“What Kind of Idea Are You?” Dissenting Discourses in Rushdie and Bulgakov
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Makhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita share a similar concern: the role of the artist in society. Rushdie and Bulgakov see the artist as one who disrupts the quotidian. Without the occasional contention, a society, or any institution—be it collective or individual—may become complacent and prone to tyranny. Rushdie and Bulgakov present the rebellious, uncompromising figure of the artist, and they criticize and abuse the masses for their thoughtless acceptance of one man’s, or institution’s, vision of the “truth.” The artist offers a different truth, one that usually precipitates ridicule, abuse, and sometimes death, while providing an expression of heterodoxy. Rushdie and Bulgakov, therefore, admire the artist’s individual expression of truth, yet both criticize a thoughtless devotion to an institutionalization of that truth by unthinking masses.
These fundamental issues addressed in both novels furnish examples of the strength and devotion necessary to challenge general beliefs with creative and original thoughts. This essay explores the role of the artist presented by Rushdie and Bulgakov as one who questions the unquestionable in an effort to discover individual meaning despite repressive orthodox ideologies. This meaning, illustrated in artistic expression, provokes a questioning: “What kind of idea is he? What kind am I?” (Verses 111). A juxtaposition of several of each novel’s major characters indicates the shared themes of artistic inspiration, production, dissemination, and influence, and illustrates distinct degrees of successful artists and how they transcend their societies’ ideologies.
“To be born again, . . . first you have to die” sings Gibreel Farishta as he and Saladin Chamcha hurdle toward earth from an exploding jumbo jet Bostan at the beginning of The Satanic Verses (3). Indeed, in this literal and metaphorical fall from their previous lives, they are linked, transformed, metamorphosed, reborn. Chamcha relinquishes his adopted, high-brow life as an Englishman and becomes bestial in both appearance and mannerisms, while Gibreel assumes a more angelic form, suiting his divine name: Gibreel the Angel. Equally fantastic is the outset of The Master and Margarita. A typical spring afternoon at Patriarch’s Ponds turns fatal for Berlioz and Bezdomny (“Homeless”) when the satanic Woland appears. The former literally loses his head, while the latter (like Farishta and Chamcha) becomes existentially homeless after hearing the tale of this mysterious stranger—a tale that passes doubt on the current sanctioned ideologies of communist Russia. Woland’s story, like its narrator, begins a chain of fantastic events, not unlike surviving a fall from an exploded airplane, initiating the process of death, rebirth, and self-discovery.
Woland gives Bezdomny something to ponder, expediting the latter’s homelessness: Bezdomny wanders away from the intellectual community of shallow pretense that he had accepted willingly and ends up existentially isolated. He, like Farishta and Chamcha, has died to his previous existence by a satanic disruption, and is, thus, ostracized from his former community of writers at MASSOLIT and labeled as mad. Later, when Bezdomny meets master, the latter recognizes Satan’s influence and concludes that “Both you and I are mad, there’s no point in denying it. He gave you a shock and it sent you mad” (137). Madness then, similar to many postmodern narratives, becomes the catch-phrase for difference and non-conformity—for those possessed by the devil’s narrative.
The master confirms both Satan’s narrative and identity: “The man you were talking to was with Pontius Pilate . . . and now he has paid a call on Moscow” (137). The master’s proof is in his novel: it parallels Woland’s narration about Pontius Pilate—a novel the master wrote without having met Woland. This leads one to speculate on the master’s inspiration. How, as Gibreel will ask in Verses, did his voice get worked and by whom?
Similar to Bezdomny, Gibreel dreams the Mahound sections of Verses after his fall, and, in so doing, he treads upon sacred ground. Gibreel, also losing his already tenuous grasp on sanity, imagines himself as God’s postman, the Archangel Gabriel, who must deliver the word of God to His prophet on earth: Muhammad (King 149). Somehow his lines become confused and Satan interjects verses into Gibreel’s head, leaving the latter in a state of consternation: “if the dabba had the wrong markings and so went to the incorrect recipient, was the dabbawalla to blame?” (Verses 331). Later, Gibreel states, “God knows whose postman I’ve been,” casting further doubt as to the source of Gibreel’s narrative(s) (Verses 112).
The theme of delivering messages is central to both novels. Another parallel exists between Bezdomny, Farishta, and Chamcha: they are all influential in the public sphere. Bezdomny is a successful poet for MASSOLIT, Farishta makes popular “theologicals” playing divinities from different religions in film, and Chamcha is the man with a 1001 voices on British radio. All three are misdirected victims of others’ agendas who deliver the wrong messages. This satanic influence inspires a metaphysical contention between previous ideologies and nascent circumstances that bring those beliefs into question. Dubious “angelicdevilish” sources seemingly influence both the master and Gibreel, and both have, in effect, created their own other wor(l)ds; yet, at the same time, there is a feeling that these other worlds are not solely the creations of their respective artists. Other sources influence both characters, but these sources remain clouded in the fogs of ambiguity throughout both novels.
