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Novel The Master And Margarita

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Published: Mon, 24 Apr 2017

Mikhail Bakhtin’s study Rabelais and his world, was a pioneering piece of literature, which highlighted the idea of the ‘carnival’, the idea that writers could use comedy and satire to create works that would link their fantastical images to the contemporary political situations at the given time. He suggested that these texts which made use of the comic images from magical realism, fantasy and the gothic managed to ‘transcend the horror of contemporary reality, and thereby achieving spiritual liberation from it’ (Milne: 13). This aspect of comedy and ‘carnival laughter’ as a liberating force which could overcome fear is something that Bakhtin examined in his analysis in Rabelais and his world, and is something I intend to look at in respect to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Bakhtin describes this concept of fantasy as a liberating force below, which is something we see in both Bulgakov’s text as well as Rushdie’s. The subversive and rather blasphemous nature of these works forms what Arnds describes in his article on Blasphemy and Sacrilege as a ‘carnivalesque counter-culture to the seriousness of any officialdom’.

‘Festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death, it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that represses and restricts’. (Rabelais: 92)

Both Bulgakov and Rushdie shared a similar fate following to the publication of their works, which can be seen entirely as a reaction to the oppressive regimes of their time. Whilst Bakhtin and Bulgakov used blasphemy to attack Stalinism, with Bulgakov writing against the suppression of Christianity, Rushdie attacked religious ideologies and their abuse. Bulgakov was forced into hiding, for fear of persecution under a Soviet totalitarian regime and Rushdie was similarly forced into more then a year of silence and hiding after publication of The Satanic Verses, when a ‘Fatwa’ (The Islamic death sentence for Blasphemy) was ordered in his name by the Muslim world. Both books were subsequently subject to banning, and many attempts were made to keep them away from their intended audiences. Yet, it’s at these times of political and social upheaval that writers such as these have provided a conflicting voice ‘in order to preserve the spirit of liberalism’. These books full of blasphemy attack the fundamental dogmas and sacraments of a particular time in history through use of comic images and magical realism, which can be described as an amalgamation of both realist fiction and fiction of the fantastic, combining elements of the surreal and the exaggerated to portray somewhat extremely sensitive and controversial subjects. Yet they do so much more; they remind us of our rights, remind us that at times of political and religious monologism our identities need not be threatened, and focus on personal identity in a new alien culture. In Mikhail Bakhtins study his theory of heteroglossia enforces this particular message, and suggests how in the modern comic novel, parody is used to challenge the tyrannous dictatorships or religious regimes through the fantastic and it’s these books that make the ‘principle of heteroglossia their own in order to subvert political and religious monologism’ (Arnds: 69). The function of the idea of the carnival is described by Bakhtin as follows:

‘It allows the disparate to be combined, the distant to be brought near. It promotes liberation from the prevailing point of view of the world, from convention, clichés, from everything that is humdrum, accustomed, generally accepted; it allows an opportunity to look at the world with new eyes, to feel the relativity of everything and the possibility of a new order of things’. (Rabelais: 11)

Bakhtin’s intentions for ‘Rabelais’, were precisely this, to allow us as the reader to see things through different eyes, to realise the deeper intentions of writers like Bulgakov and Rushdie. Bulgakov’s satire in The Master and Margarita is one that lends itself entirely to a Bakhtinian interpretation, with the idea of the carnival as a ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order of things’. The Master and Margarita was itself influenced by ‘Rabelais’, and as it sits alongside Rushdies The Satanic Verses, the similarities in the way both writers portray their protagonists and the issues they deal with are ones hard to overlook. One of the first things we notice is that the main protagonists in both texts, the master in Bulgakovs text and Gibreel and Saladin in Rushdies novel, are artists in the process of self creation, whether that is as a writer, a poet or an actor, the circumstances in which they find themselves in, allow them to ‘examine the present culture in the context of the past’. (Radha: 37).

The Master and Margarita was written in the 1930’s at a time when the Soviet society was being formed under state communism and is primarily about the fate of a novel about Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ, written by the Master, and so right from the outset it’s about a book within a book, and Bulgakovs challenge to the rule of terror and the fate of literature itself. The initial debate begins with the editor of a well known Moscow journal Berlioz, with the poet Bezdomny, better known under the pseudonym ‘homeless’. The plot begins with a conversation at the patriarchs ponds, in regards to a poem homeless has written in order to dispel the illusion of the existence of Christ however the poem itself has made the existence of Christ real, which is something that goes against the editors atheist beliefs. As the debate gets heated, a stranger, Woland comes across their conversation, and interjects claiming that in fact Jesus did exist and he himself had seen him. The two men are quite perplexed at this appearance however the strange man not only reads their thoughts but predicts the future, claiming to know not only when but how Berlioz will die. As the two begin to question the stranger he disappears, and as he does, Berlioz is killed under a tram just as he predicted.

The novel blends the retelling of the story of Christ, Yeshua and his meeting with Pilate and his eventual execution, with the incredible events surrounding Woland, the devils visit to Stalins Moscow. The presence of Jesus, Yeshua as a central figure in the text was something quite unthinkable for the atheist Stalin era, however Bulgakovs novel targets the state with a sort of secular sacrilege, using biblical figures to highlight the absence of such beliefs, to highlight the absence of any church. Its quite clear that one of Bulgakovs motives in writing this text was an outrage at the portrayal of Christ in Soviet anti religious propaganda, to which his response is a simple reversal of ideologies- a vivid narrative portraying ancient Yershlaim, and the figure of Christ, which at the time was thought to be a ‘myth’ invented by the ruling class, and a quite clear breakdown of the self evident reality of Moscow life by the intrusion of the stranger. This literary satire is at the centre of the text and one of the clear indications Bulgakov had ‘Rabelais’ on his mind when constructing the text. We also find as the reader in regards to the two central figures, the Master and Pontius Pilate, we procure the positions of the persecuted artist and the tyrant, which in some ways is a portrayal of Bulgakov himself, the tortured writer and the difficulties he had in portraying his art under Stalin, who himself can be discerned both in the figures of Pilate and Woland; characters who cause death, destruction and instill fear in the text.

In the novel, as Woland descends upon Moscow, Ivan Homeless begins a pursuit of the devil, whom he believes possesses the truth about Christ and the existence of God; however on his mad pursuit he ends up in an asylum in a neighboring cell to the main protagonist, the Master. The splicing of the Masters novel into Bulgakov’s work is not unintentional, as the Masters novel about Pilate is the reason he’s been put away, similar to how Bulgakov had to go into hiding for his portrayal of Christ and Pilate at the time of publishing. As the story continues, Woland wreaks havoc on Moscow, and through his magical entourage, satirically exposes the true nature of a corrupt Moscow society. The novel combines three separate stories, the first of Pilate and Christ, the second in regards to the events surrounding Woland and his retinue and the third of the Master and his lover Margarita, a story of love and courage in the truest sense. Woland befriends Margarita, who sells her soul to Woland in the hope of freeing the Master and his burned manuscripts. Paradoxically, by bringing the devil to soviet society, Bulgakov restores faith to those who were forced to relinquish it, and shows that the change in Soviet society was one that wasn’t fixed.

