The Devil Visits Moscow - "Never Talk With Strangers" - Ch. 1 from "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov
Never Talk With Strangers
In this opening chapter of The Master and Margarita we are thrown into quite a surprising dialogue. Two Soviet atheists are taking a walk and discussing their work in the literary world. One man, Berlioz, is an editor and hired the other, nicknamed "Homeless," to write a poem that would attack faith in Jesus. They are convinced that Jesus never existed and that it's all a myth. And so they want to write something that reflects that. In the midst of their discussion, a strange man appears and makes his way into the conversation. It is actually the Devil in the disguise of a foreign professor who specializes in the history of Black Magic, and has been brought to Moscow as a consultant. They experience many weird signs around this man. He predicts their future, and how they will die, by casting a spell. He tells tales of eating with long dead philosophers, and many other wild accusations. Yet, the two men, somehow suspicious, never put two and two together that it could be the Devil. Certainly there is an irony that Bulgakov is putting forward in that the Devil is right in front of them, but because they are educated Soviet men and atheists they can't even see him. At the end of chapter one, the Devil leans in their ears and says, "Jesus did actually exist," to the shock of the men who thought that such a learned man could not think such a thing.
Also, on a side note, I found the description of Immanuel Kant sitting at breakfast with the Devil who gives him feedback about his "Proof for God from Moral Duty," to be very funny. Even the Devil realizes that Kant's proof is weak. Kant's supposed "disbanding" of the Five metaphysical proofs of Aquinas, led to atheism in the 19th century because those who accepted that Kant had really destroyed them, then only had a weak argument to replace it with ... one quickly dispatched with, as Nietzsche did. [I am not saying that Kant actually did away with metaphysical proofs for God, only pointing out that many in the 19th century thought that he did. These Aristotelian and Thomistic proofs for God are still alive and very strong today. I have many other posts on them in the blog archive which you can locate here.]
Two Soviet Atheists
The novel opens with two men - Berlioz and Homeless -. Berlioz was an editor for a group of Moscow's literary publications, and Homeless was a poet who he had hired to help write a piece for him. 1 They sit on a bench along a walkway looking out over a pond, drinking some soda. As they are sitting there, Berlioz begins to be overcome by fear and panic, following by a type of demonic vision which lasts for a moment but then fades. "But, alas, it was, and the long, see-through citizen was swaying before him to the left and to the right without touching the ground. Here terror took such possession of Berlioz that he shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he saw that it was all over, the phantasm had dissolved, the checkered one had vanished, and with that the blunt needle had popped out of his heart." 2
What were the two talking about on the bench? Berlioz had hired Homeless to write a poem about Jesus for an upcoming magazine. He had told him to make it a piece that portrayed Jesus negatively. When Homeless had finished, he presented it to the dissatisfaction of Berlioz. Yes, Homeless painted Jesus in a negative light, but his poem still presupposed that Jesus existed. Berlioz wanted to take it a step farther, and argue the point that Jesus never existed. "Now, Berlioz wanted to prove to the poet that the main thing was not how Jesus was, good or bad, but that this same Jesus, as a person, simply never existed in the world, and all the stories about him were mere fiction, the most ordinary mythology." In support of this Berlioz cited figures like Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus, Tacitus, claiming that they didn't mention Jesus, or if they did, it was some later addition. He also claimed that Christianity took its ideas from other religions and combined them together. 3 "... the poet learned [from Berlioz] more and more interesting and useful things about the Egyptian Osiris, a benevolent god and the son of Heaven and Earth, and about the Phoenician god Tammuz, and about Marduk, and even about a lesser known, terrible god, Vitzliputzli, once greatly venerated by the Aztecs in Mexico."
It was then that a man finally appeared on the walk along with two other men sitting. No one seemed to be able to recall this man's appearance correctly, but we are given, "First of all, the man described did not limp on any leg, and was neither short nor enormous, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold on the right. He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching color. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over on ear; under his arm he carried a stick with with a black knob shaped like a poodle's head. ... He looked to be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. Right eye black, left - for some reason - green." 4
A Discussion With the Devil
As the two men are discussing their poem, the stranger (who they mark as a foreigner, yet cannot peg down from where) interrupts them and joins the conversation. He sits between them and picks up the conversation. "'Unless I heard wrong, you were pleased to say that Jesus never existed?' the foreigner asked, turning his left green eye to Berlioz. 'No, you did not hear wrong,' Berlioz replied courteously, 'that is precisely what I was saying.'"5 The foreigner was delighted to hear the men say this, and even seeks to clarify the two men's beliefs. He asks them if they are atheists, to which they respond, "yes." "'In our country atheism does not surprise anyone,' Berlioz said with diplomatic politeness. 'The majority of our population consciously and long ago ceased believing in the fairy tales about God.'"
