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The Master and Margarita and the Poetics of Aporia: A Polemical Article

  • Gary Rosenshield (a1)


Despite some early critical reservations, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has become one of the icons of postrevolutionary Russian literature. The bibliography of scholarly commentary on the work—mostly adulatory, and in some cases even hagiographical—is vast. Bulgakov has become, especially for western critics, the epitome of the artistmartyr. Persecuted by the Soviet writing establishment, he was able, through his long suppressed satiric masterpiece, The Master and Margarita (published for the first time in 1966-67), to survive and turn the tables—aesthetically and morally speaking—on his former oppressors. Life is short, art is long; or as Woland expressed it, manuscripts do not burn.

Indeed, there is ample justification for such a hagiographical approach. By 1928, when Bulgakov was drafting the first plans for The Master and Margarita, his literary prospects were already growing dim. In the 1930s, no longer able to publish original fiction, he survived by adapting works for the theater and by translating.



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I would like to acknowledge my debt to my colleague Judith Kornblatt. Our conversations on The Master and Margarita helped me formulate and clarify many of the ideas presented in this article, for which I take full responsibility.

1 See Irving Howe, “The Continuity of Russian Voices,” Harper’s, January 1968, 71-74; Glenny, Michael, “Mikhail Bulgakov,Survey, no. 68 (October 1967): 314 ; Leatherbarrow, W. J., “The Devil and the Creative Visionary in Bulgakov’s Master iMargarita,New Zealand Slavonic Journal 1 (1975): 2945 . For a study that deals more concretely with Bulgakov’s artistic lapses, see Delaney, Joan, “ The Master and Margarita: The Reach Exceeds the Grasp,Slavic Review 31, no. 1 (March 1972): 89100 . Lakshin, V. (“Roman M. Bulgakova Master i Margarita,Novyi mir 44, no. 6 [1968]: 307–11) praises the novel, but views the ending as authorial wish fulfillment.

2 For the history of the novel's composition, see Chudakova, M., “ The Master andMargarita: The Development of a Novel,Russian Literature Triquarterly 15 (1976): 177209 .

3 Howe, “The Continuity of Russian Voices,” 71-72. Although Howe read an incomplete English edition, the missing passages do not undercut his argument. In the same vein, Delaney writes: “Negative criticism has centered on the three levels of narrative and their interrelation… . Bulgakov set himself a tricky problem in integrating these three stories, and few critics will maintain that he has completely succeeded“ (“The Reach Exceeds the Grasp,” 90).

4 By writing that “all the pieces of the puzzle” seem to be there, “but the pattern“ has “not yet become visible,” Howe leaves open the door to an interpretation that might reveal the work’s coherence (“The Continuity of Russian Voices,” 72).

5 Ericson, Edward, “The Satanic Incarnation: Parody in Bulgakov’s The Masterand Margarita,Russian Review 33 (1974): 2036 . The same assumptions underlie Weeks’s, Laura D. statement of purpose in “Hebraic Antecedents in The Master and Margarita: Woland and Company Revisited,Slavic Review 43, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 224–41: “Here then is another attempt to produce a unified reading of The Master and Margarita by placing it in a theological context” (225). See also Lesskis, G. A., ‘“Master i Margarita’ Bulgakova (manera povestvovaniia, zhanr, makrostruktura,Izvestiia Akademii NaukSSSR, Seriia literatury i iazyka 38, no. 1 (1979): 54, 59.

6 Combining feminism with modernism, Elizabeth Beaujour, Klosty (“The Uses of Witches in Fedin and Bulgakov,Slavic Review 33, no. 4 [December 1974]: 695707) argues that it is female energy “whose activity precipitates the final harmony” (701) and “which brings this precariously balanced and complex structure into its final position of harmonious resolution” (703). Almost all studies of the novel attempt, of course, to show the integral relationships among Pilate, Woland, and Ieshua. For perhaps the most judicious and well-balanced eschatological interpretation, see Stenbock-Fermor, Elizabeth, “ The Master and Margarita and Goethe’s Faust,Slavic and EastEuropean Journal 8 (1969): 309–25.

