‘What are you laughing for, Professor?’
‘What do you mean – laughing? I’m in absolute despair,’ shouted Philip Philipovich. ‘What’s going to become of the central heating now?’
‘Are you making fun of us, Professor Preobrazhensky?’
– Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (28)
I am reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. It’s the sort of book that sets my mind in fits and starts of questions and quagmires. Augustine’s subject is approached with such confident absolutism, that I begin to feel as though I have been thrown into some sort of alternate universe where everyone has agreed on a premise of possibly illogical terms.
‘You know how much work I did on the subject – an unbelievable amount. And now comes the crucial question – what for? So that one fine day a nice little dog could be transformed into a specimen of so-called humanity so revolting that he makes one’s hair stand on end.’ (108)
My first moment of pause came when Augustine lamented his theft of some pears from an orchard. He wrote, “there was no beauty in the pears I stole” hastily acknowledging that they were, of course, the beautiful creation of “you” – God (Penguin classics, 34). Nevertheless, they weren’t so hot as far as pears go. But that is not the point. The point is, he stole them just to steal them and he is a sinner.
Dog laughed, causing maid Zina to faint. Later pronounced the following 8 times in succession: ‘Nesseta-ciled’. […] The professor has deciphered the word ‘Nesseta-ciled’ by reversal: it is ‘delicatessen’…quite extraord…(61)
Now, hang on a minute, I said to myself. What does God have to do with ownership? Before we skip on down the lane of sin, can we stop a moment and ask why a “God given fruit” came to be “owned” by one over another in the first place? Good, bad, sin , God…who defines the terms?
You act just as if you were were on parade here,’ he said. ‘Put your napkin here, tie your tie there, “please”, ” thank you”, “excuse me” – why can’t you behave naturally? Honestly, you stuffed shirts act as if it was still the days of tsarism.’
‘What do you mean by “behave naturally”?’ (91)
Feeling depressed, I went to the library to get some lighter fare. I spent some time searching for a book that had apparently gone missing and ended up with The Heart of a Dog, the Russian satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov set in the post revolution days of Moscow about a doctor who performs an operation switching out the pituitary gland of a (recently dead) human into a dog. A madcap, biting, and brisk tale in which the illogic of a dog’s move up in the world creates an absurdity of right question – why one man has seven rooms when others have just one….and wrong answer.
Doctor Bormenthal: ‘I shall personally throw Shvonder downstairs if he ever appears in Professor Preobrazhensky’s flat again.’
And Shvonder said: ‘Please enter that remark in the report.’ (128)
I told a friend that I was reading The Heart of a Dog as a sort of demented companion to Confessions. She said, “You know…Dog is God spelled backward…”
*The Heart of a Dog translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny
*Confessions translated from Latin by Garry Wills
**another Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita