Book Review

Book Review: The Master and Margarita

I believe that genuine love between two people is possible. Any attempt I make to express this always appears inadequate and yet, images of a breathtaking dance as two melt through and into one another, magnetic lips fastening as a voltaic current sweeps through the body until it ends as both whisper to one another face to face deep into the night, her fingers intertwined through his as she draws her nose towards his neck, her hair gliding down over his chest as she slips away into a long and safe sleep. But they are dreams that cause me nothing but anguish as I can never truly explain the authenticity, the existential aesthetic, the timelessness and whether it is merely me and only me that can love as deeply as I know I can feel. But to reach that authenticity, one needs to truly understand themselves and to understand God or that we are in a universe much greater than we can ever comprehend. When I read the following by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita it almost clearly explained how I felt about the eternal and the indestructable that is expressed between two genuine people who meet one another:

She was carrying some of those repulsive yellow flowers. God knows what they’re called, but they are somehow always the first to come out in spring. They stood out very sharply against her black dress. She was carrying yellow flowers! It’s an ugly colour. She turned off Tverskaya into a side-street and turned round. You know the Tverskaya, don’t you? There must have been a thousand people on it but I swear to you that she saw no one but me. She had a look of suffering and I was struck less by her beauty than by the extraordinary loneliness in her eyes. Obeying that yellow signal I too turned into the side street and followed her. We walked in silence down that dreary winding little street without saying a word, she on one side, me on the other. There was not another soul in the street. I was in agony because I felt I had to speak to her and was worried that I might not be able to utter a word, she would disappear and I should never see her again. Then, if you can believe it, she said:

    “Do you like my flowers?”

    ‘I remember exactly how her voice sounded. It was pitched fairly low but with a catch in it and stupid as it may sound I had the impression that it echoed across the street and reverberated from the dirty yellow wall. I quickly crossed to her side and going up to her replied: “No”.

    ‘She looked at me in surprise and suddenly, completely unexpectedly, I realised that I had been in love with this woman all my life.

Mikhail Bulgakov was born in the Russian Empire in 1891 and is considered one of the greatest playwrights and authors of fiction amongst other greats such as Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoyevsky. His novel is both a comical and a frightening fable that pirouettes between the literal and the metaphorical. The story is broken into a framed narrative concerning morality and reality that entertains the decline in Russia’ commitment to spiritual love both individually and within a social and political atmosphere during Stalinist era. The plot links the love story between the Master, a writer in despair, his lover Margarita and her sacrificial and almost divine love for the Master verified through the machinations of Satan who tries to tempt her away from such love, along with the symbolic conversation between Yeshua or Jesus with Pontius Pilate.

Allegorical and highly imaginative, the clarity of the semblance between the story and the Stalinist era is easy to discern. Woland, or Satan, delights in the power he has over others, his cruelty almost cheerful and calm and this disinterest is clearly accommodating the characteristic of Stalin himself. One of the particular aspects of Woland’s behaviour is the torment toward the intellectual community of Russia, a resemblance to the painful experiences Bulgakov himself had endured at the time. Initially careful with his artistic approach and early in his career able to successfully write and produce plays, following his move to Moscow the playwright struggled with anguish as is similarly seen with the Master character in the novel as his plays were continuously banned and criticised. By 1929, however, all work by Bulgakov was forbidden and while he sought to emigrate, remained and continued to work despite the authoritarian measures against his creativity. It was during this period he began working on the Master and Margarita.

For Bulgakov, there appears to be an artistic triptych regarding the nature of our existence, namely there exists a psychological line segment where on one end you have good and on the other evil, with the mean being love. The formula, as such, of reaching the midpoint between good and evil is usually followed by proof, a test that verifies the intent and is usually authenticated by taking a leap of faith. The outcome is subjective, but independently so that even through temptation or fear, one can confidently choose love and thus, the midpoint is almost transcending anything that is actually good or evil. “Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil” [F. Nietzsche] Margarita, despite not being with the Master neither knowing his whereabouts, nevertheless remained dedicated to him. This ‘faith’ in him and the strength or the eternal nature of her love for the lost and tormented soul of the Master is a unique expression between the plotlines of good and evil. Namely, her love is unconditional, transcending the biblical rules or divine laws and overriding any utilitarian or deontological modes of moral action. She loves him and neither good nor evil can change that. “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved” [E. Fromm].

