Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Did Joan of Arc Receive a Fair Trial?

To say that she did so "in the context of the play" doesn't sound very convincing. After all, there are no other trials in the play to compare with Joan's. Then, is our concept of judicial fairness to be defined solely by the people who conducted her trial? When Cauchon says, "I am determined that the woman shall have a fair hearing," do we take him at his word? Why? He has already declared that he is convinced of Joan's guilt even before the trial itself begins:

Warwick: "What can you expect? A beggar on horseback! Her head is turned."

Cauchon: "Who has turned it. The devil. And for a mighty purpose. He is spreading this heresy everywhere...Let all this woman's sins be forgiven her except only this sin; for it is the sin against the Holy Ghost; and if she does not recant, to the fire she shall go if once she falls into my hand."

Since Cauchon is the presiding Bishop at Joan's trial, he is, in a sense, both her judge and jury. But here we see that the proceedings of a trial conducted by the Catholic Church in 1429 are not the same as a criminal trial conducted in our own time. In Joan's day, the accused were not presumed innocent. Cauchon is not trying to determine whether Joan is guilty, for this he already knows. At the trial, he simply wants her confession.

"I am not thinking of this girl's body, which will suffer for a few moments only, and which must in any event die in some more or less painful manner, but of her soul, which may suffer to all eternity."

Most people living in democratic societies today believe the purpose of a trial is to establish the facts concerning a particular case; then to arrive at a fair verdict of guilt or innocence based on a careful examination of those facts. Both judge and jury are supposed to be impartial. But in Shaw's play, the concept of an unbiased trial never enters into Cauchon's mind. For Cauchon, an ecclesiastical trial does not serve the interests of civil society (i.e., the "polis" or political realm); it serves only the interests of God and God's ordained ministers (e.g., himself). Cauchon believes that a person's body (or life in this world) is unimportant since he or she will eventually perish. So, when we ask whether Joan receives a fair trial, we must first consider by what system of morality we are deriving our notion of "justice."

Cauchon's "trial" (or "examination" as it is called) does nothing but search for evidence to be used to convict the defendant. Witnesses are called to testify as to Joan's morals (whether or not she ever used profanity, whether or not she ever had sexual relations, why she insists on dressing like a man). The charge of heresy is broad enough to include just about anything in life with which the Church finds disapproval.

Inquisitor: "Heresy begins with people who are to all appearance better than their neighbors. A gentle and pious girl, or a young man who has obeyed the command of our Lord by giving all his riches to the poor, and putting on the garb of poverty, the life of austerity, and the rule of humility and charity, may be the founder of a heresy that will wreck both Church and Empire if not ruthlessly stamped out in time."

In other words, anyone so foolish as to follow the teaching of Christ and to take his message seriously presents a dire threat to both Church and State, and must be punished. The comparison of Joan of Arc's situation with Socrates must be considered. Both individuals aroused the hostility of religious leaders and of government officials who feared and objected to "people who are...better than their neighbors." In other words, people who will not surrender their conscience to public authority. Joan believes that God speaks directly to her through the voices of Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. Is she correct in her belief or is she merely a pawn of the devil? No one at her trial seriously considers that she could be telling the truth. And since she persists in her lies, then she must suffer for the evil within her.

When no external evidence can be found to prove that she practices witchcraft, the Inquisitor is forced to rely strictly on Joan's own testimony. The purpose of the trial is to force her (by means of rational argument or by the threat of physical violence) to renounce her claim that she talks to God. Only when Joan breaks down under the fear of being burned to death does she waver. But when faced with the prospect of life imprisonment in solitary confinement, Joan takes back her recantation and is burned at the stake.

Despite Cauchon's statement that "the justice of the Church is not a mockery," how else can you describe it? No one comes forward to speak for Joan. Where is her counsel? She stands alone to face the combined wrath of Warrick and Cauchon, both of whom are strongly motivated to be rid of her. And both are convinced of her guilt. Joan, herself, seems resigned to her fate and does little to avoid her punishment.

