Since the dawn of creation, mankind has always wanted to do thing his own way. Individual initiative is certainly not a bad thing; however, doing things one’s own way without listening to any guidance or directions from others can have disastrous side effects which not only impact us directly, but also our loved ones and others we encounter.
This reality has been expressed in religious terms in the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed to survive in the Garden of Eden, but told them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan, the deceiver, in the appearance of a snake, explains to Eve that she actually misunderstood God’s words to her and encourages her to take the fruit from the tree. She, in turn, gives this fruit to her husband, Adam. Christianity refers to this act as “original sin” because Adam and Eve chose to follow their own thoughts instead of listening to God and this “original sin” has been passed on to every one of Adam’s descendants.
The story of man turning to the devil for some “help” has been written down in various forms over the centuries. One famous account was inFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). In this story, the main character, Faust, is a highly successful, but unhappy scholar who enters into a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and wealth. The exchange becomes too much for Faust and it eventually becomes the source of his undoing. Eventually Faust does win his soul back and learns a valuable lesson, namely, that having all this knowledge and worldly wealth is not worth anything at the price of losing one’s soul.
A similar theme was also addressed in Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). One of the main characters in this novel is Woland. He is the personification of the devil and could be understood as almost a “Robin Hood” like figure. At one point in the novel, two of the characters, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, head of MASSOLIT, the Soviet writer’s guild, and a twenty three year old poet named Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrov (whose pen name is Bezdomny which means “homeless” in Russian) 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. This conversation shows the depths of Woland’s understanding of philosophy and history. He wants to know who is “in charge” if God does not exist. Berlioz and Bezdomny agree that we are in charge of our own destiny. Woland introduces Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the famous Prussian philosopher into the conversation and they begin discussing Kant’s proofs for the existence of God and why they do not make sense Woland provides his “seventh proof” of God’s existence by demonstrating that he, Woland, not Berlioz, is able to predict Berlioz’s death accurately, thus underscoring the contingency of human life and pointing to the reality of something other than a spatio-temporal reality governed by material laws. Woland, through his arguments, and the novel itself in its dramatic undermining of Berlioz’s Marxist materialism, thus takes up something like the perspective of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), a German-American political philosopher, which is that while trying to prove God’s existence is indeed misguided, it is equally misguided to draw the conclusion that because there are no effective proofs that God is an existent object, therefore there is only immanent reality. (2)
If you read the novel, it seems that Woland is a positive character, who is a patron of arts and love, the hero, who is trying to fight the evils inherent in the people of 1930s
However, Woland is a tempter on closer reading which becomes noticeably diverse.
In fact, Woland is Satan, a rethinking of Christ, the new Messiah, a hero as
Bulgakov described him in his first unpublished manuscripts. Russia
To understand the diversity of Woland it is possible only in a careful reading of "The Master and Margarita." Only then can one see the similarity with the Scandinavian hero Odin, then turned into the devil of Christian tradition, or the god, Wotan, who was worshipped the old Germanic pagan tribes. Woland has a portrait resemblance to the great magician and freemason Count Cagliostro, who was able to predict the future and remember the events of a thousand years ago.
Attentive readers will certainly remember a time when officials remembered the name of the magician and speculated that his name was Faland. Indeed, in tune with Woland, but only not that interesting. Few people know that in “Falandom” is the name the Germans give for the place known as hell in English. (1)
The acts of the devil Woland and his minions in
seem, at first glance, 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, a large
talking black cat who can take on a human appearance when needed, 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 it
is examined more closely, it does not appear to be that absurd. Well, at least
no more absurd than reality itself. Moscow
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.
The fact that Woland appears to be robbing from the wealth may give him a “Robin Hood” like appearance, to some; however, there is a deeper meaning at stake. This is not only about Woland and these people. The very soul of the Russian nation has been sold to the devil by the Bolsheviks, according to Bulgakov, and these characters are allegorical representations of the entire nation.
This is a very profound novel and the author is making many important points regarding the role of sin in our lives, the daily struggle between good and evil which we face, and how our actions have consequences not only for us but for generations to come. It would be unfair to over simplify this great work of Russian literature by stating that these themes are easily understood or that they have only one meaning. Neither of these things is true. This novel has multiple layers of meaning and can impact the reader in a variety of different ways depending upon when they read it and what is going on in their own life. It can be read over and over again and each time the reader will find something new to reflect upon.
It is also true that the theme of entering into a pact with the devil is present in American literature as well. The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving (1783-1859) first appeared in 1824 and tells the story of a man who enters into an agreement with the devil and becomes a loan shark. The story ends with the main character being taken away by the devil on a black horse. Tom Walker is never seen again and his home burns to the ground.
An adaptation of this story was The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943). This story first appeared in 1937 and tells the story of Jabez Stone, a poor farmer from
, who makes
a seven year pact with the devil in exchange for prosperity. When the seven
years are complete, he is able to extend this pact for another three
years. However, at the end
of the tenth year, the devil returns to Stone and demands his soul as payment. New Hampshire
Stone approaches Daniel Webster, a prominent
New England attorney, and asks him
to defend him against the devil. There
is a court case involving the devil and Daniel Webster. Mr. Webster eventually wins this case
and it has been said that after this trial the devil was never again seen in . New Hampshire
Making a pact with the devil may seem like a good decision at first. One can become wealthy or acquire whatever knowledge he or she wants, but at what cost? Eventually payment will be demanded by the one with whom this agreement has been made and the price which must be paid is much greater than any possible benefit the person may receive.
(1) “Seven Keys to the novel ‘Master and Margarita’, which Reveal the Secrets of this Mysterious Book” http://www.kulturologia.ru/blogs/170815/25849/
(2) Paulette Kidder, “The Interdependence of Satire and Transcendence in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita” (Eric Voegelin Society Meeting-American Political Science Association 2012)