The metaphysical question must be stressed: both texts’ ambiguous origins seem to exist beyond their earthly creators as being both true and sacred (Avins 276). Carol Avins, writing about Master yet applicable to both novels, states that “heretical” narratives, “shared by the devil and the modern mortal,” confuse and question the historical, mythic, fictional, and sacred narrative (276-77). This ambiguity is never made less opaque in either novel. This idea provokes Avins’ question: “Where, then, lies the text’s origin—in the Master’s [and Ivan’s] mind or in Woland’s experience?” (276).
The contention: the individual’s narrative versus imposed absolute narrative. If the former represents a product of satanic influence, then what good can come of it? Does Satan present a positive, creative influence, contrary to what traditional religious doctrine espouses? A look at the master’s and Farishta’s heterodox narratives will begin to answer these questions, to elucidate and provide a model for the individual’s narrative, and to provide the ontological position of satanic verses.
Yeshua and Mahound
Rushdie writes: “A man who sets himself up is taking on the Creator’s role, according to one way of seeing things; he’s unnatural, a blasphemer, an abomination of abominations. . . . Or you might simply say: it’s just like being a man” (Verses 49). “Becoming a man” means, according to Rushdie, having the courage to “understand [himself] and shape [his future] by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee, whether to gods or to men” (“Faith” 394-95). By not showing proper obeisance to the powers that be, the poet emulates Satan in his original refusal to see the world in the way God envisioned it. Salutary change becomes possible when poets attempt new metaphors—a new language that helps to orient them in the quixotic universe of possibilities (Edmundson 70). Rushdie and Bulgakov embrace and illustrate these possibilities by beginning with their archetypal poets.
The ability to control one’s identity begins with language. Yet words have always been dangerous and have, therefore, been strictly controlled by those who have little tolerance for difference. Words have the ability to repress and rebel, mythologize and mystify, imprison and emancipate. Proffer suggests that myth can represent a powerful, negative force; she cites the Spanish Inquisition as the cause of many deaths in the name of God (541). One could also add to that example the many Islamic jihads and terrorist atrocities used to further the goals of Allah, or colonial expansion meant to civilize the natives. Rushdie and Bulgakov do not question the need for religious expression in humans, but they do wonder at the efficacy of organized, myth-centralized religion (Proffer 541). Rushdie and Bulgakov begin the process of reclaiming language with the master’s novel and Gibreel’s dream.
Ostensibly, Rushdie and Bulgakov are “taking the devil’s part against the God of orthodoxy” to express their devilish gospels (Williams and Khan 253). Williams and Khan suggest that Verses “is healthily blasphemous,” drawing on “a long line of literary opposition to the fictions favored by the state and church” (253). Not only is it healthy to cast a skeptical eye on traditional morality and dogma, it is necessary to question the unquestionable, to doubt rather than embrace blindly if individual expression is ever to be realized. Perhaps Rushdie, and to a lesser extent Bulgakov, is so despised by many of the “true believers” not because he invented heretical lies, but because he told the uncompromising truth. This practice, as mentioned above, may be the primary role of the artist, and Bulgakov and Rushdie, as well as their archetypal inspirations Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad, want to tell their truths. Rushdie defines this responsibility: “A poet’s work [is] to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep” (Verses 97).
Complicity and conformity, however, represent very real aspects of humanity, but they are aspects that must be avoided. Both Rushdie (Gibreel) and Bulgakov (the master) present Mahound and Yeshua as great men who are not immune to human error and doubt. Mahound is just a man, as Hamza reminds Bilal: “keep your faith for God. The Messenger is just a man” (105). Indeed, Mahound, the businessman, succumbs momentarily to temptation in accepting Simbel’s deal to acknowledge three other idols alongside Allah. Likewise, Frank states that the master portrays Yeshua strictly as a man not above realizing fear and doubt, and not Christ, or the Messiah of orthodoxy (292). This humanizing of Jesus and Muhammad has several implications, two of which are particularly important: they are not infallible, and they can empathize with humanity, sharing that common state (Ericson 23). Ericson stipulates another reason for removing Jesus and Muhammad from deification: it removes the trite and “stale doctrinal formulas” and revisions the myths (22). In effect, Rushdie and Bulgakov demythologize Jesus and Muhammad allowing the reader an opportunity to reevaluate the men and not the myths, making these poets “thoroughly human” (Hart 171). An all-too-common fault among Christians, writes Ericson, “despite their theology, is to think of Christ as God but not to be able to visualize Jesus as man” (23). Woland said that Jesus, the man, did exist, and the master’s story is the proof. Both Bulgakov and Rushdie remove these artists from any lionizing or deification and present humanity with humans.
