• Sasho Pshenko

The Eternal Potency of The Master and Margarita’s Passive Resistance

First published in 1967 - but written decades earlier - Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has been hailed as a masterpiece of Soviet satire. Sasho Pshenko revisits the novel and finds in it a guide, of sorts, to an unexpected form of resistance: passivity.

Mikhail Bulgakov 1967 The Master and Margarita Soviet Literature Author
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Images: Unsplash

Literature as a medium for, and vessel of, resistance is nothing new. Whether one thinks of “on the nose” socially engaged art, or of subtler and more fragmented sections of criticism on social systems dispersed throughout a book, the least one could say is that a given literary work is necessarily the product of its writer’s time and socio-cultural context. This function of art is nigh all-present. In fact, one needn’t even go as far as discussing well-organized attacks on specific institutions or cultural formations. Even commentary on some individual traits, such as small-mindedness, gossiping, and snobbery, traits which can be said to be universal, is in its own way an act of resistance, an incitement towards a change of a status quo. Finally, one could even argue that art itself, by merely existing, figures as a resistance, as true, significant works of art are never solely utilitarian or one-dimensional; they involve degrees of ambiguity and exist in a special relation to the world, being somewhat tethered to it and somewhat reflexive of it. In this sense, literature can be seen as “pointless” writing, a marginal entity existing for its own sake, or worse – for an unknown and unknowable purpose, one exceeding any rational justification. One need only look at Plato’s opinions regarding poetry and realize where art’s potential for inciting disorder lies. Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1967 masterwork The Master and Margarita is indisputably one of the most important landmarks of 20th century literature, especially when discussing literary resistance. Resistance permeates this book in a variety of ways, ranging from its allegorical attacks on the sociopolitical systems which dominated Europe at the time of its writing, through its depictions of mass mentality and state corruption, the parodic discussions on how individuals relate with the collective they are a part of, and, finally, in the mere fact that it was written in a political regime according to which its thematic complexity could’ve been considered borderline dangerous or deviant. However, I would like to argue that regardless of how critical The Master and Margarita might be of certain social regimes, personality types, and cultural prejudices, it essentially promotes a very uncanny form of resistance – one of passivity and eternal waiting. Of course, this can certainly be seen as conditioned by the circumstances around its execution – in a world where one couldn’t be direct in their accusations, the only resistance available would be one that is subdued, cryptic, and submissive. In this book it is almost unnoticeable, almost nonexistent. Yet, Bulgakov unveils this manner of rebelliousness as not only more effective than most, while being undeniably aesthetically unique, but also revelatory in quite a peculiar way; by inverting the principal attributes of resistance (persevering and opposing), it shows an inverted vision of the world as such – of power, morality, longevity, and influence.

Therefore, reversals are the key to approaching this book’s conceptual framework. They can be located in every segment of its composition. To begin with, the main characters, the ones who are resisting, are, surprisingly, the seeming oppressors. The multiple protagonists are either irredeemable villains – such as Pontius Pilate (a biblical tyrant), Margarita (a witch), and Voland with his crew (the Devil himself, along with his demonic subordinates) – or victims (Jesus, the Master, and Bezdomny, the latter two being mentally ill men) who, for some reason, have a strange affectionate attachment to their aforementioned oppressors. We could say that, in a way, all of these characters – the good ones, as well as the bad – are at some point in the book (or in history) given a position of power, rendering their status as “underdogs” unsuitable, their rebellion as pointless. Yet this wouldn’t be exactly correct. There is a clear dissociation between each of these persons and their role, a kind of disengagement from their own acts. Even the cruelest of aggressors are presented as, ultimately, pitiable.

Not, however, because they, as individuals, dislike the “evil role” which they have been assigned. To be sure, there is a degree of this kind of determinism in the novel, which implies that “someone has to be the bad one” – the devil, the man who sent Christ to the cross, the adulteress, etc. – and Pilate, Voland, Margarita, have happened to be born into that role. But there is more to it than just this. At the end of the day, most of the villains seem to be enjoying their roles to the fullest – Behemoth, Azazello and Koroviev seem like the epitome of satanic mischief. Their dissociation – their estrangement – seems to be of a different sort. They don’t seem to be tired of their actions and passions, but of their own identities – the names, temperaments, and histories which house said actions and passions. Implicitly, they would rebel against the authority which entrapped them into their roles, if they could, but they can’t, since this authority is life itself. And, as the existentialists well know, one can’t emerge victorious from a fight against life; one can only abstain. This apathy is the hidden face of Pilate’s headache, the agony of the Master and Margarita’s everlasting waiting, and precisely the thing which enables the devil to simultaneously enjoy every evil thing he does to the fullest, while somehow finding it empty, boring and unfulfilling.

