The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Swimming Against the Stream
This was my second reading of “The Master and Margarita”, although the first must have been in the mid-70’s.
I had vivid memories of the first reading, although if you had asked me to describe them, I wouldn’t have been able to. All I can recall is something fluid and magical.
I hesitate to use the term “Magical Realism”, because I wasn’t aware of it at the time and, besides, I dispute whether the term applies to Bulgakov’s work.
My experience this time was quite different. It was a new translation, and I was initially skeptical about its merits.
Ultimately, I think I was unduely critical of the translation. At the beginning, I read, almost seeking fault in the text. I did find it, too, stiff and wooden expressions, but after a while I willed myself to overlook them.
If I continued to swim against the stream, I would never let this work win me over again. I stopped struggling, and let the stream take me to the source of its meaning.
After a while, I stopped noticing that the carpet was frayed or that the paint on the wall was chipped. It started to feel like a lounge room again and I got comfortable on my couch.
And so I entered the dream world that is “TM&M” and started to take it all in again.
All of My Heart
At its heart, “TM&M” is a satire about the Soviet Union at the peak of its oppression in the 1930’s.
Stalin ascended to power in 1927 and immediately took drastic steps to drag the Soviet economy into the twentieth century.
Collectivisation saw major inroads into personal and creative freedom, while the rest of the world looked on, not without its own problems, moving towards a second great war.
The arts were expected to reinforce the culture of Socialism, and Socialist Realism was imposed on artists.
The formal radicalism that had flowered at the same time as the Revolution was clipped and discarded.
Only, one Mikhail Bulgakov found that Socialist Realism was not the appropriate vehicle for the tales he wanted to tell.
Between 1928 and his death in 1940, Bulgakov started to construct his story his own way.
He was capable of descriptive realism, but he had also mastered the fantasy stylings of fairy tales and the parable structure of the Bible.
These styles flew around his head and poured onto the page, only to be rejected, altered, rearranged, burnt, rewritten, reconstructed and published in different iterations.
His progress was plagued by both institutional and personal censorship.
Still, the structure and substance of what he wanted to say was firmly etched in his mind.
After one spate of burning, when he sat down to rewrite it, his wife asked how he could remember it.
According to the translators, his reply was, “I know it by heart.”
Bulgakov died at the age of 49, before he could see his work published.
He gave this work all of his heart, he committed it to memory and then into writing, so that those around him could have the heart required to change what they saw around them.
Tearing the Fabric of Socialist Society
The Soviet Union of the 1930’s was supposed to be a product of Scientific Socialism and Historical Materialism.
The Materialist conception of History predicted and dictated that Socialism would one day overthrow Capitalism in each country.
However, the timing in each country was not certain, which left scope for the subjective intervention of a Revolutionary Vanguard.
The more premature the Revolution, the more despotic would be the measures required to retain power against Counter-Revolutionary forces.
The firm hand of Stalin did not waver from the task, indeed he seemed to thrive on it.
He turned society on itself. He turned child against parent, sibling against sibling, friend against friend, lover against lover, neighbor against neighbor, student against teacher, writer against artist.
In the process, he destroyed the fabric of society, the threads that hold it together. Love, trust, respect, truth.
In their place grew fear, hatred, suspicion, paranoia, falsity, propaganda, opportunism, careerism, cynicism.
Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, the security forces that preserved the State were responsible for the greatest insecurity in the people it was designed to serve.
Normality in a Normative State
Social and political norms were imposed from above by the State.
Normality wasn’t spontaneous, it was State-sanctioned.
The normal ceased to be individual and became a dictate of the State.
The normal was captive to the social norms of the collective.
The ordinary was subjected to order and became “ordernary”.
Totalitarianism destroyed things of ordinary beauty by turning them into the mundane.
The State Defies the Imagination
Bulgakov couldn't help but point out that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.
He didn’t just do this in his work. His vocal stance made many enemies in the Socialist Political and Cultural Establishment, and it’s a wonder he didn’t simply vanish before his premature death.
However, his enemies inflicted the greatest damage possible on an author by denying him the right to publish and therefore denying him the lifeblood that every artist needs, an audience.
Thus, Bulgakov died a broken man, and potentially with a broken heart.
Yet, he had the foresight to make his own plight the implicit subject of his novel.
The Master of the title is much like Bulgakov personally. Margarita is much like his third wife, the wife at the time of his death.
Equally, the Moscow that he wrote of was much like the Moscow of the 30’s.
The State was a Totalitarian Dictatorship that had destroyed civil society and turned people upon themselves.
Truth was manipulated. People hear what is supposed to be the truth, and if they have the courage, proclaim, “That cannot be.”
What they hear doesn’t sound right. So life under Totalitarianism, life in a Totalitarian State defies the imagination.
Imagination Defies the State
Bulgakov recognized that the converse was also true.
Whatever the personal cost, it takes an act of the imagination, an act of fantasy to defy a Totalitarian State.
Totalitarianism wants control of your mind. Therefore, you can only defy Totalitarianism in your mind.
To defy it otherwise is to put your life at risk. To do so inevitably means that you will vanish or disappear.
Ultimately, this is why Bulgakov’s story is structured as a fantasy or a fairy tale or a parable.
It is as powerful as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984”.
Even if the man, the author, is broken, the power of his fantasy, the product of his imagination cannot be broken, at least once it has escaped captivity (or destruction) and been published.
