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Chapter Five - Griboyedov 
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Post Chapter Five - Griboyedov
Griboyedov is the headquarters of the Moscow Literary Society, which Bulgakov gives the delightful Orwellian title Massolit. Bulgakov’s satirical description of Massolit contains a large amount of bitterness, “consumed with black envy”, because his sense of intellectual integrity means that he and people like him are marginalised by the literary elite, whereas the leaders are those who have no scruples about prostituting their ethics to say whatever the communists require.

A big part of communism was its claim to support reason, with the worker’s anthem The Internationale including the line ‘reason in revolt now thunders’. But the version of reason that prevails at Griboyedov is entirely without principle, oriented instead to gaining access to country houses, travel, the club restaurant, publishing deals and other perks. And therefore the Bolsheviks provide money to this corrupted society, in order to provide the Potemkin style impression for useful idiots like George Bernard Shaw.

Carefully, artfully, beautifully, satirically, tragically, Bulgakov builds to the climax of Ivan’s arrival with the horrendous news of the tragic death of Berlioz. The Massolit Committee grumbles unkindly about his lateness while his body lies on the morgue slab, in no state to telephone anyone, especially considering his head is on a separate slab.

And then like an apparition from a zombie apocalypse, a figure approaches after midnight. “Every diner froze, eyes bulging, sturgeon-laden forks motionless in mid-air.” Ivan was barefoot, wearing a torn blouse like the madness of Sir Lancelot. He explains how the murderer has come to do untold harm, in lurid language that does nothing except convince all his hearers that Ivan is a gibbering schizo. The tales of the foreign professor spy with no name elicit so little sympathy that Ivan ends up in a fist fight, with the abominable, revolting, disgusting thrilling scandal only ending when the truck takes him to the asylum.


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Harry Marks
Sat Sep 16, 2017 9:16 pm
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Post Re: Chapter Five - Griboyedov
Bulgakov does a nice job of satirizing these "artists" whose preoccupations are dominated by the quality of the next dessert, or the opportunities for vacation at a dacha on the Black Sea (but mostly what those opportunities say about the person's status and clout.) Ordinariness is shown to be a clot of conventionality, denial, pretense and mutual avoidance.

Of course it doesn't take much familiarity with Chekhov to notice that the same was true of the provincial gentry, and for that matter of the artists of the ancien regime - more interested in currying favor and jostling for status than in the excellence of art or thought. I am not entirely sure how much Bulgakov wants us to view this as the human condition, and the communists as yet another group who knows how to manipulate this pettiness and ride it for power, and how much he is portraying it as a debasement brought about by explicit subordination of art to "social progress."

What I am having still more trouble working out is the purpose behind Bulgakov's protrayal of the madness of our main character Ivan. The madness is presented as a straightforward reaction to witnessing bizarre events and horrible portents, and yet the protagonist is seized by irrational urges not at all clearly related to the events and their implications. Is this supposed to show us the inevitable disturbance that comes from insight into the machinations going on behind the scenes? (Yes, the devil who speaks German and sees into the future with diabolical grasp of the interactions of the human dark side could indeed represent Lenin or Trotsky, though I have my doubts that it was supposed to be Stalin. The severed head could even be the tsar's.)

Or is it, perhaps, meant to show some disorientation that comes from the loss of firm bearings, when one no longer has confidence in understanding why things are the way they are: why power lines up with particular motives and capacities? Ivan seems to embody sanity and disorientation at the same time, held together not by his particular set of circumstances but by emotional reaction. He's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore, so to speak.



