Friday, September 02, 2016

302. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, written over a twelve-year period (1928-1940) and published posthumously (1967), is a fantastic representation of phantasmagorical events that began with the portentous prediction whose realisation spelt doom for the entire inhabitants of Moscow, creating knots and entanglements that mere rationalisation was unable to coherently unwound or meaningfully disentangle. 

The Great Deceiver, who in this case appeared as a great Magician, entered Moscow and, chancing upon a meeting of two literary enthusiasts at Patriarch's Ponds discussing the unending debate of the presence or otherwise of God, began a performance. The two self-professed atheists were strong in their conviction of a non-existent God and proffered argument after argument and hypothesis after hypothesis to support their thesis, until the arrival of Prof. Woland (the devil) and his retinue (Azazello, Behemoth the manlike-cat, Koroviev, Abadonna, and Hella, who were slowly unveiled and unleashed onto Moscow). Upon hearing Berlioz and Bezdomny's discussion, Prof Woland, like Descartes (in his ontological argument for the existence of God), countered the arguments of a non-existent God, citing the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus Christ). The two literary enthusiasts were baffled when, in narrating this story, Prof Woland insisted that he was present when Yeshua Ha-Notsri was brought to Pontius Pilate. However, since a logician's mind cannot accept that a man can live to a thousand years, they became furious and openly doubted him. They became even more flabbergasted when he later added that he had even met Kant and here they, with the backing of their knowledge, challenged him.

Worried, and in need of a performance to support his claim, Woland prophesied Berlioz's death and its cause - a cause so impossible that it was laughable and so intricate that it can only happen if the purveyor is its executor. And it was the realisation of this prophecy that will drive Bezdomny into a frenetic chase of Woland and his first two disciples (Azazello and Behemoth) throughout Moscow ending him as the asylum's first victim. 

Bulgakov might have written this as a stand against the elite who considered atheism as a mark of intellectual distinction and logic as the sole source of authority. And yet, the devil's argument for the existence of God was based on deduction, in that if God did not exist then definitely he, the devil, must not exist, for it is impossible for a thing to exist without its dipole and to admit that there is no God is implicitly an admittance of the non-existence of the devil. One cannot hold onto one and disregard the other. The push-pull yin-yang is required for balance. 

Another issue Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita exposes is the greed of the time. Through this mysticism imbued fantasy, where nothing is black and white, Bulgakov - through the actions of Woland and his retinue - exposed the festering greed of Muscovites at the time, which will later send scores into uncontrolled hysteria and psychosis. Woland and his team manged to unleash mass psychosis on the people, testing their power to rationalise beyond its elastic limit. For instance, for Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy - Chairman of the House Committee, it was his greed to make profit off the back of Woland that led him into trouble when he was turned in for having foreign currency in his possession. Stepan Bogdanovich Likhodeyev obtained a multi-bedroom apartment with Berlioz by denouncing others as spies and by that he found himself teleported into Yalta. The majority of Muscovites fell for the Woland's black magic, during his show at the Variety Theatre, out of greed. Willingly they changed their dresses for what they considered to be more sparkling and pretty; they scrambled for the ten rouble notes, which turned out to be product labels. And one, in a bout of epistemic arrogance, got his head pulled off and later refixed.

Bulgakov also perhaps sought to illustrate the nature of a controlled economy as observed in the criminality of speculating or dealing in foreign currencies and the high-demand and low-supply of accommodation, creating demi-gods.

Bulgakov's novel has no recognition of time dimensions. It fluidly merges them. Time today becomes time yesterday or time tomorrow and not even two thousand years can separate events. Events merge into each other as time merges and the worlds collide so that Matthew the Levite, a follower of Yeshua Ha-Notsri, reappears in Moscow with a Message from God to the devil concerning how he should treat the Master and her love, Margarita. Also, Satan's story of Pontius Pilate becomes the story the Master has been writing but which Moscow's literary elite, perhaps for its circumlocutory support for the existence of God, denounced in several articles - each more vitriolic than the previous - leading to his mental breakdown and his subsequent incarceration and the breakdown of his burgeoning relationship with the already-married Margarita. This saving grace of the Master and Margarita by the devil can be because of the Master's belief in the  existence of God, and by inference of the devil.

Our concept of good and evil and of the nature of the devil is somewhat challenged when God asked the devil to give peace to the Master and Margarita:
'He has read the master's writings,' said Matthew the Levite, 'and asks you take the master with you and reward him by granting him peace. Would that be hard for you to do, spirit of evil?'
'Nothing is hard for me to do,' replied Woland, 'as you well know.' He paused for a while and then added: 'Why don't you take him yourself, to the light?' [406]
This is a fantastic book, literally. Once in a while the narrator shows himself to the reader, which was not a bother since it was few and far between. Reading this in Russian would have been fun as most often the names of Russian characters seek to add a layer of meaning to the story. One bother, and this is with all Russian novels, is the names. The names are long and sometimes difficult to relate the long versions with the short versions making it difficult to keep the characters in mind.

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