The Master, Margarita, and Madness
(An Operatic Commentary of Mephistophelean Proportions)
“The Past lies upon the Present like a giant's dead body.”
~Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables
Not as subreptive to the point of incomprehensibility as Dostoyevsky’s The Demons and, conversely, not as exceedingly overt in a multiplicity of meanings as Bely’s Petersburg, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is effectively swathed in enough symbolism to make it both an excellent companion piece to and a golden mean between the other two novels of antithetically symbolic extremes. Likewise, Bulgakov has textually constructed his novel into a operatic masterwork—straddling the paragraphic lines between opera seria and opera buffa—and organized The Master and Margarita into three interlaced tales: that of the adulterous interactions between the novel’s namesakes, the Master and Margarita Nikolayevna; the visitation of the Devil—under the moniker of ‘Woland’—and his motley entourage in the city of Moscow; and the story of Pontius Pilate and his dealings with the citizens of Yershalaim.
Each of these interconnected stories serves as allegorical columns supporting the overarching sociopolitical and religious themes of the novel. Through Bulgakov’s use of symbolic and syntactical identifiers, he has suffused these stories together and embedded them within a structural hotbed of issues plaguing early-20th century Russia. Since his utilization of these aforementioned identifiers ranges from the symbolic use of the eye/eyes (approximately used upwards of 130 times, by my count) to the knife/sword (by my estimation, it’s used upwards of 40 times) to chess/checker(s)/checkered (used approximately 20+ times), I will focus on Bulgakov’s semiological use of the head/face/mind, which the author uses with overwhelming frequency to convey his thematic extremes of religion and godlessness, sanity and insanity, fear and freedom, and, ultimately, as a platform to criticize the institutions embraced by Soviet Russia under a Stalinist regime.
Out of all of Bulgakov’s semiological identifiers, the head, face, and mind—as well as various types of pain inflicted upon one or all of them—is, perhaps, the most recognizable and most utilized within The Master and Margarita. For starters, the character of Pontius Pilate is incessantly plagued by headaches: “Oh gods, gods why do you punish me?...Yes, no doubt, this is it again, the invincible, terrible illness…hemicranias, when half of the headaches” (p.19). Moreover, due to the heavy heat cast down from the noonday sun upon Yershalaim, Mathew Levi experiences troublesome thoughts: “A single feverish thought was leaping in his burning head” (p.177). While back in Moscow, the Master himself is masterfully intertwined with the events that transpired in Yershalaim. Here, we find his mind plagued by his creation—the manuscript concerning Pontius Pilate. The morning after Satan’s Ball, Margarita and the Master argue and, in the process of his pushing Margarita away, he realizes what he has done and begins to cry. Without hesitation, Margarita casts her own hurt feelings aside to comfort the Master and confesses, “Ah, my much-suffering head!” (p.367). The Master replies, “I know that we’re both victims of our mental illness, which you perhaps got from me” (p. 367). Bulgakov not only has intertwined the fates of both the Master and Margarita to Pontius Pilate, but has also addressed the issue of losing one’s faith in one’s religion as well as one’s self; however, the author’s semiological utilization of the head takes on far greater phantasmagorical properties, pushing it over the edge and into the hyperbolic extreme elsewhere in the novel.
The heads of both Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz—noted editor of the publication, Massolit—and Georges Bengalsky, master of ceremonies at the Variety theatre, encounter similar cerebral traumas–namely, that of decapitation—however, the former’s beheading is gruesomely predicted by the foreigner and resident Devil in disguise, Woland, whereas the latter’s is brought about by the artiste of the black arts and his gaggle of grim minions for the audience’s—but mostly for their own—entertainment. Berlioz’s headless demise is met at Patriarch’s Ponds: “The tram-car went over Berlioz, and a round dark object…went bouncing along the cobblestones of the street. It was the severed head of Berlioz” (p.46). While in Bengalsky’s case, an audience member attending Woland’s séance at the Variety theater shouts, “Tear his [Bengalsky’s] head off!” (p.125) to which Woland’s gaunt lackey, Koroviev retorts, “’What’s that you said?...Tear his head off? There’s an idea! Behemoth!’ he shouted to the cat [another from Woland’s retinue]…Growling, the cat sank his plump paws into…the master of ceremonies and in two twists tore the head from the thick neck with a savage howl” (p.126). Metaphorically, both men’s decapitations serve not only as a physical assault upon the body by the Devil disguised as Woland but also as an indication of a greater evil afflicting the Russian mind—that of the dependence upon logic and reason to explain away the inexplicable—thereby, excorticating even the merest whim of a preternatural element involved.