But an apathy of this sort doesn’t make for the funny, energetic, eschatological book which Bulgakov wrote. In order to become that it would need momentum and power, a driving force – both physical and philosophical – which would propel the plot, characters and themes forward, towards their final resolution. Herein lies the book’s second conceptual notion, next to that of reversals: gravity. Gravity of the physical sort, the one which pulls, attracts and grounds. Reversals of gravity are what make The Master and Margarita work the way it does. The gravitational poles of good and bad, pleasure and suffering, oppressor and oppressed, enslavement and freedom, are constantly shifting, oscillating around an invisible and unstable point of reference. As the earth is, metaphorically, being regularly turned upside-down and back again, no truth is certain, no conclusion is final, no evil is irredeemable, and no suffering ever becomes forgotten. The “core” of The Master and Margarita is the paradox. Hence, uncertainty as the first main manifestation of resistance. Almost as if dealing with quantum physics, as soon as one pinpoints a character and their inner state, one loses the ability to pinpoint whether they can be categorized as “good,” “evil,” “mischievous,” or something else altogether. And this is more than just the typical opposition between “morally gray” and “black-and-white characters,” as the acts which define these figures are seen to be quite extreme (ranging from mild pranks to torture and murder). This isn’t about depth and complexity of character, but about the fickleness of the book’s ethical prism, which is ever-changing. Gravity is almost completely relativized.

So, what does Bulgakov do with this? How does one proceed when no ontological claim nor judgment can be made about anything? When this capricious gravity prevents you from even walking a straight line? Simple: you don’t walk. You stay put and wait. You become passive. The second resistance, complementary to that of uncertainty, is passivity. All the main characters drown in melancholy, not even lifting a finger in a way which would demonstrate their agency – there is no individual nor collective will present in this novel, nothing active, nor reactive. Everyone is stuck in a predetermined, mythical “destiny,” but they neither become completely aligned with it (which is what makes this book differ from a myth or a fairy tale), nor do they fight against it (which would be futile, as they have long forsaken any hopes of change and liberation). What they do is “turn the other cheek.” Not to an alien aggressor, but to their own cruelty, until one day their own hand – the one which slaps – miraculously crumbles into dust. They will then realize that it has already been centuries since they’ve been suffering and that their bruised face can finally be free, after an eternity of waiting, when the world forgets they exist. Their actions – just like their passions – having become utterly meaningless.

Thus, none of the characters are truly active. It seems as if life is weighing down on them, pressuring them in the guise of venomously beautiful weather, or of tragically romantic destiny. Life is weighing down on them and the only way out is by sinking into the ground and, in a reversal of gravity, magically finding themselves above the earth, flying into a heavenly multiverse. Passivity/resistance is actually the flip-side of the coin which is transcendence. The true way to rebel is to be passive, to let the totalitarian, pressuring regime absorb and suffocate you, to become Pontius Pilate – to become a saint by being a tyrant. Similarly to how Lacan posits that overwhelming physical or libidinal pain can morph into overwhelming pleasure (and vice versa), Bulgakov explores the notion of overwhelming spiritual suffering morphing into ethereal blessedness. Real freedom is a constant state of rebellion, but a rebellion which does nothing and instead suffers, for an eternity, the most intense spiritual debasement. And once this chaotic gravity has imploded, you become rebellious in the mere notion of you existing, while having been completely forgotten, figuring somewhere on the fringes of the world, crawling around its margins, forever unperceived.

The ending of The Master and Margarita shows precisely this: having abandoned mortal life, the pair (the Master and Margarita), along with Voland and his troupe, liberate Pilate’s spirit and proceed to haphazardly search for a territory on the edges of wild forests, abandoned beaches and in the clouds of a peaceful sky. Following the Bakhtinian carnivalization of Moscow, the eschatology of the Walpurgis Night, and their metaphorical – and literal – deaths, the tricksters undergo a series of transformations, becoming unrecognizable even to themselves, while implicitly becoming more “real” than they had ever been. They shed their masks and, maybe, if lucky, even they get to forget who they used to be. Such is the way of the rebel and of the artist. Bulgakov shows how even in the most hopeless of worlds, miracles can arrive – if not from the outside, then from the hidden beauty of one’s own suffering.

It is in this manner that The Master and Margarita, in addition to the typically noted, political ways, actually displays a plethora of other, new and unique ways of becoming resistant – through uncertainty, through passivity, through a perverted spiritual masochism and, finally, through a yearning for forgetful oblivion. In a world where everyone and everything – good or evil – is fighting to be remembered, those who fight to be forgotten are bound to emerge triumphant, regardless of whether they’re on top, or in the pits of hell. Only those who rebel in this way know that true paradise can only be encountered once one melts into the world’s shadows – becoming unseen, unheard, imperceptible. ▲

Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.