When Yeshua Ha-Notsri is first introduced in the chapter “Pontius Pilate,” he has been arrested and beaten for his simple vision that “there are no evil people on earth” and that all “will pass into the kingdom of truth and justice” (Master 29, 32). During his subsequent questioning, Yeshua discloses two important details: that he has realized his own personal truth, “I reached that conclusion in my own mind,” but that that truth has been “untruthfully” transcribed (fictionalized?) by Matthew the Levite, Yeshua’s only follower (29, 24). Pilate first asks Yeshua about his alleged attempt to incite a crowd to destroy the temple. Yeshua denies having said this despite the fact that “It is clearly written down” (24). This represents the first of numerous suggestions in this chapter that if something is written, then it becomes official, Roman truth. Rome’s truths are official “facts” and judgments that only need to be recited by those in power to secretaries to become truth: “It only remained to dictate this to the secretary” (30). Pilate’s secretary is present throughout Yeshua’s interrogation, taking minutes until the proceeding begins to sound unofficial. In the middle of his inquisition, Yeshua uses his obviously keen intuitive powers to empathize with Pilate’s headache, his thoughts about death, and his longing for his loyal dog (Haber 396):
“At this moment the truth is chiefly that your head is aching and aching so hard that you are having cowardly thoughts about death. Not only are you in no condition to talk to me, but it even hurts you to look at me. . . . ”
The secretary stared at the prisoner, his note-taking abandoned. (26)
Yeshua’s personal truth is incompatible with the official Roman vision which explains Pilate’s initial thoughts and the secretary’s surprise, causing him to forsake the official record. This passage also emphasizes the importance of the individual and his situation in determining the truth. If one, like Pilate, lives in pain from an inner conflict, that pain will ascribe the reality of his truth. Pilate later learns, only freedom from sanctioned action may lead to freedom of choice; Pilate’s sin, then, is cowardice in choosing official truth over his personal freedom. Yeshua’s empathy and his appeal to the hegemon’s humanity almost succeeds in exculpating him from this situation—that is, until Pilate discovers another written allegation accusing Yeshua of speaking against Caesar, a perfidy punishable by death. However, Pilate likes this “philosopher” and implicitly offers him a ultimatum: lie or die.
Yeshua will not, even on pain of death, compromise his truth. This choice represents a double-edged sword for Yeshua, for it will mean his death guilty of treason, and it will also test his own philosophy about the goodness of all people (Krugovoy 207). But Yeshua never gives in to temptation; even through the excruciating crucifixion, he maintains his conviction; he does not forsake his truth in spite of any threat to end or hope of saving his life. Yeshua’s vision is unacceptable to his society, especially the leaders of the Sanhedrin, represented by Caiaphas. The latter requests the release of a murderer over Yeshua, knowing that one who kills people is less of a threat than one who could incite philosophical rebellion: “I shall not allow the faith to be defamed and I shall protect the people!” (38); therefore Yeshua, an enemy of church and state, is unmercifully killed, but not without first leaving an impression on Pilate and, more importantly, on Matthew the Levite.
Mahound, like Yeshua, is also unyielding in his truth. He has been asked by Abu Simbel, the Grandee of Jahilia, to include in his religion three, of the over-three-hundred, idols as worthy of worship beside Allah (Verses 105, 107). Unlike Yeshua, Rushdie examines Mahound’s suspicious inspiration—the inspiration that produces the satanic verses. Gibreel must provide guidance to Mahound, yet he is full of profound consternation: “I’m just some idiot actor having a blaenchud nightmare, what the fuck do I know, yaar, what to tell you, help. Help” (Verses 109). Gibreel, possessed by some force, utters the answer:
Not my voice I’d never know such words I’m no classy speaker never was never will be but this isn’t my voice it’s a Voice.
Mahound’s eyes open wide, he’s seeing some kind of vision, staring at it, oh, that’s right, Gibreel remembers, me. He’s seeing me. My lips moving, being moved by. What, whom? Don’t know, can’t say. Nevertheless, here they are, coming out of my mouth, up my throat, past my teeth: the Words. (Verses 112)
What is uttered are the satanic verses of the Qur’an: “Have you thought upon Lat, Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other? . . . They are the exhalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed” (Verses 114). This concession to Abu Simbel violates the major tenant of Islam: “There is no god but Allah” (Guillaume 130).