It’s not difficult to see it as a soviet novel, but the heart of this work lies entirely in the fantastic, and the reader experiences a comfortable sense of superiority throughout the novel as we watch and see the antics with a sort of detached amusement. As Peter Arnds states in his article ‘Negotiating the sacred’ ‘Mikhail Bulgakov, for fear of retribution, never talks openly about Stalinism but refers to it as witchcraft’:

‘And it was two years ago that inexplicable things began happening…people started disappearing without a trace. Once, on a day off, a policeman appeared, summoned the second lodger (whose name has been lost) into the front hall, and said that he had been asked to come down to the police station for a minute in order to sign something. The lodger told Anfisa…he would be back in ten minutes…Not only did he not return in ten minutes, he never returned at all…it was witchcraft pure and simple, and …as everyone knows, once witchcraft gets started, there is no stopping it’. (Bulgakov: 63)

This particular quote from the novel is one of the most important in giving us a deeper insight into the oppressive totalitarian regime of the time and the crimes that were committed at the time in which Bulgakov was writing; it’s cowardice, betrayals and murders. As Arnds writes:

‘It’s passages like this one that mark moments in the text where, due to the conflation of reality with surrealism, the term ‘magic realism’ becomes justified in the highest degree. Evidently, at times of extreme censorship only metaphorical language can save the artist from persecution; hence the magic realist novel can be a tool to express and attack the politics of totalitarian regimes. What this novel describes as witchcraft and fantasy, was, however, a grim reality that had nothing to do with magic. The novel displays a rediscovery of the iconography of Hell, that joyful hell, of which Bakhtin speaks, to be found in medieval carnival and in Rabelais’. (Negotiating the sacred: 74)

As Bulgakov takes us into the world of the fantastic, we start to understand how it plays the part of a ‘dramatic mimesis of redemption and a triumphant asseveration of faith on the part of the Writer’ (Milne: 33). Bulgakovs blending of the three stories, embraces all that was excluded from the reality of Soviet Russia, its ideology and its literature, and as the Master rightly states in the novel ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’, men can be killed but their ideas and spirit are immortal, and this particular thought is one by which Bulgakov shows the triumph of spirit, as stated by Milne in ‘The Master and Margarita, – A comedy of Victory’. The Master and Margarita as a whole construction, stays true to its own premises, recreating the world Bulgakov lived in, yet by altering the specifics of the New Testament and the variations of its principle figures, he manages to combine the realities of ‘Moscow with witchcraft, Vampirism, and the gathering of the dead at Satans ball’. Bulgakovs fantastical world, of magic and comedy stands so far from the gothic and historical trace of its central biblical characters, and yet we know The Master and Margarita is an intensely political novel, and any discussion of the text must perforce focus on that, but it also stands as so much more. The fact that it’s a fantasy is part of what makes it fun, and it allows Bulgakov to play the imaginative tricks that he plays, but it’s a means, and not an end.

Many observations from Bakhtin’s study seem to be aimed directly at Bulgakov’s intentions, none more so than his comment on Rabelais’s travesty of the ‘hidden meaning’, the ‘secret’, the ‘terrifying mysteries’ of religion, politics and economics. ‘Laughter must liberate the gay truth of the world from the veils of gloomy lies spun by the seriousness of fear, suffering and violence’ (Peaver Intro: The Master and Margarita: xv).

‘For thousands of years the people have used these festive comic images to express their criticism, their deep distrust of official truth, and their highest hopes and aspirations. Freedom was not so much an exterior right as it was the inner content of these images. It was the thousand year old language of fearlessness, a language with no reservations and omissions, about the world and about power’. (Peaver intro: The Master and Margarita: xv)

The quickness and pungency of Bulgakov’s writing embodies this particular form, allowing for him to exploit the theatricality of it’s greatest scenes – storms, flights, the attack of the vampires, all the antics of the demons, the séance in the theatre, Satan’s ball, but also the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, the crucifixion as witness by Matthew Levi, the murder of Judas. Bulgakov’s treatment of Gospel figures is the most controversial and yet his premises are made clear in the very first pages of the novel, with the conversation between Woland, Bulgakov’s devil figure and the atheist Berlioz.