7 Delaney writes: “But the main problem is the very size of the task attempted“ (“The Reach Exceeds the Grasp,” 90).

8 Beaujour, “The Uses of Witches in Fedin and Bulgakov,” 695. Proffer, Ellendea (“Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita: Genre and Motif,Canadian Slavic Studies 3 [1969]: 615) similarly writes that “what may seem to be ‘internal inconsistencies’ are parts of a deliberate artistic plan.“

9 Haber, Edythe C., “The Mythic Structure of Bulgakov’s The Master and MargaritaRussian Review 34 (1975): 384 . Each critic of the novel sees his or her interpretation as the missing key that will restore order to the chaos created by other critics. In approaching The Master and Margarita, most critics have proceeded, as Bethea, David (“History as Hippodrome: The Apocalyptic Horse and Rider in The Master and MargaritaRussian Review 41 [1982]: 374 ) has observed, “on the assumption that somewhere, somehow, it achieves a state of homeostatic balance and release, of opposites coming into place.” Wedel, Erwin (“Zur Doppelromanstruktur von M. Bulgakovs ‘Master i Margarita,’” in Wedel, Erwin, ed., Symposium Slavicum 1977 [Innsbruck, 1980], 190) argues that the goal of international Bulgakov scholarship should be to achieve a great synthesis that would reveal the interconnectedness of every aspect of Bulgakov’s novel. In a different vein, Wright, A.Colin (Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations [Toronto, 1978], 261), conceding that The Master and Margarita is neither a “tidy” nor a “logically structured” work, suggests that its “greatness lies” rather “in its power to evoke responses intuitively from the reader.“

10 For Kejna-Sharratt, Barbara (“Narrative Techniques in The Master and Margarita,Canadian Slavonic Papers 16 [1974]: 12) the integration of the novel's three disparate styles makes The Master and Margarita Bulgakov’s “greatest stylistic achievement.“ Of course, some of our interpretive problems could stem from dealing with a possibly unfinished text. According to Simonov, Konstanin (“Introduction,Bulgakov, Mikhail, Master i Margarita, Moskva, 1966, no. 11:7), Bulgakov was still revising the novel at his death. Proffer, Ellendea (“On The Master and Margarita,” Russian LiteratureTriquarterly 6 [1973]: 535), however, vehemently argues that the novel is essentially complete.

11 Sharratt, Barbara (“Time in the Novel: Bulgakov’s Master i Margarita,Scando-Slavica 29 [1983]: 57) writes that the purpose of the novel's juxtaposition of Jerusalem and Moscow “is to bring out the common bond between these two sets of seemingly disconnected events.” Critics have generally distinguished the same three narrative levels or planes. The picaresque, satiric Moscow plane and the historic, psychological Jerusalem plane are clearly differentiated. For the story of the Master and Margarita, because it combines elements of the fantastic, the prosaic, and the fairy tale, I alternate the German terms Marchen or Mdrchenwelt with “the world of the Master and Margarita.” The Marchen is a genre in German romantic literature (most practiced by Novalis and E. T. A. Hoffmann) that might be best described as a literary fairy tale. Elizabeth Stenbock-Fermor calls this last world the “fantastic level” (“The Master andMargarita and Goethe’s Faust,” 317). For an excellent treatment of the fairy-tale sections of The Master and Margarita, see Hoisington, Sona, “Fairy-Tale Elements in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,Slavic and East European Journal 25, no. 2 (1981): 4455 .

12 For the most outstanding examples of this criticism, see Bethea, , “History as Hippodrome“; Gasparov, B. M., “Iz nabliudenii nad motivnoi strukturoi romana Bulgakova, M. A. Master i Margarita,” Slavica Hierosolymitana 3 (1978): 198251 . Gasparov’s approach is encyclopedic. Bethea analyzes the aural and visual echoes of the text in greater depth than any other critic.

13 Bolen, Val, “Theme and Coherence in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,Slavic and East European Journal 16 (1972): 434, 435; Davies, J. M. Q., “Bulgakov: Atheist or ‘Militant Old Believer’? The Master and Margarita Reconsidered,Australian Slavonicand East European Studies 6, no. 1 (1992): 130 ; Frank, Margot K., “The Mystery of the Master’s Final Destination,Canadian-American Slavic Studies 15, nos. 2-3 (1981): 289 ; Oja, Matt F., “Bulgakov’s Ironic Parallel between Margarita and Afranius,Slavic Review 50, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 148 ; Proffer, Ellendea, Bulgakov: Life and Work (Ann Arbor, 1984), 558, 640. Pruitt, Donald B. (“St. John and Bulgakov: The Model of a Parody of Christ,Canadian-American Slavic Studies 15, nos. 2-3 [1981]: 316) rejects the swallow as Woland’s presence, suggesting light as a better disguise for the “Prince of Darkness.” Pope, Richard (“Ambiguity and Meaning in The Master and Margarita: The Role of Afranius,Slavic Review 36, no. 1 [March 1977]: 124) suggests “Woland may have been Afranius himself” (14).