Unconditional love therefore involves this sacrificial element, demonstrated biblically with Jesus and in addition to the story there stands another narrative based during the time of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, where a conversation between Yeshua and Pontius Pilate takes place. This biblical aspect to the tale noticeably contrasts with the story relating to Satan or Woland, the Good vs. Evil, thus it is clear that the purpose or intent of the novel itself is about Good vs. Evil in both the individual and in society, the story between the Master and Margarita being about personal love and the rest being about the importance of a divine love or love of God socially and culturally. Under Stalin and Russian Communism at the time, the absence of God and religion in society is symbolically seen through the interactions between Pilate and Yeshua, the former a representation of Russia and the latter of the divine, and becomes an analogy that the absence of faith would ultimately lead to ruin. While rational, Bulgakov used fiction as a prophetic warning that an immoral society as in Russia at the time will lead to disaster and only a moral society can produce a positive and contented environment that is sustainable. “The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life”[E. Fromm]

Love, therefore, is the ultimate maxim and clarity to reach this pinnacle of consciousness can only be done so through choice, through free will as Margarita proved by the choice she made for the Master; the freedom of ones Will is often influenced not just by temptation but also by fear. Lars Svendsen explored the nature of fear in several different areas including political, social and the emotional and purports that fear is caused by our environment – socially and domestically – as it dictates a fear to think independently and be free, thus ‘tempting’ society to trust in the whole outside of oneself [society, family etc &c.]. “[F]ear has become a kind of culturally determined magnifying glass through which we consider the world” [Svendsen 2008]. This is comparative to the Stalin era as is also mentioned by Svendsen, who ruled with Machiavellian tyranny and that the threat of an impending difficulty unconsciously forces one to second-guess the decision making process as an automated reaction and thus mind-controlled. Bulgakov satirised what was essentially a waning morality in Russia at the time. This period was of significant instability and totalitarian violence under the communist regime and the eradication of religious – namely Christian – values. The opening chapter itself finds the devil having a conversation with two who confidently discuss the non-existence of Jesus [biblically referred to a culture forming an ‘anti-Christ’]. The novel parodied disappearing individuals that at the time were a reality under the regime of Stalin as seen by the reactions following events and this is perhaps the reason why Woland or Satan placed particular interest in Margarita, as she herself appears to be the only person who is fearless. “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices”[M. Bulgakov]. In doing so, her fearlessness is the reason for her capacity to love genuinely.

Questions about good and evil are raised through the plotlines, particularly the latter and why evil exists in the world. From an Augustinian perspective, it is due in part because “evil” is not a thing that is created and therefore the source of its existence is merely the will to turn away from what is essentially our nature, our nature being naturally good since all that God created is good. Thus, it is the choice to avoid, turn aside or corrupt the will away from goodness, thus perverting the will and ultimately becoming evil. “Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in his works unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil”[St. Augustine]. Kant offered a secular theory toward the concept of evil, whereby humans by nature are naturally inclined toward goodness but also evil under the umbrella of a radically free will. As a consequence, only by free will are we able to choose what is right and thus when we do not make the choice to do good, we are thus evil. But the latter ‘evil’ is graded into several levels, being:

“The possibility of hubris is accounted for by the concept of freedom. There are thus three levels or gradations of evil: (1) mere counterlegality, (2) the lower level of countermorality, occasional single-cases of evil, and (3) the worse level of evil  “as a rule”… full-fledged evil designates the constitution of an agent or of an agents maxim”[O. Hoffee, 2007].

Thus (1) is a type of failure of will, a morally right person who slips or is too weak to maintain a strong will to commit to any lapse in judgement, whereas (2) is a corruption of the will, an intent of not wanting to perform morally right actions unless there appears an incentive for doing so, thus moral goodness is merely self-interest hidden under the guise of morality. On the other hand (3) is wickedness, that one narcissistically places the self above all moral laws and conforms only to moral laws as a way of promoting the self. This includes an act in which an individual wills with intent to commit evil solely because it contradicts moral laws, a type of wilful arrogance. Whilst it has been argued that Kant’s claim of the worst kind of evil is objectionable since an indication of evil is the level of harm that it produces, it is according to Kant the subjective motive that is evil and not just the outcome. In this instance, perhaps consider a sociopath and the fact that there are many sociopaths who are not actually violent, the latter perhaps because it is not in their own best interest rather than for any moral worthiness.