She believes that God's angels will protect her and seems genuinely puzzled when they do not arrive to save the day. But is this an example of her" diabolical pride," as the Inquisitor claims, or her devout faith? Why does Joan say that God is speaking through her? We don't know and are never permitted to hear the voices she hears, though she never sounds arrogant or boastful. At worst, she seems to be a naive girl who is unaware of the irritation she causes to the people around her.

For all her good intentions, she manages to offend the Archbishop, King Charles, and even Dunois, her compatriot in arms. None of them believe that Joan is evil, but they feel she is very foolish, and that she would be better off if she remained silent. But this she cannot do. She is convinced that God has a special role for her, just as he did for Abraham. Joan believes her destiny is to save France from the English invaders. And, despite all the skeptics and naysayers (on both sides of the Channel), she does just what she claims she has been sent to do. Then, almost as a distant memory of her Lord's sacrifice, she is burned to death by those who can't acknowledge the truth within her.

George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN

In his preface, there are several questions Shaw wants us to consider as we read his play. He not only asks questions, he also gives us the answers. These are some of the questions that interested me in the Preface:

(1) Did Joan get a fair trial?
Shaw’s answer: “Joan got a fairer trial from the Church and the Inquisition than any prisoner of her type and in her situation gets nowadays in any official secular court...”
(2) What about Joan’s “voices and visions”? Shaw reminds us: “Socrates, Luther, Swedenborg, Blake saw visions and heard voices just as Saint Francis and Saint Joan did.” Therefore, in Shaw’s opinion, “If Joan was mad, all Christendom was mad too…”
(3) Why was Joan so much in love with war?
Shaw’s answer: “She objected to foreigners on the sensible ground that they were not in their proper place in

Did Shaw successfully achieve his objectives? I believe he did mostly. In the first case (did Joan get a fair trial) there’s a clear distinction between what the English wanted and what the Church wanted. The English wanted her dead, and as soon as possible. The Church wanted her to repent of heresy. The Earl of Warwick summarizes the English view: “…I tell you now plainly that her death is a political necessity…” Cauchon summarizes the Church’s view: “I am determined that the woman shall have a fair hearing. The justice of the Church is not a mockery, my lord (Warwick).” I take both Warwick and Cauchon at their word. I haven’t read the official proceedings of the real trial, but within the context of this play I believe Joan did, indeed, get a fair trial. And I think that’s the way Shaw intended to portray it. Had Joan repented of her heresy, she would not have been excommunicated from the Church and burned at the stake.

Were Joan’s “voices and visions” real? Here Shaw isn’t so clear. In some cases (early on in her career) Joan’s voices lead her to victory and conquest. But later on they seem to abandon her. What are we to make of this? Were the voices God’s messengers, or just in her own head? Shaw is ambivalent on this point. Joan herself says “It is in the bells I hear my voices.” Charles points out that since he’s the king, then why don’t the voices speak directly to him, instead of through Joan? Joan says they do speak to him, but he isn’t listening. This is a shrewd answer, but doesn’t endear her to the king. The straightforward soldier Dunois says: “You make me uneasy when you talk about your voices: I should think you were a bit cracked if I hadn’t noticed that you give me very sensible reasons for what you do…” However, we know that Abraham and all the Hebrew prophets also heard divine voices, as well as St. Paul himself. Like Dunois, the modern world is uneasy when people claim to hear voices, divine or not. On this point the play lets us find out just how open-minded we really are.

Finally, why did Joan love to fight so much? Her primary motivation: it wasn’t “proper ”. It wasn’t in the divine order of things for the English to be on French soil. They should go back to England. Driven back by force, if necessary. (It reminds me of a story about Robert E. Lee early in the Civil War. As he looked out over a valley observing the movement of Union troops, Lee turned to one of his generals and said: “Who are these people? And what are they doing in Virginia?”) It’s to Joan’s credit that she’s willing to fight so hard to restore the divine order of things. But what if she’s wrong? And what of soldiers (the English for instance) who feel it’s in the divine order of things for them to conquer and rule France and convert the French to Anglicanism? Or what about people who don’t believe it’s in the divine order for women to dress in men’s clothes and fight battles?

