The Russian Gate To Postmodernism: Mikhail Bulgakov

The Russian Gate To Postmodernism: Mikhail Bulgakov

Vana Goblot

Vana Goblot reconsiders the Russian Master

Reality had its revenge. In December 1991 the USSR finally ground to a standstill - as fifty years earlier Mikhail Bulgakov…metaphorically predicted in his fantastic novel The Master and Margarita. Here Mikhail Berlioz…tells a young poet that Jesus Christ never existed; the Devil arrives to say he did. – Malcolm Bradbury, ed, “Russia and Eastern Europe after the Second World War,” The Atlas of Literature

The absurdity of the opening scene of Bulgakov’s most celebrated novel, The Master and Margarita, is written against the backdrop of Stalinist Russia, 30 years before the notion of postmodernism came to life. And yet, haunting time warps of fantasy and reality, allegory and Mennipean satire, were in the powerful mind of Bulgakov, and it is there that postmodernity touched Russian ground - although, as a movement, it could only have been conceived ‘in advanced capitalist culture.’

Bulgakov’s fame and destiny were as dark and torturous as many of his fellow authors’. A chain of banned works and fluctuations of despair and amputated success, both in theatre and the publishing world, had taken its course. The KGB possessed his early diaries; his manuscripts were accepted but never published in his lifetime; theatres stopped his plays often in the middle of rehearsals. Five years before his death, his only reliable audience was his wife, Yelena Sergeyevna, and his closest friends.

Now, how do Russia and the other countries of the former Eastern Bloc cope with the discovery of long awaited words that reflect the uncensored spirit? Bulgakov’s testament has since gained an enormous cult status; the most visible proof must be the graffiti shrine at the one time Bulgakov residence in Moscow, no. 10, Bolshaia Sadovaia. The quotes from The Master and Margarita - MANUSCRIPTS DON’T BURN and IF THERE ARE NO DOCUMENTS, THERE IS NO SUCH PERSON - are hauntingly applicable: Bulgakov’s manuscripts did not burn. His early diaries were snapped up by the KGB. But a copy of the diary was found in the re-discovered KGB literary archive. In the course of the 12 years that Bulgakov was writing his last novel, The Master and Margarita, he tore the manuscripts halfway through and burned one part. The manuscripts that did not burn are the pages for which Bulgakov, and his characters, would be remembered, the ‘devil’s justice’ that Bulgakov received posthumously.

Twenty-six years after his death, the novel was finally published, albeit in a heavily censored version. From then on, it has been continually revised back towards the original length (every year, in different translations, it has been re-issued into a yet more definitive version). Its changing shape deliberately expands towards the infinity of the story, as if by Woland’s magic.

If the postmodern condition foregrounds ontological instability or interdeterminacy, it is obvious that, through the character of Woland, the devil in The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov managed to enter that condition. From the very first chapter, we can find elements of postmodernism proclaiming ‘contingency as destiny’:

‘But this is the question that disturbs me - if there is no God, then who, one wonders, rules the life of man and keeps the world in order?’ ‘Man rules himself, ’ said Bezdomny angrily in answer to such an obviously absurd question ‘I beg your pardon,’ retorted the stranger quietly, ‘but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?’

Woland materializes to tell a ‘gospel according to the devil,’ not in his authentic archetypal role of evil. Bulgakov introduces his antropomorphic character within multiple planes of reality that turn out to be fragments of the present. Moscow is the ‘outer’ plane for the gospel or the ‘novel within a novel.’ The supernatural is a tool to create chaos and anarchy, to bisect the reality even more (e.g. ‘the fifth element’ in the Satan’s Ball chapter). Bulgakov does not show us two poles, or two opposites, except when unmasking the state of consciousness in everyday Moscow, e.g., when Woland talks to Matthew the Levite:

‘I have come to see you, spirit of evil and lord of the shadows,’ the man replied with a hostile glare at Woland. ‘Well, tax-gatherer, if you’ve come to see me, why don’t you wish me well?’ ‘Because I have no wish to see you well,’ said the man impudently. ‘Then I am afraid you will have to reconcile yourself to my good health,’ retorted Woland… ‘As soon as you appeared on this roof you made yourself ridiculous. It was your tone of voice. You spoke your words as though you denied the very existence of the shadows or of evil. Think, now: where would your good be if there were no evil and what would the world look like without shadow?… Shadows are also cast by trees and living things. Do you want to strip the whole globe by removing every tree and every creature to satisfy your fantasy of a bare world? You’re stupid.’

