Sunday, 27 November 2016

'A Fact Remains a Fact, And Will Not Be Dismissed Without Some Explanation': Analysis of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1967)

Dogma is enemy of truth. To believe reality cannot be so, when reality is so, is delusion; to call this delusion rationalism is parodic. In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov drops a walking refutation into Moscow, he drops the devil among atheists. Do they accept, or even consider, what their reason and senses should tell them? No, they fall back on dogmatic materialism. The literary establishment will not consider the devil, or God, or magic, or any speck of the old religion. To contrast this denial of truth, Bulgakov gives a model of artistic creation of truth, in the Master’s story.

On an ordinary evening in Soviet Russia, the devil comes to Moscow. Posing as Professor Woland, a scholar of black magic, Satan and his coterie of demons performs a farce, with Soviet literary world his stage and the Muscovite upper-crust his unwitting players. Between these satires, the audience reads the eponymous Master’s unpublished manuscript, a retelling of Christ’s final days, from Pilate’s perspective. 

A rationalist world-view need not cause a materialist one; that is, a rigorous and conservative evaluation of facts need not lead us to the conclusion that the supernatural is superstition. In our world, rationalism implies materialism; but in another world, where magic does exist, would not denying the supernatural betray rationalism? Bulgakov’s ‘educated’ Muscovites ignore the truth to maintain materialism. They accept absurd materialist explanations before even considering fantastical truths. Confronted with the fantastical, characters stick to materialism, against all reason. This reveals materialism to be an ideology as dogmatic as religious bull-headedness.  

The rationalism of the ‘educated’ characters is more rationalisation than rationality. At first, some characters use Holmesian deduction, whittling away impossibility until only truth remains, however improbable. When Rimsky and Varenukha hear Styopa, the director of their theatre, is in Yalta, they don’t believe it. He had called from Moscow so recently, and Yalta is so far away; he had no time to reach Yalta. (In fact, Satan teleported him there.) But Rimsky and Varenukha have received his telegraphed signature, and have heard complaints from Yalta police, suggesting Styopa is in Yalta.

To his credit, Rimsky does not disregard this; he considers improbable possibilities that could fit the baffling facts. Maybe it was not Styopa who called from his apartment? Thus, he may have already been on his way to Yalta? No, no, that most assuredly was his voice on the phone. Did he board a fighter plane? Unlikely, yes, but possible. Oh, but Yalta police say he has no boots on, and what military guard would allow a bootless man on a plane. Hypnosis? But the Yalta police confirm his presence, and hypnosis cannot teleport a man.

This is perfectly reasonable trial and error; no possibility is daft so long as it is possible. But then the men get lazy. Without evidence, Varenukha declares Styopa is not in Yalta, but a Yalta restaurant in Pushkino. And those Yalta police confirming his whereabouts, well, that’s just one of Styopa’s tricks. These half-hearted rationalists do not inquire how Styopa could perform this trick, nor to what end he would. They have reached a common sensical answer, and that’s all that matters – the truth be damned.

This parody of rationalism peaks in the epilogue. Moscow’s lower classes gossip about satanic magic – what else explains the recent madness? Of course, ‘the more educated and intelligent people had nothing to do with the tales of the evil one’s visit to the capital’ (390). All this hullabaloo was in fact mass hypnosis. The ‘devil’ and his coterie were but trouble-making master hypnotists. The man who had his head removed and reattached to his body? He merely thought he lost his head. That bullet-proof cat the militia fought? Merely a figment of the men’s imagination. Those Yalta police who were never in the same room as the hypnotists? Why, that proves the existence of long-distance hypnosis! As the narrator quips: ‘a fact remains a fact, and will not be dismissed without some explanation’ (390).  