The reader begins to understand that this foreign man is quite strange. He continues his prodding of the two men, bringing up Thomas Aquinas' Five proofs for God's existence. He asks them what they make of those proofs. 6 "'Alas!' Berlioz said with regret. 'Not one of these proofs is worth anything, and mankind shelved them long ago. You must agree that in the realm of reason there can be no proof of God's existence.' 'Bravo!' cried the foreigner. 'Bravo! You have perfectly repeated restless old Immanuel's thought in this regard. But here's the hitch: he roundly demolished all five proofs, and then, as if mocking himself, constructed a sixth of his own.'" (Here Berlioz references the argument for God's existence through moral duty which Kant came up with.) Homeless curses Kant for attempting to create such a proof. It is here that we begin to see the identity of the foreign man ... as the Devil himself in disguise, as he points out that he ate with Kant centuries before and told Kant that the new proof didn't work.
"...Didn't I tell him that time at breakfast: 'As you will, Professor, but what you've thought up doesn't hang together. It's clever, maybe, but mighty unclear. You'll be laughed at.' Berlioz goggled his eyes. 'At breakfast ... to Kant? ... What is this drivel? he thought. ... 'sending him [Kant] to Solovki [as a punishment] is unfeasible, for the simple reason that he has been abiding for over a hundred years now in places considerably more remote than Solovki, and to extract him from there is in no way possible, I assure you.'"
The Devil continues his conversation, asking them that if there is no God then who is in control of human society and fate. They answer that man is his own ruler, of course. 7 The Devil challenges him, saying that doesn't "ruling" require being in control over a long period of time. Human life is fleeting, and just as one begins to rule they suddenly die. Human rulers, too, quickly become corrupt as well. "'You are no longer interested in anyone's fate but your own. Your family starts lying to you. Feeling that something is wrong, you rush to learned doctors, then to quacks, and sometime to fortune-tellers as well. Like the first, so the second and third are completely senseless, as you understand. And it all ends tragically: a man who still recently thought he was governing something, suddenly winds up lying motionless in a wooden box, and the people around him, seeing that he man lying there is no longer good at anything, burn him in an oven." The Devil's point is that man's fate is not governed by himself. It is finally starting to hit Berlioz who this really is. 8 Not only that, but man's mortality is not predictable, it can happen at any time. But the Devil may know ... at least that's how the foreigner presents himself. He performs a spell and tells Berlioz that he will die by beheading. 9 On top of that he is going to have his head cut off by a Russian woman, "a Komsomol girl." The Devil continues to tell them their future. For example, their literary meeting that will be canceled. He knows Homeless' real name too, to Homeless' shock. 10
The men become suspicious of the foreigner and so he showed his papers. He was a professor, a consultant to Moscow. 11 “I... the professor repeated and suddenly fell to thinking. Yes, perhaps I am German ... he said. 'You speak real good Russian,' Homeless observed. Oh, I'm generally a polyglot and know a great number of languages,' the professor replied. 'And what is your field?' Berlioz inquired. I am a specialist in black magic. 'There he goes! . . ' struck in Mikhail Alexandrovich's head. 'And... and you've been invited here in that capacity?' he asked, stammering. Yes, in that capacity,; the professor confirmed, and explained: 'In a state library here some original manuscripts of the tenth-century necromancer Gerbert of Aurillac26 have been found. So it is necessary for me to sort them out. I am the only specialist in the world.' 'Aha! You're a historian?' Berlioz asked with great relief and respect. I am a historian,' the scholar confirmed, and added with no rhyme or reason: 'This evening there will be an interesting story at the Ponds!' Once again editor and poet were extremely surprised, but the professor beckoned them both to him, and when they leaned towards him, whispered: Bear in mind that Jesus did exist.' You see, Professor, Berlioz responded with a forced smile, we respect your great learning, but on this question we hold to a different point of view.' There's no need for any points of view, the strange professor replied, 'he simply existed, that's all.' But there's need for some proof . .. Berlioz began. There's no need for any proofs, replied the professor, and he began to speak softly, while his accent for some reason disappeared: It's all very simple: In a white cloak with blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan. . .27” 12
1 - Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. (New York. Penguin Books, 2016). Pg. 3.
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