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Chapter 23: The Great Ball at Satan's 
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Post Chapter 23: The Great Ball at Satan's
The Great Ball at Satan’s

Dizzy With Success’ was the title of a famous article by Joseph Stalin published in Pravda in 1930. Such entirely false and malicious political claims, with Stalin concealing the vast misery he was inflicting through the collectivisation of agriculture, inspired Bulgakov to write this satirical chapter, in which we see Satan laughing with delight following his successful trashing and confusion of Moscow.

There is something intensely discomforting about the fact that Bulgakov presents his heroine Margarita in a Faustian pact with the devil. She stands there welcoming the ghouls as their rotting coffins bump into the fireplace and they zombie up the walkway in the guise of perfect life. She follows the demonic instruction not to even allow a negative thought into her head as she bimbos up for the devil.

And yet here is she, presented as the figure of authentic ethics who has stood up for truth in defending the writing of the Master against the moronic persecution of the communist state, standing now in Moscow to bless the work of the evil deceiver.

Bulgakov is showing the temptations of power that comes from exhaustion and isolation. Many White Russian former counter-revolutionaries of Margarita’s ilk among Bulgakov’s circle could not stand his hard and narrow path of integrity. They preferred instead the wide and easy road of destruction and worldly success that came from compromise with the Bolshevik Regime, losing their soul and gaining the whole world, keeping their head down, looking for personal success and career advancement in a crazy world, concealing or changing any disloyal views.

This was a time when, as Solzhenitsyn later would relate in The Gulag Archipelago, mere suspicion of critical attitudes could see a person exiled for ten years to slave labour camps, in places like the White Sea canal on the bitter frozen north coast of Russia that were really death sentences. This whole shadow of extreme political intimidation hangs over Margarita’s desperate assessment that perhaps the devil can help get back her man.


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Post Re: Chapter 23: The Great Ball at Satan's
Robert Tulip wrote:
The Great Ball at Satan’s

we see Satan laughing with delight following his successful trashing and confusion of Moscow.
And yet, he apparently throws this grand ball of ghouls every year. In a bitter echo of "All Saints' Day," when those who died that year are remembered, the damned souls of evil collaborators are paraded before Margarita. Their decay and the futility of their lives are now openly visible.

Robert Tulip wrote:
There is something intensely discomforting about the fact that Bulgakov presents his heroine Margarita in a Faustian pact with the devil. She stands there welcoming the ghouls as their rotting coffins bump into the fireplace and they zombie up the walkway in the guise of perfect life. She follows the demonic instruction not to even allow a negative thought into her head as she bimbos up for the devil.

And yet here is she, presented as the figure of authentic ethics who has stood up for truth in defending the writing of the Master against the moronic persecution of the communist state, standing now in Moscow to bless the work of the evil deceiver.

Bulgakov is showing the temptations of power that comes from exhaustion and isolation.
It would seem so. For just a little bit of security for her beloved, and to keep faith with her romantic dreams, Margarita accepts to serve the forces of evil. The initial wild delight at flying and invisibility are replaced by sickening recognition of the end result of collaboration.

We need our fellow humans. We deeply need the norms of decency and the ability to trust the future that comes from a society of decency. When everything around you has been twisted into corruption and totalitarian domination, your integrity is likely to collapse.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Many White Russian former counter-revolutionaries of Margarita’s ilk among Bulgakov’s circle could not stand his hard and narrow path of integrity. They preferred instead the wide and easy road of destruction and worldly success that came from compromise with the Bolshevik Regime, losing their soul and gaining the whole world, keeping their head down, looking for personal success and career advancement in a crazy world, concealing or changing any disloyal views.
But they didn't gain the whole world. Not even much luxury or comfort. The struggle for power, even the scraps of power, is a lose-lose game. There is something deeply disturbed about a corrupt system: its logic takes on a veneer of inevitability even though it enlists nearly everyone in their own degradation.

Robert Tulip wrote:
This was a time when, as Solzhenitsyn later would relate in The Gulag Archipelago, mere suspicion of critical attitudes could see a person exiled for ten years to slave labour camps,that were really death sentences. This whole shadow of extreme political intimidation hangs over Margarita’s desperate assessment that perhaps the devil can help get back her man.
Still, the full wrath of the Man of Steel was reserved for rivals (as the show trials demonstrated), not for the insignificant failures to fully and enthusiastically cooperate. Millions were expendable, but that was still just papered over as the omelet requiring a few eggs to be broken. The scale of their destruction horrifies, but the individual focus of the paranoia of power-seeking reveals as much about the lie at the heart of the system.

