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PLAYING WITH THE DEVIL:

THE COMIC MORALITY OF MIKHAIL BULGAKOV

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By Angus Smith

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The Montréal Review, June 2016

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I first discovered Mikhail Bulgakov in an anthology of Soviet science fiction. I was a 9th grade nebbish and budding Slavophile haunting the shelves of the Forest Hill Public Library. I wasn’t an SF fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I recognized a couple of the names in the table of contents and the title of the Bulgakov story – novella, as it turned out – caught my eye: The Fatal Eggs. It tells the story of a brilliant scientist who has devoted his life to a masterpiece of pure research: a ray that can speed up and enhance biological processes. When a mysterious poultry plague kills off every chicken in the USSR, the police confiscate the ray and turn it over to a bunch of hamfisted bureaucrats and collective farm managers to rebuild the national poultry stock. Of course, things go hideously wrong. The eggs they use turn out to be reptile eggs, producing hyper-aggressive snakes and crocodiles that lay siege to Moscow, reducing it to a smoking ruin.

A fascinating mockery of Soviet junk science and Stalinist social engineering, The Fatal Eggs was written during the heyday of Trofim Lysenko, a charlatan who convinced generations of Stalinist agronomists that changes could be affected in the genetic structure of cereal grains by intense exposure to heat and cold. By turns absurdly funny and genuinely creepy – note the anticipation of movies like Godzilla and King Kong, which Bulgakov, a fan of cinema and cartoons, would have adored – The Fatal Eggs was just pointed enough that thinking people would “get” it; and just Aesopian enough to fly under the radar of the NKVD.

The Fatal Eggs – one of his earliest works – tells us a lot about Bulgakov. As a physician, a scientist, Bulgakov was a trained and unflinching observer, with a keen eye for pathology in all of its manifestations. As an “haute bourgeois,” – born in 1891 into an eminent family of physicians and theologians – he was no “Soviet Man,” but a committed Orthodox believer. He was appalled by the manner in which he saw both science and faith being distorted in the quest to create a society based on purely materialist principles; and the stark choices that sometimes forced even good people to bend to those principles. And as an artist, well-versed in Russian and European culture, both high and low, he could blend the realistic and the fantastical to build wonderful stories around instantly recognizable archetypes.

All of these qualities come together in The Master and Margarita, his final masterpiece. In it, the Devil and his entourage appear in 1930s Moscow, where they find endless opportunities for mischief and comic mayhem. Meanwhile, a “novel within a novel,” narrated partly by Satan and partly by the titular Master, is an astonishing retelling of the encounter between Christ and Pontius Pilate.

In its delirious mashup of Faust, The Three Stooges, and the Christian Gospels, The Master and Margarita addresses itself to hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy and fundamental emptiness of the Soviet experiment; to the nature of good and evil and the sometimes blurry line between them; to power; and to the possibility of redemption. With its themes of deprivation, paranoia, disappearance, and its injunction “Don’t talk to strangers”; it evokes the moral and spiritual void that lay at the heart of the Stalin era. Not Aesopian enough to survive in Bulgakov’s own time, The Master and Margarita did not see the light of day in its own country until more than 20 years after his death and then only in a bowdlerized edition.

The Master and Margarita is a deeply Faustian tale, in its plot, its staging and in its themes. Its epigraph is lifted from Goethe’s Faust. In it, Mephistopheles characterizes himself as “of that power that wills forever evil, yet does forever good.” It sets the tone for the entire novel, encouraging a deep comparative reading of both The Master and Margarita and its source material.

Whether we read Goethe or Marlowe, or any of the other interpreters of the legend, Faust, in broad strokes, tells the story of a jaded scholar who manages to conjure – sometimes by accident, sometimes by design – a manifestation of Satan: Mephistopheles. Together, they strike a bargain. Mephistopheles will help Faust attain absolute knowledge and to look upon absolute beauty. In return, Faust’s soul belongs, not to God but to Satan. The cost of hubris, it seems, is eternal damnation. 

Or perhaps not. The lines that comprise The Master and Margarita’s epigraph seems to be telling us that Mephistopheles is less an evil, or even a particularly sinister character, as he is so often understood, but rather a moral one. His job is not to harvest souls, but rather to present us with an array of choices. A bit later on in Goethe’s prologue to Faust, G-d tells Mephistopheles that “…man must strive, and striving he must err.” So how we respond to those “Faustian” choices – the moral path that we choose – is dictated purely by free will.

Bulgakov telegraphs his debt to Goethe repeatedly throughout the novel. Woland is an affable and wise manifestation of Satan – the very essence of a cultivated “foreign consultant” (an early draft of the novel was entitled “The Consultant With a Hoof”). The image of the poodle that Margarita wears through the Devil’s Ball sequence recalls the poodle “with a streak of fire trailing behind him” in whose form Mephistopheles initially follows Faust home.  And just before manifesting himself to Faust as Mephistopheles, the poodle transforms into a hippopotamus with “eyes of fire and dreadful jaws.” Begemot, or Behemoth, is the Russian word for Hippopotamus and, not coincidentally, the name given to the most memorable member of Woland’s entourage.

