Dostoevsky Constructs Me a Nightmare

26th June, 2017 at 4:36 am

Day 29: I had forewarned myself to be wary of the Russian getting into my head. For I’ve had a sudden and most terrible fright tonight. As I lay on my side, I felt the devil had slid into the form of a snake and had grazed my skin only slightly to jolt me into a semi-conscious state. As I turned to my left, still half-asleep but gradually reconciling with my senses, I felt the snake nudging me to reveal all that I knew of Dimitri Karamazov’s trial. I recall waking up with a shudder, assuring myself of having come to senses only to find myself seeking the air-conditioners remote, which lay on one side of the pillow, and upon taking hold of it, I became aware of its shape resembling the very pestle with which the murder had been committed in the novel. My first thought was “My God! I have the evidence in my hand!” But fortunately, I was fully awake now. I surmised the darkness around me and placed myself safely upon my bed, beside my husband, in an unfamiliar room. I only say unfamiliar for I’m unaware of all its nook and crannies and every crisp, scraping sound at night makes me twitch with deathly anxiety. 

The chapters concerning Ivan’s conversation with the devil and Dimitri’s subsequent trial having interspersed with tales of snakes being killed before our arrival to this hometown were the chief cause of my momentary nightmare. Dostoevsky is not a good night’s read. I’m thoroughly rankled. That being said, now that I’m almost nearing the finish line, I shall see these Karamazov’s to the very end. 

Writing Hacks

Recently I came across an article listing 44 writing hacks to assist one in their story-telling endeavours. Out of the 44, I grouped a few of them which most resonated with me on account of urgency, reliability and my ability to put them to practical use.

Quantity produces quality – Ray Bradbury

Tactile Memory:

  • Write down passages from favourite books just to know what it feels like to have those words flow through my own fingertips.
  • Writing by hand is preferable to typing. As Raymond Chandler wrote, “when you have to use your energy to put words down, you are more apt to make them count.”

Reading:

  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” – Samuel Johnson
  • While you are writing, read things totally unrelated to what you’re writing. You’ll be amazed at the totally unexpected connections you’ll make or strange things you’ll discover.

Editing:

  • As you go along, “Ask yourself if this sentence, paragraph, or chapter truly furthers the narrative. If not, chuck it.” – Elizabeth Gilbert. And as Stephen King famously put it, “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
  • “When someone tells you something is wrong with your writing, they’re usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.”

Physical Exercise: Strenuous exercise every day. Novelist Don DeLillo told The Paris Review how after writing for four hours, he goes running to “shake off one world and enter another.” Joyce Carol Oates, in her ode to running, said that “the twin activities of running and writing keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control.”

Writing Process:

  • Writing is easier when the research is done and the framework has been laid out.
  • Embrace what the strategist and theorist John Boyd called the “draw-down period.” Take a break right before you start. To think, to reflect, to doubt.
  • Ask yourself these four questions from George Orwell: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” Then finish with these final two questions: “Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
  • Focus on what you’re saying, worry less about how. As William March wrote in The Bad Seed, ”a great novelist with something to say has no concern with style or oddity of presentation.”

Audience: Envision who you are writing this for. Like really picture them. Don’t go off in a cave and do this solely for yourself. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his interview with The Paris Review: “…every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That’s the secret of artistic unity. Anybody can achieve it, if he or she will make something with only one person in mind.”

Grades and Stress

My crippling anxiety related to the most minimal of failures can be traced back to the radical change of education systems, from British Cambridge based O & A-Level system to local FSc, Bachelors and Masters system of education. In the former, the slightest of failure would have a pronounced effect on your grade. There’s a massive difference between an A grade and a B grade. This difference is directly correlated with intellectual abilities. In the British system under which I was taught, A grade is exemplary, a B grade denotes slight intelligence marred by questioning one’s own capabilities, a C grade was considered average but would require one to reappear in the exam since I was one of the “intelligent kids”. D grade is tantamount to public humiliation and absolute negation of any sign of intelligence. Let’s not even go to grade F or U (fail, absolutely fail). To add to this we had marking schemes which would evaluate the band one would fall in, with each grade analysed precisely, determining the scope of answer and how one approached it. Hence attaining complete perfection in every answer was a must.

Now coming to the latter mode of education, the local system where the minimum passing marks is a dreary forty out of a hundred (thirty-five at intermediary level), one is considered a genius if he or she scores a 60 (essentially a D grade in Cambridge system). So passing with a meagre 40 entitles you to excellence.