14 Bulgakov, Mikhail, Belaiagvardiia, Teatral'nyi roman, Master i Margarita (Moscow, 1975), 469 . Translations are mine. Future references to this edition will appear in the text.

15 Bolen sees the sparrow in Dr. Kuz'min’s office as Woland or one of his associates (“Theme and Coherence,” 435).

16 Milne, Lesley, A Comedy of Victory (Birmingham, 1977), 5 . Scholem, Gershom (Zohar: The Book of Splendor, Basic Readings from the Kabbalah, Scholem, Gershom, ed. [New York, 1949], xi) has described this phenomenon in some of the most extravagant passages of The Zohar as “a passion for the association of ideas which is pushed to an extreme, degenerating into a flight from conceptual reality.“

17 Oja, “Bulgakov’s Ironic Parallel,” 146.

18 The phrase “Ivan was alone” (Ivan odin), which occurs at the beginning of chapter 13 (“The Appearance of the Hero“), appears to bear no relationship to these conversations.

19 Beaujour, who offers a positive interpretation of the devil in The Master andMargarita, sees Christ and the devil as destroyers of harmful order and partners in the good (“The Uses of Witches in Fedin and Bulgakov,” 696-97, 701, 703). Tumanov, Vladimir (“Diabolus ex Machina: Bulgakov’s Modernist Devil,Scando-Slavica 35 [1989]: 52) calls the Devil “God’s assistant and Jesus’s ‘colleague.’“

20 Nor does Ivan throw any light on the interconnection of wives when he asks the Master if he was ever married. The Master is unable to recall his wife’s name. The Master, of course, is fated to have a secret wife (tainaia zhena, 556). In the scholarly literature almost all the characters of the novel have been compared and contrasted with each other. See, for example, Haber, “Mythic Structure“; Oja, “Bulgakov’s Ironic Parallel,” 144-49. When gaps are perceived in the system, they are quickly filled. The game of “is there a parallel in the class” is endless. The novel becomes a Norman Hollandian Rorschach blot that interpreters can use to compose their own novels. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that critics often fundamentally disagree about parallels of crucial significance. For some the devil is evil, for others the devil is good. Some conveniently seem to know when the devil is lying and when he is telling the truth; others disagree about when this is so. For some the moon is a symbol of deception, for others the moon is a symbol of the truth. For some Woland is the personification of Stalin and that is good, for others Woland is the personification of Stalin and that is bad; for still others Woland is a worthy partner of Christ. For some The Master andMargarita is an updated Faust (Stenbock-Fermor, “The Master and Margarita and Goethe’s Faust“; A. Colin Wright, “Satan in Moscow: An Approach to Bulgakov’s The Master andMargarita,” PMLA 88 [1973]: 1162-72). For others The Master and Margarita is Faust turned upside down (Delaney, “The Reach Exceeds the Grasp,” 96; Haber, “Mythic Structure,” 389; Proffer, Bulgakov: Life and Work, 557-58). Other examples could be cited. Most of these are confusions, not alternative interpretations. Reading an allegory incorrectly is simply misreading. Even in Dostoevskii’s work, which contains a great deal of religious symbolism and psychological ambiguity, no one would compare Sonia to the “devil” (as Margarita has been compared to Afranius, the head of the secret police) or argue that Napoleon, whatever his intentions, is doing the work of Christ.

21 Significant critical problems are bound to arise if one views Bulgakov, as Krugovoy, George does (“The Jesus of Church and the Yeshua of Mikhail Bulgakov,Zapiski Russkoi Akademicheskoi Gruppy v S.Sh.A. 28 [1985]: 221), as a twentieth-century synthesis of Dante and Thomas Aquinas. “It is hardly an overstatement to say that in [all of] Russian literature Bulgakov was the only author who succeeded in expressing the most complex ideas of theology and liturgy in the intricate and aesthetically impeccable imagery of literary art” (221). Inconsistencies in interpretation flow inevitably from this point of view. There are critics, for example, who argue that Ieshua is not Christ and deny any metaphysical level in the Jerusalem chapters, yet wax indignant at Berlioz for not taking the supernatural seriously.