The central figure in both Bulgakovs The Master and Margarita and Salman Rushdies The Satanic Verses is the devil; Woland, and Saladin play a very big role as they in themselves are inverted throughout the texts, bringing out the worst in others, yet in some ways both writers seem to emphasize the angelic quality of the devil, portraying him as tortured, misunderstood and often unrecognized. The devil himself in both texts, is obviously extremely important as a fantastical figure, however as we delve deeper, the devil serves a purpose, allowing us as the reader to understand the underlying evil having existed in every era. Rushdie and Bulgakov use this as a way of showing us the evils of mankind themselves, highlighting the reality behind the fiction. Bulgakov’s epigraph comes from Goethe’s Faust, as if illuminating the past literary traditions and the notion of good and evil being one and the same:

‘Who art thou then?’

‘I am part of that power that eternally wills evil and eternally works good’.

This itself prepares us for the intrusion of the supernatural, before we’ve even read a single word from the novel. Now, anyone who might be well acquainted with Goethe’s work will read Bulgakov’s opening chapter with a certain sense of familiarity, as it corresponds so closely to the scene In Auer Bach’s cellar in Faust 1. The dramatic situation is strikingly similar. Bulgakov has clearly taken great pains to establish, from the very beginning of the Master and Margarita a connection between his novel and Faust which allows us to identify Woland as a Mephistophelian figure. The devil is certainly a gothic character, and one whose identity in this novel is always being deliberated. As we watch in amusement, we as the reader come to perceive that the credulity of most of the characters in the novel is down to their unwillingness to allow even the possibility of the supernatural into their world. Similarly in The Satanic Verses, the relationship to past traditions is established with the opening from Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil:

‘Satan thus being confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste of air, yet this is part of his punishment, that he is.. without any fixed place, or space’

In the Satanic Verses, the occurrences like Bulgakov’s novel are strange and impossible, and yet the characters bizarre adventures and the numerous dream sequences are there to heighten our senses to give us as the reader an idea of just how fantastic recent history has become. Rushdie’s text incorporates the fantastic through convolutions of plot, with the fall of two men from a hijacked plane, however not only both survive, one sprouts a tail and horns and the other an angelic halo; the appearance of Rekha on a flying carpet and Gibreel the angels trumpet of fire, are all, like the images of Bulgakov, intended to be a ‘the gateway to a more intense reality’ (Smale: 21)

Rushdies novel centers on two actors, living in London, Gibreel and Saladin, both originally from Bombay, India. Their initial predicament is to ascertain not only their cultural heritage but also create a new identity in modern day Britain. The novel begins with them as the only survivors of a plane crash, hijacked over the English Channel. As they fall to the ground, they experience a sort of metamorphosis, unharmed yet altered physically. Gibreel takes on the form of an angel, as a halo encircles his head, whereas Saladin in a Kafkaesque transformation grows horns, a tail and his body becomes enlarged and covered with hair. As the transformations take place, we’re given the background into the lives of the main protagonists; learning that Gibreel as an actor has portrayed various gods in his films, and it emerges he comes from a religious yet poor family, and had recently become interested in myths from various religions. It was from this that he had across the ‘incident of the satanic verses in the early career of the prophet’ (Rushdie: 24), and later on Gibreels dream sequences consist of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s revelations from God himself.

On the other hand, Saladin is from a wealthy yet broken family, and wishes to settle in Britain, in a society which he wholeheartedly loves. As they continue to metamorphose into an angel and the devil, both men in their guises fail to reconcile their past lives with their changed present, with Gibreel coming to the conclusion that he must become a different person in order to fulfill the requests of the people he meets. However Saladin’s new self, suffers, hounded by immigration police and finds his life unalterably changed. Saladins guise as the devil quite soon becomes a representation of the way in which the British public viewed immigrants, and soon comes to the realization that no matter how much he tried to fit in, his identity is one he can’t change and that he will always be alien to the British culture.

