THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, a text for all time because the Devil is for all time.
The dark art of performing exorcisms may seem archaic, even absurd, to non-believers, but the Catholic Church insists that the presence of the devil is growing all the time, due to the increasing secularisation of society, loss of faith in God and the easy access provided by the internet to black magic and the occult. So Dublin’s Irish Independent newspaper and a good deal of other media reported last week.
If he is still doing mischief, it is reassuring that should he decide to target any of us individually to the extent of seeking to possess us bodily, someone will be prepared to do something about it. But individual possession might be the least of our problems. What if he is targeting our entire civilization – and given who he is it is not beyond his powers or ambitions to try to do so. He did it before, with devastating effect. Admittedly there were only two of us – but we underestimate him at our peril.
There is no doubt but that something very strange has happened to Western society. When you find yourself reading this from Thierry Frémaux, the chairman of Cannes Film Festival we surely have reason for concern. He told reporters last week. “Today it is very difficult to reward or honour or recompense anyone because the political police then falls on you.”
Add to that the life-shattering punishment meted out to Israel Folau on the other side of the world for a thought expressed on social media. Then, in another hemisphere, medical personnel, by a judgment of a Canadian court of appeals, are to have their professional careers destroyed if they will not cooperate in the killing of their patients. Those examples don’t even cover the tip of the iceberg of injustice being meted out in so-called civilized society today in the name of something they call equality.
Libertarian Brendan O’Neill, introducing a Spiked.dot.com post on the subject, says of the Folau case, “So we’re back to persecuting people for their religious beliefs. That’s the take-home message of the scandalous sacking of Israel Folau. He’s been dumped by Rugby Australia for sharing a meme on social media that said ‘hell awaits’ gay people (and also drunks, thieves, adulterers and atheists). But Folau is a devout Christian and this is a Christian belief. It is part of Christianity to believe in hell and to believe that certain sexual and social ‘deviants’ will go there. Folau has been punished for his religious convictions. And the people cheering his sacking are supporting this chilling, pre-modern form of punishment. This case speaks to the new intolerance, where anyone who thinks differently to the mainstream risks being cast out. Israel Folau – rugby player and thought criminal.”
This was the kind of totalitarian world which we thought we had largely left behind us with fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet Communism. Clearly, we were wrong. Soft cultural Marxism has brought us to a place which is worse than the stark Soviet variety ever was – worse because it insidiously masquerades under the cloak of a benign progressivism, and the whole world seems to be swallowing it.
It seems as if the battles for humanity fought by the Russian and Eastern European dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel and others have to be fought all over again if we are to have any hope of restoring our freedom, our common sense and common decency.
But who will fight them? Forget the political class. It is too prone to corruption of one kind or another, in thrall to or captive by the ayatollahs of ever more lunatic political correctness. Will writers and artists come to our rescue as those Russians did in the last century? The evil of National Socialism – in both its Teutonic and Latin manifestation – self-destructed in the space of little more than ten years. Admittedly there was the help of a significant military push. But the evils flowing from hard Marxist ideology took a good deal longer to vanquish (if vanquished they are). They were essentially undermined by a combination of religious faith and the creative imagination of a handful of great writers.
The great Russian writers and artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were never shy about talking about the Devil. Solzhenitsyn took on the soviets and identified their greatest folly and vice as the denial of the spiritual in man. He later warned us in the West that we were descending into our own hell by putting man at the centre of all things and denying the existence of God. He had no doubt who the driving force behind this was.
One of Russia and the world’s greatest film auters, Sergei Eizenshtein, in Ivan the Terrible, personified the eponymous subject as Satan. No one said it out loud but everyone suspected who the real personification of Satan was. The film was heavily censored.
As noted in Russian Literature and its Demons (ed. Pamela Davidson, Berghahn Books, New York / Oxford), Stalin’s terror of the 1930s, evokes the book of Revelation, in which Satan takes on the form of a “great red dragon” (Rev.12:3). In Eizenshtein’s ﬁlm, the play in the cathedral in which Shadrach, Medrach, and Abednego are symbolically cast into the ﬁery furnace draws a parallel between the cruelty of Ivan (or Stalin) and the evil Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar. In the banquet scene, with its wild dance of the oprichniki (Ivan’s secret police) and its vivid use of black and red, the representation of Ivan evokes Satan presiding over some demonic orgy.
Mikhail Bulgakov was much more explicit and in some ways more devastating in making the Devil and his acolytes the central protagonists in his extraordinarily funny but utterly serious and complex satirical fable, The Master and Margarita. This was completed in 1940 but not published until 1965 – and only then in a heavily censored version.
Writers and artists like Bulgakov, and composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev suffered rejection but persevered within the repressive system. Bulgakov, even with his White Russian background and hostility to atheism, kicked against it and still survived. He was constantly refused permission to go abroad and spent time being interrogated in the infamous Lubianka. The Master and Margarita, his masterpiece, is a slap in the face of the intolerant atheism which poisoned Soviet Russia. By 1922 the Orthodox Church was under direct attack and priests were rounded up. Four were condemned to be shot (Bulgakov’s own father was a priest and theologian). Throughout the 20’s the debunking of Christianity was a constant objective. Ruthless punishment was inﬂicted on the books whose authors questioned this and found themselves abroad owing to deportation, emigration, or defection. Their books had to be removed from public libraries and shredded.
Bulgakov’s portrait of the Devil, Woland, daringly suggests Stalin. Both were mysterious, aloof, and rarely seen. Like Woland, Stalin also destroyed what sought to expose him. Both demanded subservience from their followers. Woland and his acolytes, however, also attack the agents of the system. We are inclined to cheer them on. Throughout the novel they mock and play games, sometimes hilariously funny, with the apparatchiks who run the system and who at least pretend not to believe in Woland’s existence – despite all the evidence he gives them. In their folly they try to explain the tricks he plays on them as some form of hypnotism or scientific slight of hand.
Whether or not Bulgakov intended to draw a parallel between Stalin and Woland, there is no question but that the Soviet censors read the novel in this way. In one passage, the shape changing cat, Begemot, speaks of the grandeur of Satan’s ball, but, after being contradicted by Woland, immediately hastens to agree obsequiously with his master: “Of course, messire. If you think it wasn’t very grand, I immediately find myself agreeing with you.” That was much too close to the bone.
And what does that remind us of? The daily groveling apologies of many of those who find themselves reprimanded and punished by our thought police.
So where are they, the writers, creative artists, who will expose this evil among us? They have yet to stick their heads above the parapets – and God help them when they do. The great Russians who exposed Satan suffered for what they did, some physically as well as mentally. Perhaps the same has to happen again? Perhaps the answer is here:
And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” (Mathew 17. 14-20).