Mahound’s revelations are now cast into question. Seemingly, Mahound has made this decision to accept the three idols. Pragmatically, this decision would win him power and economic security without a struggle; so if he acquiesced on this small point—conforming to historical and psychological pressures—then he and his God would reign supreme. At one point Mahound states: “Often, when Gibreel comes, it’s as if he knows what’s in my heart. It feels to me, most times, as if he comes from within my heart: from within my deepest places, from my soul” (106). This observation suggests that Mahound’s desire writes Gibreel, rather than vice versa. Simawe suggests that the passive Gibreel acts as a channel for Mahound’s political, psychological, and moral needs (190). Does the individual, then, derive a truth without the help of the absolute Forms or God? Bardolph asks: “When can one be sure that the cosmic vision is not just a narcissistic projection? Or even the projection of other people’s dreams and desires which the angel-poet, sponge-like, has absorbed?” (4). Neither Bardolph nor Rushdie ever answer these questions, but certainly the individual desires of Mahound seem to motivate the words of Gibreel.
It now appears to Mahound the businessman that Allah has granted his divine sanction to Abu Simbel’s deal. This “desolating triumph of the businessman” turns Mahound’s world into chaos, precipitating violence against his followers in “a night of masks” (Verses 115, 117). These masks parallel Bulgakov’s smoky hazes and attars of roses in Jerusalem that obfuscate truth and confuse direction. These masks also represent the oppression that conceals individuality and truth.
Ironically, Abu Simbel’s wife and priestess of Al-Lat, Hind, provides Mahound with direction:
“I am your equal,” she repeats, “and also your opposite. I don’t want you to become weak. You shouldn’t have done what you did.”
“But you will profit,” Mahound replies bitterly. “There’s no threat now to your temple revenues.”
“You miss the point, . . . If you are for Allah, I am for Al-Lat. And she doesn’t believe your God when he recognizes her. Her opposition to him is implacable, irrevocable, engulfing. The war between us cannot end in truce. . . . Between Allah and the Three there can be no peace. I don’t want it. I want to fight. To the death; that is the kind of idea I am. What kind are you?” (121)
Hind realizes what Mahound does not: an idea needs an adversary to keep it strong. Since Hind worships Al-Lat, she requires her opposite, Allah, to keep her strong. Mahound has accepted Al-Lat destroying any contention, making his truth weak. Hind, because she is the Yin to Mahound’s Yang, teaches him about the devastating effects of compromise. There can be no peace between Mahound’s vision and the past: the ties must be broken; Mahound must assert his new metaphors—water must wash away the sand. Allah must not accept Al-Lat, but must embrace the opposition and cast her out of His garden.
Mahound returns to Mount Cone, the scene of his communion with the Archangel, for another session of revelation. Mahound realizes his mistake and repudiates this verse attributing it to Shaitan. However, Gibreel remains doubtful as to the verse’s source: “From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked” (Verses 123). Gibreel’s statement alludes to the initial uttering of the verse as well as the dubiousness of the source. Was his mouth worked by Mahound’s desires, the mysterious narrator, or both? Mahound will no longer be tempted by compromise—the businessman has been silenced, and the satanic verses have been repudiated: “The last time, it was Shaitan” (Verses 123).
The discovery of self, here, seems to be the result of a dialectic between what exists and what is attempting to find a voice. The latter, what Arenberg calls the “daimonic,” contains a seed comprised of a passion to survive and grow. The growth of ideas, or an individual truth, will survive to fruition if it can withstand the attack of the question: “What kind of idea are you?” This question must be answered beyond doubt if the poet’s truth is “the kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world” (Verses 335). The poet must decide if his truth is “the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive” or the kind that is “uncompromising; absolute; pure” (Verses 335, 500).
Mahound’s voice breaks the dichotomy and is less certain: he represents a golden mean between excess and defect (Simawe 194). Mahound, like Yeshua, is more human, not absolute and pure. While considering the expression of this vision, he concerns himself with the needs of his community as well. Yeshua wants to help Pilate alleviate his suffering; he even shows compassion for his torturer Mark Muribellum: “If I were to talk to him, . . . I am sure that he would change greatly” (Master 29). Yeshua offers to help his torturer like Mahound shows compassion to those in Jahilia that attempted to wrong him. These deeds of compassion answer Rushdie’s second question that he puts to the new ideas of poets: “What happens when you win? When your enemies are at your mercy: how will you act then?” (Verses 467).
The “What kind of idea are you?” theme echoes prophetically throughout both The Satanic Verses and The Master and Margarita. Rushdie aims his question, states Suleri, primarily at Islamic culture and racial/national questions (607). More significantly, it can question, within the novel’s context, many other ideologies; only truth can withstand an onslaught of such a probing question asked by truth seekers. “What kind of idea are you?” leads to other questions, like, how accurate is a text that supposedly holds the truth when it was written down by one who is less than perfect? A new dimension is added when one realizes that Jesus and Muhammad were only the purveyors of the truth—they were not the ones to record it. Now how accurate is it? For that matter, can language accurately encompass any idea?