In the final analysis, Joan was a remarkable woman. One of a kind. How many people do we know who could say, like Joan, “the world is too wicked for me” and really mean it? This imperfect world cannot long endure more than one Joan living in the same neighborhood.

-- RDP

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (Preface)

Reading a Preface to a play seems odd. The author not only gives you a stage drama, but also tells you what to think about it. This would be presumptuous for some authors, but not for George Bernard Shaw. He feels it’s his duty to set us all straight on what the story of Saint Joan really means. If it was Joan’s duty to relay God’s message to medieval France, it’s Shaw’s duty to translate Joan’s message for the modern world. Like Joan, Shaw was not a timid person. He did not lack for self-confidence and he’s not afraid to speak what’s on his mind.

Early in the Preface he chides the bourgeois class for being too much “alive and prosperous and respectable and safe and happy in the middle station in life”. By these standards a good many of us are bourgeois. What’s wrong with being alive and prosperous and all that other stuff? Isn’t the whole point of living in a community to be safe and happy? Besides, a stable social order provides both the leisure time and the material means for non-productive activities such as attending plays and reading about Saint Joan. What’s wrong with that? Why is Shaw picking on folks who occupy the middle station in life, and are even thankful for it?

But Shaw doesn’t just pick on the conservative bourgeoisie. He also takes aim at progressive thinkers. Pointing out the difference between the medieval and modern intellectual milieus, Shaw poses this question: “…which is the healthier mind? The saintly mind, or the monkey gland mind?” Good question. Is it healthier to believe we’re just a little lower than angels, or that we’re just a step above apes? Many people prefer being closer to angels than apes. Even if it’s not true, it makes us feel better. Kind of prosperous and respectable and safe. Call it a bourgeois preference. And Shaw thinks it’s just as reasonable to believe in angels as it is to believe in electrons. Take that, you progressive, pro-science, anti-religion pagans.

So, where does that leave us? With both sides perplexed and irritated. Then Shaw starts in with a broadside attack on Shakespeare, of all people. He reveals the Bard’s deficiencies in understanding the medieval mind: “His (Shakespeare’s) kings are not statesmen: his cardinals have no religion…” And Shaw thinks this is the reason Shakespeare tends to be popular with the modern middle class. Shakespeare’s characters seem natural to us because our own middle classes are “comfortable and irresponsible at other people’s expense, and are neither ashamed of that condition nor even conscious of it.” It may be true that bourgeois, middle-class folk prefer comfort and may even be irresponsible sometimes. But does it follow that they do so “at other people’s expense”? How so? I agree with Shaw that many people like comfort and pleasure. So what? In fact, some people like it so much that they’re willing to work hard and pay good money to obtain it. How is that at someone else’s expense? And why does that bother Shaw?

But to quibble over the details of domestic economics is to nip at Shaw’s heels. The man was by most accounts a towering intellect. That doesn’t mean he was right about St. Joan, although in the bigger picture I believe he was essentially correct. As a civilized society we should be more tolerant of others, especially those with eccentric personalities. We should care that our system of justice is fair and impartial to everyone, especially the unpopular. And we shouldn’t assume that modern sensibilities are superior to medieval ones.

Joan was extraordinary. So was Shaw. But most of us don’t want to be either a St. Joan or a George Bernard Shaw. We just want a nice comfortable home and a little extra money and leisure time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Maybe a copy of Shakespeare on the shelf in the den. Not to gain any wisdom from reading his plays of course, but just for the sheer comfort of knowing that there sits a fellow bourgeois homeowner. Probably a beer drinker too, and just as shallow as the rest of us. Such are the pleasures (and the perils) of the middle-class mind.

-- RDP

The Master and Margarita, Part 2

After finishing the last page of this story and putting the book back on the shelf, many readers will come away from this novel feeling perplexed. Was it inspirational, or depressing? It shows the human spirit facing inhuman obstacles and sometimes overcoming them. That’s inspiring. But it also shows the human spirit being crushed by them. And that’s depressing. The tone of the whole novel is at once playful and serious.