As the novel states, perhaps optimistically, “you cannot burn a manuscript.”
The power of Bulgakov’s fantasy, its fantastic narrative structure (in both senses of the word “fantastic”) was what allowed him to memorise and reconstruct it and preserve it for posterity.
The fantasy is constructed with the vividness of a fairy tale that can be learned and told orally, so that its outline cannot be forgotten.
It can be reconstructed after consecutive burnings.
Its memorability constituted its greatest danger, the greatest threat to the State.
It was engraved in and out of the Soul of Man under Socialism.
It originates as and becomes and remains an act of the collective imagination, the collective consciousness.
There, it cannot be destroyed.
This is the secret of its power and its danger to the State.
The Power of Love
The Master and Margarita are at the heart of Bulgakov’s story, and theirs is a love story.
It would be tempting to comment about the redemptive power of Love.
However, I think that might miss the point.
Bulgakov’s point is that Love is a natural quality of civil society.
Love is one of the primary qualities that suffers under Totalitarianism.
"TM&M" is not so much a story about the redemptive power of Love, it is about the rescue of Love, and the restoration of Love to its natural place in Society.
There can be no Society, no Family, no Individuals without Love.
If you quash Love, you destroy Society, the Family and the Individual.
And this is what Stalin had achieved in the Soviet Union under Communism.
Ironically, Socialism was conceived as a Political Philosophy of Fraternal Love.
Just as it was inspired by Liberty and Equality, two values promoted by the French Revolution, it valued Fraternity, a value that is less understood and discussed.
Fraternity promotes the value not just of the Individual, but of the Individual in Society.
It is concerned with the coexistence of Individuals and the relationship between them.
In this sense, it is compatible with the social teachings of Jesus Christ, when divorced from the spiritual and religious content.
"Cowardice is the Most Terrible of Vices"
In a way, Bulgakov contrasted Christ and Stalin, Christianity and Socialism (in practice), through the novel written by the Master.
In 1930’s Moscow, the Totalitarian State went so far as to deny the existence not just of God, but of Christ.
Whether or not you believe Jesus was the Son of God, it’s arguable that Jesus lived and that Pontius Pilate reluctantly had him killed on behalf of Caesar.
Pilate personally seems to have questioned whether he should be killed, but he lacked the courage to allow him to live.
In ordering his crucifixion, he almost killed off a philosophy of Fraternal Love, just as Stalin later destroyed faith in Socialism by attacking the Fraternalism at its heart.
Pilate lacked the courage to defy Caesar. Likewise, few stood up to Stalin and survived.
In this sense, both Pilate and the Soviet Union prove Bulgakov’s assertion that "Cowardice is the most terrible of vices."
Many Soviets were simply ignorant of the truth, whether willfully or not.
It is difficult to make them culpable in a Society where they might have disappeared, if they poked their head above the crowd.
Bulgakov reserves his greatest scorn for those who did know the Truth.
In his eyes, there is no greater coward than someone who knows the Truth and denies it.
A Flight of Fantasy
Ultimately, in order to seek the Truth and to find Love, the Master and Margarita must fly away from Moscow.
To the State, they constitute a flight risk. It takes the power of flight to liberate them from Totalitarianism.
It takes a flight of fantasy to escape. They have to flee to be free.
Again, this message is at the heart of the danger of Bulgakov’s tale.
The Soviet Union could not tolerate a message that suggested that salvation might be elsewhere, whether on Earth or in Heaven.
For those who remain, the salvation of the Master and Margarita is a folly.
Yet, each full moon, the researcher Ivan Homeless can see that it is the world of Socialism that is a folly.
In the world of the Master and Margarita, in the world of Love, the luminary Moon rules and plays, while on Earth, in the world of Socialism, lunacy prevails.
Falling in Love
It’s interesting that the character who offers the Lovers an escape route is Professor Woland, the Satan character.
While I might have misread Bulgakov’s intentions, it seems that Woland and Satan don’t so much represent Evil as Free Will, the ability to make up your own mind, notwithstanding the dictates of the State or Religion.
This is perhaps the relevance of Bulgakov’s Epigraph from Goethe's "Faust", in which Mephistopheles says:
"I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good."
There is a suggestion that there is only one force or power, and that it consists of both good and evil.
Life therefore is a product of the internal dialectical operation of good and evil.
Each of us can only hope that the product of the interaction is Love, that our Fall (whether graceful or not, whether a Fall from Grace or towards it) is to fall in Love, as it was for the Master and Margarita.
If you fall, may you fall into the arms of Love.
And when you do, may you remember the Master and Margarita. And the man who died at age 49 trying to tell us the Truth.
The Master's Wish for Margarita
We kiss with our words
They are the lips of our minds
Which have become one.
Buzzcocks - "Ever Fallen in Love?" (Live at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester in June, 1978):
Magazine - "A Song From Under The Floorboards":
Robyn Hitchcock - "Madonna of the Wasps":
Robyn Hitchcock - "Birdshead":
Robyn Hitchcock - "Arms of Love":
R.E.M. - "Arms of Love [Robyn Hitchcock Cover]":
ABC - "All Of My Heart":
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "The Power Of Love":
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "Two Tribes":
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "Relax":
Rolling Stones - "Sympathy For The Devil":
Rolling Stones - "Sympathy For The Devil [Live in St Louis on the 1998 Bridges to Babylon Tour]":
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