When Pilate interrogates Yeshua, the latter complains about Matthew the Levite:
This man follows me everywhere with nothing but his goatskin parchment and writes incessantly. But I once caught a glimpse of that parchment and I was horrified. I had not said a word of what was written there. I begged him, “Please burn this parchment of yours!” But he tore it out of my hands and ran away. (25)
Bulgakov portrays Matthew as inept and simple, as one who has tremendous sympathy and good intentions, yet can never seem to accomplish what he sets out to do (Proffer 538). Proffer points out that, contrary to what Yeshua says as he dies—“Glory to the Magnanimous Hegemon!”—Aphranius tells Pilate that Yeshua said something about cowardice being the greatest sin—“a saying imputed to Yeshua, one which [Matthew] has on his parchment, the very same parchment that Yeshua swore contained nothing he had actually said” (546). Yeshua will not lie; this statement is most likely true because he refuses to do so at the cost of his life; thus, it can be safely deduced that he has told the truth about Matthew’s manuscript. Therefore, the manuscript is inaccurate (Proffer 546).
Similarly, Salman the Persian, rather than suffering from foolishness, is a shrewd doubter, who “on account of his scholastic advancement was made Mahound’s official scribe” (Verses 365). Salman does his job well until it looks as if Mahound is making up “divine” rules to benefit his social and political position. Salman remains faithful until his own revelation one night in a dream when he found himself hovering over Mahound on Mt. Cone. Unsure of his dream identity, whether Gibreel or Shaitan, and excited by the ambiguity, Salman begins to change Mahound’s recitation:
“Mahound did not notice the alterations. So there I was, actually writing the Book, or rewriting, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God’s own Messenger, then what did that mean? What did that say about the quality of the divine poetry?” (367)
Like Matthew the Levite, Salman the Persian did not represent the prophet accurately. However, according to Bardolph, the scribe risks losing the magic of the original idea when attempting to take it down on paper (5). Additionally, Salman the Persian and Matthew the Levite, the second they inserted their “own profane language,” became an active part of the creative process, opening the door to fiction as a version of Mahound’s words, which are a version of Gibreel’s words, which are a version of God’s and/or Satan’s words (Corcoran 159). In essence, the profane words of humans have become divine.
These incidents suggest the difference between the uncorrupted word of the prophet and the historical church (Krugovoy 207). Both writers, regardless of their motivations, have distorted the words of their poets. This twisting, asserts Tumanov, illustrates the way that churches and their parishioners have misunderstood and/or abused the messages of their poets Jesus and Muhammad (57). This distortion of the truth begins the history of intellectual oppression, of satanic verses, that is propagated by the church and state. Berlioz’s communist propaganda, Chamcha’s perfidious verses to Farishta, Ivan’s anti-religious poem, the policemen’s racism and violence, and other activities begin to limit personal freedom and expression. These instances, perhaps, represent other satanic verses in that they limit personal expression rather than make it possible.
Proffer suggests that Matthew never really understands Yeshua and, as Yeshua tells Pilate, inaccurately translates his words (538). Besides being a poor scribe, Matthew shows no compassion in his readiness to kill to avenge his dead master, further distorting Yeshua’s teaching (Proffer 539). Proffer’s observation about Matthew may also be applied to Salman the Persian. He cannot understand Mahound’s compassion for his community; Mahound does not ignore his people’s needs in the expression of his own truth. Couple this misunderstanding with his changing of Mahound’s words, and it would seem that Salman represents Submission’s first blasphemer.
While the circumstances are different, the essential question is the same: if it is not the word of God, then whose word is it? All sources seem to point to God’s antithesis, the archetypal perverter of the word: Satan.
Disciples and the Felix Culpa
God’s plan, illustrates Bulgakov, includes “evil” and the ability to choose. Evil is necessary for two reasons: Woland states that good needs a foil to remain good, for what is light without shadow? And what is called blasphemous gives individuals something to think about in order to decide the right path for themselves. Evil is fortunate in that it necessitates choice and thought. In this way, satanic verses can be looked at from the point of view of a felix culpa. Bulgakov illustrates this in his epigram from Goethe’s Faust:
Say at last—who art thou?
“That Power I serve
Which wills forever evil
Yet does forever good.”
In the paradox of the felix culpa, Satan desires to cause harm to God’s creation, yet all of his schemings only result in a good outcome in a universe ruled by an omniscient, beneficent God. In light of this idea, both Verses and Master are less heretical and their truths (ultimately the same) can be understood. For if Satan (Woland) works for God in the latter, why not the former?
