Absurdism, Books

A trivial comedy for serious people

The great Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) studied medicine at university, and after graduating in 1916 was sent to be the sole doctor at an isolated hospital in the depths of the remote countryside. In the early part of the war, instead of conscripting them into the army, young civilian doctors were assigned to small provincial hospitals all over Russia. In his virgin white coat, he single-handedly administered to the local peasants. He treated gout, delivered babies, carried out rudimentary amputations and tried in vain to stop the spread of syphilis. His highly suspicious agricultural patients, of little education, mistrusted his techniques and ignored his advice. His first stories (A Young Doctor’s Notebook) were set in this outpost. They are tales of a modest, modern man of science fighting back archaic superstition. The educated doctor fighting an elemental force of unreason, ignorance and prejudice. They were written in the first person using the realistic narrative prose style of a late nineteenth century liberal.

Then came the revolution of October 1917.

The Soviet dream included the optimistic mentality that science would lead inevitably to paradise for all. The cult of science combined with utopian thinking is integral to the totalitarian project. Trotsky in Literature and Revolution (1924) set out a vision of a world in which the new proletariat man would be free to adapt nature to his own wishes. About two dozen leading Russian astronomers were put to death by Stalin, some years later, when their academic research into sunspot development was deemed to be insufficiently Marxist. Where doctrine and reality diverged, reality was in the wrong. The new Soviet man would change the course of rivers, reshape mountains and reorganise the planet: the forces of nature were helpless when confronted with the all powerful new Bolshevik society.

Mikhail Bulgakov took a different view. He mocked the Soviet belief that science would solve all human problems or that communist society could reach utopia. He showed a magnificent contempt for this ethos of certainty. Satirists do not believe in the possibility of human perfection, and Bulgakov was a satirist and an absurdist. Absurdity is from that branch of philosophy called stoicism. The point of stoicism is not to change the world, but to withstand its contingency. In the early 1920s he gave up medicine to devote himself to literature and deployed an absurdist prose style of boisterous nonsense to confront the new dour utilitarianism. Absurdist prose employs humour to undermine ideology, satire to reveal human folly, ambiguity to undercut certitude, irony to highlight the contingent. It lays low the mighty and lifts the lowly and Bulgakov was a master of its deployment. He established himself as a writer of comic fiction by joining the staff of two journals, one based in Berlin, and sowed the seeds of his later works. He gave his Berlin readers a comic view of the increasingly crazy atmosphere in Moscow. In the other paper, for the Railway Workers Union, his speciality was absurd short letters purportedly sent in by simple-minded readers foxed by Lenin’s New Economic Policy.

He wrote two short novels. In The Fatal Eggs (1924) he tells the story of a catastrophe caused by a combination of chance and human folly. A professor of Zoology in Moscow discovers accidentally a mysterious ray that enhances vital reproductive processes. Russia’s diseased hens are dying and a political activist decides to use the rays to irradiate eggs brought from abroad and replenish the nations stock of poultry. The suspiciously large eggs are irradiated and enormous snakes and giant reptiles are unleashed. In this burlesque satire events spin out of control and, through an arrogant combination of political power and scientific knowledge, bring an entire country to the edge of an abyss.

A Dog’s Heart (1925) is an absurd comic story about another Moscow professor who transplants into a stray dog the testicles and pituitary glands of a recently deceased man. The mongrel was good tempered but the dead man was a criminal and the dog’s natural affectionate nature becomes swamped by the viciousness of the human. This human animal (indoctrinated with party ideology and a garbled devotion to the Communist project) obtains employment as a cat exterminator and denounces acquaintances, including the professor, to the authorities as ideologically unsound. Science is misused, politics unfairly abused and chaos unleashed.

The Master and Margarita (1928-1937) is a comic, grotesque, slapstick, inventive satire and Bulgakov’s masterpiece and I urge everyone to read it. A sinister devilish figure, Professor Woland, with his malevolent retinue arrive in Moscow. With perfect politeness they cause death and spread insanity and promote disarray and anarchy. A cat swings from chandeliers discharging a revolver. Women fly naked over the city. Corpses arrive for a ball through a chimney. Head’s roll down the street. Fires rage. Rather like Bulgakov’s prose, Woland takes reality by the throat and shakes out laughter and a sombre chill. The novel includes a profound retelling of the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate and an examination of the artistic integrity of the novelist hero, the Master. I have written about the novel before in Manuscripts Don’t Burn.

The absurdist prose style requires complete deviation from the party line. That, of course, was the one thing denied to Bulgakov: “every satirist in the USSR infringes on Soviet society” he wrote in a letter to Stalin in 1930. A Dog’s Heart was confiscated; The Fatal Eggs banned; his plays removed from the stage; publication of fiction refused. His requests to be allowed to write were denied. The Master and Margarita had to be written by him in dangerous secret conditions. “For me, the impossibility of writing is equivalent to being buried alive” he wrote. He was unable to write and unable not to write. It was only because he was so serious an artist that he had to write these comic tales.

The less serious artists did not write comedy. They followed the prescriptive tenets of the official method of writing, Soviet Realism. They understood the importance of being earnest, and thus they flourished writing conformism and cant. All writers of prose, poems and plays had to at least disguise themselves in the colours of a fellow traveller, or condemn themselves to a lifetime of silence. Literature was now to depict the lives of the masses and assist in the development of the new Soviet ethos. Moscow’s printing presses churned out idiotic propaganda for the gullible and Bulgakov lived his last few years in obscurity and poverty.

Realism is unfit for reality. Reality can sometimes only be depicted by burlesque, grotesque, absurdity.

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