Friday, June 3, 2011

The Absurdity of Reality

   From a practical standpoint, many of the events of our daily life can appear to be very random and have no direct connection to any other events in our life. While it is true that faith can give meaning and purpose to one’s life, the fact remains that, in many cases, even our faith will often raise more questions than answers when it comes to why certain things happen the way that they do.
    I am not advocating that the universe is entirely random and any attempt to make sense of it is completely futile.  There is order in the universe; however, it exist side-by-side with chaos.  The idea of order and chaos co-existing is certainly nothing new.  In fact, it was proposed by many of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. This idea was also proposed by Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) 1. 
     Following the Bolshevik revolution, Russian society experienced its own form of chaos.  Czar Nicholas II and his family had been executed and V.I. Lenin and his supporters were either deporting or killing the intelligentsia because they found these highly educated individuals to be a threat to the new system of government that they imposing on the Russian people. 
  In was during this period of time that Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) wrote his most famous novel, Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита).  This novel is challenging to read, even in Russian; however, it contains many very important insights which are applicable to other societies as well. There are many themes contained within this novel; however, I will focus on only one theme, namely “absurdity”.  
   Russia has always had a very deeply religious history and the Bolsheviks knew that if their new system of government was going to work they would have to destroy any connection between the Russian people and their religious traditions. In Master and Margarita, two of the characters are discussing their belief that Jesus Christ did not truly exist when they are approached by a third man who wishes to enter into their conversation. What these two men did not know is that this third man, Woland, is actually the devil. There have been arguments introduced by various literary critics that the character of Woland is actually a representation of Joseph Stalin.
   The acts of the devil Woland and his retinue in Moscow seem, at first sight, to be carried out for no reason. From the beginning, when Woland predicts the unlikely circumstances of Berlioz's beheading, to the end, when Behemoth stages a shoot-out with the entire police force, there seems to be no motivation other than sheer mischief. Much of what happens seems to be absurd. However, when you look deeper into it, it does not appear to be that absurd. Well, at least no more absurd than reality itself. Absurdism is a philosophy holding that humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe, which is impossible to explain in a rational way why there is life and that all efforts meant to explain the essentials of the universe are doomed to fail. According to the absurdists human suffering is the result of wasted efforts of individuals to find a reason or a meaning in the absurd chasm of existence. At first sight Master and Margarita seems to have absurdist characteristics.
After a while, though, their trickery reveals a pattern of preying upon the greedy, who think they can reap benefits they have not earned, just because they served the people in power without asking questions. For example, when a bribe is given to the chairman of the tenants' association, Bosoi, Woland tells Korovyov to "fix it so that he doesn't come here again." Bosoi is then arrested, which punishes him for exploiting his position. Similarly, the audience that attends Woland's black magic show is delighted by a shower of money only to find out the next day that they are holding blank paper.  The women who thought they were receiving fine new clothes later find themselves in the streets in their underwear. These deceptions appear mean-spirited and pointless, but the victims in each case are blinded by their interest in material goods and dropped all previously cherished moral values as soon as they had the opportunity to benefit from their greed.
   Bulgakov's life was highly influenced by Stalin's regime, which also can be called absurd. The following story is only one of the dozens of examples. Stalin once ordered to arrest a mine director. The mine had collapsed and Stalin suspected the director of sabotage. "Sabotage" is a word that was often used in the Soviet Union when megalomaniac projects appeared to be unfeasible. The director was interrogated and tortured until he "confessed" that he had acted under orders from the German government. When the chief of police reported this, Stalin did not believe it. For one reason or another, he was convinced that it was not the German, but the French government who was the culprit. So he ordered them to "interrogate" the director again. This time he "confirmed" Stalin's version. What's more, he recognized that he had tried to mislead Stalin by blaming the Germans for it. Such examples were common practice in the Soviet Union in that time. The people often reacted in an absurd way too. This can be seen in many situations and details in the novel. For example, when Woland calls Mogarych - the man who had taken the Master's basement when he was in the psychiatric hospital - he was "in nothing but his underwear, though with a suitcase in his hand for some reason and wearing a cap". It looks like an absurd detail, but it refers to the fact that under the Stalin terror every Soviet citizen had always a suitcase ready with the most necessary things, just in case of un unexpected visit from the secret police at night. 2
    These are just a few examples of what, at first glance, appear as absurd in this novel, but becomes more understandable once the reader understands more of the historical events which were taking place at the time.  Here in the United States, we have no concept of the secret police unexpectedly visiting us in the middle of the night so that we must be ready at any moment to possibly be arrested and imprisoned without a proper trial. 
      The idea of being tortured until you “confess” to your crime is something completely foreign to residents of the United States, but this goes on in many countries of the world even today. 
    While we are not experiencing what took place in the Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin, we are experiencing our own issues.  The United States, which was once the “envy of the entire world” because of our educational system has become very lax.   American students do not read at the level that they once did and independent/ critical thinking is something which is no longer taught.  Our students are more interested in simply remembering whatever they need to know in order to pass a particular examination and then summarily forget whatever they had learned.   There is no effort to imbibe what they have learned so that it can become a part of who they are. 
     Instead of critically thinking about a particular subject, students are content with idea of being told what to think.  They may not express this idea in such terms, but if they do not engage in critical thinking the outcome is the same.  This may appear absurd, at first; however, there is a certain amount of reasoning which is behind it. 
     One of the challenges with educating the people is that those in charge may actually be confronted by the very people they have educated.   By not teaching someone to think critically it is possible to make them more compliant.  Those who do think critically and question what is going on will quickly be referred to as “trouble makers”, “negative”, or “dissidents” and can more easily be removed or silenced.    
       How much longer this will continue is based upon two important questions. First, are we willing to acknowledge that this is happening? Secondly, are we willing to do something about it? 
                                                          End Notes
1)    “Restoring the Divine Sparks to Their Source”


1 comment:

Olyeg said...

You are quite right about surerficial education uncritical mind and as a result a lot of stereotipes about former soviet life, some of them are quite naive:" and every Soviet citizen had always a suitcase ready with the most necessary things, just in case of un unexpected visit from the secret police at night. 2".
most of americans have never been to russia even talk to russians so they make their opinion on only one sourse - an interesting book of M.Bulgakov - but his point is point of only group of people who lost everything, so, their world was really damaged and that reflected as a "devil's arrival" in their mistical mind.
But there were lived many other people in USSR with their values, who didnt look for devil but had desined and lunched spaceships at first in the world...