Berlioz’s life was so arranged that he was not accustomed to seeing unusual phenomena.
But Satan is visiting the brave new world of Soviet Moscow and bent on mischief. ‘How’, Satan asks:
can man be directing things, if he not only lacks the capacity to draw up any sort of plan even for a laughably short period of time – well, let’s say for a thousand years or so – but cannot even vouch for his tomorrow…he’s sometimes suddenly mortal…
The Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita might not seem the most obvious Christmas read. It is set in a warm hazy May rather than a wintry December, with sunflower seed oil, not snow on the ground. And its famous Pontius Pilate and Yeshua narrative is the Easter Passion, not the Christmas story.
And yet The Master and Margarita chimes with Yuletide and its traditional Lord of Misrule, the feast of fools, and its roots in the pagan festival Saturnalia. And we have the ultimate Lord of Misrule – Satan himself in the guise of Professor Woland and his circus troupe creating havoc across Moscow and Soviet officialdom. There is even a pantomime Puss in the Boots in Behemoth, Satan’s cat. But instead of wondering at the miracle of an intelligent talking cat, Moscovites are fixed on enforcing the travel restrictions that forbid cats from travelling on trams. Their response symbolises a shrinking of human horizons.
So what is Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita about? The multilayered novel revolves around two related stories: First Satan’s visit to Soviet Moscow, its havoc and its unintended consequences reuniting Margarita with her lover, the Master, an unsuccessful impoverished writer attempting to a book about Pontius Pilate; and the second the story of Pontius Pilate’s meeting with the prophet Yeshua and his cowardly decision to allow his execution.
In an ironic paralleling of the stories, not only does the holy Yeshua challenge the ruthless order under the Roman Procurator, but the satanic Woland challenges the rationalist atheistic Soviet order. Bulgakov’s novel explores notions of good and evil. The work asserts for theists and atheists alike that the human spirit should not be reduced to an instrumental rationalism, and the importance of imagination and belief in life. Above all the ambiguous faithfully unfaithful heroine Margarita who sells her soul to the devil suggests the possibilities of human redemption despite our crooked nature.
The satanic Lord of Misrule feeds off people’s vanities and avarice. Those in privileged offices are a particular target of satanic mischief. Satan’s first victim is the hapless Berlioz, chairman of the writers’ club, who has the indignity of losing his head in a tram accident after slipping on that sunflower seed oil. And in death Berlioz suffers the further indignity of his stolen decapitated head becoming Satan’s personal golden drinking goblet. A true momento mori of a life pursuit of human vanity, which has failed to grasp what might be a meaningful existence in either life or death.
Here Satan is not so much commanding their fate as revealing their true character. And as the chaos unfolds we see people humiliated and punished in ways that reflect their sins. Professor Woland takes over the Moscow theatre and his satanic circus troupe tempts the audience with their greed. Vain grasping women clothing themselves in Woland’s luxurious Parisian garments find themselves embarrassingly naked as the clothes dissolve when the theatre illusion wears off. Others find their bribes have dangerously turned into foreign currency leading to their arrest.
Meanwhile MASSOLIT, the writers’ club chaired by Berlioz, is exposed as full of mediocre covetous officials preoccupied with the restaurant food (‘second-quality fresh’), holiday dachas and housing they may access through their institutional membership. No evidence of noble art or philosophical thought here. And when Satan’s familiars burn down the ignoble institution, the only thing its manager thinks worth saving is some fresh sturgeon from its kitchens.
Satan’s misrule follows Goethe’s Faust as ‘That Power…which forever evil/ Yet does forever good’. So Satan ironically finds himself narrating the son of God’s existence to prove his own to the model unbelieving atheist Soviet citizens.
How does Satan evaluate the brave new Soviet citizens?
They’re ordinary people, in fact they remind me very much of their predecessors, except that the housing shortage has soured them.
Bulgakov brilliantly satirises the Soviet housing problems. Key confrontations with Satan in the novel are over his appropriation of Berlioz’s flat, and his defeat of others’ designs for the flat – from the chair of the housing committee to Berlioz’s scheming uncle. Bulgakov gives us brilliant satire of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalinist oppression, which has so much contemporary resonance. Not least the dystopian future that the UK housing crisis may invite or our obsession with so-called evidence-based policy.
