchette therefore requires faith in something invisible, a belief that the instrument can allow one to see beyond the veil of ordinary reality. Given Fowler’s resistance to spirituality, it comes as little surprise that his references to the planchette are ironic. For instance, while contemplating faith in the Caodaist cathedral, he reflects that in his career as a reporter he has never encountered anything and hence he has never had a need for faith. To drive this point home, he claims any phenomenon that seems to channel an invisible agent, there is always a concrete mechanism that is actually responsible for it.
Although Fowler does not believe in God and thinks faith is a sham, he does believe in the complexity of the real world and that it is important to reckon with this complexity. This is a philosophical argument more than a theological one. Fowler suggests as much in his conversation with Pyle about “mental concepts.” Fowler denounces mental concepts because they are separate from material reality. When Pyle asserts that Fowler must have mental concepts that he believes in, Fowler insists that he only believes in actual reality. More specifically, Fowler claims not to be “a Berkeleian.” Here, he refers to the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753) and his notion of subjective idealism. According to Berkeley, only ideas (i.e., mental concepts) are real, and hence material objects do not exist independently of thought. Fowler rejects this claim, and in fact argues the exact opposite point: only material reality is real, whereas mental concepts are abstract and hence do not really exist. Fowler’s argument is important in that it extends his critique of faith. It also cements his self-identity as a reporter who communicates objective facts rather than subjective opinions.