Like Bulgakov’s novel, Rushdie satirizes modern societies through the ‘reexamination of a religious past’. (Radha: 40) On an abstract level, the idea of religious faith is pitted against religious doubt , in order to explore the notion of the divine and the revelations by which the Islamic holy book the Koran was written. Like Dante, Goethe, Garcia Marques, Borges and Bulgakov, the notion of good and evil, the angel and the devil, heaven and hell, is something that has long been explored. As Bulgakov portrays the Moscow in which he lived in the context of Jerusalem at the time of Christ, Rushdie aims to look at the life of Muslim immigrants in London in context of the life of the prophet Muhammad and the Koran, in the hope of discerning good from evil. Both writers not only explore the role of the artist and the nature of their art whether that be acting or writing, but also look at the validity of religion and the very nature of man in terms of this. Similar to Bulgakov depicting the story of Christ, here Rushdie does something similar. Both writers were prosecuted for their attempts to change the grand narratives of history, and in some way rewriting religious events. Bulgakov and Rushdie chose to reevaluate the facts in the religious texts in the context of the time in which they were writing and the quote below is one that brings together that notion:

‘We will make a revolution… that is a revolt not only against a tyrant but against history… We will unmake the veil of history and when it is unraveled, we will see paradise standing there, in all its glory and light. ‘Burn the books and trust the book; shred the papers and hear the word… Explicated by your interpreter and your imam’ (Rushdie: 210-211)

As Kakutani noted in his article ‘Telling truth through fantasy’ In the NY times, what Rushdie does in The Satanic Verses is highlight how ‘autocratic regimes espouse the rhetoric of faith… this is how religions shore up dictators: by encircling them with words of power, words which people are reluctant to see discredited, disenfranchised, mocked’. This is extremely important when reading both texts, because what we find in regards to the devices employed by both writers, the blasphemous issues in their writing attack not the religions themselves but the ideologies of people who try to use religion as a controlling factor. In terms of Rushdie, The Satanic Verses is less a critique of Islam and more a critique on those who use it to dictate.

As with Bulgakov, the use of the fantastic by Rushdie is one way in which he tries to discern the focus from the blasphemous issues raised in terms of Mohammed and the verses of the Koran claimed not to be a direct revelation from god, but from the devil himself. He tries to connect the question raised about the past to the present day reality through the use of magical realism. As Smale suggests in his guide to Rushdies work:

‘Fantasy in Rushdies novels is thus purposeful, it distinguishes the protagonists from millions of others whose stories they represent; fantasy is harnessed in service of the truth, of reality. Being grotesque as well as fantastically gifted allows one to stand apart yet swallow the world. Like Marques, and Borges in the magical realist tradition, Rushdie himself insists that the fantasy elements in his novels are devices to talk about actuality’. (Smale: 85)

In terms of the relationship of fantasy and magical realism to the Bakhtinian theory of the carnival, The Satanic Verses undoubtedly encapsulates the satirical form in response to a rather expansive and exuberant subject matter. The metamorphoses, visions, dream sequences and the eccentric behavior and speech which constitutes the very foundations of this novel, are very much an establishment of the carnival and in a way lend themselves to the way Rushdie attacks the religious sacraments. Fact and legend trade places, with the interwoven narratives of modern day Britain and the rise of the Muslim religion in the seventh century, however this displacement allows the history to become fictitious. It was never intended as a retelling of the Islamic story however through the form of magical realism, Rushdie tried to portray his own loss of identity as a part of Western civilization and a Muslim, however his work was seen as being a complete disregard of his religion.

In conclusion, both pieces of literature explore the nature and often torture of the artist and the very nature of his or her art. However, this exploration begins with a need to bring some sort of validity to religion, to the Christian myths and those too of Islam. Bulgakov and Rushdie portray their own plight as artists, and their own loss of identity and their novels are a quest not only to discern some sort of self referential ideal, but to attack the forces by which their identities were attacked. The tradition of ‘carnival laughter’ being employed by writers to attack the holy of holies of the time’s ideologies, is extremely significant and can be seen time and time again in these novels, through the use of the fantastic, images of a magical quality and the inclusion of these into a somewhat grim reality.


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