The similarity with Johann Goethe’ Faustus, a satirical play about striking a deal with the devil, is clear, particularly with the division of the work whereby with Faustus the play is divided into two parts with the first set in reality and the second figurative or subjective. Faust is considered noble in character with his utmost desire for knowledge until Satan or Mephistopheles claims to God that he is capable of luring him away from righteousness. Faust himself is struggling with the existential crises that befalls those that became aware or conscious of the vanity of such pursuits and whilst attempting to alleviate the struggle through ethereal or magical attempts toward an infinite knowledge – since infinity would imply a type of combustion of vanity – he sadly realises the futility and perhaps the trickery of such an attempt. Finally, Faust is seduced by the temptation set by the Devil, particularly through Gretchen with whom Faust is attracted to and ultimately their relationship ends in sorrow and death, only Gretchen herself – when rejecting the final advances to be removed from prison by Faust – is ‘saved’ leaving Faust to remain grievously ashamed.

While it is knowledge or access to knowledge otherwise inaccessible to the human mind and cognition in general that became the desire compelling Faust, his fatal relationship with Gretchen or, ultimately, his failure to understand that love is the answer to his quandary and that the very ‘infinite’ exists in a free will that chooses righteously, the ultimate result is a cyclic return to the very same point of his initial misery. His thoughts at the beginning of the fable when facing his existential crises compelled him to the idea of suicide and thus an exposure of his unhappiness. The outcome of this unhappiness that led him to agree to the advances or temptation of the devil also led to the misery and death of Gretchen and members of her family. This result was Goethe’ exposure of the importance of our moral responsibility toward others as part of our endeavours toward reaching happiness. “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honour.”[Romans 12.9] Hence why Mephistopheles, or the Devil, is banished to the ‘Eternal Empty’ or symbolically the unhappy place of living without the fulfilment one receives when choosing the will to be good. It is a dark or heavy feeling where one can never be satisfied or that place lacking in the longevity required for a peaceful approach toward the entrance gates of infinite happiness that Faust longed for. Since one cannot know love save for the love that they have within and what they are able to give to others, the riddle to love itself is unknown as this ‘within’ or subjective self is infinite, hence why love surpasses knowledge and becomes the very purpose of existence that Faust initially craved for. In the choice to commit to love through our own free Will can the scales between good and evil truly balance. Faust finally tames the desires for war and of his own nature that he experiences happiness, becoming conscious and thus the devil is unable to take his soul due in part to Gretchen’s unconditional ‘sacrifice’ through forgiveness of Faust and in part because of Faust’ dedication to reach the infinite, albeit doing so imperfectly.

The Master and Margarita is a gripping story based within an entirely corrupt Moscow, inhabited by citizens with loose morals and a waning spirituality. Bulgakov manages to entrance the reader by capturing the approaching story in the very first chapter, when Satan himself and his extraordinary entourage gracefully stroll into the city with almost a haughty, arrogant elegance. While fantastic in nature, the bizarre fictional themes reveal within them the very nature of the book, of good and evil and the purpose and power of love. It can be said that reaching happiness is our ultimate motivation, however happiness is reliant on its sustainability and longevity. Desires and a passion for ultimately futile endeavours eventually result in the sorrow and misery one initially attempts to escape from, as seen from the opening scenes of the play of Faustus and continues through with Faust’ relationship with Gretchen. This is the paradox; that in order to reach a state of happiness, one must first traverse through the murky realms of knowledge toward the gates of love; that love surpasses knowledge and yet it is not in knowledge can one attain happiness. From the multiple layers of narrative, stories within stories, metaphors, satire and political and spiritual agendas truly makes the Master and Margarita one of the most successful and inspiring novels of the twentieth century.

Bulgakov is certainly among the very few great writers to have ever lived who is capable at combining fantasy and satire into one complex yet simple whole, just like my other favourites writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. His capacity and concern for ethical problems that he is able to express using metaphors and surreal situations or plots is irresistible, skilful and admirable.

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