But more than this: Bulgakov exposes our alienation from an authentic life and relations with others. It is a world where human compassion is becoming subsumed into bureaucratic regulation and where ‘once you remove the document you remove the man as well’. The logic of this world is epitomised in the bureaucrat whose humanity is so hollowed out he has shrunk to just a suit.
The Lord of Misrule and his familiars subvert the bureaucracy by using bureaucratic reasoning themselves, conjuring their own fake documents or conjuring malicious tricks on those who obstinately live by alienating bureaucratic rules. Berlioz’s uncle finds his passport under the scrutiny of the cat Behemoth who cancels his attendance at the funeral. The theatre manager attempts to denounce Woland’s troupe to the police and instead finds himself menaced by sinister nocturnal visitors and turned into a vampire.
‘Why’, one of Satan’s familiars asks ‘does one only have to speak to a person for them to imagine they‘re going to be arrested?’.
It is a world where Nikolai Ivanovich requires an official document from Satan to certify his attendance at Satan’s ball to account for his whereabouts to the police or his wife. It is a world where individuals are only recognised where they are able to produce official documentation. Satan and his followers admonish our inhospitality and our petty proofs or denials of others’ humanity:
if you wanted to make sure that Dostoyevsky was a writer, would you really ask him for his membership card? Why, you only have to take any five pages of one of his novels and you won’t need a membership card to convince you the man’s a writer. I don’t suppose he ever had a membership card…A writer isn’t a writer because he has a membership card but because he writes.
If Satan’s misrule exposes how a stifling, alienating mediocre world of envy, mistrust and deceit has been created, his misrule also creates opportunities to escape its strictures for those with the courage to reject bureaucratic recognition for life or even life after death (satanic or heavenly). In Bulgakov’s novel, selling one’s soul to the devil is not the greatest sin. Instead that is cowardice. Indeed conspiring with the devil is portrayed as potentially more moral and life-affirming than conforming to the norms of the bureaucratic Soviet regime.
Here we have Margarita whose generous love of the Master, an impoverished writer, soars above the world’s limitations, and permits her a spell of misrule punishing the unjust, and freeing the punished from their torments. The tormented Frieda who murdered her baby is forgiven and freed from the nightly apparitions of the handkerchief she used to stifle her child. The tormented Pontius Pilate is reunited to discourse with the healing prophet Yeshua whom he executed. Berlioz’s protégé, the young poet Ivan, whose pen name is Bezdomny or ‘Homeless’, is rescued from both the mental asylum and his bad poetry, finding a new vocation in taking over the Pontius Pilate story from the Master.
Margarita’s love is even able to cut through demonic red tape and Satan’s bureaucratic defence that he can’t do things that aren’t in his department’s business. For Satan is shown to suffer from his own officialdom and its responsibilities. In this vein, his familiars complain that the annual satanic annual ball is rather a tedious formal function to be endured rather than enjoyed. They complain they would rather be sawing logs or working as a tram conductor than attending the satanic rout. Again Margarita’s generosity of spirit witnesses Satan’s familiars regaining their dignified selves – the jesting knave to knight, the Behemoth’s feline features to the youth…
Bulgakov’s exhilarating Mistress and Lord of Misrule give light in darkness and embolden a rebellious human spirit. Holy or fiendish emancipation is ours to claim if only we can overcome our cowardice. Order is finally restored in Moscow but the remaining characters are periodically haunted by the temptations of the satanic night. Leaving the last line to Satan:
Think now: where would you good be if there were no evil and what would the world look like without shadow? ….Do you want to strip the whole globe by removing every tree and every creature to satisfy your fantasy of a bare world?
Vanessa is championing Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita at the Balloon Debate of the East Midlands Salon at the Brunswick Inn, 1 Railway Terrace, Derby on 11 December http://www.eastmidlandssalon.org.uk/balloon-debate/#more-1
Vanessa Pupavac is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance was published by Palgrave.