Wednesday, April 15, 2015
A DETAIL IN DOSTOEVSKY'S "NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND" "An artist, for example, has painted a picture of Ге"
I've been puzzling over this for years, wondering why I'm the only one who has noticed it. Maybe somebody else has, but I've never seen it in print. Or maybe I'm completely wrong?
To get the thing in context, here is the Underground Man (narrator of "Notes from the Underground") in his usual sarcastic, raving mode. He professes his love for everything "beautiful and sublime," then goes off into the following rift:
"I would have found myself a suitable activity--namely, drinking to everything beautiful and sublime. Then I would have turned everything into the beautiful and sublime; I would have sought out the beautiful and sublime in the nastiest, most indisputable trash. I would have become as weepy as a wet sponge. An artist, for example, has painted a picture of Ge. At once I drink to the artist who painted that picture of Ge because I love everything beautiful and sublime. An author has written the words, "Just as you please," so I drink to "as you please," because I love everything 'beautiful and sublime.'"
Knowing that Dostoevsky, at the time he wrote this novella, was heavily engaged in current events and in disputes with other journalists and critics, translators give us footnotes explaining, e.g., that M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, one of Dostoevsky's main antagonists, had written "Kak komu ugodno (Just As You Please)" and had also published a sympathetic review of the artist N.N.Ge's rather controversial painting "The Last Supper."
But was Dostoevsky even speaking about the painter Ge at all? Or is he giving us a diversionary move, punning on the name of the painter but having something entirely different in mind? One translator, Ralph Matlaw, puzzled by the way the sentence ("An artist has painted a picture of Ge") refers not to Ge's painting, but to some other painting, writes in a footnote:
"The sentence makes no grammatical sense and may refer to Shchedrin's article on the painting [by Ge], wherein its meaning is further distorted so that, in a sense, 'a new picture' is created."
That footnote is even more confusing than the original sentence.
Here's the passage in Russian ("An artist has painted a picture of Ge...etc.):
"Художник, например, написал картину Ге. Тотчас же пью за здоровье художника, написавшего картину Ге..."
Here's what I've been thinking for ages: that the perverse and caustic Underground Man is playing with the similarity between the name of the artist and the letter G. The letter G is the first letter in an unprintable Russian word for excrement.
So, the inference: "An artist, for example, has painted a picture of S (shit). At once I drink to the health of the artist who has painted a picture of S (shit), because I love all that is beautiful and sublime."