Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mikhail Bulgakov: A Vision of Hell

Mikhail Bulgakov
Unlike Varenukha, casting a shadow...
(Image from Wikipedia)

Hell in The Master and Margarita is depicted as the otherwise mundane paradise of the jazz-bar restaurant in the Griboyedov House, the meeting place for Moscow's offially recognized literati. Here's the scene of that hellish restaurant as translated by Mirra Ginsburg from the original Russian in her 1967 edition:
Dripping with perspiration, the waiters carried sweating beer mugs high over their heads, shouting hoarsely and with hatred, "Sorry, citizen!" Somewhere in a loudspeaker a voice commanded: "Karsky shashlik, one! Zubrovka, two! Tripe polonais!" The thin high voice no longer sang but howled, "Hallelujah!" The clashing of the golden cymbals occasionally covered even the clatter of the dishes which the dishwashers were sending down the chute into the kitchen. In short, hell. (Chapter 5, New York: Grove Press, 1967)
Hell, is it? Then, this world seems none so bad. Let's compare it to Michael Glenny's translation of hell's kitchen, also from 1967:
Pouring sweat, the waiters carried dripping mugs of beer over the dancers' heads, yelling hoarsely and venomously 'Sorry, sir!' Somewhere a man bellowed through a megaphone:

'Chops once! Kebab twice! Chicken a la King!' The vocalist was no longer singing -- he was howling. Now and again the crash of cymbals in the band drowned the noise of dirty crockery flung down a sloping chute to the scullery. In short -- hell. (Chapter 5, London: Collins and Harvill Press, 1967)
Clearly, the two translators have made some stylistic choices in rendering the Russian into English, but this hell seems a liveable one . . . almost, were it not for the sudden, unexpected death of the house director, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, whose unfortunate, or perhaps fated, decease will soon be rumored throughout the crowd and temporarily disturb those gathered in this pandaemonium.

Bulgakov's hell, in both translations, appears very worldly, too worldly -- but that's his point, I gather. The world has lost its reflection of transcendence and exists only as it is, solely an earthly paradise, guaranteed by the Communist Party's inner-worldly providence. But there is a slight problem that arises with mortals in charge of planning, a problem in the workers' paradise noted halfway into the first chapter by the mysterious professor and expert in black magic, Woland, to the poet Ivan Nikolayich Poniryov, who writes under the pseudonym Bezdomny (i.e., "Homeless"), and to the soon-to-expire Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz:
'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?'

'In fact,' here the stranger turned to Berlioz, 'imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organising others and yourself, and you developed a taste for it -- then suddenly you got . . . he, he . . . a slight heart attack . . .' at this the foreigner smiled sweetly, as though the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure . . . . 'Yes, a heart attack,' he repeated the word sonorously, grinning like a cat,' and that's the end of you as an organiser! No one's fate except your own interests you any longer. Your relations start lying to you. Sensing that something is amiss you rush to a specialist, then to a charlatan, and even perhaps to a fortune-teller. Each of them is as useless as the other, as you know perfectly well. And it all ends in tragedy: the man who thought he was incharge is suddenly reduced to lying prone and motionless in a wooden box and his fellow men, realising that there is no more sense to be had of him, incinerate him.

'Sometimes it can be even worse: a man decides to go to Kislovodsk,' -- here the stranger stared at Berlioz -- 'a trivial matter you may think, but he cannot because for no good reason he suddenly jumps up and falls under a tram! You're not going to tell me that he arranged to do that himself? Wouldn't it be nearer the truth to say that someone quite different was directing his fate?' The stranger gave an eerie peal of laughter. (Michael Glenny's translation, Chapter 1)
This, as one might expect, is precisely how Berlioz dies later that day. In fact, the good Professor Woland even goes on to predict in precise and clear detail exactly how Berlioz will expire, his head chopped off by the wheels of a tram, thereby establishing two things. First, human beings have plans that "gang aft agly" -- oops, I meant to say, "go often askew" (but inadvertently slipped into a Scottish brogue!). Second, there is a plan, apparently, for Woland knows what will happen to Berlioz, but it's a plan that obviously runs counter to mortal intentions. In that sense, it "rules the life of man," but can one say that it "keeps the world in order"? The accident that kills Berlioz brings disorder to his little literary world, so any maintenance of order would have to be understood on a larger scale -- a bit like an anti-entropic principle of the universe. Disorder on a small scale . . . but a larger order sustained, a larger-than-human order.

Professor Woland refers to this as the "seventh proof" of God's existence! But what sort of proof is a death foretold? There seems to be something of the contingency variant on the cosmological argument for God's existence. Or perhaps there's something of the teleological argument here. Yet, Woland has agreed with Berlioz that the five traditional arguments for God's existence prove nothing, and he has also rejected Kant's 'sixth' argument, the appeal to morality. So . . . what is this seventh argument, exactly? I'm not certain that it is something that can be precisely worded, but I'll reflect further on what Bulgakov might have meant. Keeping in mind that he's an ironist and satirist, of course . . .

Anyway, one can easily see how such a novel -- and such a novelist! -- would offend the Soviet orthodoxy of the 1930s, but on Stalin's whim, Bulgakov was allowed to work as literary consultant to the Moscow Art Theater until his personal experience of the seventh proof at the age of 48 in 1940.

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At 7:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, I erred in posting that blog too soon, so I've reposted and transferred your comments here.

From Uncle Cran:

I would propose that Mikhail Bulgkov presently either knows the answers to the arguments for God's existence.............or he knows nothing at all!
As does everyone who has left this present world.


7:08 AM

I mis-spelled Bulgakov,...sorry.


7:11 AM

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, sorry about the mix-up. My blog entry posted on the wrong date, so I had to re-post it.

Anyway, you're surely right.

Jeffery Hodges

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