A friend of the blog gave me a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, recommending it because its themes are relevant to reactionary thinkers. Upon finishing it, I couldn’t agree more. The Master and Margarita should be required reading for anyone with rightist leanings. Needless to say, this review contains a few spoilers.
Speaking as a young man who arrived at reaction by secular means, I don’t believe it’s necessary to believe in God in order to become a reactionary. However, I can’t imagine how anyone after they have become a reactionary could possibly disbelieve in the Devil. How can anyone see the decadence that permeates modern culture and not believe that some kind of malevolent force is at work, leading humans astray from virtue and encouraging them to rebel against authority simply for rebellion’s sake? Surely it’s no coincidence that Saul Alinsky cites Lucifer as the first rebel in Rules for Radicals. The Devil must be alive and working in some capacity.
Such is the case in The Master and Margarita, which opens with the Devil meeting a critic and a poet sitting on a bench at the Patriarch’s Ponds in 1930’s Soviet Russia. The critic, Berlioz, head of the literary bureaucracy Massolit, is critiquing a poem written by the young Ivan “Homeless” Nikolavich, about the birth of Jesus. While Berlioz takes no issue with Ivan’s poem in the way that it mocks Jesus, he insists that the major problem with it is the fact that Ivan implies that Jesus existed in the first place. The problem isn’t with Ivan’s writing quality (which Bulgakov implies is actually quite poor) so much as the poem isn’t sufficiently atheistic. This should give the reader an idea of what the USSR was like at this time with its emphasis that art should conform to the communistic morays of the state. Naturally, this includes strong atheism. What Moldbug calls “The Cathedral” immediately springs to mind.
While Berlioz continues to give Ivan reasons to doubt the existence of Jesus as a historical figure, the Devil approaches them and interjects into their conversation. The Devil hears out Berlioz’s case against Jesus and appears delighted by Berlioz’s cleverness and his thorough understanding of history and philosophy. However the Devil then recounts being present when Jesus was brought to the procurator Pontius Pilate, insisting that Jesus did in fact exist. Berlioz and Ivan are unsure what to make of this.
Furthermore, the Devil predicts that Berlioz will suffer death by decapitation. Berlioz finds both the Devil’s story of Pilate and the prediction of how he will die absurd and intends to have him brought to the authorities. While attempting to do Berlioz slips on some spilled sunflower oil causing him to fall in front of an oncoming tramcar. The tramcar beheads Berlioz, just as the Devil predicted.
From this point on the story continues with the Devil and his followers deceiving and tormenting Muscovites in various ways, from getting some of them arrested for possession of illegal currency, to turning others into vampires. The Muscovites, of course, having been raised in Soviet Russia constantly try to explain the Devil’s supernatural tricks by naturalistic means. Since the reader is perfectly aware of the supernatural nature of what the Muscovites are dealing with, some strong dramatic irony is present in this part of the narrative making it all the more amusing to read. Further this dramatic irony accentuates the fact that the secular world these Muscovites live in is an ideal environment for the Devil to play his tricks.
The narrative of the Devil’s antics in Moscow is actually only one of three major narratives present in The Master and Margarita. The second narrative, which the Devil begins telling Berlioz and Homeless, is a re-telling of Christ’s execution under Pontius Pilate. If you are familiar the Gospel account of Christ’s execution (which I suspect the vast majority of my readership is), then this should be familiar subject matter. Bulgakov takes some artistic license with the story of Pilate and changes some of the details so as to make it more thematically consistent with the what takes place in 1930’s Moscow. One example of this is when Jesus declares cowardice to be the “most terrible vice.” Jesus never says this in the Gospels, but if he did then it wouldn’t be out of place. When you consider how Pilate condemns Jesus, an innocent man, in order to avoid an uprising and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, does it not seem as though acts of cowardice are what led to Jesus’ death? On a related note, doesn’t “cowardice is the most terrible vice” sound like a rather reactionary precept?
For Pilate, this act of cowardice haunts him throughout the novel. He suffers from headaches and is often irritable. After executing Jesus he continually has dreams about Jesus and himself having a pleasant walk and an engaging philosophical debate that never reaches its conclusion. These ailments, both physical and mental, plague Pilate for the rest of his life and well into his afterlife until he is finally redeemed.
