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Chapter 32: Absolution and Eternal Refuge
As we reach the final chapter (before the Epilogue) of this labyrinthine story, this modern Russian mythological fantasy, this satire wrapped in a love story wrapped in a tragedy, this enigmatic nesting of beautiful wan smiling babushkas, each as magically real as the next, the Master and Margarita continue their flying ride through the starry night with Satan and his dark retinue on the magic black steeds.
‘How sad, ye gods, how sad the world is at evening, how mysterious the mists over the swamps.’ This mysterious poetic statement opening the chapter evokes the idea that history is somehow at a time of growing darkness, suffering unbearable burdens. Satan and his companions, Behemoth, Azazello and Koroviev, shed their disguises as they ride on into the dark of night.
Under harsh green moonlight they come upon a man and a dog, as Satan explains that this encounter will enable the Master to complete his novel. It is Pontius Pilate, tortured by his cowardly failure to speak honestly to Jesus Christ. Again we read Bulgakov’s theme in The Master and Margarita, apparently censored in the first Russian edition, that cowardice is the greatest sin.
Like Sisyphus pushing his boulder repeatedly to the summit, or Prometheus chained on the high Caucasus where the eagle constantly eats his liver, Pilate suffers the eternal torment of those who have displeased the divine powers. His penance of forever striving without success to walk the beam of moonlight with Christ brings Pilate to reflect on his hard duty, a ruminative situation that has driven him mad with loneliness and isolation.
Margarita, ever compassionate, suggests to Satan that this punishment is too harsh. She utters a rock-splitting cry, calling to let Pilate go, to no avail. Satan comments caustically about her overly sympathetic attitude. The Master then repeats her call, telling Pilate he is free and that Christ is waiting for him. This word of absolution, the basis of the chapter title, suddenly opens a path of moonlight, and Pilate is finally released from his twenty centuries of stony bondage.
The cosmic power of this statement of pardon dissolves the hills around the heavenly Jerusalem in which Pilate sits and waits. Its grim cliffs collapse into the abyss, whence they are followed by Satan and his demons.
The point that most leapt out to me in this chapter was Pilate’s self-pity. Bulgakov uses Pilate’s repentance about arranging the crucifixion of Christ to symbolise the eternal damnation of the oppressors. The mental anguish experienced by Pilate could last forever, except that the Master has power to release him. Like Nazis claiming innocence of genocide by pleading they were only following orders, Pilate portrays himself as a functionary without agency.
Bulgakov’s aim with this maudlin sympathy for Pilate is to satirise the Stalinist system, how the agents of forced collectivisation and destruction of freedom under the Soviets should have sought absolution for their crimes, except that too often they were entirely unrepentant, having been brainwashed by Lenin and Trotsky into fanatical belief in the virtue of their war against aspiration.