22 Many of the narrator’s statements obviously allude to other text levels, such as his occasional use—from his own person—of the phrase, “O, gods, my gods,” with reference to poison, as in chapter 5 (“The Affair at Griboedov’s,” 477). But actually there are very few instances where the narrator explicitly—that is, selfconsciously— alludes in one text to another text, as he does for example, when discussing the knife that the “foreigner” uses in the hard currency grocery to cut some lox (chapter 28). “Ostreishim nozhom, ochen’ pokhozhim na nozh, ukradennyi Leviem Matveem” (764).

23 For an excellent analysis of the psychological realism of the Jerusalem text, see Stenbock-Fermor, “The Master and Margarita and Goethe’s Faust,” 321-22.

24 Wright incorrectly states that Pilate knows “that he will be linked in immortality with the figure of Christ” (“Satan in Moscow,” 1170). How could Pilate possibly know that? At moments, of course, he has intimations of something unusual.

25 Critics have been unduly hard on the Master’s fear of the secret police. The reason is not critics’ ignorance, but rather their need to make comparisons between the Master and Pilate. Pilate has enormous powers; he gives orders to the secret police and has Ieshua severely beaten for a trifle. The Master has no power at all and lives under a totalitarian terrorist regime that makes Roman rule seem beneficent. If their cowardice is basically different, there is little point to the comparison.

26 Tumanov, “Diabolus ex Machina,” 34.

27 Oja assumes the importance of free will in the Marchen text in order to prove that Märgarita is good and the head of the secret police is bad (“Bulgakov’s Ironic Parallel,” 148). Proffer similarly assumes free will for both the Moscow and Marchen texts (“On The Master and Margarita,” 545-46). In the Frieda episode, however, Margarita does not think, but acts spontaneously out of compassion. On the other hand, Pilate’s compassion for Ieshua is directly related to the category of responsibility; else he could have crucified Ieshua without thinking, just as he did all the others. Proffer later tacitly acknowledges this problem when she maintains that had the Devil played an active role in the Pilate chapter, “Pilate’s decision could be seen as ‘fated’ or ’predetermined’” (546).

28 For example, Krugovoy (“The Jesus of Church and the Yeshua of Mikhail Bulgakov,” 218-19) who interprets the Jerusalem chapters through the Gospel text, sees Caiaphas as a tool of the Devil and a double of Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor. For Stenbock-Fermor, Caiaphas is a remorseless fanatic (“The Master and Margarita and Goethe’s Faust,” 319). Wright, A. Colin (“Christ Interrogated: Bulgakov and Others,Zapiski Russkoi Akademicheskoi Gruppy v S.ShA. 24 [1991]: 163–76) finds the same negative view of Caiaphas in the modern fictional narratives of the Jesus story by Nikos Kazan - tzakis, Morely Callaghan, and Chingiz Aitmatov. See also Lesskis, ‘“Master i Margarita’ Bulgakova,” 58-59.

29 The confusion of narrative levels accounts for much of the critical debate over the protagonists’ rewards. The changes that Bulgakov made in the last versions indicate that he was perhaps experiencing similar problems himself. See, in this regard, Wright's, A. Colin artful discussion of “peace” and “light” in his “Mikhail Bulgakov’s Developing World View,Canadian-American Slavic Studies 15, nos. 2-3 (1981): 164–66.

30 Wright argues that Pilate and Berlioz are essentially ordinary men who behave in a similar fashion. To be sure, several passages suggest an association, but Bulgakov treats these characters in a profoundly different manner (“Satan in Moscow,” 1070-71).

31 “Parody” is invariably misused in discussing parallels in Bulgakov. Critics often mention the parody of the Last Supper at the Griboedov House. But such a parody would be blasphemous. Further, the Master cannot be a parody of Christ, unless Bulgakov is using the Master to ridicule Christ. Since the Master does not pretend to be Christ, even the term travesty would be inappropriate. Bulgakov may, of course, “diminish” the Master by ironically comparing him with Christ or Ieshua. Furthermore, the use of mock religious events does not automatically transform them, contrary to what many critics assume, into ultimate textual realities—as anyone who has seen Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part One surely knows. The Jerusalem chapters mesh with the story of the Master only if interpreted down: that is, if they are not really about Christ, but about a simple, homeless man who is punished for saying things that the government does not like. The Master gets into trouble for repeating what Ieshua said about earthly kingdoms. But this interpretation of Ieshua, of course, conflicts with the events of the last chapters, where Ieshua turns out to be Christ. For interpretations of The Master and Margarita as parody, see Beatie, Bruce A. and Powell, Phyllis W., “Story and Symbol: Notes toward a Structural Analysis of Bulgakov’s TheMaster and Margarita Russian Literature Triquarterly 15 (1978): 219–51; Proffer, Bulgakov:Life and Work, 559-60. Proffer asserts that the Master and Ieshua have nothing in common other than persecution (“Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,” 627).