Stalin was, in a very real sense, a traitor. His maneuverings against rivals almost destroyed the Russian military, and his devastation of the Ukraine caused them to collaborate openly with the Nazi invasion. The Russian people remember him as a hero for turning at last to the task of facing an external enemy and for actually winning (against the odds and at incalculable human cost) but they generally pass over the betrayal of his country which created the conditions of desperation.

People who put their faith in ruthlessness and swagger are inviting the same sickening awakening that Margarita feels.



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Robert Tulip
Mon May 21, 2018 3:23 am
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Post Re: Chapter 23: The Great Ball at Satan's
Harry Marks wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
The Great Ball at Satan’s we see Satan laughing with delight following his successful trashing and confusion of Moscow.
And yet, he apparently throws this grand ball of ghouls every year. In a bitter echo of "All Saints' Day," when those who died that year are remembered, the damned souls of evil collaborators are paraded before Margarita. Their decay and the futility of their lives are now openly visible.
I confess, that line about Satan was from Don MacLean, not Mikhail Bulgakov.

In this chapter there is no laughter except the hollow guffawing of the cat, for appearance not humour.

Satan delays his appearance until all the ghoueasts have arrived, and does so in grim fashion, calculated to restore a sense of reality after the glamour of the ball. Surrounded by angels of death, Satan wears his dirty patched nightshirt, using a sword as a walking stick. Azazello brings a dish calculated to recall the prize delivered to Salome by King Herod.

Rather than John the Baptist, here the severed head is that of Berlioz, chopped by the tram wheel as Satan’s first demonstration of his powers in Moscow. But this head is alive, and in pain. To absolute silence except a doorbell in the distance, Satan proceeds to lecture the severed head about how it all came true with obdurate fact.

The head suddenly turns to a glistening skull with emerald eyes and pearl teeth. A new guest arrives, not a ghoul but an actual person, quaking with fright, a Moscow tourist guide, Baron Maigel, invited by Satan to the ball as sacrificial victim. Moving into Stalinist mode, Satan tells this terrified innocent that rumours he is an eavesdropper and spy have produced the conclusion of his impending death.

Abadonna the angel of death steps forward and takes off his dark glasses, looking at the victim, whose chest splits open causing a gushing cascade of blood. Satan drinks this sacrificial rite from the skull of Berlioz, instructing Margarita to do the same, which she does, upon which she awakes in Berlioz’ drawing room.

Perhaps the whole episode of flying and the ball are just a nightmare? We will find out in the next chapter.

In any case, the meaning here appears to be that the Bolshevik regime has perfected the art of the stage managed public event, the grand military parades in Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum, the show trials, the Potemkin villages. Like Satan’s ball, these appearances conceal a grim reality, the pure terror of innocent sacrifice and suffering.
Harry Marks wrote:
We need our fellow humans. We deeply need the norms of decency and the ability to trust the future that comes from a society of decency. When everything around you has been twisted into corruption and totalitarian domination, your integrity is likely to collapse.
The collapse of the norms of decency under totalitarian rule becomes an intense source of trauma and disintegration, a learned helplessness as people wait for orders from on high. The sheer terror of this blood drinking episode is designed to convey the intimidation that ripples through society when someone is told in public that they have been informed on.
Harry Marks wrote:
But they didn't gain the whole world. Not even much luxury or comfort.
I suppose so, but pretending to quote Jesus is more fun.
Harry Marks wrote:
The struggle for power, even the scraps of power, is a lose-lose game. There is something deeply disturbed about a corrupt system: its logic takes on a veneer of inevitability even though it enlists nearly everyone in their own degradation.
The sense that the Soviet Union had achieved parity with the USA in the arms race had just this veneer, mocked as ‘Upper Volta with rockets’. The veneer of excitement at Satan’s ball is a show designed to concentrate attention on the shocking dissonance of the host’s celebratory behaviour. Such appalling conduct may cower people for a time, but as with the Soviet Union, the reality was a brittle lie, a house of cards that fell down like the vanishing of Satan’s magnificent ballroom.
Harry Marks wrote:
Stalin was, in a very real sense, a traitor. His maneuverings against rivals almost destroyed the Russian military, and his devastation of the Ukraine caused them to collaborate openly with the Nazi invasion. The Russian people remember him as a hero for turning at last to the task of facing an external enemy and for actually winning (against the odds and at incalculable human cost) but they generally pass over the betrayal of his country which created the conditions of desperation.
That is an interesting analysis of someone who has the “L'Etat, c'est moi” attitude of Stalin. I think it is fair enough to equate tyranny with treason, treason against the justifiable hopes of ordinary people for future opportunities.
Harry Marks wrote:
People who put their faith in ruthlessness and swagger are inviting the same sickening awakening that Margarita feels.
Indeed, and I think that is the point Bulgakov is making with this chapter, even though he died before the war, and long before the awakening of 1989.