Let’s consider its playful aspect first. Margarita is turned into a witch. She flies off into the night on a broomstick. No big deal. Harry Potter does it all the time. But M. does it naked. That’s something you won’t see at Hogwarts. Plus, the Master and Margarita witches are young and attractive, not like those old hags causing all that trouble in Macbeth. Macbeth witches are just plain weird. Not only are they foul and not fair, they say strange things such as “Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine/And thrice again, to make up nine.” This is apparently a spell witches need in medieval Scotland. But in early 20th century Moscow, all Margarita has to do is rub on special ointment and poof! She’s transformed into a beautiful witch.

Informed American readers have seen beautiful witches before. The TV show Bewitched gave us the prototype model in the 1960’s. Samantha was a suburban witch, complete with dorky husband Darren (normal), cute young daughter Tabitha (witch), and disapproving mother-in-law, Endora (witch). Of course they behaved themselves like good suburban witches. They dressed modestly and blended in with the rest of the suburbanites. The classic witch, however, is the famous Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: long black dress, pointy black hat, scraggly hair and scary fingernails. Margarita is much more like Samantha. But beware – she’s still a witch – and staunchly on the side of those diabolical powers running loose in Moscow. Don’t mess with these guys.

Now for the other side of the novel - it raises several serious issues, most of which I’m not much qualified to comment competently upon. The Soviet equivalent FBI and CIA look like Keystone Kops when dealing with outside (foreign) influences. The absurdity of documentation and official “papers” is self-evident. There’s documentation for everything, so everyone is stuck with mountains of yucky paperwork. Another serious issue in the novel is the role of the artist in a suffocating bureaucratic environment. Can the arts ever flourish under such a system? It’s easy to understand why the USSR establishment didn’t want its citizens reading this book.

But the questions that concern me most don’t have so much to do with the novel’s politics as with its theology. The old formula used to be: good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Simple and easy to remember. But Bulgakov’s conception is much more complex. For example, the Master and Margarita don’t go to Heaven. Instead, they end up spending eternity in a nice quiet cottage listening to Schubert every evening. This is Hell? On the other hand Pontius Pilate does make it to Heaven eventually, even though he condemned Yeshua to death. Or consider this reflection from the book: “the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves.” Think about it. To love is to commit one’s self to an alternative fate. Margarita goes to Hell to share the fate of her lover, the Master, and Pilate’s faithful dog spends two thousand years with a depressed and schizophrenic master before finally following him along the path of light to Heaven. Is this fair?

So, in the end are good people rewarded and bad people punished? If not in this world, at least in the next? Who knows? In Bulgakov’s world people muddle along the best they can but are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. There may or may not be a Heaven or a Hell, but Bulgakov’s Moscow is for sure a tough neighborhood to live in. Even without the witches.

-- RDP

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Reflections on Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita"

What are we to make of this curious tale by Mikhail Bulgakov? On a very hot day in May, a literary editor and a poet find themselves sitting on a park bench in Moscow talking about Jesus Christ. By itself, their conversation cannot be considered unusual, although neither of them believe in the divinity of Christ, and Berlioz, the literary editor, even denies that Christ ever existed. He is trying to persuade the poet, Bezdomny, to revise his poem, a poem in which Jesus Christ is endowed by the poet with certain human qualities that Berlioz believes are false and contrary to a rational understanding of history. He is busy demonstrating to Bezdomny why Jesus Christ can only be a folk tale and not a real person at all, when he is interrupted by a foreign stranger introducing himself as a man who enjoys intelligent conversation.

The foreign gentleman, who identifies himself as Professor Woland, has been listening to Berlioz pontificate on why neither Jesus nor God exist. Woland, a professor of history, knows something about theology and is amused by the two atheists. He asks if Berlioz can refute the five proofs for God's existence, and mentions that he once had breakfast with Immanuel Kant. Of course, since Kant has been dead for a hundred years, Berlioz, an informed dilettante, is unpersuaded and now believes Woland to be irrational. But the historian poses a simple question, "If there is no God, who [one wonders] rules the life of man, and keeps the world in order?"