32 For one of the most artistically convincing conflations of the prosaic within the literary fairy tale, see E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Golden Flowerpot.“

33 Pope, “Ambiguity and Meaning,” 1-24.

34 Ibid., 11.

35 Woland’s relation to the epigraph is equally problematic. If Woland is really a benign devil whose destructive actions are divinely sanctioned, then he is not the principle of evil alluded to in the epigraph. If, on the other hand, he is meant to be the personification of evil, then he is badly miscast. This critical impasse has understandably led many critics to take the epigraph ironically, perhaps for fear of taking it, like Pope, to its logical conclusion.

36 Pope, “Ambiguity and Meaning,” 22.

37 Commentators on the novel have made even more questionable statements about the nature of good and evil. Ericson, for example, argues for a Russian Orthodox interpretation of the novel, citing Sergei Bulgakov’s denial of the substantive existence of evil, but standing the theodicean argument on its head, he asserts that the existence of evil in the world is proof of God’s existence (“The Satanic Incarnation,” 25). Kovac, Anton (“The Problem of Good and Evil in Bulgakov’s Novel The Master and Margarita,”New Zealand Slavonic Journal 2 [1968]: 30) writes that “Stalin was the personification of Evil, yet he could not help being the catalyst which brought about the growth of Good.“

38 Mills, Judith M., “Of Dreams, Devils, Irrationality and The Master and Margarita, “ in Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel, ed., Russian Literature and Psychoanalysis (Amsterdam, 1989), 321 . Edythe Haber writes of “the life-giving nature of such murders“ (“Mythic Structure,” 405).

39 Wright, “Mikhail Bulgakov’s Developing World View,” 166.

40 Perhaps Bulgakov scholars need to become more familiar with the latest work on the aesthetics of representing twentieth-century evil. Most of this work treats the representation of the Holocaust, but it is also applicable to Stalinist atrocities. See, for example, Langer, Lawrence L., The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven, 1975); Lang, Berel, ed., Writing and the Holocaust (New York, 1988); Friedlander, Saul, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (Cambridge Mass., 1992).

41 Much of the problem may be attributed to Woland’s statement to Margarita in chapter 32 that “all will turn out well for that is what the world is founded on” (Vsebudet pravil'no. Na etom postroen mir, 797). In The Master and Margarita, the devil makes this statement, but in The White Guard, the author expresses the same idea quite directly. A. Colin Wright sees this idea as one of the three cornerstones of Bulgakov’s worldview (“Mikhail Bulgakov’s Developing World View,” 151-66). Wright attempts to defend Bulgakov’s “metaphysical optimism” by interpreting it as an unorthodox version of gnosticism in which good and evil play an equal role in a final nondualistic harmony. Though such a view, in context, is artistically understandable as a consoling fiction aimed at Margarita (or an example of authorial self-deception), when viewed retrospectively, it is an unfortunate foundation on which to construct a novel touching on the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century.

42 With respect to Goethe, commentators have seen more differences than similarities, especially in the character of the Master. Haber tries to rescue Faust for TheMaster and Margarita by arguing that the Master and Margarita together constitute a composite of Faust (“Mythic Structure,” 390-95).

43 Even Ivan Karamazov’s devil makes fun of Goethe’s lines. Zigelis, Andrew (“Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita: Three Types of Ambiguity,Russian Language Journal 30, no. 107 [1976]: 124–25) sees the aporia of the novel, which he calls “expressionistic distortion,” as a device for undercutting propositions such as the possibility of salvation.