Woland’s role as a sort of moral invigilator is clarified during the vaudeville sequence at the Variety Theater. After a long inventory of how Moscow has transformed itself (presumably under the auspices of Soviet centralized planning), Woland interjects, “…a much more important question is, have the Muscovites changed on the inside?” He and his retinue then begin a series of experiments that seem to be saying, categorically not – nobody, it seems, can resist “the incomparably delectable smell of newly-minted money” and a riot ensues.

But if the patrons of the Variety behave in a predictably human fashion, Woland pays particular attention to the mendacity of loyal servants of the state. When the apparatchik Sempleyarov calls Woland out, demanding to know how his conjuring tricks are done, Woland’s assistant Korovyov reveals the only important truth: Sempleyarov has been using his august position to seduce young women. So much for Socialist morality and the “new man.”

Like Diogenes, Woland is looking only for honesty. And he finds it in Margarita who, it seems, would do anything to rescue her lover, the unnamed Master, from his fate. Woland must test her, of course. He dresses her up and gives her the powers of a witch, sending her out to ride across the world – all-seeing and all-powerful – on  Walpurgisnacht. He introduces her to an amazing and seductive cavalcade of wickedness at the Devil’s Ball: “…poisoners, gallows birds and procuresses, jailers and cardsharps, executioners, informers, traitors, madmen, detectives, corrupters of youth.” Over and over again, Woland dares Margarita to succumb to the temptations of his own world.

But after the Ball is over, Margarita asks only that the filicide, Frieda, be released from her eternal torment (after reasonably asking why the man who raped her seemed to have suffered nothing). It is only when Woland urges her to ask for something for herself that Margarita begs: “this very instant, right now, to have my lover, the Master, returned to me.” Woland even restores the Master’s life’s work – the “Pilate Gospel” – assuring him (in what became a sort of meme for the survival of art and culture in the Soviet Union) that “manuscripts don’t burn.” While virtue may be its own reward, in Bulgakov’s looking glass world, it is the Devil himself who moves as a force for good.

The problem, of course, is that the Master seems highly ambivalent about his redemption. After years in state mental hospitals and prison camps (as the translators Burgin and O’Connor have pointed out, images like the log hut marooned in a “dead and dismal” landscape are code for the Gulag), the Master can say only that

“…they’ve broken me, I’m depressed, and I want to go back to my basement.”

“What about your novel? What about Pilate?”

“It’s hateful to me that novel,” answered the Master. “I suffered too much because of it.”   

So while the Master – a fundamentally decent person destroyed by forces beyond his control – is freed by the Woland’s intervention (doing forever good); his inability to continue with his truthful (and therefore highly subversive) account of the Gospels (“man must strive”) means that his redemption may not be complete.

Faustian themes are a constant in Bulgakov’s oeuvre, always serving a larger moral purpose. In the White Guard, the score of Gounod’s Faust stands open on a piano, a symbol of home, of warmth, of a world slipping away; but also perhaps of our own hubris. It certainly wasn’t the devil who turned the city of Kiev into a slaughterhouse in the terrible winter of 1918-1919. And in Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel, the devil puts in various appearances, deflating the poseurs, divas and puffed up egos of the Moscow Art Theater and, incidentally, dissuading the deeply depressed protagonist from shooting himself.

So too, like many Russian artists writers before him – Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Pyotr Tchaikovsky – Bulgakov appears to be heavily influenced by the 18th German fantasist, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann. A master of horror and the grotesque, Hoffmann is best known as the author of The Nutcracker (the Tchaikovsky connection), far creepier in its original version than in the ballet that we all know and love.

Hoffmann’s horror is distinguished by two features. It is always leavened by dark humor. The pompous literary bureaucrat Berlioz losing his head after slipping beneath a streetcar on some spilled cooking oil is pure Hoffmann. And for Hoffman, to say nothing of Pushkin, Gogol and Bulgakov, the grotesque and the supernatural serve as tests of moral fiber in which mortals are almost always found lacking. Either that or the appearance of ghosts and monsters serves as a sort of pathetic fallacy, mirroring some mental or emotional crisis.

Bulgakov’s most obvious debt to Hoffmann in The Master and Margarita is probably the best known and best loved character in the book: Behemoth, the disreputable, cigar smoking kitty cat. Behemoth is a direct descendent of Hoffman’s Kater Murr (Tomcat Grumble), an anthropomorphic cat who sets out to write his autobiography. At the printer’s, the pages of Kater Murr’s book accidentally become mixed up with the memoirs of a composer, resulting in a surreal, cat’s eye view of genius, hypocrisy and what it means to be human.  For all of his boorishness and sycophancy, Behemoth, like the rest of Woland’s retinue, is a deeply moral character, no moreso than when he and Korovyov lay waste to the foreign currency Torgsin store.

