During the recent Easter season, I found myself dipping into certain chapters from Bulgakov’s «Мастер и Маргарита» — after all, the master’s novel-within-a-novel retelling of key events from Страсти Христовы (“The Passion”) is quite central to the story . And, in fact, Bulgakov’s masterpiece was originally conceived as a short sketch in which the Devil debates a Soviet atheist as to whether Jesus actually existed — with Satan ironically taking the pro-Jesus side.
But at the same time, Bulgakov takes an intriguingly untraditional stance towards the Christian narrative. (In the master’s version, for instance, Jesus was orphaned in infancy, and the Last Supper is more or less a cocktail party hosted by Judas, who had only met Jesus the day before, and wasn’t an apostle.)
So, as a non-believer who also listens to Jesus Christ Superstar every Easter, I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic theology of Bulgakov’s book — which, like the Webber/Rice rock opera, is in some ways highly “agnostic,” yet manages to be reverent at the same time. And this ambiguity is dramatically apparent when a certain Biblical figure pops out of a brick wall for a one-page cameo, in…
Глава 29: Судьба Мастера и Маргариты Определена
Chapter 29: The Fate of the Master and Margarita Is Determined
If you don’t know the backstory at all, here are the two key points for understanding this excerpt:
(1) The “Master” is an unnamed author in 1920s Moscow who has gotten into trouble with the authorities for writing a novel about a meeting between Pontius Pilate and one Иешуа Га-Ноцри (“Yeshua the Nazarene”). This Иешуа is, as noted above, a thoroughly “secularized” Jesus — a vagrant philosopher/rabbi who neither walks on water nor turns it into wine.
(2) Meanwhile, Satan himself is visiting Moscow in the guise of a foreign professor named Woland, creating hilarious black-magic mischief that satirizes various hypocrisies and abuses in the Soviet system.
So one evening, Woland/Satan is hanging out on the high terrace of an apartment building, when there suddenly materializes a raggedy-looking guy in a Greek-style tunic.
This sudden arrival has already been introduced in the master’s manuscript as a fictionalized character, but this is the first and only time that he shows up “for real” in modern Moscow. And Woland seems to have anticipated him:
«Ты с чем
“With what purpose have you come, uninvited but foreseen guest?”
Note that незваный recalls the familiar saying «Незваный гость хуже татарина» — “an uninvited guest is worse than a Mongol invader”! And the gate-crasher evidently understands Woland’s snub, and is rude in return:
«Я к тебе, дух зла и повелитель теней» — ответил
“I’ve [come] to you, spirit of evil and ruler of shadows” — answered the one who’d just entered.
Up to now, the reader may not be entirely sure of the guest’s identity, but Woland’s next line provides a clue. Christian tradition holds that Matthew the Gospelist had been a tax-collector who quit his job after meeting Jesus:
«То почему же ты не поздоровался со мной, бывший
?» — заговорил Воланд сурово.
“Then why didn’t you say ‘Good evening’ to me, former collector of taxes?” — said Woland sternly.
«Потому что я не хочу, чтобы ты здравстовал» — ответил дерзко вошедший.
“Because I don’t want you to have a good evening, or a good day, or a good anything,” replied the visitor insolently.
Also, note that (по)здороваться (“to greet, say hello”) and(“to thrive, be healthy”) are obviously related to здоровье, “health”. (And поздравлять/поздравить, “to congratulate,” is also related — just be careful not to get these verbs confused!)
Woland responds with good-humored noblesse oblige to Matthew’s rudeness, but as we’ll see, his comments introduce a tantalizing philosophical question. Essentially, Woland takes the “Dualist” position that good and evil are natural counterparts, with the possible implication that God and Satan have shared co-sovereignty over the Universe. (Earlier in the book, Woland declines to show clemency towards a certain woman in Hell — explaining that forgiveness is handled by “a different department.”*)
The mainstream Christian view, of course, is that evil was an unplanned flaw introduced into God’s perfect world by Adam and Eve’s disobedience — and, furthermore, that Satan is himself merely a flawed and finite creation, not in any way an opposite-but-equal Yin to God’s Yang.
Thus, вопреки тому, что (“despite the fact that”) Bulgakov had a Russian Orthodox upbringing, the novel seems to reject some of most basic theological premises of православие, “Orthodox Christianity”.
Anyway, Woland says rather dualistically:
«Что бы делало твоё добро, если бы не существовало зла, и как бы выглядела земля, если бы с неё исчезли тени? Ведь тени получаются от предметов и людей.»
“What would your goodness do, if evil didn’t exist, and how would the Earth look, if shadows were to disappear from it? After all, shadows are produced by solid objects and people.”