Bulgakov sees metaphysical elements in the devil; he is not evil or good, he is eclectic. Although in an apocalyptic role, one of his purposes for Bulgakov was to materialize a new form of energy in Moscow. Margarita embraces the energy, and its effect is a sudden joy and happiness. For Blake, ‘energy is eternal delight,’ and for Margarita, likewise, it ‘liberates the erotic potential’:

Laughing, Margarita jumped out of her bath-wrap with one leap, scooped out two large handfuls of the slightly fatty cream and began rubbing it vigorously all over her body. She immediately glowed and turned a healthy pink. In a moment her headache stopped…. The muscles of her arms and legs grew firmer and she even lost weight. She jumped and stayed suspended in the air just above the carpet, then slowly and gently dropped back to the ground. ‘Hurray for the cream!’ cried Margarita, throwing herself into an armchair.

With sudden invisibility and new freedom to try out her powers, Margarita flies on a broom around Moscow, and eventually dives into a new time and space warp - Satan’s ball. In this alternate plane of reality, time has stopped, and Woland appears as the king of the underworld. His companion, Koroviev, gives Margarita a hint as to how the physical space of the Ballroom looks enormously large from the inside: “ ‘Easy!’ he replied.. ‘For anyone who knows how to handle the fifth dimension it’s no problem to expand any place to whatever size you please. No, dear lady, I will say no more - to the devil knows what size.’” ‘The fifth element’ Koroviev mentions can be translated to the ‘social events’ Woland takes part in, for the magical impact has even greater effect. Moscow citizens are perplexed, frightened, and astonished by his appearance and actions. Woland’s black magic repeated within planes of Moscow reality suggests an attribute of a satirical sub-genre: Mennipean satire. When compared to elements of postmodernism, the similarities are evident: a mixture of stylistic levels, the presence of fantastic elements, a breaking away from traditional time-space considerations, heroes who are actual historical figures, the social and philosophical targets of satire, a proliferation of ironies and paradoxes, and unusual states of mind: insanity, and particularly, schizophrenia.

Another feature that leads us to postmodernism in The Master and Margarita is the multiplicity of its genres that lead beyond the fantasy novel to its origin in myth and even the occult, whis are all part of the intellectual tradition of Russia’s religious revival in early twentieth century. Moreover, the element of romanticism in Bulgakov’s novel (Gerald Graff sees postmodernism as a logical development out of the premises of Romanticism), brings it closer still to postmodernism. Furthermore, magic realism is a genre that is so often adhered to in Bulgakov’s novel - along the lines of Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann - and its time warps and mixtures of dream and reality are undoubtedly anticipations of an international postmodern aesthetic, as evidenced, for example, in Salman Rushdie’s conference of Midnight’s Children or the Memory Theater of Carlos Fuentes Terra Nostra.

Bulgakov uses the subversive potential of irony, parody, and humour to reveal the psychosis (Bezdomny’s schizophrenia) in Russian society of the time. Still, The Master and Margarita is concerned ‘with the integrity of the artist, with the survival of true art despite oppression with faith and love,’ as J. A. E. Curtis puts it. Its romantic archetype of the artist fixes the novel to the time and the space when it was written. The Master and Margarita is also autobiography; it is what Bulgakov consciously created as his testament. Not only does the book make reference to his life; it also predicts his death. His wife, Yelena Sergeyevna, mentions in her memoirs that, in 1939, Bulgakov used to say that it was his last year. On March 10, 1940, on his deathbed, Bulgakov was still revising. He died at the moment when Yelena Sergeyevna was reading the part about Berlioz’s funeral. In the middle of the scene, he stopped her to say his last words: “So… that’s enough, perhaps.” The author ends up like his character, the Master, and it is the end that we can see as a prediction, or it is, perhaps, Bulgakov’s final simulation.