Saturday, May 1, 2010

On the Symbiosis of Heaven and Hell

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell
(William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

This past week I just finished up my Literature class by reading Mikhail Bulgakov's amazing Master and Margarita, which happens to be one of my favorite books. One thing often commented on about the novel is the prominent solar and lunar imagery: the sun and the moon align the scenes as they alternate between 20th century Stalinist Russia and first century Jerusalem. The sun is often portrayed as merciless, unbearable, taking away one's breath. The moon allows one to breath, but can be deceptive, creating shadows in the dark. Yet, considering the dark, in the end Night personified strips away all illusions--it is as if illusion and deception were used in order to reach deeper truths. For example, when the devil, Woland, comes to town, he stages a theatrical magical performance, using magic (the real thing) in order to discern the inner truth about humanity--humanity's greed--but, interestingly, also humanity's ultimate mercy.

One might want to suppose that we have a series of opposing binaries between light and darkness, sun and moon, and finally Yeshua (as Jesus is called in this novel) and Woland. But that turns out not fully to be the case--neither Woland nor Yeshua are particularly associated with the merciless sun. They both have strong connections with the moon. When it comes to light and darkness--with Yeshua associated with light (and compassionate, merciful light, like the moon?) and Woland with darkness (in which that darkness shines), they seem to work together to bring deceptive and revelatory light in the darkness. Woland speaks to Levi Matvei (Yeshua's disciple), who shows up in Moscow, allowing the Moscow and Jerusalem chapters to blur, in which Levi addresses Woland--who, by now, has becomes somewhat of a sympathetic character--quite rudely, calling him "Spirit of Evil and Sovereign of the Shadows," and wishing him evil. To this Woland responds:

You pronounced your words as if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of either shadows or evil. But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living things beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You're stupid. (trans. Burgin and Tiernan O'Connor)

Woland notes that perhaps light could exist without darkness, but it would be naked light without any life. As long as there is any life, the light hits it and creates a shadow; and therein lies Woland. Darkness and shadows will exist as long as life exists. Interestingly, it turns out that the light needs the shadows as well. The reason Levi is there is that Yeshua (or "he") requests, very nicely, that Woland grant peace and rest to the Master (who wrote a novel about Pilate that Yeshua really liked). Woland grants Yeshua's request. Woland and Yeshua, it seems, work together, and work well together, as interdependent beings. Woland exposes human vices and executes divine justice; Yeshua acknowledges the inherent goodness of humanity and grants mercy. (Blake's note of the passivity of Good resembles Yeshua, who recognizes the inherent goodness of all humans, who is also ultimately passive--Yeshua tells Pilate that all forms of power are violence; that in the kingdom of light to come, there will be no power at all and, therefore, no violence.) Each, as Woland says earlier in the novel when Margarita begs mercy for someone suffering eternal torment, belong to their own "department" and do what is expected of them in their respective "departments" of justice and mercy, but do not infringe on the other's territory. Both are necessary and both need each other. There is a great deal that resembles Manichean doctrine here, but, I would note, for at least Bulgakov's novel, light and darkness are not in opposition, but excepting the stupidity of Levi Matvei work together.


Unknown said...

Nice post. I first read The Master and Margarita when I was a freshman in college. I fell in love with the novel (hence the Google news alert which pointed me to your blog today, and my slightly silly username) and I remember writing a paper about Bulgakov's use of the sun and the moon throughout the book.

I'm sure you're familiar with the fact that "Sympathy for the Devil" is based on M&M, which Marianne Faithful gave as a gift to Mick Jagger. But have you ever heard Franz Ferdinand's "Love and Destroy?" This is another great song based on this amazing novel. I'm sure it's on iTunes or Amazon. Enjoy!

Jared Calaway said...

I actually didn't know that Sympathy for the Devil was based on Master & Margarita, although it is a great song. I loved that they used it at the end of Interview with a Vampire.

It is interesting, however, that the lyrics of the song--"can you guess my name"--with relation to the fact that so many people cannot remember Woland's name throughout. It is fairly far into the novel that we learn his name.

By the way, one alignment of the sun and the moon is in the first part, in which the sun splinters foreshadowing Berlioz's death, and when he actually dies the moon splinters.

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