Elaborating on this theme, Woland points out that a world full of light but without shadows would necessarily have to be as smooth as a billiard ball, with no trees or people or other living things. “And if you think that’s a good idea,” he adds to Matthew Levi, «ты глуп» (“you’re stupid”). A little more banter follows with Satan and the Gospelist trading insults, and finally Woland asks Matthew why he’s dropped by. Again, in my view, Bulgakov is carefully and deliberately “agnostic” in what follows, by using pronouns rather than nouns:
«Он прислал меня.»
“He sent me.”
«Что же он
“What [message] did he order you to convey, slave?”
«Я не раб,» — всё более озлобляясь, ответил
“I’m not a slave,” answered Matthew Levi, growing more and more irate, “I’m his disciple.”
Woland’s dry retort is, very loosely: “Slave, disciple — you say to-MAY-to, I say to-MAH-to!” But who is this «он» they speak of — is it God, or is it Yeshua Ha-Notsri? Or are they one and the same, as Christianity holds? Or perhaps Yeshua the Nazerene was a “major prophet” like Moses and Elijah, but not actually divine? Or, possibly, Yeshua and Satan are— sons of the actual Supreme Being, each governing different aspects of Creation?
At any rate, the ambiguity isn’t cleared up as the conversation continues, and Matthew explains that he’s here to discuss the eternal destination of the Master and Margarita after they’ve died:
«Он прочитал сочинения мастера,» — заговорил Левий Матвей — «и просит тебя, чтобы ты взял с собою мастера и
“He has read the master’s composition,” said Matthew Levi, “and asks you to take the master with you and reward him with peace.”
Note that verb просить — “to request, to ask for”! Earlier in the book*, someone says to Woland: «Так, я могу попросить об одной вещи?» (“So, I can request one thing?”), and Woland pointedly corrects the phrasing: «Потребовать одной вещи!» — “Demand one thing!” Or, Matthew could have used a verb like (“to order; instruct to do”) or приказывать/приказать (“to command”). Instead, Matthew couches the message in the form of a polite request for a favor — which strikes me as an odd thing to do if Yeshua is actually God, and Satan is merely a creation subordinate to God.
Perhaps to underscore the odd point that Yeshua has sent Matthew with a request instead of an order, Woland asks:
«А что же
“And why don’t you lot take him to your side, into the light?”
«Он не заслужил света, он заслужил покой» — печальным голосом проговорил Левий.
“He hasn’t earned light, he has earned peace” — Levi said in a sad voice.
This place of “peace without light” is a reference to the highest circle of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno — a relatively pleasant neighborhood that medieval Catholic theologianscalled “Limbo.”
«Передай, что будет сделано» — ответил Воланд — «и
“Tell him it will be done,” answered Woland, “and now leave me this instant.”
But Matthew Levi isn’t quite done — and don’t miss the abrupt switch from ты to the polite/formal вы:
«Он просит, чтобы ту, которая любила и страдала из-за него, вы взяли бы тоже» — в первый раз
“He requests that you, sir, also take that [woman] who loved him and suffered because of him” — for the first time Levi addressed Woland in a beseeching tone.
Woland’s reply mixes a grain of sincerity (he really is benevolently inclined towards the two lovers) with dripping sarcasm for Matthew:
«Без тебя бы мы никак не догодались об этом. Уходи.»
“Without you that never would have occurred to us. Go away.”
Левий Матвей после этого исчез, а Воланд подозвал к себе
Matthew Levi disappeared after this, and Woland summoned Azazello and commanded him: “Fly to them and arrange everything.”
At the risk of a spoiler, let’s say that Azazello “arranges” for the Master and his Margarita to arrive in Limbo a bit sooner rather than later, if you get my drift. (But the good news is that, at least, it’s a deluxe ticket out of Stalin’s USSR!)
So, then, are Satan and Jesus simply two celestial “colleagues” who each works in a different ведомство (“bureaucratic division”), as Woland suggests in an earlier chapter*? Perhaps that’s what Bulgakov is suggesting.
Then again, in a passage from the master’s book*, Pilate ostensibly orders the Roman “secret service” to protect someone from vigilante revenge — but on a close reading of Pilate’s dialogue, he’s actually giving the go-ahead for a covert assassination! So if Pilate’s words didn’t always mean what they seemed to mean, then possibly the words of the devil should be taken with an especially large chunk of salt.
Still, this “agnostic ambiguity” in Master and Margarita never ceases to fascinate me. What do you think Bulgakov intended?
P.S. I made several references (marked with a red * звёздочка) to “earlier chapters” in Master and Margarita. A bag of all-black licorice jellybeans and a half-eaten milk chocolate bunny for you if you can ID these chapters and the characters involved!