Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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 future...how 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, "...you 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]

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