Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bulgakov: Ruminations by Patriarch's Ponds

Berlioz, Woland, and Bezdomny
Near Patriarch's Ponds
Illustration by Charlie Stone

I'm now reading Burgin and O'Connor's translation of Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita. Yesterday, I began it by first reading the annotations by Ellendea Proffer, which I found useful for their information about the Russian context but which I found insufficient in other ways.

For instance, Chapter 18 of Bulgakov's novel has the following remark by a bartender as he is confronted by a woman who suggests that he share some of his newfound cash with her:
"Leave me alone, for Christ's sake," said the bartender fearfully and quickly hid the money. (page 177)
Proffer's note tells us:
for Christ's sake -- the only mention of Christ in the novel, as opposed to the hundreds of casual mentions of the devil. (page 350)
But this can't be correct, for in Chapter 1, we have already learned that Berlioz and Bezdomny had been speaking of Christ just before the novel's opening scene:
The conversation, as was learned subsequently, was about Jesus Christ. (page 4)
Proffer also seems confused about Kant, for in the same opening scene with Berlioz and Bezdomny, after they are joined by the foreigner Woland and begin to discuss God, the 'proofs' of God's existence are mentioned:
"But, may I ask," resumed the guest from abroad after a moment's troubled reflection, "what do you make of the proofs of God's existence, of which, as you know, there are five?"

"Alas!" answered Berlioz regretfully, "all of those proofs are worthless, and mankind has long since consigned them to oblivion. Surely you would agree that reason dictates that there can be no proof of God's existence."

"Bravo!" exclaimed the foreigner, "Bravo! You've said just what that restless old sage Immanuel said about this very same subject. But here's the rub: he completely demolished all five proofs, and then, in a seeming display of self-mockery, he constructed a sixth proof all his own!"

"Kant's proof," retorted the educated editor with a faint smile, "is also unconvincing. No wonder Schiller said that only slaves could be satisfied with Kant's arguments on this subject, while Strauss simply laughed at his proof." (pages 7-8)
In Proffer's note on Kant, she writes:
Kant's proof -- the philosopher Immanuel Kant postulated three proofs of the existence of God, rejected them and came up with the one least likely to convince either the devil or a Muscovite of the 1930s: that God is to be postulated for the moral will. Bulgakov is either joking or miscounting here. Woland mentions five proofs, which makes Kant's own the sixth -- and the proof Woland provides, the seventh. (page 339)
Proffer seems unaware that there are five traditional proofs of God's existence and that Kant's critique has often been understood as undermining all five. Kant's moral proof (grounded in practical reason) is conventionally understood as a sixth 'proof'. Woland's 'proof' is thus a seventh.

Based on the evidence, I therefore suggest that readers take Proffer's notes with a grain of salt, for she doesn't appear to have been quite careful enough.

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