How Muscovites discuss Jesus emphasises their dogmatic materialism, which masquerades as rationalism. Although an officially atheist state, Soviet Russia need not completely deny Christ. One can deny Socrates was divine, yet still accept he existed. In Jesus’ case, that is not enough for ‘educated’ Muscovites. Confronted with an anti-Christian poem he commissioned, the literary editor Berlioz dismisses it. While the poem imagines Jesus in ‘very dark hues’ (5), it has the temerity to suggest Jesus lived at all. Berlioz stresses: ‘the main point was not whether Jesus had been good or bad, but that he had never existed as an individual, and that all the stories about him were mere inventions, simple myths’ (5). As Berlioz edits an ‘important literary journal’ and is ‘chairman of the board of one of the largest literary associations in Moscow’ (3), his extreme anti-Christianity is implied to be prominent in Soviet high-culture. As a director of this culture, he both consumes and feeds its dominant ideology. This ideology cannot accept a man called Jesus said some wise things; it cannot even accept that wise words apocryphally accrued to a real rabbi over centuries. This ideology must deny every trace of Christianity. Speaking of Tacitus’ mention of Christ’s execution in the Annals, Berlioz explains this is ‘nothing more than a later spurious insertion’ (6). While searching for holes in historical documents is healthy scholarship, baselessly asserting holes exist is malpractice. Quite anathema to rationalism, Berlioz makes his anti-Christianity unfalsifiable. To any document attesting Christ’s existence, he will yell: ‘Spurious insertion!’ He will say this upon no counterevidence – spare that Jesus could not possibly have existed, thus any evidence to the contrary must be flawed.  

The suppression of the Master’s manuscript, chronicling Pontius Pilate with Jesus’ relationship, emphasises the propagandistic role of Soviet literary culture. After publishers refuse his manuscript, the Master ‘opened a newspaper and found an article by the critic Ariman, who warned all and sundry that he [the Master] … had attempted to smuggle an apology for Jesus Christ into print’ (161). The Master finds three more articles denouncing his manuscript – his unpublished manuscript. His critics accuse him of ‘Pilatism’ (161), implying a broader literary trend regarding Pilate. Just a page before, however, one of the editors who refused the manuscript disproves the existence of such a trend; he calls Pontius Pilate a ‘strange subject’ (160), that is, an uncommon one. As a way to further dismiss the Master’s manuscript, critics diagnose it an example of an insidious literary trend, a trend of which the manuscript is the sole, unpublished, example.

Then there’s the hyperbolic phrase, ‘apology for Jesus Christ’. From what the audience reads of the Master’s manuscript, we see no defence of Christ, or rather, no defence of the divine Christ. The manuscript contradicts many details of the Christ story, even suggesting that the gospels’ ur-text is but the exaggerations of the zealous Matthew. (‘I [Yeshua/Jesus] glanced into his parchment and was horrified. I never said a word of what was written there’ (21-2).) The manuscript leaves ambiguous the divinity of Yeshua (Jesus). At most, Yeshua intuits that Pontius Pilate has a headache and wants to return to his dog. Then again, it is possible to read a headache on a person’s face, and to hear tell a man has a dog; Yeshua might merely be a cold-reader. This is the ‘apology for Jesus Christ’ the literary critics polemicize against, a Jesus even an atheist can believe.

These critics do not defend rationalism; they defend ideology. Like Berlioz, they will not accept the modest claim that a philosopher called Jesus existed. For if Jesus existed, they might have to contend with what he says. If he is a myth, however, then all he says is fancy, and thus not worth listening to by educated men.

While Bulgakov satirises those who subjugate truth to ideology, he does suggest an alternate mode of truth, one based not in fact, but art. The Master’s manuscript matches Satan’s description of events; that is, the Master’s manuscript echoes an eye witness account. But it could not have done. The sheer improbability that two thousand years after the fact a man could describe events exactly as they happened is too much. But then the Master does not report facts, but creates truth. At the climax, the Master meets the subject of his novel, Pontius Pilate, still waiting to converse with Yeshua after two thousand years. Satan informs the Master he can free Pilate, and simultaneously ‘finish [his] novel with a single phrase’ (387). So the Master tells Pilate, ‘You are free! You are free! He waits for you!’, allowing Pilate to ascend to Yeshua. The Master does not merely recreate reality, but creates it whole cloth; he does not recount Pilate’s ascension, but causes it.

Quotes and page numbers taken from the 1967 Mirra Ginsburg translation, from Grove Press, published 1995. Can be bought here

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