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Robert Tulip
Fri Sep 22, 2017 3:51 am
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Post Re: Chapter Five - Griboyedov
MM5 Griboyedov
Harry Marks wrote:
Bulgakov does a nice job of satirizing these "artists" whose preoccupations are dominated by the quality of the next dessert, or the opportunities for vacation at a dacha on the Black Sea (but mostly what those opportunities say about the person's status and clout.) Ordinariness is shown to be a clot of conventionality, denial, pretense and mutual avoidance.
The key message in this satire is the intense hypocritical corruption of communism. Those who claim to be on the side of the poor, defending the rights of the workers, are in fact completely careerist and self serving. This is a universal syndrome for socialist politics, because its placement of ideology above evidence and accountability means the decisive factor in all decisions is spin, not substance. By contrast, the market economics of capitalism creates a kill to eat rigor underlying the profit motive, which also extends into the arts where fame is a product of either just popularity or at least some level of academic honesty. In the Soviet morass the constant problem was second guessing the mind of Stalin and the nomenklatura. Those who did this successfully became dizzy with success while the failures got a one way ticket to Siberia or nine grams of lead.
Harry Marks wrote:
Of course it doesn't take much familiarity with Chekhov to notice that the same was true of the provincial gentry, and for that matter of the artists of the ancien regime - more interested in currying favor and jostling for status than in the excellence of art or thought. I am not entirely sure how much Bulgakov wants us to view this as the human condition, and the communists as yet another group who knows how to manipulate this pettiness and ride it for power, and how much he is portraying it as a debasement brought about by explicit subordination of art to "social progress."
Yes, there is direct continuity between Bolshevik values and the success factors under Tsarism. My feeling was it was the Russian condition rather than a universal problem, but perhaps that is just my prejudice. Brown nosing is an art which varies by culture, since the level of corruption varies in different societies. The concept of social progress is itself intensely corrupt, since it allows designation of some social groups as good and others as enemies of the people. Once such categorisation is in place, there is no capacity for evidence and merit to outweigh the factors of caste and politics.
Harry Marks wrote:
What I am having still more trouble working out is the purpose behind Bulgakov's portrayal of the madness of our main character Ivan. The madness is presented as a straightforward reaction to witnessing bizarre events and horrible portents, and yet the protagonist is seized by irrational urges not at all clearly related to the events and their implications. Is this supposed to show us the inevitable disturbance that comes from insight into the machinations going on behind the scenes?
Reading authors on the history of political insanity in Russia, especially Robert Conquest and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, helps to see the atmosphere of arbitrary extreme nihilistic despair that Bulgakov is depicting in the response of Ivan. For example, when Stalin surrounded Ukraine with a ring of steel and stole all its grain for hard currency, starving ten million people to death, and the useful idiots of British Labor continued to sing his praises, those affected felt the world had descended into a complete abyss of madness. One can imagine a loyal communist, one who entered the Party with idealistic motives of serving the poor and doing good in the pursuit of social progress, becoming unhinged at being ordered to steal the last grains from widows.
Harry Marks wrote:
(Yes, the devil who speaks German and sees into the future with diabolical grasp of the interactions of the human dark side could indeed represent Lenin or Trotsky, though I have my doubts that it was supposed to be Stalin. The severed head could even be the tsar's.)
I really don’t think Bulgakov saw much difference between Trotsky and Stalin, since both were equally insane in their hate-filled resentment, social destructiveness and imperial ambition. The devil represents the basic concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The head of Berlioz belonged to a communist apparatchik.
Harry Marks wrote:
Or is it, perhaps, meant to show some disorientation that comes from the loss of firm bearings, when one no longer has confidence in understanding why things are the way they are: why power lines up with particular motives and capacities? Ivan seems to embody sanity and disorientation at the same time, held together not by his particular set of circumstances but by emotional reaction. He's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore, so to speak.
As a poet, and a man of honest if misguided sincerity, Ivan represents the typical communist who is discombobulated by how the ruthless cynicism of power deflates his ideals. Bulgakov presents this deflation via an extreme absurdity, but with a grain of truth: many communists imagined in the early idealistic days of revolution that they worked in an ethical system where their word would be believed because they were creating a new world of peace and justice. However, they witness impossible things, and their hearers naturally prefer to assume the storyteller of the impossible is insane rather than that the impossible has occurred.


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Post Re: Chapter Five - Griboyedov
Robert Tulip wrote:
The key message in this satire is the intense hypocritical corruption of communism. Those who claim to be on the side of the poor, defending the rights of the workers, are in fact completely careerist and self serving. This is a universal syndrome for socialist politics, because its placement of ideology above evidence and accountability means the decisive factor in all decisions is spin, not substance.

Well, perhaps that came as a revelation at the time, but it is obvious to us today that these are just ordinary people. The difference between an apparatchik and a lobbyist is more the extent of power and accountability (the Party faces less accountability and has more power) than the purity of motives.

That dovetails, by and large, with Lenin's point: "Who....whom?" The question is not whether those in power will serve ideals and thereby risk their power, the question is who will be in power and who will be forced to submit to it.

Had he taken the usefulness of checks and balances and the rule of law more seriously, we might have a much more functional world today. On the other hand, if he honestly believed (and I think all the socialists did) that the institution of private property was the source of all the domination, corruption and exploitation in the old system, then the dream of breaking its stranglehold probably justified (in their minds) the use of similar methods in the brave new world of socialist realism.

Robert Tulip wrote:
By contrast, the market economics of capitalism creates a kill to eat rigor underlying the profit motive, which also extends into the arts where fame is a product of either just popularity or at least some level of academic honesty.
Can't say I agree with you. There may have been a time when capitalism was "rigorous" but I doubt it. The Economist magazine has gone so far as to claim that brand names were the source of accountability that cleaned up the adulteration of food and drugs. Not true. They were cleaned up by laws and inspections and many rounds of holding the inspectors accountable. By government, that is.

Today the conventional wisdom in the world of big business echoes Jack Welch's dictum that a company should get out of any business in which it is not one of the top two competitors. Why? Because companies do not compete on price, they compete on innovation. That may sound fine, but the actual implication is eating alive our former economy of industrial might. CEO's are measured more for their skill at getting out of lines of business than for their skill at getting into lines of business. And competition? Not really. With just two in the duopoly, it works much better to plod toward the next bell or whistle than to risk turning the business upside-down with serious price cuts.