Fortunately for Bengalsky, the head-severing escapade spawned by Woland & co. isn’t quite as permanent as Berlioz’s and his head is soon returned to him; however, his mind is not…or, at least, it is assumed so by Dr. Stravinsky, head of the insane asylum where Bengalsky will soon find himself institutionalized. Later, during Woland’s gala of all things satanic, Berlioz’s head turns up: “’Mikhail Alexandrovich,’ Woland addressed the head in a low voice…the slain man’s eyelids rose, and on the dead face Margarita saw…living eyes filled with thought and suffering” (p.273). At this point Woland adroitly addresses Berlioz’s bodiless head and bemuses, “You have always been an ardent preacher of the theory that, on the cutting off of his head, life ceases in a man…my guests, though…serve as proof of quite a different theory…There is also one [theory] which holds that it [death] will be given each according to his faith” (p.273). Here, Bulgakov rather comically addresses his overarching lamentation concerning the removal of religion under the Soviet way of life. By revivifying the bodiless head of Berlioz—a staunch supporter of the more fashionable atheism sweeping communist Russia—Woland reviles in decimating the Massolit editor’s theory that there is no soul and, therefore, no afterlife.
Yet another bodiless head worth noting comes in the form of Yeshua (otherwise known as Jesus Christ). In the introduction to The Master and Margarita, Richard Pevear notes that “during Pilate’s conversation with Yeshua…he sees the wandering philosopher’s head float off and in its place the toothless head of the aged Tiberius Caesar” (p. xvii). Here, Bulgakov has masterfully entwined the past with the present, interlocking the events about to unfold in 20th century Russia to those that occurred at the dawn of Christianity. The fate of Berlioz, the Massolit editor, is intermixed with that of Yeshua and acts as textual exchange of warning and lamentation: the former, a signifier that religion is an inescapable part of everyday life and that its extraction from the human psyche is possible but ill-advised; the latter, a sobering reminder that religion might be replaced by a secularized dogma embracing atheism and science, but it has rather bittersweetly not been forgotten.
Bulgakov’s appeal to the Russian people to not totally abandon their antiquated Russian Orthodox faith for ones purely set in the fashionable and often obsolescent modes of the scientific method and communist manifesto is further—and somewhat ironically—paralleled with the first moments that gave rise to Christianity; specifically, by channeling this message through the story of Pontius Pilate. After the Roman procurator dismisses Yeshua Ha-Nozri as a crazed yet harmless individual, he meets with Joseph Kaifa, high priest of the Jews of Yershalaim, and passively attempts to persuade him into releasing Ha-Nozri instead of the criminal, Bar-Rabban, from execution in observance of the great feast of Passover. Here, the attempts of the past’s powers that be—in this case, Joseph Kaifa and to a lesser extent, Pontius Pilate—to quash the emerging new religion are conversely paralleled with Soviet Russia’s attempts to eliminate the very same religion and replace it with a sociopolitical movement.
Pilate’s indirect endeavor to convince Kaifa to liberate Yeshua is met with an emphatic ‘no’ from the high priest: “The crimes of Bar-Rabban and Ha-Nozri are quite incomparable in their gravity. If the latter, obviously an insane person, is guilty of uttering preposterous things in Yershalaim and some other places, the former’s burden of guilt is more considerable…Bar-Rabban is incomparably more dangerous than Ha-Nozri” (p.14). The procurator’s subtle pleas—disguised as intimated threats—to free Yeshua rather than Bar-Rabban are echoed in Bulgakov’s overall tone of The Master and Margarita. Like Pilate’s subtlety, Bulgakov indirectly urges Russians to embrace their past rather than to neglect it through The Master and Margarita. Through his storytelling, the author vocalizes his view that the only viable option to accept the challenges of Russia’s future is to accept its past. Bulgakov’s wishes for a flourishing Russian tomorrow resonate in the character of Pontius Pilate and his roundabout requests—both to Yeshua and Kaifa—to stop the insanity he is witnessing but does nothing to stop; thusly, the author has managed to intertwine the madness of the past with the myopia of the present and, just perhaps, has broken the endless cycle of submission and cowardice through the written words of his novel. For Bulgakov, the hammer and sickle are modern icons appropriating the roles formerly held by saintly statuettes Their symbolic usurpation is an obstruction to Russia’s religious past, and Bulgakov considers communism to be nothing more than a fear-mongering iron fist bullying his homeland’s future.