This results in an internal conflict in regards to assessing ones failures and successes. Having been excessively pruned to a very rigid system of what number defines your intellect from a very early part of life, the indigenous system of scoring and grading beckons mediocrity in all forms of self-assessment. The former has left an indelible impression on me, and also crippled any form excitement from owning up to any praise that may come my way.

Imagine my consternation when a CSP officer asked us to score JUST 40 out of a 100 in an essay. Our goal was to simply aim for the passing marks, and all our efforts were to be solely directed towards those forty odd points to secure the examination. Forty! Forty? This was, to me, an assertion of his teaching technique. He too would aim at teaching his students just enough to help them secure a 40. There would be no extraneous details in the class that might lend a hand to those aiming for a 60, or even a 55. No sir! All shortcuts, principles and rules, lectures and assignments would be designed to attain 40 marks.

At first I was baffled, and disappointed somewhat. How can the standards of the most competitive examination in the country be put so low? The fault of this approach lies alone with me. I failed to take into account half the population who, much like me were striving to get into the bureaucracy, and who unlike me, had to swim through muddied waters to get here. So by an explicit statement of attaining 40 marks, nobody in the class was alienated from the harrowing process. But as for me, I was to be isolated on my own account. I yet have to reconcile my greed for an A grade with the reality of a passing average – a profound understanding of which would eventually help me off my high horse and graze in the reality-stricken field of local education which is a tragi-comedy of its own calling.

A Case for Ethics

I have an ethical issue with CSS and dissemination of education in general, that of absence of personal political and religious thoughts and perceptions. Why is there a foundational and rigorous restriction on inclusion of a political and religious viewpoint in an answer? Does this not follow the same western phenomenon of not teaching creationism in schools? Does this restriction fundamentally not obscure the very purpose which education aims to achieve? Say, if I was allowed to construct an answer based on factual, research based points, and could add to it a personal, well-thought out, well-researched religious (or political viewpoint, depending on individual inclinations) not only would the concerned research help my basic understanding of a phenomenon but also aid in an unbiased approach towards the issue since research always tends to minimise biases by providing a vast canvas of differing schools of thoughts. Now extend the same to class discussion in which student A and student B participate; the former with strong leaning towards politics, and the latter towards religion. Under the supervision of an unbiased instructor, the mutual discussion would not only be respectable, but also induct new and original perceptions to the student who was wholly unaware of the other’s inclinations, or harboured personal misjudgements and misinformation about a particular topic.
By asking students and teachers to leave personal political and religious rhetoric out of the class, the educational system is further promoting social intolerance and ignorance. Why are such crucial matters not discussed and debated upon at a very early stage, rather than leaving it up to experts (who by then are themselves so embedded in a biased system of information).
Isn’t the whole purpose of Education (with a capital E) dissemination of uncontrolled knowledge and information, so that the educator and student both can formulate their own stance, whilst having complete grasp on standpoints of various schools of thought?
In a Pakistani society, where religion has long played a crucial role in individual and collective existence, and much more recently is the question of political awareness becoming part of our social existence, is it fair to blatantly ask students to leave the very core of their identity outside the class door? Does this not promote hypocrisy, arrogance and ignorance of ones own beliefs?
Educational and institutional reforms, on international and national level, all stress on amicable discussions to counter the myriad of problems the world faces. How can one expect to reach unanimous resolutions when the two important factors that figuratively make the world go round are discouraged on such an intermediary level. Healthy discussions and debates require ample research, which in turn introduces us to countless faces of the same issue.

Three Poems

My Sad Captain, by Thom Gunn

One by one they appear in

the darkness: a few friends, and

a few with historical

names. How late they start to shine!

but before they fade they stand

perfectly embodied, all

the past lapping them like a

cloak of chaos. They were men

who, I thought, lived only to

renew the wasteful force they

spent with each hot convulsion.

They remind me, distant now.

True, they are not at rest yet,

but now that they are indeed

apart, winnowed from failures,

they withdraw to an orbit

and turn with disinterested

hard energy, like the stars.


O Captain! My Captain, by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

                         But O heart! heart! heart!

                            O the bleeding drops of red,

                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise upfor you the flag is flungfor you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreathsfor you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

                         Here Captain! dear father!

                            This arm beneath your head!

                               It is some dream that on the deck,

                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

                            But I with mournful tread,

                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.


Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.