Robert Tulip wrote:
In the Soviet morass the constant problem was second guessing the mind of Stalin and the nomenklatura. Those who did this successfully became dizzy with success while the failures got a one way ticket to Siberia or nine grams of lead.
Yes, this I agree with. Even Stalin recognized the bizarre counterproductive effects of this naked power game, when his mind was focused for him by Hitler's invasion. Suddenly he stopped sniffing out hints of disloyalty by generals and started putting the competent ones in charge. At least one analyst of the Soviet system (George Will, I think) has claimed that its weakness is that it can do a fine job of whatever it focuses on politically, but everything else falls to pieces for lack of political attention. Socialism has, in other words, a one-track mind (or perhaps you prefer the image of tunnel vision).

Robert Tulip wrote:
The concept of social progress is itself intensely corrupt, since it allows designation of some social groups as good and others as enemies of the people.
Well, I think my point was that the corruption is hardly unique to a system with socialist, or any particular, lofty ideals. Your "since it allows" could just as well be applied to the ideals used by those who suppressed labor actions, detailed by Zinn. Willingness to sacrifice others on the altar of our ideals is not particularly attached to the kinds of goals promoted by socialists.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Once such categorisation is in place, there is no capacity for evidence and merit to outweigh the factors of caste and politics.
Just as true of Roy Moore and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Sorry to dwell on American cases, but you can Google them and get the main idea.)
Robert Tulip wrote:
One can imagine a loyal communist, one who entered the Party with idealistic motives of serving the poor and doing good in the pursuit of social progress, becoming unhinged at being ordered to steal the last grains from widows.
Yes, this makes some sense of the story. I suspect that Bulgakov was not too familiar with Siberian camps or Ukrainian starvation at the time of writing this, but was still able to detect a particularly nasty kind of irrational, almost mechanical manipulation. The trial of Jesus evokes the show trials which so affected Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, and those were probably feeding into Bulgakov's awareness.

I am still chewing this over, mentally, and I still have trouble connecting the particulars of the story to the issues we are underlining. Part of the complication is that Bulgakov, even though he was not trying to officially publish the story, probably needed to hide his tracks to some extent. Ivan's irrationality comes in response to the horribleness of - - - well, of what exactly? Of a diabolical inside knowledge of how history would unfold? Of an imagined nature he constructed as the truth about a Satan rendered unrecognizable by ideology? The more I work on it, the less satisfied I am with any interpretation.
Robert Tulip wrote:
The head of Berlioz belonged to a communist apparatchik.
That much makes sense to me.
Robert Tulip wrote:
As a poet, and a man of honest if misguided sincerity, Ivan represents the typical communist who is discombobulated by how the ruthless cynicism of power deflates his ideals.
I am willing to tentatively go with this version. I might add that Ivan simply refuses to believe in spiritual forces, even when they seem to be obviously in operation, and this renders his materialist worldview somewhat vulnerable. Like Chinua Achebe's central symbol in "Things Fall Apart", in which traditional ways founder on their shared pretense about supernatural power, Bulgakov seems to be critiquing the lack of ability to see spiritual forces even when they are staring Ivan in the face.
Robert Tulip wrote:
However, they witness impossible things, and their hearers naturally prefer to assume the storyteller of the impossible is insane rather than that the impossible has occurred.
Yes, I think this also provides some insight. It also makes some sense of the twin tracks of insanity and lucidity in Ivan's behavior - the onlookers can see both, but when their interests are threatened, they go with the interpretation of insanity. And of course, the insanity he displays consists as much of anger and insulting denunciation as it does of gibbering about impossible events.



Fri Sep 29, 2017 6:23 am
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Post Re: Chapter Five - Griboyedov
Another chapter down. I enjoyed this one, as I have all of them.

Why didn't Bulgakov publish this book when it could have made a difference in soviet society? Rhetorical question. I know he would have been killed or incarcerated. But why didn't Bulgakov have the courage of his convictions?

I'm reading this book now, for the first time, in a climate in America where fascism is being encouraged. Left-wing fascism. The internet is being policed by soviet-style thought police, and we're all being told to mind what we say. But by whom? By people who belong to a cult of obedience. And I see that same cult in this book, in Stalin's Russia.

You pay a price when you speak your mind against the tyrannical, and I suppose Bulgakov wanted deferred payment.

Anyway, I wondered while reading this chapter if Bulgakov could have made a difference in the climate of the day had he published the book. I'm sure it would have been popular--forbidden but popular--and maybe the popularity would have led to a popular uprising.


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Post Re: Chapter Five - Griboyedov
KindaSkolarly wrote:
The internet is being policed by soviet-style thought police, and we're all being told to mind what we say. But by whom? By people who belong to a cult of obedience. And I see that same cult in this book, in Stalin's Russia.

You pay a price when you speak your mind against the tyrannical, and I suppose Bulgakov wanted deferred payment.


There are worlds of difference between being insulted and reviled on the internet and being arrested by the KGB. Just make sure you maintain your own commitment to freedom if the cops come for your "tyrannical" oppressors first.

KindaSkolarly wrote:
maybe the popularity would have led to a popular uprising.
Yeah, because truth is so compelling in a totalitarian society. Read the sad story of Boris Nemtsov and you will see that even with the much more limited power available to Vladimir Putin, Russians are not ready to stand up to it. Even today, strength counts more there than freedom does.



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