44 Miller, J. Hillis, “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure, II,Georgia Review 30 (1976): 341 .

45 See Bolen on Il'f and Petrov (“Theme and Coherence,” 430-32).

46 For the most extensive studies of the novel's narrational structures, see Johnson, Vida Taranovski, “The Thematic Function of the Narrator in The Master and Margarita,“Canadian-American Slavic Studies 15, nos. 2-3 (1981): 271–86; Proffer, “On TheMaster and Margarita,” 540-43; Kejna-Sharratt, “Narrative Techniques,” 1-12. The coherence of the narration is no less problematic than the coherence of other aspects of the novel.

47 Soviet critics have understandably downplayed the use of the supernatural. Lesskis (’“Master i Margarita’ Bulgakova,” 52-59) for example, interprets both the Jerusalem and Moscow chapters as literary devices (tekhnicheskie priemy) employed to make ethical points. But V. Lakshin (“Roman M. Bulgakova,” 289) also sees Ieshua as a literary device.

48 Johnson (“The Thematic Function of the Narrator,” 275) suggests that “the devil, of course, could have easily caused Ivan, his impressionable and ignorant listener, to dream the continuation of the story.” See also Stenbock-Fermor, “The Masterand Margarita and Goethe’s Faust,” 317. Hart, Pierre R. (“The Master and Margarita as Creative Process,Modern Fiction Studies 19 [1973]: 173–74) suggests that the Master might be almost entirely a “fabrication” of Ivan’s crazed imagination. But this idea is obviously taken too far when critics argue that Ivan might be the narrator of the entire novel. See, for example, Weeks, Laura, “In Defense of the Homeless: On the Uses of History and the Role of Bezdomnyi in The Master and Margarita,” Russian Review 48, no. 1 (1989): 60–63; Mann, Robert, “Path of the Bronze Horseman in The Master and Margarita,” in Leong, Albert, ed., Oregon Studies in Chinese and Russian Culture (New York, 1990), 185–86; Mills, “Of Dreams, Devils, Irrationality and The Master and Margarita” 302-23. G. A. Lesskis (‘“Master i Margarita’ Bulgakova,” 53) states that the Master is not the author in the true sense of the word for the novel is revealed “mystically” (misticheski) to him. Wedel sees links between the Jerusalem and Moscow texts in some of the narrator’s rare, but unmistakable, interjections of his person into the objectively told Jerusalem text (“Zur Doppelromanstruktur,” 187-88). Just as there is no thematic key to the novel, neither is there a narrational key. The only consistent hypothesis that works for the entire novel—if consistency is really desired—assumes one narrator juggling three different worlds. Whereas the narrator moves the point of view back and forth within the Moscow and the Master and Margarita texts, he prefers to assume a uniform point of view in the Jerusalem text. Beyond this hypothesis, the game is probably not worth the candle.

49 One of the early versions of the novel was called “The Gospel According to Woland.” Woland’s influence on all four Jerusalem chapters is suggested by Williams, Gareth, “Some Difficulties in the Interpretation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Advantages of a Manichaean Approach, with Some Notes on Tolstoy’s Influence on the Novel,Slavonic and East European Review 68, no. 2 (1990): 236 ; Frank, “The Mystery of the Master’s Final Destination,” 288; Ericson, “The Satanic Incarnation,“ 26. Kejna-Sharratt asserts that the Jerusalem story’s links to three characters prove “that the story does not belong to Voland” (“Narrative Techniques,” 8-9). In a novel of mysteries and aporias, however, it is difficult to understand why such a linkage would constitute proof against Woland’s authorship.

50 According to Frank, “the Master’s switch from historian to writer already appears orchestrated by Woland” (“The Mystery of the Master’s Final Destination,“ 288).

51 Proffer, “On The Master and Margarita,” 557.

52 Kejna-Sharratt, “Narrative Techniques,” 8.

53 For more standard, autobiographical interpretations that see the Master as a projection of the author’s personality and situation—albeit with some ironic twists— see Delaney, “The Reach Exceeds the Grasp.” I find Bethea’s excellent analysis of the novel's conclusion (“Bulgakov and Nabokov: Toward a Comparative Perspective,“ Zapiski Russkoi Akademicheskoi Gruppy v S.Sh.A. 24 [1991]: 200-209) more satisfactory as an interpretation of authorial intention than as an explication of the text itself.

54 Margarita and the Master belong to a different text. Woland comes to Moscow not so much to punish the Muscovites (a useless task and not that much fun either), but to save the Master and Margarita.

55 The absence of freedom in the Moscow text has been pointed out by Vinogradov, I., “Zaveshchanie mastera,Voprosy literatury, 1968, no. 6:62 .