To this, the poet Bezdomny quickly replies, "Man rules himself." And this statement, so confidently made in the heat of the moment, marks the beginning of the re-education of man. All too soon, the good people of Moscow, including both the poet and the literary editor, will discover for themselves that man does not control his destiny, and does not know what he thinks he knows. For it is Woland's intention to demonstrate that other powers exist in the world which lie far beyond man's understanding or control.

One of the themes in Bugakov's Master and Margarita is the matter of peace vs. strife. Perpetual peace is commonly what we all strive for, but as Immanuel Kant suggested, it is only attainable in death. Strife, on the other hand, is a description of the human condition. So the question is how peace and strife rule our lives and what, if anything, we can do about it.

Bulgakov poses a number of questions for the reader: in a predominantly rational society, is it possible (or even beneficial) to still believe in supernatural powers? What happens when reason collides with the irrational? With Bulgakov, we are given a time and place in which order meets chaos, and human reason finds itself unable to explain or control events that threaten the very fabric of society. We know that according to Freud, superstition is possible only when reason succumbs to a fear of the irrational. Man's innate fear of dying is but the residue of a primal fear which overtakes us all, the fear of a chaotic and irrational world in which nothing endures and nothing makes any sense.

The character Berlioz, a literary editor whose life centers around books, symbolizes a culture of "book learning" which prevailed in Bulgakov's day and continues to hold sway in our own time. Notice that Berlioz's own death is foreshadowed at the very beginning of the novel:

"Then occurred the second oddness, which affected Berlioz alone. He suddenly stopped hiccupping, his heart thumped and for a moment ceased, then started beating again but with a blunt needle sticking into it. In addition, Berlioz was seized by a fear that was groundless but so powerful that he had an immediate impulse to run away from Patriarch's Ponds without looking back."

Berlioz has felt a kind of premonition of something he cannot understand. In fact, he lacks a proper vocabulary in which to describe this feeling. He is incapable of imagining a world in which "things fall apart" for no particular reason. For him, Christianity (and, in fact, all religion) is but a dark stain on the Enlightenment road to a better world. Whatever happens in life can be explained simply through an understanding of the laws of physics or cause and effect. So when Satan (Professor Woland) warns that Berlioz will meet his death at a very specific time and place, neither the poet nor the literary editor take his announcement seriously. Their response is to contact the authorities to have him arrested. Unfortunately for Berlioz, he doesn't know with whom he is dealing. His rationalism cannot save him when he quite literarily loses his head to an inadvertent trolley.

In the early years of the Bolshevik revolution, the new rational society of Stalin's Russia attempted to eliminate once and for all any vestiges of mysticism. Religion, along with any western romantic ties to individual freedom, were discarded in favor of a state-controlled economy and the promise of a better life for all. Bulgakov's work, which was suppressed in his lifetime, raises the troubling question whether the Russian people simply discarded one myth for another. Formerly, a Tsarist regime ruled over the Russian people, but left their private lives intact; now a central party, pretending to be the voice of the people, busily reconstructs society according to its scientific idea of perfection, a perfection leaving no room for private dissent or God. Henceforth, man (and man's reason) will be the sole arbiter of his fate.

But as Woland points out, " to rule, one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period in the can man control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as say a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?"

Berlioz, the literary editor, is not accustomed to strange phenomena. In this respect, Berlioz, like other people living under the regime in Moscow, is devoted to rational ideas. When something irrational occurs, such as Woland's magic show at the Variety Theatre, people assume it must be a trick. They want to know how the trick is done, but cannot contemplate for one instant that it actually occurred, that playing cards can turn into rubles, or money fall from the sky, or that a head, severed from its body, continues to speak. It's all part of the show, isn't it? It has to be because there is no rational explanation for these events. Bulgakov suggests that as people evolve into strictly rational beings, they will suffer from a poverty of the imagination. They no longer believe in God, Satan or angels because they cannot even imagine how such beings exist. In a strictly rational world, there is no place for miracles.

