The Master and Margarita
and the Gospel According to Matthew

"Manuscripts don't burn."
--Satan speaking to the Master

I've had my copy of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita since January 1992, but have only just read it this March of 2000. The book was given me for my birthday, and the woman who gave it to me inscribed it with a birthday greeting in English, Russian, Polish, and Spanish. Such linguistic overdetermination was all the rage in 1990s Madison, Wisconsin, where I was then studying as an undergraduate.

Bulgakov's novel itself has some of the frisson of a birthday greeting in four languages. Its own overdeterminism isn't linguistic in the manner, say, of a Finnegans Wake, but there’s something similarly teeming in the tale. One has the feeling reading it that there are a lot of things that must come together, and that they finally do come together wonderfully, perhaps a bit too wonderfully for such a multiplicity.

The novel tells a complicated story of redemption woven between two distant temporal planes: there is the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth in 30-something A.D., and there is the time of early Soviet rule in modern Moscow. The reader is taken back and forth between these two eras, one chapter unfolding in ancient Palestine, the next in Moscow, the following again in Palestine, and so on. Among the figures "redeemed" are not only the Master and Margarita of the title, but also the Roman Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, the historical figure known from the Gospel accounts. Both historical settings are built up in a mainly realistic narrative fashion, with the interesting twist that the story of Jesus and Pilate is told with more of a realistic bent than is the story of Bulgakov's modern Moscow.

Although redemption is clearly one of Bulgakov's thematic centers, and although the spiritual universe projected is nominally the Christian one, the redemption one finds here is not likely to be accepted as such by Christian readers. This is because Bulgakov's Christian universe is heterodox in the extreme. It is obvious he is using both the story of Jesus and Pilate and the figure of the Devil in an entirely unorthodox way. Before continuing with remarks such as these, however, it is best to put Bulgakov's efforts in a clearer literary historical perspective.

The Master and Margarita is a grotesque comic novel in a particular tradition of European black humor, one that includes, among the Russians, Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol. Bulgakov continues the tradition from these Russian forebears. Both Gogol and Dostoyevsky were Christians, and the genre, especially with Dostoyevksy, developed in the crucible of Christian existential concerns. In the classic Russian novel, the writers' Christian concerns were often dramatized against a backdrop of decadent Russian secularism: a shallow Westernizing progressivism that both Gogol and Dostoyevsky saw as undermining the spiritual wealth of Russian culture. Although writing in the same novelistic tradition, Bulgakov himself was not a Christian, and so one wouldn't expect him to take the Christian questions as seriously as did the great nineteenth century writers. Bulgakov was free, however, to adopt the Christian "mythology" as part of his framework, adopting along with it the problem of evil and the Devil, and developing his novel from there.

When an unbeliever adopts Christian beliefs as part of the plot or setting of a literary work, the results are usually flippant or hollow. Does Bulgakov's novel come off as flippant? In many respects it does. The exploits of Satan and his sidekicks are narrated as elaborate pranks, usually in a burlesque mode. Also, as the novel's end nears, the reader realizes that the Devil himself will be called upon to.... But finishing this sentence would reveal too much of Bulgakov's plot. It is maybe better to let readers encounter Bulgakov's Satan on their own. An important question here might be: How do cosmic good and evil as projected through the novelist's supernaturalism relate to the social world he's satirizing in his Moscow chapters? This is a difficult question, one I will address in part below. Let me now just mention that many readers have apparently understood Bulgakov's Satan to be an allegorical figure for Stalin.

For me, the most impressive aspect of The Master and Margarita is its retelling of the story of Jesus and Pilate. Bulgakov obviously held to the now common belief that the Gospel versions of Jesus' life are heavily fictionalized and tendentious: they are later elaborations upon a series of real historical events that are now lost forever. In his Palestine chapters, these historical events as they might actually have happened are reconstructed in detail. I believe the novelist's efforts here are both painstaking and genuine. This is to say he clearly worked hard to reconstruct the historical milieu of Jesus' passion, as he obviously spent much time mentally backtracking from the Gospel accounts in order to get at what might have been their historical kernel.

Mainly at issue is the Gospel According to Matthew. The evangelist Matthew is himself presented in the character Matthu Levi. A careful study of Bulgakov's "Gospel" in relation to both the biblical book of Matthew and other historical sources would make for a fascinating long article. Without going into details I haven't checked--and which would be hard to check, anyhow, here in Taiwan--I would like to raise a few worthwhile points:

1) Bulgakov strategically avoids an elaborate presentation of the character of Jesus. The Jesus we can extract from his narrative is all the more powerful for this spare presentation. Interestingly, Bulgakov's Jesus complains at one point about the scribe following him around, namely Matthu Levi, a man who, he says, is always writing things down on a goatskin parchment, and who always gets everything wrong. Wryly, then, with a sentence that echoes down through the centuries, Bulgakov has Jesus himself voice the concern of all those who suspect the four evangelists of intentionally misrepresenting Jesus of Nazareth's teachings. Bulgakov is clearly the canonical novelist (the novelist as mascot) of that scissor-wielding crowd of academic iconoclasts who make up the field now known as Historical Jesus Studies.