This poor creature’s been fixing primus stoves all day long; he’s starved…where can he get foreign currency? … He’s tortured by hunger and thirst! He’s hot. So the poor guy goes and samples a tangerine. A tangerine that costs all of three kopecks. And already they’re whistling like nightingales in spring, disturbing the police, taking them away from their jobs. But that guy over there can have what he wants, right?” and here Korovyov pointed to the lilac fat man… “This makes me bitter! Bitter! Bitter!” wailed Korovyov.

With the flames of his righteous primus, and with Korovyov echoing the traditional Russian wedding toast, Behemoth becomes the scourge of the fundamental hypocrisy underlying Soviet reality. Far from being a society where all are equal, inequality and privilege have become institutionalized, old oligarchies have simply been replaced by new ones. The tragic cycles of Russian history are never ending and Behemoth’s work, it seems, isn’t done yet.

The “novel within a novel” that lies at the heart of The Master and Margarita – the story of Yeshua ha-Notsri and Pilate – is a remarkable evocation of a place and a time that has as much significance for Jews as it does for Christians. Bulgakov writes with a feeling for detail that is truly breathtaking: images like the Roman cavalry riding through the streets of Jerusalem are almost cinematic in their immediacy. But as a retelling of the Gospels, it is a fascinating Christian Midrash, an extended meditation on power and redemption.

Pontius Pilate, “the cruel fifth Procurator of Judea,” is by far the most important character in Bulgakov’s Gospel. A deeply Faustian figure, Pilate is burnt out, pissed off, crippled by guilt and self-doubt. He is a character whom we recognize instantly, perhaps one in whom we recognize even ourselves. Confronted with the ragged agitator who is pushing Judea to the edge of anarchy, Pilate lays down the law: “It is most timely that you swear by your life, since it is hanging by a thread, understand that.”

But Yeshua has some insights into the nature of absolutism:

“You do not think, do you Hegemon, that you hung it there?” asked the prisoner. “If you do you are very much mistaken … don’t you agree that the thread can only be cut by the one who hung it?”   

If the specter of Stalin haunts the Moscow sequences, then it is the leaden presence of Caesar that hangs over the encounter between Pilate and Yeshua. Pilate has no power of his own – like the apparatchiks and policemen of 20th century Moscow, he is merely an instrument of a much greater malevolence. That said, the decision – as we saw in the Variety Theater sequence, and at the Torgsin store – about whether or not to give in to that malevolence is purely one’s own to make. Pilate makes that decision. But when he tells Kaifa the Priest that “… you will regret that you sent to death the philosopher who preached peace!” (a disappointing reminder of the Christian obsession with imagined Jewish complicity in the death of Christ) he really seems to be lamenting his own weakness, his own complicity in a regime that is wholly corrupt.  

The Master and Pilate both strive towards truth in the midst of a world characterized by cruelty and duplicity. But where the Master gives up, exhausted, broken; Pilate continues to seek the truth that Yeshua seems to have offered; continues to regret that his conversation with Yeshua was cut short by his own weakness. Pilate carries this yearning with him into his retirement and exile and ultimately through 2000 years of his own non-death. His reward is to be released, along with his beloved dog, to spend the rest of eternity at Yeshua’s side. “Free! Free!” cries the Master, “He is waiting for you!”

Pilate gets to go where the Master cannot. But Woland, the great moralist, recognizes purity of heart. So the Master is released to a place where he can

“stroll with his beloved under the blossoming cherry trees and … sit over a retort, like Faust, in the hope of creating a new homunculus … There where you are about to meet the dawn. Take that road, Master, that one! Farewell!

The Master’s eternal home is very much reminiscent of Dante’s “First Circle” – a sort of perpetual anteroom located between heaven and hell, inhabited by righteous pagans and, incidentally, the Patriarchs, Matriarchs and Prophets of the Torah and Tanakh. Curiously, another giant of 20th Century Russian literature – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – chose the extended metaphor of the First Circle to characterize and populate a “soft regime” labor camp where scientists and intellectuals are put to work, doing research for the NKVD and thereby becoming involuntary instruments of their own torment.

The “true” story of Pilate and Yeshua challenges the very premise of Soviet atheism as does the existence of Satan/Woland. Woland first appears to Berlioz and Bezdomny at Patriarch’s Pond when Berlioz repudiates G-d and invokes the name of an Aztec deity.  He regales the astonished pair of intellectuals with Kant’s “proofs” of the existence of G-d, inviting them to join him in his apostasy-in-reverse: “…this guy Kant ought to get three years in Solovki for proofs like that…” protests a terrified Bezdomny. And even more astonishingly, he claims to have been a direct witness to the “true” events of the Gospels and is the original conduit through which we, the reader, learn of those events. Finally, Bulgakov the Christian seems to be saying that if Satan exists - and clearly he does, wandering the streets of Moscow with his retinue for all to see – then surely it follows that G-d must exist as well.

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