Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Master and Margarita

The following is my translation of an exchange about Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita during a question and answer session with Deacon Andrei Kuraev. These questions follow a discussion of why the Russian Orthodox Church anathematized Leo Tolstoy:
Q: Didn't Mikhail Bulgakov, in The Master and Margarita, also censor the Gospel?

A: I wouldn't put it that way. It's much more difficult with Bulgakov, because Leo Tolstoy was writing from himself, whereas the undoubtedly anti-Christian gospel according to Woland is precisely the gospel according to Woland, and not according to Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov. Therefore it's not logical, in the given case, to conflate the author with his characters.

Moreover, I think that in a certain sense the Orthodox Christ was precisely like Bulgakov's Yeshua Ha-Nozri from The Master and Margarita. More exactly, as one puts it today, such was Christ's "image," such was the way He appeared to the crowd. From this point of view, Bulgakov's novel is brilliant; he shows the visible, external side of the great event of the coming of Christ the Savior to earth, he reveals the scandal of the Gospel, because one indeed needs to have an extraordinary gift of grace, to accomplish a true act of faith, in order to recognize that this dusty Stranger, without a degree in higher rabbinical studies, is the Creator of the universe.

We are accustomed to the presentation of Jesus as King, of Jesus as God; from childhood we have heard the prayers "Lord, have mercy" and "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." But such works of art as the paintings of [Nikolai] Ge or, to a lesser extent, of [Vasili] Polenov, or The Master and Margarita itself, help us to understand all the unlikelihood and paradox of the apostolic faith, to feel its painful scalding, allowing us to return to the moment of choice…

Q: But then why are there more opponents than supporters of The Master and Margarita among church people?

A: Name me a single secular book that would have more supporters than opponents in the Church! The only exception might be, most likely, the works of Dostoevsky, and even here, paradoxically, The Brothers Karamazov was not at all liked at the Optina monastery.

If one judges by those people who have thought about The Master and Margarita while already Christian, one sees that there exist two fundamental tendencies of ecclesiastical literary criticism. One group of authors considers (with good arguments) that this is an occult and anti-Christian work, while the other group of ecclesiastical literary critics, with arguments just as good, considers that this is not the case.

I think that the answer is not found in the text itself. For the question is not how to qualify the chapters "about Pilate" in the novel – it goes without saying that they are anti-Christian. The question is rather: how did Bulgakov himself relate to them? In order to answer this an enormous complex of witnesses is essential, both biographical and autobiographical; it is essential to analyze the drafts of The Master and Margarita, and to do this one needs to move beyond the borders of the "book in green covers," that is, beyond the novel itself.

I'm more comfortable with the position that Bulgakov, in The Master and Margarita, attempted to offer a certain warning against belief in atheistic propaganda. To do this he used the approach called reductio ad absurdum, when one takes the position of one's opponent and immediately concedes it, but then extends their position to its logical conclusion, and this conclusion is shown to be absurd.

The fact is that all the atheistic lecturers in Soviet Russia in the 20s and 30s looked at Christ as a strange and half-crazy preacher. Bulgakov was not able to argue with them directly due to reasons of censorship, and therefore he wrote The Master and Margarita, in which the eyes of scientific atheism were placed in the eye sockets of Woland, and it turned out that atheism is in fact Satan's view of Christ, and far from simple science.


Martin said...

What a fascinating commentary/interview. I love this novel and I have my own take on it in case you care to read it: Best wishes, M

Felix Culpa said...

Thanks for your comment. I look forward to reading your take on it when I've got a little more time; hopefully in the next few days.

Fr Andrei Kuraev has a full book on M & M, the full text of which is available online, although only in Russian. You can find it by following the link under his name and then searching around a bit.

Have you seen the mini-series made of the novel a year or two ago for Russian TV?