2) Bulgakov's presentation of Judas Iscariot is itself a fascinating piece of irreverence. We learn that Judas wasn't even a disciple of Jesus, but rather a petty informer hired ad hoc to lure Jesus into making statements against the Roman authorities. After receiving his payment Judas feels no guilt. Instead he strolls contentedly through the streets of Jerusalem, and forthwith takes up the offer of a tryst with his mistress Niza, who turns out to be his betrayer. She lures him outside the city limits, to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he meets his executioners.

3) It has long been noted that the New Testament texts place the blame for Jesus' execution on the Jewish religious authorities of Jerusalem rather than on the Roman imperial authority. Central in this regard is of course the Roman governor Pilate and his famous "washing his hands" of the burden of Jesus's death (Matthew 27:24). Bulgakov's chapters implicitly explain for us why Pilate's character comes off so well in the Gospel versions. The tale may be summed up as follows: Impressed by Jesus' wisdom at the interrogation, Pilate became a sort of secret advocate of the condemned, even to the point of finally arranging for the murder of the man who'd betrayed him, one Judah of Kerioth, or, as he's more commonly known, Judas Iscariot. This act of retribution, once revealed to Matthu Levi, effects a bond of sorts between Pilate and the future evangelist. Although the furious Matthu flatly refuses to take up the post Pilate offers him--that of personal librarian at his estate in Caesarea--he is nonetheless forced to reassess Pilate's role in Jesus' death. Whatever else Matthu's future Gospel will contain, the reader recognizes that it will have to reflect what Matthu learns during his meeting with Pilate. The evangelist ends by requestiing a new sheet of parchment from the Procurator.

Hopefully these few points give some notion of the character of Bulgakov's "Gospel". I myself would like to pursue these questions further, but here in Taipei, where I reside, I don't expect the libraries to have much in English on Russian literature. Probably a chapter from the standard biography would give me something of Bulgakov's own ideas and sources for his tale. Doubtless there are a couple dissertations out there on this very question. Should anyone have anything they can send me electronically, I'd appreciate it.

Before closing I'd like to return briefly to the problem of "evil." I put the word in quotation marks because it is mainly a question here of a kind of comic or burlesque evil. On the cover of my paperback edition the New York Times critic is quoted as calling the novel "a vast and boisterous entertainment." This word boisterous describes much of the novel: those chapters, namely, where the activities of Satan and his gang are narrated. Contemporary readers might find these sections heavy-handed, even tedious. They seem appropriate to a sense of entertainment that is no longer ours. In any case the question of the satirical value of these chapters raises itself. Why or how are they integral to Bulgakov's satire?

One aspect of Soviest society may go a long way in illuminating the character of the burlesque here. In the Moscow of the Bolsheviks, the supernatural itself was transgressive, forbidden. I think this point, easy to forget for the Western reader, is crucial for understanding not only the original appeal of the Devil's antics in the novel, but also the satiric thrust of Bulgakov's art. One catches something of this thrust in the frequent use of the word "scandalous" to describe the novel's supernatural happenings. The narrator frequently uses the adjective "scandalous" where we'd use adjectives like "unbelievable" or "amazing." This usage is an echo of Soviet ideology. For the materialist Marxist ideologues who ruled Moscow any evidence of the intervention of supernatural beings was necessarily a "scandal." Of course this was equally true whether those supernatural beings were angelic or demonic. From the Bolshevik point of view, the charge of such beings would be the same in either case: their presence undermined the official state doctrine of dialectical materialism. And so Bulgakov's demonic chapters, mixing the supernatural with a realistic depiction of contemporary Moscow, were necessarily considered transgressive by Soviet critics. That Bulgakov had made his demons farcical didn't dull their sting enough for the censors. Because of this--and much else that stung them besides--The Master and Margarita remained unpublished until 1967, long after the author's death.

The satirical power of the Devil's minions is thus in some sense a negative one. Those characters who encounter the Devil's deeds in this tale are almost unanimously unwilling to believe the evidence offered by their own eyes. Bulgakov shows them constructing elaborately complex "logical" explanations for the impossible things they see. Eventually, as more and more impossible evidence comes forward, it becomes clear that the authorities have only one crutch to stand on: the notion of a kind of mass hypnosis. All the absurd and impossible events that have rocked Moscow must be the work of a band of very talented "foreign hypnotists." That this explanation is hardly plausible doesn't stop it from receiving unanimous approval, even from those who suffered the Devil's work firsthand, for example the poet Ivan Homeless. The narration of this unanimous acceptance of official explanations has in itself a broadly satiric sting, particularly in the context of Soviet communism. The message is obvious: it is precisely the Soviet press that performs hypnosis; it is the Soviet press that daily forces people not to see things that are right before their eyes and, contrariwise, that forces them to believe firmly in things that don't exist in the real world.

Bulgakov's novel is multivalent, overdetermined, impressive. As with many other great Russian novels, the work's weaknesses are somehow inextricably tied up with its brilliance. Should we, then, consider The Master and Margarita as work of the same caliber as that of Gogol and Dostoyevsky--these two writers, after all, being the founders of the tradition Bulgakov follows? One is inclined to say No. But certainly, for those who know something of the Bible and something of the European tradition, The Master and Margarita is well worth study.

Eric Mader
March, 2000

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