Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is, above all, a novel which re-imagines the consequences of oppressive thought patterns and their actualization in wider organizations such as the national states or religious doctrines. I believe the key idea that unlocks many doors in the text is that trying to oppress religion, art and creativity is bound to be an obsolete and ridiculous effort: as the ideals themselves will continue to be recreated as long as the conditions require them to do so.
In Stalinist Russia, where the book was written, one of such conditions was that of censorship. This attempt to control the massively consumed narratives came in two parts: first, any kind of religious narrative or doctrine was “banned” from the public eye, so as to make it easier for the state to control its subjects. Religion, instead, was replaced with ideas of absolute materialism and rationalism (both of these disciplines will be turned upside down in the book by the tricks of Woland and his disciples, and the hospitalizations of actually “rational” and “sane” people). Another area that was under attack was the artistic sphere; where it was demanded that all the Russian classics were burned down and replaced instead with works of the Soviet ideology. This prescriptive and concrete demands of the Soviet regime is what the novel rebels against; especially with the characterizations of Woland and the Master.
The first time Woland, a devil which “eternally wills evil but eternally works for the good” reminds us of the impossibility of burning manuscripts (or destroying ideas) is when he tells the story of Pontius Pilate to Berlioz and Biezdomni in the Patriarch’s Pond, in a conversation which they are claiming that neither God nor the Devil can exist. This encounter is interesting in two ways; firstly, although we do not know yet, the story Woland recites is from the Master’s book, which he so desperately tried to burn. What physically remains of the book at the time of this re-telling is just a part from the middle section. Yet Woland, the devil, has it restored in his memory. The act of reciting passages from a burned book will be present again when Azazello is trying to convince Margarita to come with him. These are the instances which (literally) spell out: manuscripts don’t burn. The other compelling aspect of this encounter is the ideologies and theologies of both Biezdomni and Berlioz. As the novel suggests, the devil and all his doings, as well as the figure of Christ (as Ha-Nozri) are very much “real,” (even though they do not necessarily match up to their Biblical descriptions). What must have driven Berlioz and Biezdomni to atheism, therefore, is the conscious effort of the state to burn the ultimate manuscript(s): the Old and New Testament.
This creates an intriguing parallel: Berlioz and Biezdomni are trying to oppose the State’s fascistic ways censorship in the arts, all the while unaware that the actual scope of this censorship covers the oldest narrative of them all as well. Perhaps it is in this moment, a connection of sorts can be established between the ideas of religiosity and creativity. Their firt common ground (in the Soviet state) is the fact that they are both subect to the same oppression. The connection gets deeper, however, when we fully encounter the final resting place of the Master and Margarita.
Although they are united before they are dead, the only real peace they experience is after they die, as Matta Levi states, “they have gained the right to only peace, and not the side of the light.” The place they finally reside in is a place of creativity and not dogma; exemplified by the fact that they go up the hill and find Pontius Pilate and his dog also residing there. It is not heaven as we know it, but the existence of Pontius Pilate (a part of the Master’s creation) implies that this place is one in which you are free to create. This is when the motivation of Margarita (when she throws herself in the fire to save the manuscript) becomes clear: peace cannot be achieved without the act of creation. The unbreakable link between these three entities; creation, freedom and (ultimate and eternal) peace also helps enlighten the relationship between religion and creativity I had mentioned earlier. It also illuminates the dangerous and ultimately impossible nature of trying to destroy texts which are the center of creative activity.
As one finishes the novel, three things are very clear. Neither the oppressive attitude of the state, nor the crippling personal anxiety could stop Mikhail Bulgakov from writing this book. Second, the Master, although he tried, could not get rid of his manuscript either and the book was ultimately saved by Margarita (the great force of womenhood). Lastly, the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments could not be burned by the Soviet state either; as it is their characters like Woland and Ha-Nozri who move the story along, in the end. In conclusion, this fantastic political satire shows the futility of trying to erase complete narratives from the historic scene. After all, ideas are not physically contained within their books, as material things can be contained in material places. The act of creation is ultimately driven by a need to express what is in our minds, the unique and singular process we primitively know and feel to be the granter of freedom and ultimate peace.
I am reminded of the British graphic novel “V for Vendetta,” although I am aware that it is not an example of the highest literary genius, the untouchable nature of ideas is also a prominent theme in this work. The main character, who is always ominously hiding behind a mask and trying to rebel against the state through exposing their secrets and various other “terrorist” acts, gets shot hundreds of times at the end before he utters the famous sentence “… you cannot kill me, I cannot die, because ideas are bulletproof,” revealing to the readers that a personification of an ideology and creation, which, as he claims, is untouchable. He dies in the end of course, but the livelihood of his ideas remain, which is what is worth noting. Though this is highly allegorical and cannot match up to Bulgakov’s level of craftsmanship in Master and Margarita, the line of thought is still the same: you cannot oppress or censor ideas, because they will always find other channels and hosts to manifest themselves in. They are not contained within their mediums.
Written for an exam for my “Typologies of the Novel II: 20th Century” class in 2017, this essay examines how Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita explores different realms of literary eternity.
Illustration by: Victor Efimenko