Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Dostoyevsky's prison reminds me of my schools in VN

1/ From "The 1st month (I)" of Memoirs from the House of the Dead:
"Sometimes the authorities were astonished when some convict, who had jogged along for several years in so tame and exemplary a fashion that he had even been made a 'trusty' for his meritorious conduct, suddenly, without rhyme or reason- as if a devil had entered into him- ran off the rails, 'went on a binge', grew violent, or sometimes simply plunged headlong into criminal conduct; either open insolence to the highest authorities, or murder, or rape, or something else of the same kind. He would be watched with amazement. Yet perhaps the whole cause of this violent break in a man from whom it was not in the least to be expected, was a mournful desire for an abrupt display of personality, a longing to be his own self, a wish to declare himself and his own lowly personality, appearing suddenly and developing into fury, insanity, the eclipse of reason, paroxysm, and convulsion. So, perhaps, one buried alive and awakening in his coffin, hammers on its lid and struggles to wrest it off, although, of course, reason might persuade him that all his efforts are vain. There, indeed, lies the point, that reason does not enter into this: it is the convulsion of madness. We must take into consideration that almost any manifestation of will in a prisoner is accounted a crime, and, that being so, it is naturally all the same to him whether the manifestation is great or small. A binge is a binge, to risk anything is to risk everything, even murder itself. And of course it is only the beginning that counts; afterwards a man grows intoxicated and nothing will stop him. Therefore it is best to avoid driving anybody to this point. It is more peaceful for everybody. Yes, but how?"
This is how schools in VN, at least in Saigon, are: teachers and textbooks are authorities and pupils are not to challenge authorities; teachers are never wrong (even when they're wrong), pupils may remind them of misspellings but never question incorrect information or distorted views; pupils have assigned seats, from which they cannot move, so that they can be easily controlled; pupils might be forced to sit among those they don't get along with, and what they think isn't the concern of teachers; teachers tell any pupil they like to answer questions or to solve a problem on the board, not only those that raise their hands; pupils aren't allowed to talk, nor to eat, in class; it is common that teachers continue talking in the 5-minute breaks and pupils are not to remind them; humiliation is acceptable and common, such as when a pupil is unable to answer a question or to solve a problem on the board, and teachers read out loud all students' test results in class so that everybody knows everybody's results; there's only 1 history book, which supports 1 view (the communists'), and there's no such thing as evaluation of sources, critical thinking; in literature pupils never read a complete novel, only poems, short stories and excerpts of longer works, then the teachers say everything, pupils write it down and then repeat it in tests and exams, they're not allowed to say something totally different from what teachers have said, etc.
To survive, I was tame and meek, followed rules and kept my opinions to myself more or less throughout my years in VN. In class I said and wrote what I expected to, and then went home and wrote my real thoughts in my diary or on my blog. But there were 2 breaks, when I was in 4th grade, and 9th grade. All of a sudden and out of the blue, I went mad and did something shocking, unexpected. Dostoyevsky's description fits me surprisingly.

2/ The inspector scenario is familiar- I've experienced that before, numerous times.
If in Norway, teachers chilled and behaved as usual, without any stress, when inspectors came, in VN teachers made a fuss about it and prepared for weeks. I remember those days well- usually there was only talk and talk, when inspectors came, teachers added lots of other activities as though we were having lots of fun, and it's imprinted on my mind an incident when I was in primary school, my teacher told all of us to raise our hands, without exception, and those who were confident they knew the answers would budge a finger as a sign. The teachers created the lies, we took part in the lies and I'm sure the inspectors also knew it was all lies, for they must have gone through such acts before, in short everyone knew it was acting and everyone took part in it.
The only difference is that in our case, nobody approached us and asked what we thought.


I finished reading Memoirs from the House of the Dead last night. 
The book isn't very Dostoyevskian- it's more realistic, less 'hysterical', more sane and only once in a while comical. But it's still his work, and already shows his great insight into human nature, especially abnormal psychologies. After a while, I will not remember his characters, who tend to be described with words such as "naive", "simple", "extreme goodness", "like a child" or "comical", "a clown" or "repugnant" and who are not as lively as Tolstoy's characters, but I will remember the philosophical meditations, the passages about what helps one survive in prison and some of the scenes, particularly the haunting bath scene. His descriptions are vivid, the scenes appear before my eyes fully, terrifyingly. 
[At times like this, I can't help finding Jane Austen so tiny, so trivial, so mundane....]
A great work. 

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