Berlioz, however, is only a minor character in Bulgakov's story. He doesn't even make it past the third chapter. The severed head in Woland's magic show is but a comic reminder to us of Berlioz's unhappy end. The title, Master and Margarita, refers to two people around which the entire story revolves. One is an artist and the other is the woman who falls in love with his creation. Yet, before commenting on the artist and his lover, I must draw your attention to what I feel is the moral center of the novel found in the person of Pontius Pilate, the executioner of Christ.

A. What is Truth?

Pontius Pilate, the fifth Procurator of Judea, is the main character in three chapters of the book, and briefly reappears in its final chapter. I believe Bulgakov wants us to identify with Pilate as a man who is flawed but not evil. Pilate, like Berlioz, is a rational man. He believes that justice and order are inseparable, and that both are made possible only by the power of Rome. He does not waste time worrying over things he cannot control. He despises Jerusalem, the city over which he must rule. The climate is harsh, the noise of the city along with its heat and dust are oppressive to him. He finds the Jews are an unruly people, passionate about their god, and incapable of rational behavior. He would like to abandon Jerusalem for the relative quiet and solitude of his residence on Caesarea Stratonova in the Mediterranean. But he is bound to the duties of his office as the Procurator of Judea.

Pilate, the son of an astrologer, is an educated man and speaks Greek, Latin and Aramaic. He suffers from chronic migraines and he endures another attack as the prisoner Yeshua is brought to him for interrogation. At first, Pilate is unimpressed with the appearance of this man. He refers to him as "the accused," "this criminal," "a vagrant," "a liar," "a mad, scoundrel," "a curious rascal," "a tramp." Then, as he converses with Yeshua, Pilate discovers that Yeshua also is an educated man who speaks several languages, including Latin and Greek. Now, he is intrigued. It is not often that educated men come before him to be tried as criminals. Yeshua not only is bright, but he has strange empathic powers. He seems able to read Pilate's mind.

When Pilate says,

"The rumor about me in Jerusalem is that I am a raving monster, and that is absolutely correct...Why should a tramp like you upset the crowd in the bazaar by talking about truth, something of which you have no conception? What is truth?"

Yeshua answers,

"Your trouble is that your mind is too closed and you have finally lost your faith in human beings. You must admit that no one ought to lavish all his devotion on a dog. Your life is a cramped one, hegemon."

Yeshua knows that Pilate suffers from a severe headache and has thoughts about suicide. Even stranger, though his life is completely in Pilate's hands, Yeshua does not seem to fear Pilate. When Pilate says, " should know that [your life] it is hanging by a thread," Yeshua calmly replies,

"You do not believe, do you hegemon, that it is you who have strung it up? If you do, you are mistaken."

This is a bold statement to make before someone holding supreme power, especially someone like Pilate who angers easily. But Pilate is not offended. He thinks Yeshua might be insane, but he doesn't appear to be a threat to anyone, least of all to Rome. So, he is inclined to pardon Yeshua, and move him to a less volatile area far from Jerusalem. That way Pilate could avoid antagonizing Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish priestly authority with whom Yeshua has crossed paths. At this point in the interrogation, Pilate seems to feel sympathy for Yeshua. After all, Pilate's migraine has indeed subsided, just as Yeshua had predicted it would, and Pilate is curious about Yeshua's belief that "there are no evil people" in the world, only unhappiness disguised as evil. Clearly, Yeshua is that rare person Pilate has encountered in Jerusalem who is worthy of his attention. What started out as only an interrogation has turned into a kind of philosophical discussion. Pilate would like to continue his discussion with this strange Jew, but first he must find a way to save Yeshua from the serious charges brought against him.

But it is not to be. Upon further examination, and the testimony from Judas of Karioth, Pilate is forced to sentence Yeshua to death. Pilate is incensed at Yeshua's blind trust in Judas, a treacherous man who has given testimony implicating Yeshua. But Yeshua's own words convict him:

"All power is a form of violence exercised over people, and that the time will come when there will be no rule by Caesar nor any other form of rule. Man will pass into the kingdom of truth and justice where no sort of power will be needed."

Unfortunately for Yeshua, these are treasonous words to the Procurator of Judea.

"Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me?"