It can also be surmised that Bulgakov’s use of mental illness and the institutionalization of Soviet citizens solely for hallucinations throughout The Master and Margarita was a direct commentary on the early 20th-century shift away from religiosity and toward a secularized modernity. Furthermore, what better backdrop for such removal of religion, tradition, and their respective practices on a purely national scale than that of communist Russia? This shift from orthodoxy to atheism is succinctly embodied within the first few opening pages of the novel during Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz’s critical conversation with Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev (aka- ‘Homeless’) concerning the “the long anti-religious poem for the next issue of his [Berlioz’s] journal [Massolit]” (p.8). Later Berlioz further elaborates that “atheism does not surprise anyone…the majority of our [Russia’s] population consciously and long ago ceased believing in the fairy tales about God” (p.12); as I have previously mentioned, such a bold statement from Berlioz will later to come back to haunt his bodiless head.
Moreover, in the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s The Demons, Bulgakov interlaces a network of incidents regarding the head—or, more specifically, the mind—as average Russian citizens are almost instantaneously institutionalized for describing the dastardly actions of Woland and his retinue. Almost immediately diagnosed as delusional by qualified, professional types such as Dr. Stravinsky, many Soviet citizens feel the backlash of a society sterilized of its superstitions simply for explaining the events that have unfolded before their very eyes. Usually, these unbelievable events are brought about by direct or indirect interaction with Woland, the Devil, and his insidious minions; however, due to their nature—or rather, supernature—the experts in their respective fields brush aside the metaphysicality of these events as hokum and hex of the, and, instead, favor a more logical, plausible, and, therefore, more palpable explanations such as traumatic shock or, worse, chemical imbalances within the brain. These general pangs and fits from mental illness are yet another overarching theme throughout Bulgakov’s novel. Not more than a hundred years prior to The Master and Margarita’s creation, similar cases wouldn’t have had such a secularized view of those suffering from mental illness; in fact, many of them would’ve been considered demonically possessed. In Malleus Maleficarum, Friars Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger note, “The devil can also essentially possess a man, as is clear in the case of frantic men… they [demons] sometimes…injure men only in their own bodies; sometimes in their bodies and in their inner faculties…others they at times deprive of the use of their [men’s] reason” (p.129). The friars further note that “all Angels, good and bad, by their natural power, which is superior to all bodily power, are able to transmute our bodies” (p.124).
Furthermore, with religion removed from the sociocultural equation, the citizens of Soviet Russia are incapable of recognizing the dark arts that will soon lay siege to the city of Moscow and, as a result, are blinded by—what Friars Kramer and Sprenger distinguish as—demonic possession by “those who are skilled in sorcery and glamour [who] deceive the human senses with certain apparitions, so that corporeal matter seems to become different to the sight and touch…in the matter of creating illusions” (p.93). In a nation removed of its religious tradition and embracing secularized modernity and an atheistic ethos, what would’ve once been immediately identified as deviltry is now referred to simply as hypnotism or mass hypnosis: “Citizens, you and I [Bengalsky, the master of ceremonies at the Variety theatre] have just beheld a case of so-called mass hypnosis. A purely scientific experiment, proving in the best way possible that there are no miracles in magic” (Bulgakov, p.125).
Additionally, after Woland and his entourage have wreaked their own brand of fresh hell upon the citizens of the Russian capitol, the proceeding investigation conducted by the Russian police ignores any indication of the unclean element in favor of a more logical explanation: “the criminal gang…were hypnotists of unprecedented power, who could show themselves not in the place where they actually were, but in imaginary, shifted positions” (Bulgakov, p.388). Again, by consulting Malleus Maleficarum, one will soon discover that demon possession extends past full bodily control to that of hallucinations: “He [the devil] must first occupy the head and faculties…the devil can draw out some image retained in a faculty corresponding to one of the senses…he causes such a sudden change and confusion, that such objects are necessarily thought to be actual things seen with the eyes. This can be clearly exemplified by the natural defect in frantic men and other maniacs” (pp.124-125). This lends further credence to idea that Bulgakov has used The Master and Margarita as a clarion call to the Russian people not to forsake their religious faith in order to entirely embrace ones based in the sciences and in modernity.
Altogether, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is an explorative commentary on the foibles, follies, and fears of the 20th-century Soviet mindset hell-bent on removing both небеса и ад from the Russian vocabulary. Furthermore, Bulgakov has deftly entwined this commentary into the straightforward approach of old-fashioned storytelling, similar to that of Gogol’s works. In doing so, he has approached the folktales of Russia’s rich past by expropriating them, then reanimating them with a dissenting clarity of silenced religiosity and sociopolitical perspective under the watchful stare of a Stalinist USSR; thereby, not only adding an electrifying jolt but an interesting twist to the traditional ghost stories told ‘round the fire.
Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. New York: Penguin Books. 1997.
Kramer, Heinrich and Sprenger, James. Malleus Maleficarum. New York: Dover Publishing. 1971.