56 One is tempted to read Pilate-like suffering into the Moscow chapters, but the literary genre Bulgakov has chosen for the Moscow chapters discourages precisely this type of reading.

57 The Master and Margarita actually contains two fairy-tale worlds (Marchenwelte). The first is the freewheeling world of Margarita’s escapades. Then there are several transitional chapters (at Satan’s Ball) in which the grotesque combines with the more serious. These transitional chapters are followed by a second fairy-tale world, in which the grotesque and the burlesque pass into the final resolution sections in the “upper world.” Here Pilate is brought back for his reward.

58 Lakshin correctly describes the establishment of justice at the end of the novel as the wishful thinking characteristic of a fairy tale. But Bulgakov creates this impression, Lakshin argues, giving his explanation a Marxist slant, because he attempts to institute justice everywhere immediately, whereas in reality, although we know that justice will win out in the end—justice being the inevitable end of the historical process—it does not do so neatly, quickly, and ubiquitously (“Roman M. Bulgakova,“ 307-11).

59 Tumanov, in contrast to Milne, sees the novel not as a “comedy of victory,“ but as a tragedy of Russian modernism (“Diabolus ex Machina,” 61).

60 Bethea, “Bulgakov and Nabokov,” 205.

61 Milne’s formulation of this escape, however, may give us pause: “The sudden mysterious disappearances and transportations … which were a grim and terrifying feature of Stalin’s Russia, are here turned into a comedy that transcends the horror of contemporary reality and thereby achieves spiritual liberation from it” ﹛A Comedyof Victory, 13).

62 The Master’s narration (rasskaz) of his romance with Margarita, as Tomaslav Z. Longinović (“Mikhail Bulgakov: Gnosis, Power, and Writing in The Master and Margarita,“Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth-Century Slavic Novels [Fayetteville, 1993], 37-73) has shown, exaggerates romantic cliches. The narrator’s statement about those who doubt the existence of true love must be either ironic or consistent with the Marchen in which Margarita plays the most important role. The narrator, assuming another pose, even agrees to give readers the address of Margarita’s former residence if they should desire to take a look. “Follow me, reader! Who told you that true, faithful, eternal love does not exist on earth? May the liar’s vile tongue be cut off!” (632). If the narrator here is identical to the implied author, the statement (and the entire characterization of Margarita) must be considered an embarrassing artistic lapse. Johnson has great difficulty explaining this and other first-person interjections in the text and is compelled to resort to an extratextual autobiographical explanation (“The Thematic Function of the Narrator,” 285-86). The narrator, of course, vouches for the authenticity of his narrative in other places. In the epilogue, he makes fun of the rationalists who refuse to believe in the supernatural; on the other hand, he also makes fun of those who, going against all common sense, resort to the supernatural. It is impossible, on the basis of the text alone, to demonstrate where and when the narrator is telling “the truth.” The narrator’s statement at the beginning of the epilogue, “No fakt vse-taki, kak govoritsia, ostaetsia faktom” hardly substantiates the authenticity of the supernatural (800). It probably is a parodic reference to socialist realist narratives of the 1930s. But one wonders. Woland repeatedly teases about facts. For example, at the end of the ball scene, he tells Berlioz: “Eto fakt. A fakt—samaia upriamaia v mire veshch'” (689). But this is, indeed, a strange position for an author to take who has elevated the world of the imagination above the world of everyday reality.

63 Ericson, “The Satanic Incarnation,” 21. Johnson argues that the novel requires “an act of faith” on the part of the reader (“The Thematic Function of the Narrator,“ 276).

64 Delaney, “The Reach Exceeds the Grasp,” 99.

65 Bushnell, John (“A Popular Reading of Bulgakov: Explication des Graffiti” SlavicReview 47, no. 3 [Fall 1988]: 502–11) shows that contemporary Muscovites seem curiously uninterested in the Jerusalem and Marchenwelt texts—that is, in Ieshua, Pilate, the Master, and Margarita—but seem obsessed with the daemonic: Woland and his suite (svita). Of course, these preferences may tell us more about Bulgakov’s readership than about the novel itself. In any case, Russian readers, in contrast to Berlioz, did recognize the devil; they just did not recognize Christ. However, some of the latest evidence at “Apartment 50” (graffiti) indicates increasing interest in Ieshua.

The Master and Margarita and the Poetics of Aporia: A Polemical Article

  • Gary Rosenshield (a1)


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