Thursday, May 07, 2009

A Straussian Reading of Bulgakov?

Leo Strauss
University of Chicago
(Image from New York Times)

One never knows where a conversation will lead. Two days ago, I started off talking about the Korean word "janmeori" -- which means something like "clever deceptiveness" -- and was soon joined on that blog entry by the erudite Won Joon Choe, who further clarified the concept but also mentioned his own field of "philosophical hermeneutics," leading to a discussion of Leo Strauss's views on esoteric readings of familiar works, a sort of 'defamiliarization' of such works, I suppose. We were joined at this point by the ever-insightful Sperwer, who had also read Strauss, and that conversation is ongoing . . . or might surface here instead. Who knows?

Anyway, Strauss is famous (some might say 'infamous') for his 1952 work, Persecution and the Art of Writing, in which he argued that philosophers have sometimes written 'esoterically' to evade persecution. One should therefore read certain texts 'esoterically' to understand them, for they cannot be taken at face value. The 'face-value' of a text is merely its 'exoteric' form, not its inner substance, and exists to mislead the censors. The astute reader, however, will pick up on the 'contradictions' in the text -- 'contradictions' intentionally left by the writer -- and thus more closely scrutinize the text.

As for Strauss's relevance for Bulgakov, I remarked upon it to Won Joon Choe in a bit of academic biography:
[W]hen I was at Hebrew University, I met a doctoral student who was working on a thesis about Strauss's political ideas. We had some interesting conversations about Strauss's ideas on writing in a way to convey one's ideas while simultaneously obscuring them. That might be applicable to my thoughts on Bulgakov's 'orthodoxy' in The Master and Margarita, written in Stalinist times.
Won Joon Choe replied:
That's fascinating and indeed right down my alley. Who was the student? If his dissertation has been published since then, I may have read it . . . . As for the Bulgakov reference, he's the one great Russian novelist I have yet to read, and your post actually cemented my decision to read him. And I am not surprised that he wrote [esoterically] -- if he wrote esoterically -- in Stalinist times, because the evasion of persecution is the first and foremost reason to write esoterically.
All that I could recall of the doctoral student -- aside from the fact that he was in the same Hebrew class as I and that we had several interesting conversations about Strauss and Straussian ideas about writing -- was that his given name is "Andrew" (so, Andy, if you happen to read this, please join in).

Anyway, as noted, I had already been considering an esoteric reading of Bulgakov a few days earlier:
Bulgakov was writing in an especially repressive period of Soviet history, so we cannot expect him to have expressed his views explicitly.
This was in my blog entry on "The Master and Margarita: Bulgakov's Christology," a post in which I speculated that Bulgakov may have been more Orthodox in his Christology than one might think from a cursory reading of the novel. But I left that question an open one, and still do, until I have re-read Bulgakov's novel in the more-recent translation that I've now obtained -- and also until I have the chance to read Strauss on persecution and the art of writing.

Advice is welcome.

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At 7:05 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

Strauss in his famous essay "Persecution and the Art of Writing"--which you rightly cite--indeed uses the example of the writer who wishes to communicate his heterodox views within the Iron Curtain as a test hypothesis. So there is a perfect congruence between Strauss' contemporary example and Bulgakov. Alas, I know of no other occasion where Strauss extensively wrote about those who wrote within the Communist Bloc. But the truth is that many pre-modern writers wrote in what we would today describe as "totalitarian" regimes. In spite of the dizzying heights that Athens achieved, for instance, there was no genuine freedom of the individual as such--as both Fustel and Burckhardt, among others, remind us.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I'll definitely have to read Strauss's essay and see if I can apply his ideas to Bulgakov. I might find something worthy of an article.

Jeffery Hodges

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