Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Without a Home in "Master and Margarita"

   Most novels are read once and placed on a bookshelf or elsewhere and never touched again by the same reader.  There are some novels or stories which one reads on more than one occasion simply out of pure enjoyment. There are others which are re-read in order to obtain information or perhaps understand something which was read earlier even better. 
   However, there are some novels which need to be read more than once simply because of the depth of content, breadth of character development, or numerous layers of themes which cannot be understood properly in a first, second, or, even, a third reading.  One such novel is The Master and Margarita by Mikhaíl Afanasyevich Bulgakov (1891-1940).  This novel has several characters that reek havoc in 1930s Moscow including a large black cat which walks and talks like a person named Behemoth, an “ex-choirmaster” named Fagotto/Koroviev, an assassin named Azazello, and a character believed to be satan named Woland. 
    We are introduced to three of these characters in chapter five.  Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, head of the Soviet literary union MASSOLIT, is at Patriarch’s Pond with Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov (whose pen name is Bezdomny), a young poet who is a member of MASSOLIT.  The two are discussing Ponyryov poem about Jesus and the fact that it is too “realistic” for Berlioz’s taste when they are approached by a man who eventually introduces himself as Professor Woland, an expert in black magic. 
   Berlioz and Ponyryov begin discussing whether or not Jesus actually existed (neither believe this is true), when Professor Woland interrupts and begins to explain what transpired between Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Nozri in the novel) and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea.  Professor Woland tells them that this is not second hand information, because he was actually there when this dialogue took place.  They then begin to speak about whether or not God exists (Berlioz and Ponyryov are atheists) and Professor Woland argues with them using the philosophical proofs for God existence written by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  The argument eventually turns to who is in charge of everything if there is no God.  Ponyryov argues that people are in charge of their own destiny and Professor Woland states that no one even knows when they will die. He then proceeds to tell Berlioz under what circumstances he will die.  He will be run over by a trolley car and lose his head after slipping on some oil spilled by a woman named Anna.
     Berlioz leaves the conversation and ends up dying in exactly the way that Professor Woland described.  Ponyryov sees the end result of the accident and becomes convinced that Professor Woland is a spy.  He then begins a one man crusade to arrest Professor Woland, along with Faggoto/Koroviev and Behemoth who have joined up with the professor. 
   After chasing them around Moscow, to no avail, Ponyryov ends up at a restaurant in his underwear, carrying a candle, and wearing an icon around his neck where the members of MASSOLIT were meeting and dining.  He begins to explain to them what transpired at Patriarch’s Pond and the restaurant manager calls for a car to take Ponyryov to the local psychiatric hospital for evaluation. 
   He then explains the entire scenario to the doctor in charge of the hospital and is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  This was also predicted by Professor Woland during their conversation.  No one will listen to him, including the police, so he is forced to become a hospital patient.
   Later on in the novel, we meet “The Master” who is the main protagonist in the story when The Master enters Ponyryov’s room at night tells him about Margarita and the novel he wrote about Pontius Pilate.  He tells the Master that is a poet, but when asked, “Is your poetry any good?” he responses, “no” and promises never to write poetry again.
   In Russian, as in many other languages, names have meanings.  Koroviev can easily be translated into English as “cow”, for example, and Behemoth can be translated as “hippo”.  Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov’s pen name is Bezdomny which translates into “without a home” or “homeless” in English. My question is, “Why did Bulgakov give this character the pen name of Bezdomny?”  We know nothing about where Ivan lives based upon the novel nor do we know anything about his family life; however, there is no mention of the fact that he was, in fact, homeless. 
    Ivan has a profession, is a member of the Soviet literary bureaucracy, and, when confronted with a situation which is beyond his control, he attempts to arrest the person he believes in causing problems and return order to the society in which he lives.  By all appearances, he is a good citizen.  However, people like Ivan really had no home in the Soviet Union.  The system was designed to destroy their personal creativity and force them to produce “works of art” which are completely approved by the state.  These are not works of art, they are propaganda tools.  In real life, people like Ivan attempted to, and, in many cases, succeeded to run away from the Soviet Union and begin a life in a new country. 
     Many literary critics believe that the character of Margarita is based upon Bulgakov’s last wife and the Master is Bulgakov himself.   While I do not necessarily disagree with this assessment I will also add that the character of Bezdomny is also autobiographical in Bulgakov’s case.   Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kyiv and lives many years of his life in Moscow, but, in reality, he never had a real home in the Soviet Union.  It is true that he had a family and a place to live, but his creative spirit was not as free as it could have been in such a totalitarian society and he suffered a great deal under the repressive government of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953).  In fact, Bulgakov’s extended family was granted permission to leave Russia and go to Paris, but Mikhail was not given such permission.  He and his wife stayed in Moscow and he died quite prematurely for an illness which may have been cured had he been able to move to Paris
    For almost any creative person, living in such a culture can be equated to being like a bird in a gilded cage.  It might look wonderful and provide a sense of safety, but it is still a cage. Creativity requires freedom in order to blossom and survive.  Ivan may have come to that conclusion while in the psychiatric hospital which is why he promised that Master that he would never write again.  Bulgakov felt that he was confined to the life he had in Moscow and attempted to make the best of a very difficult situation.  While both men may have had a place to reside, they were, indeed, homeless since they have nowhere to lay their heads and be at peace. 

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