Thus, Yeshua is doomed to his fate, just as later in time the entire city of Jerusalem is destined to be destroyed. Rome, a city founded on wealth and power, of jurisprudence bound by the dictates of reason and the unwavering laws of survival, cannot permit Jerusalem, a holy city established in mystical faith and obedience to God, to resist its secular authority.

Yeshua (Christ) is condemned and cannot escape the punishment of a cruel and painful death at the hands of the Roman Procurator. But unlike earlier depictions of Pilate as a cold, indifferent judge who, while washing his hands of the matter, asks "what is truth?" here, Bulgakov shows Pilate's reluctance at doing what he is forced to do. Later, Pilate dreams of walking along a path of moonlight and continuing his conversation with the "vagrant philosopher." He is overcome with guilt at having ordered Yeshua's execution. In his dream, he imagines that the execution never took place, and that Yeshua holds no enmity toward him. But he is unable to escape his judgment upon himself. Pilate now believes that he may have acted a coward in giving in to the Sanhedrin. He had the power to pardon Yeshua but was afraid of what others back in Rome might think. Perhaps Caiaphas would have persuaded the Emperor that Pilate was a weak administrator.

"Do you...imagine that the Procurator of Judea would ruin his career for the sake of a man who has committed a crime against Caesar?"

As the New Testament tells us, Pilate did not ruin his career. He took the politically safe position of allowing the Jewish people themselves to condemn Yeshua, but now Pilate suffers from a bad conscience. His executioner tells him that Yeshua's only spoken words on the cross were "cowardice is the worst sin of all." This is the extraordinary point in Bugakov's story at which we leave Jerusalem and return to Moscow.

Pilate's rhetorical question, "What is truth?" defines the moral center of Bulgakov's novel. It is a deep philosophical question, one which we are more accustomed to hearing from Plato, not a Roman Procurator. Bulgakov is restating the question for modern times. By having Satan (Woland) visit Moscow in the 20th century, Bulgakov shows what can happen when a supernatural force crashes into the natural world. "What is truth?" is just another way of saying "What is real?" Because we believe, like Pythagoras, that man is the measure of all things, does that make it so? Rationalism is one way in which the human mind copes with its environment. But the phenomenology movement in philosophy suggests that rationalism may not be an adequate model for understanding the universe. It is just possible that the world in its entirety cannot be limited to a model that is itself only the product of a finite, fallible intelligence.

B. One Who Loves Must Share the Fate of His Loved One

When we ask what is truth (or what is real), we must also ask ourselves what is worth knowing? For Bulgakov, the answer is clear—there is more to a human life than philosophy or wealth or political influence. There is also artistic creation and the power of love. Early in his life, the Master in Bulgakov's story was a historian, a man who records and interprets facts (history being a narration of a succession of facts). A historian is a kind of observer of human behavior. But he gives up that profession and becomes a writer, an artist who has the power of revealing or describing things unseen (a kind of narration that lies beyond facts). The Master invests all of his creative energy into one novel, The Life of Pilate. The "hero" of the Master's tale is Pontius Pilate, a man who tries to do his duty and in doing so, commits the gravest injustice. He discovers that neither he (nor Rome) is in control of his fate. It should be understood that the chapters in Bulgakov's novel having to do with Pilate are actually chapters from the Master's own novel, which was never published in his lifetime. In fact, once the Master burned his own work, it essentially disappeared from history as a kind of non-event. It joined other numerous works of classical literature lost to the dustbin of history. As we read Bulgakov's novel, we are also reading the Master's novel, and gradually recognize that the art of fiction is a just a method of interpreting (creating) a smaller world embedded within a larger, resulting in a kind of mobius strip of narrative.