Looking back in history to find ruthless swaggering tyrants who have been viewed positively for their contributions, they are relatively few, although Alexander and Napoleon come to mind. There is also the case of Genghis Khan, whose ruthlessness enabled Mongolia to rule half the world for several centuries after his conquests.

The Chinese example post Mao shows it is possible for successors to retain institutions built by tyrants, suggesting that if Russia had a Deng rather than a Gorbachev the Communist Party of the Soviet Union might still be in power. Perhaps the difference from China is the Soviet overreach with the captive nations of Eastern Europe, whose rebellion was inevitable.


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Last edited by Robert Tulip on Sat May 26, 2018 1:02 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Harry Marks
Sat May 26, 2018 1:01 am
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Post Re: Chapter 23: The Great Ball at Satan's
Robert Tulip wrote:
The Great Ball at Satan’s we see Satan laughing with delight following his successful trashing and confusion of Moscow.
I confess, that line about Satan was from Don MacLean, not Mikhail Bulgakov.
Oh, don't worry, I would not miss a reference to "American Pie." (or "Starry, Starry Night"). I played it endlessly on my 8-track in my first car, and I used to know every verse by heart, in order. For that matter I didn't miss the Rolling Stones reference "Let me introduce myself . . ." which is still played here on "Nostalgie" (the French Rock and Roll channel.)

Robert Tulip wrote:
Azazello brings a dish calculated to recall the prize delivered to Salome by King Herod.
Rather than John the Baptist, here the severed head is that of Berlioz, chopped by the tram wheel as Satan’s first demonstration of his powers in Moscow. But this head is alive, and in pain. To absolute silence except a doorbell in the distance, Satan proceeds to lecture the severed head about how it all came true with obdurate fact.
I found the strange parallel to be quite disturbing, though perhaps not as much as Margarita having to drink blood (which I think we may safely say was not intended as any kind of close reference to the Eucharist). As if Berlioz the skeptic was some kind of prophet or at least some sort of threat to the position of his Satanic majesty. If there was a point, perhaps that was it - that the "intellectuals" are no threat at all. The "romantic" revenge of Herodias is reversed by the humiliation and devastation of romantic Margarita.
Robert Tulip wrote:
In any case, the meaning here appears to be that the Bolshevik regime has perfected the art of the stage managed public event, the grand military parades in Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum, the show trials, the Potemkin villages. Like Satan’s ball, these appearances conceal a grim reality, the pure terror of innocent sacrifice and suffering.
It does raise a question, at least for me, why Stalin needed to fret about appearances. To some extent he made use of the pliability of the Russian peasants, and of the cooperation by leftist sympathizers abroad, but in the end wasn't it just violence and terror that kept him in power?
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
We need our fellow humans. We deeply need the norms of decency and the ability to trust the future that comes from a society of decency. When everything around you has been twisted into corruption and totalitarian domination, your integrity is likely to collapse.
The collapse of the norms of decency under totalitarian rule becomes an intense source of trauma and disintegration, a learned helplessness as people wait for orders from on high.

Such appalling conduct may cower people for a time, but as with the Soviet Union, the reality was a brittle lie, a house of cards that fell down like the vanishing of Satan’s magnificent ballroom.
I still stand in enormous awe of George Kennan's "long telegram" that outlined the strategy of containment. It must rank with Britain's long dedication to maintaining a balance of power on the continent as one of the most brilliant strategic visions ever. Kennan believed, having seen this house of cards up close, that eventually when the logic of overthrow and revolution failed, the whole edifice of expedient lies would also collapse.

Robert Tulip wrote:
That is an interesting analysis of someone who has the “L'Etat, c'est moi” attitude of Stalin. I think it is fair enough to equate tyranny with treason, treason against the justifiable hopes of ordinary people for future opportunities.
I agree, but I think Stalin's devastation of his country goes well beyond the treason implied by ordinary tyranny. Benevolent dictators deprive their people of something precious, by definition, but when you also attack and undermine and do violence to the institutions of society, right down to the norms of ordinary life, systematically destroying every social structure with the independence that professionalism brings, the damage is also likely to invite foreign domination.

Eventually Zimbabwe was able to recognize a kinship to treason in the misbehavior and incompetence of Robert Mugabe. Sad that it usually takes so long and meets so much resistance.



Sat May 26, 2018 12:42 pm
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