In Bulgakov’s work, Woland is an integral part of God’s design, for, by the chaotic actions of Woland, order is able to be, once again, divined. Woland acts, according to Proffer, as a physical manifestation of the characters’ consciences and motivates them to do the right thing, at least for the time being (532). Bulgakov’s Satan is able to cut through the façades of assumed morality and comme il faut to get to the reality underneath. He recognizes the fact that he is a necessary part of the divine workings of the universe, a fact that Matthew (and many orthodox believers) cannot understand: evil is a mechanistic necessity of good that always demands what kind of idea am I? Woland says to Matthew near the end of Master: “Think, now: where would your good be if there were no evil, and what would the world look like without shadow?” (348). Satan, therefore, fulfills his role of inspiration in performing God’s will. Essentially he is God’s representative as a physical manifestation in Bulgakov and a metaphorical one in Rushdie; Woland, states Haber, works through darkness to denounce and shatter the status quo in order to encourage and inspire liberty (403). “Woland’s rôle,” states Sahni, curiously enough, “is that of an Archangel of the Master and Margarita” (195); Ericson agrees that Satan was the inspiration for the master’s novel (22). Gillespie calls Woland an administrator of divine justice who is more akin to the Old Testament’s Lucifer than the New Testament’s Satan, and Glenny sees him as an integral aspect of a dual godhead (89, 247).
Satan/Woland requires people who meet him to act, or react, to his attacks on their comfortable, rational existence. Woland battles against entropy, sloth, and all of those who prostitute themselves to be successful in a material world of fake values. He is the “Spirit of Truth” that shuns façades and clears the way for individuals to find their own truths. Even further, he prods non-thinkers into thinking, makes them ask the question: What kind of idea am I?
The various critical views of Woland and his purpose all seem to agree that he is an agent of God’s will that makes individual thought and action possible in an attempt to find a unique individual voice. Woland also acts as restorer, producing the master’s novel from the fire; Woland resurrects the master’s truth from destruction: “Manuscripts don’t burn,” he states as he presents the restored novel to its owner (281). But the master remains nonplused: “I have no more dreams and my inspiration is dead” (286). The master’s acquiescence to societal forces earns him peace at the novel’s end, but not light after he and Margarita swallow poisonous wine (Proffer 563).
Gibreel Farishta also takes his own life and the life of his love, Allie Cone, after he, too, fails as an artist. Farishta’s life has been written by others; he is the victim of others’ narratives and assumes the role of spokesperson for each one throughout Verses (McLaren 64). Caught between visions of lust, Rosa Diamond, the Curtain’s whores, and Mirza Saeed Akhtar, and visions of spirit, the absolute, one God and his word which brings history to an end, Gibreel longs for an answer from these disparate voices he hears in his dreams, yet he remains passive to their desires: “What is an archangel but a puppet? . . . The faithful bend us to their will. We are forces of nature and they, our masters” (Verses 460). Gibreel is also used by Sisodia and his ilk for monetary gains from his popular “theologicals.” When Farishta tries to incorporate his dream experiences of Mahound and Ayesha into films, he loses popularity, a further victim of a society that desires a steady diet of brainless palaver. He becomes the victim of others’ verses, including Chamcha’s, and, Othello-like, kills Allie and himself to find peace, but not light.
Simawe affirms that the archangel Gibreel might allegorically represent Imagination: “an ever-expanding energy that keeps rupturing and bursting all kinds of idolized theories, ideologies, and religions” (196). Like the master, Farishta also parallels Woland. He attempts to translate to his society a retelling of the myth of Muhammad, just as the master’s heterodox novel retells the story of Jesus and Pilate. The master and Farishta both parallel Satan in his attempt to awaken a somnambulant society. Both Farishta and the master are muses for those who are willing to listen.
If Farishta and the master represent muses or archangels, who then are their prophets? Both Ivan Nikolayich Poniryov and Saladin Chamcha are defined by Rushdie’s epigraph from Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil:
Satan, being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste of air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is . . . without any fixed place, or space, allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon. (Verses’ epigraph)
Both characters estrange themselves in an attempt to adopt an alien identity: Ivan takes the name Bezdomny in his attempt to become an atheist, communist poet; Chamcha forsakes his Indian heritage in order to become a proper Englishman. Chamcha, too, changes his name from the Indian Salahuddin Chamchawala, to a shorter, anglicized version Saladin Chamcha. Both Chamcha and Bezdomny are shaken by a fantastic event at the beginning of their stories, wind up in a hospital somewhere in the middle, and end up on a path to self identity, proving Farishta’s statement “to be born again, first you have to die” true.
Ivan, despite his efforts, does not make a good communist poet. His poem, commissioned by Berlioz and MASSOLIT, does not question Christ’s existence, like a good atheist should, but shows Ivan’s ability to be receptive and open to new ideas, despite their sources. Perhaps this is why Woland narrates the first part of the master’s novel to the comme-il-faut Berlioz and Bezdomny: to show the futility of clinging to beliefs as stifling as Berlioz’s. Woland’s narrative and Berlioz’s subsequent death push Bezdomny to question his adopted ideologies and land him — near the master — in Stravinsky’s asylum, truly homeless. Hart suggests that the devil’s verses have “been planted in fertile soil” (172). Ivan, now that he has glimpsed a vision of different truth, can no longer survive in the current communist zeitgeist.