We can only speculate as to why the Master chose to write about Pontius Pilate. Pilate's father was an astrologer, which during the reign of Tiberius was still a respectable profession, a kind of scientist or surveyor of the heavens. By the 20th century, however, we know that astrology has fallen into disrepute and is considered as nothing more than a branch of mysticism. While in Jerusalem, Pilate suffered from migraines and hated the smell of roses which were redolent in the city, and are the Master's favorite flower, so it is hard to see any attraction there. It is often said that historians fall in love with their subjects, and are attracted by the desire to learn more about them. The Master knows that Pilate is the man who will always be remembered for murdering Christ, just as John Wilkes Booth is remembered for assassinating Lincoln. Pilate is only important to us today because he participated in a crime that is believed to be a turning point in history. Christianity says that the death of Christ was a "crime" because it was a transgression of a higher law, a law that is prior to and more authoritative than the law of Caesar. But in approving the execution of Yeshua, Pilate, of course, did not believe in the divinity of Christ (or Yeshua), though he believed that a crime was indeed committed, a crime against the authority of Rome.

The Master believes that things happen for a reason, so in some mysterious way he cannot explain, his writing about Pilate, falling in love with Margarita, and finally ending up in the insane asylum were all part of his fate. His belief in Satan is not an act of worship, but simply an acknowledgement of powers and entities beyond his control. Winning the lottery is another example of his fate, which gave him the time and resources to write his novel.

Before the Master burns his unpublished novel (a novel which goes unpublished because it does not conform to the rational plan for artistic production by the literary critics in Moscow) he meets and falls in love with Margarita. She, in turn, falls in love with him and even more so, becomes infatuated with his Life of Pilate. It is not clear to me whether Bulgakov believes that love of a person and love of a work of art are essentially the same. In either case, love elevates one to a different, higher perspective of life. Margarita's love for the Master gives him renewed faith in himself, and validates his work as an artist. When, in a moment of despair, he feels abandoned by Margarita, he destroys his work as being without value, just as he believes his own life has become meaningless. It is only through the reunification of these two people that love's ameliorating power brings about his recovery. Love turns out to be as mysterious and unsettling as Woland's magical tricks. But even Woland is influenced by the essentially compassionate nature of Margarita. Note that it is Margarita's refusal to condemn the sinners in Hell that moves Woland to grant her request. When Margarita is granted a wish, she asks for forgiveness (remission of sin) for Frieda rather than something for herself. Woland is surprised but accommodates her desire. Later, Margarita extends the same sympathy to Pilate who is languishing in Hell.

One can argue that Bulgakov believes in the redemptive power of love, just as he believes in the creative power of art to humanize us. It is Margarita's faith in the Master and his book that enables him to leave the insane asylum. It is, of course, to the insane asylum where people often go when they are no longer able to make sense of their existence. What is truth? What is real? Well, whatever they are is not necessarily located within the parameters of what is today called a "normal life." Not if what is meant by "normal" is confined to what is rational and quantifiable. Our predicament today concerns the proper ground for exploration that both psychology and the Delphic oracle once proclaimed as the highest duty to our "self."

C. All Will Be as it Should; That is how the World is Made

The final journey for the Master and Margarita takes them to the vast nether regions of Hell, but not the kind of Hell that inspired Dante or Milton. There is no original sin in Bulgakov's creation. Rather, as existentialism suggests, Hell is what we create for ourselves. Hell for Bulgakov is the place where all debts are paid, and the scales of justice are finally balanced. Why does Woland grant Yeshua's request to give peace to the Master? And why does he grant Margarita's request to release Pilate from his prison? These are questions that cannot be fully answered. It is enough to know that Woland has jurisdiction in his realm and Yeshua rules in a different place. Perhaps, even in the realm where all sins are punished, there is sufficient room for grace to operate. I note only that Woland has said that all will be as it should, not that all will be revealed. In fact, in Woland's kingdom, some things are partially revealed, but others are shrouded in eternal mystery. If, as I believe, Bulgakov's novel is essentially a story about atonement, then the Master and Pilate are for us allegorical figures that stand for the struggle of all humanity to rise above its "fallen" or natural state of corruption. Whether it is by our own fault or a destiny we cannot avoid, there remains a kind of universal balancing of yin and yang, matter and anti-matter (or good / evil?) that comprises the nature of our world, though it lies beyond the power of human reason to explain. Only through the efficacious power of art can such mysteries even be described.

[all quotations taken from the Michael Glenny translation (Signet Modern Classic, 1967]