Enter the third narrative involving a man only known to the reader as “the master” and his lover Margarita. The master composes a manuscript actually telling the second narrative about Pontius Pilate, and he is later revealed to be an instrument of Pilate’s redemption. The master’s back story is semi-autobiographical in that Bulgakov drew from his own attempts at publishing early drafts of The Master and Margarita. Like Bulgakov, the master faces serious backlash for his work leading him to abandon his novel altogether. Eventually the stress of attempting to have his master work published is so great that he disappears to an insane asylum without telling Margarita. Margarita is so devoted to the master that this leaves her distraught with thoughts that her life is no longer worth living without him.
Sensuality is a dominant theme in this section of the narrative, particularly in the master and Margarita’s relationship. One idea that I’ve been toying with in particular is the distinction between sensuality and hypersexuality. While I view sensuality as the mere enjoyment of sexual pleasure, hypsersexuality would be the hedonistic pursuit of carnal pleasure for its own sake. Nowadays modern society emphasizes hypersexuality to the point where mere sensuality appears prudish in comparison. Don’t believe me? Spend some time on the “Sex and Relationships” sections of websites like Salon and Huffington Post and get back to me when you’re sufficiently dead inside.
Hypersexuality isn’t present in The Master and Margarita, but prudishness–its polar opposite–is. Margarita’s loyalty and moral goodness is characterized by her passionate devotion to the master. We are introduced to Margarita as a woman who is in a passable, but passionless marriage. She has all of her needs met and her husband provides for her, but she is still unhappy. And when the master, her lover, disappears without a trace, she finds nothing worth living for. However, when the Devil presents her with an opportunity to save the master, she jumps at the opportunity and leaves her husband and everything about her previous life behind.
Degenerate? Perhaps at first glance. But there is a greater purpose at work behind Margarita’s infidelity. Namely, she is attempting to rescue the master, a man who holds the key to the redemption of Pontius Pilate. While neither her actions nor intentions are themselves morally righteous, they still serve a noble end. Furthermore, the master and Margarita are not necessarily rewarded for their actions. I won’t spoil what happens to them here, but I will say it’s a bittersweet ending. Tear-jerking, but bittersweet.
In order to fully understand the Devil’s role in The Master and Margarita, as well as the justification for Margarita’s service to him, always keep the epigraph that appears at the beginning of the novel:
‘…who are you then?’
‘I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.’
It’s easy to look at the world and lament at the seeming uselessness of evil or human suffering. One can be tempted to adopt the pessimistic worldview of thinkers like Thomas Ligotti. But reading The Master and Margarita has sort of warmed me to the way of thinking that there is no such thing as needless suffering or pointless evil. Evil may be antifragile, but it still isn’t capable of destroying the good.
The Master and Margarita is a delight to read not just for the quality of the work, but more for what the work represents: the triumph of creative freedom in a dark time. Bulgakov went through several iterations of this book, which faced scathing reviews from Soviet critics. The backlash against early versions of what would later become The Master and Margarita weighed so heavy on his soul that he even burned one of the manuscripts. The book never saw publication until the 1960’s, after Bulgakov had died. He was in such poor health near the end of his life that he had to dictate the last snippets of the novel for his wife to write down. And yet in spite of all of the hardships Bulgakov faced, a book so antithetical to Soviet sensibilities was finally published and it resonated with Russians more so than any of his previous works. This is what is most inspiring about The Master and Margarita: the circumstances of the time Bulgakov spent writing it should have prevented its publication, and yet it still saw the light of day.
As reactionaries, we hold views that could damage our careers, hence why we tend to use pseudonyms when expressing our opinions on online forums. Today our society claims to uphold values like free speech, but one need look no further than Brendan Eich or Pax Dickinson to realize that we live in a time where the wrong kind of free speech can cost you your livelihood. It isn’t as bad as Stalin’s reign of terror, to be sure, but the principle is the same, free speech takes a backseat to ideological conformity.
It’s easy to get discouraged by the drudgery that comes from living in the modern world. We reactionaries have, by default, a pessimistic worldview. Our acceptance of the harsh rule of Gnon rather than the kindly embrace of Elua certainly reflects this tendency. The world is dark and inhospitable, and civilization helps us to survive in it. To us it seems that civilization is crashing down on all sides and everyone around us would rather stay glued to their iPhones or force acceptance of transexuality among other forms of degeneracy. This is why I encourage everyone to read The Master and Margarita, because it reminded me that even in dark times there is room for creativity, love, redemption and with those things comes hope. And hope is something I think we could use a little more of around these parts.