Similarly, after his fall from the Bostan with Gibreel, Chamcha begins to realize that he does not belong in his adopted country. He begins to assume the corporeal shape of evil, simultaneously stripped of his physical and social identity (Verstraete 329). Yet the metamorphosis depicts the culmination of a dehumanization that began with his career as a voice without a body on British radio and television, and likens him to the homeless vagabond Satan. Arrested, beaten, and dehumanized by the British authorities, Chamcha lands in the hospital, a subjugated, estranged animal still trying to accept his circumstances with a British stiff upper lip. In their respective hospitals, Chamcha and Ivan meet other outcasts.
Bezdomny is further influenced by his encounter with the master, inmate no. 118. The master relates his story about his novel, Margarita, and his fall, while Ivan tells of his brush with Woland. From this point, Ivan becomes even more receptive to the master’s words, so much so, in fact, that he dreams the execution of Yeshua. Proffer concludes that the master’s novel, Woland’s narration, and Ivan Bezdomny’s dream all share similar styles and content which “implies that there is one truth which may be divined by the true artist” (537-8). This also demonstrates the influence of a great mind on those who are open to questioning their beliefs.
Similarly, Chamcha continues to lose his carefully constructed order while he changes physically. His hospital ward contains others like himself: immigrants who, his manticore companion explains, have been transformed by the words of the natives. “They describe us,” he explains, “That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct” (Verses 168). By the chapter’s end, Saladin heads “east east east” with his new, black friend who perhaps symbolizes the darkness that he has tried so long to forsake in his own life (171). This darkness embraced by Chamcha is focused on Gibreel in the form of verses. Chamcha’s change forces him to discard his Englishness (with his wife and career) and focus all of his contempt toward the man that allowed him to be taken away and brutalized: Gibreel Farishta. Kerr suggests that Chamcha realizes his humanity by hating, by embracing that satanic aspect of himself that he has so long despised and repressed (178). He restores his physical appearance only by acting through hate, by playing Iago to Gibreel’s Othello. He breaks his English conditioning by exploiting Gibreel’s insecurity and jealousy when it comes to Allie Cone. Yet, only when Gibreel ironically and unexpectedly saves Saladin from the burning Shaandaar Café is Chamcha ready to forgive and be born again.
Both Verses and Master end with the rebirth of Chamcha and Ivan respectively. Ivan, true to his vow, renounces his poetry and becomes a historian, while Chamcha returns to India and embraces his community, his family, and his humanity.
The master and Margarita visit Ivan on their way to eternity. Ivan promises to forgo “any more stupid poetry” in lieu of “something quite different” (361) and decides he no longer needs to remain in Stravinsky’s clinic: “perhaps I’m not so sick after all” (362). The master symbolically passes the banner to Ivan, making him responsible for his own individuality and his own voice: “Farewell, disciple” (362). Master’s epilogue shows a Moscow returned to the godless decadence that characterized it before Woland’s visit: “the events described in this truthful account have faded from most people’s memories—with a few exceptions” (380). Ivan, now professor Poniryov of the Institute of History and Philosophy, has remained true to his vow with the master. He has given up the prestige and its concomitant material advantages to become a professor on society’s periphery (Weeks 58). Ivan has assumed an aspect of normalcy: he has become a productive member of his community, but the change is only another façade. Dreams of his fantastic experiences still plague Ivan during Easter, symptomatic, asserts Haber, of one who has glimpsed a higher vision but remains a member of a stifling social order (407). Ivan’s continuing struggle, caught between individual beliefs and societal values, takes courage to endure. He as a teacher may now influence the minds of a new generation to embrace their individual natures—to think and not blindly subscribe to another’s narrative and vision of truth. He is now in a position to utter his own satanic verses which may initially cause suffering, but ultimately emancipate.
Chamchawala’s freedom begins with the reconciliation with his dying father, Changez. Indeed, changes and multiplicity are symbolized by a wonderous lamp of wishes and possibilities—all Saladin must do is rub the lamp and believe in its power. The lamp’s potential and the atmosphere of India begin to affect Saladin:
Saladin felt hourly closer to many old, rejected selves, many alternative Saladins—or rather Salahuddins—which had split off from himself as he made various life choices, but which had apparently continued to exist, perhaps in the parallel universes of quantum theory. (523)
Chamcha begins to realize that death brings “out the best in people. . . . We are still capable of exaltation . . . in spite of everything, we can still transcend” (527). While only through death can one be born again, it first violently disrupts and terrifies before rebirth; the ambiguity of his father’s last minutes — “Why the horror? And, whence that final smile?” — makes Chamcha existentially aware of his own mortality and forces him to act (532). Changez’ death teaches Salahuddin terror and allows him to embrace his own voice not defined by England, the Qur’an, or any other absolute source, save himself and his postmodern lamp of possibilities.
One of Chamchawala’s last actions in the novel is the rubbing of the lamp that he inherited from his father. This action produces, as if by magic, Zeenat Vakil:
His old English life, its bizarreries, its evils, now seemed very remote, even irrelevant, like his truncated stage name. “About time,” Zeeny approved when he told her of his return to Salahuddin. “Now you can stop acting at last.” Yes, this looked like the start of a new phase . . . an orphaned life, like Muhammad’s; like everyone’s. A life illuminated by a strangely radiant death, which continued to glow, in the mind’s eye, like a sort of magic lamp. (534)
Salahuddin, unlike Gibreel, receives another chance because he has embraced his humanity. He has accepted the inevitability of change and the multiplicity of voices around him, but while he listens to all, he lets no single absolute voice control his life.
McLauren submits that while “we freefall through the worlds of Rushdie’s imagination, we are forced to take the responsibility for our own readings, our own choices” (64). While Rushdie and Bulgakov may not offer readers any truth, they both stress the importance of community and empathy in composing one’s own truth. Chamchawala, like Ivan, must see himself in relation to his community and his own humanity. The satanic element is part of that humanity and must not be ignored, but should be embraced and questioned and allowed to have a voice. This satanic element allows growth and change, both of which are integral to human life. For if an absolute truth is allowed to rule one’s life, change, growth, and history itself will come to an end, like in Rushdie’s nightmare vision of the Imam. If one knows the absolute truth, then what would be the point of living other than to convert heathens, to banish Satan, and stop thought altogether? A constant dialectic between new and different verses provides the necessary impetus for growth and individuality.
A new look at Bulgakov’s epigram becomes necessary since evil and good have diverse meanings depending upon who defines them. Tyrannical, absolute powers see evil as that which questions the truth, while good follows and does not question. Bulgakov and Rushdie suggest that the opposite is true: evil is blind conformity, while good asks what kind of idea. So the epigram’s paradox might be interpreted as taking on a dual role where both views are considered. Satan wills forever evil, i.e. he questions and causes others to question the powers that be, and, by so doing does forever good by making sure that humans do not go to sleep and relinquish their voices. The “Power,” then, is art.
The “Power,” in a more orthodox sense, could also mean God. Salman’s alterations to Mahound’s words are, according to the felix culpa, what God meant to have in the Qur’an in the first place, just as Matthew’s “fictions” have become the cornerstone of Christianity—all according to the plan. Though they both distorted the words of the artists, the literalness of the texts is unimportant; the quest for truth must take place within the individual’s soul. Wright posits that one should not consider the verses in the gospels and the suras false because of their alterations, for the fundamental messages remain intact (1169). These verses were not written to be historical artifacts, but to help people discover their identities (Wright 1169). Even if Farishta’s and the master’s stories are fictions, in the light of the felix culpa, they are God-serving. Evil and blasphemy, as Woland states, are necessary appendages of good.
I have argued here that Mahound and Yeshua represent successful artists. These archetypal poets positively influence all the novels’ characters, including the reader. Their struggle to be heard, their will to withstand temptation, and their courage to maintain their beliefs whatever the consequences make them figures to be admired and emulated more so than the product of their struggle. Rushdie respects those like Yeshua and Mahound who “attempt radical reformations of language, form and ideas, those that attempt to do what the word novel seems to insist upon: to see the world anew. I am well aware that this can be a hackle-raising, infuriating attempt” (“Faith” 393). Rushdie, like his character Mahound, has stood relatively firm in his expression of truth, despite the oppressive fatwa.
The blind conformity to any notion, belief, or ideal without consulting the inner artist seems to be the ultimate evil. Arenberg states that “the master demonstrates that each man’s salvation lies within himself,” and that “Bulgakov recognized that men follow the path of least resistance, denying their own imaginative capabilities in favor of institutionalized ideologies, organized religion, and conventional morality” (123, 121). Proffer agrees, for she submits that the coming of the storm after the crucifixion of Yeshua “presages . . . the coming of a new religion, Christianity,” which will no longer require humanity to question—just follow (553). But faith in “gospel truth” is, at least for Rushdie and Bulgakov, never enough — it leaves those unfortunate non-thinkers open to all kinds of satanic verses.
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Originally written for my Master’s thesis in 1996. Revised into this form on Oct 6, 1997 @ 17:42. Published here because many have asked.