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Chapter Fourteen - Saved by Cock-Crow 
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Post Chapter Fourteen - Saved by Cock-Crow
The rather disconcerting performance of Satanic Black Magic in the main theatre of Moscow has left the theatre director Rimsky upset. The removal and replacement of the head of the host by a talking cat was the least of the surprises. Rimsky is sitting alone in his office after the show, in an empty building at night, when shrieks are heard from the street.

It turns out the devil has tricked everyone. The women who thought they were magically getting the latest Parisian fashions at the black magic show find that all that is solid melts into air, and they are exposed on the streets in their underwear, to the mocking laughter of everyone, as their fine clothes disappear into nothing. The ladies who had fought so keenly for their shoes and perfume are now bitterly disappointed.

This episode is a parable for the deceptive promise from Lenin to provide peace, bread and land to the people of the Russian Empire as the result of the Bolshevik Revolution. Instead, they got war, famine and collectivisation as a result of the Satanic lies of communism.

Rimsky is focussed on how to pin all the blame on Likhodeyev, who absurdly claimed to be in Yalta after madly agreeing to the insane pact with the devil. With these shades of Faust, what should happen but Rimsky’s associate Varenukha the house manager turns up. Bulgakov spares no device to turn this meeting into a perfectly ghoulish tale of spine-tingling and nauseating horror, somewhat like Robert Conquest’s tales of hunger and death in the pitiful Ukraine under Stalin.

First, a damp evil smell oozes under the office door, and a weird scraping sound comes from the keyhole. His hands damp and cold, his nerves at snapping point, Rimsky is about to scream in sheer extreme melting terror when Varenukha opens the door and slips noiselessly in.

Initially it all seems good. Varenukha is there in Rimsky’s office (why we don’t know) to explain exactly how Likhodeyev tricked them all. It turns out he was not in Yalta at all, of course, but at a local pub called the Yalta, where he indulged in a series of scandalous drunken tricks include cooking up telegrams from a thousand miles away in the Crimea. Of course it is impossible to get from Moscow to Yalta in an hour, as Varenukha explains. The story is such a relief, providing what Bulgakov calls the straw of certainty in a world gone mad.

But then somehow the explanation starts to unravel. Rimsky’s bullshit meter was already on high alert after the devil’s performance that evening, and Varenukha had no way to know Rimsky would be there. But then Varenukha starts explaining how Likhodeyev smashed wine bottles, and other picturesque and revolting details. And then a weird bruise spreads across Varenukha’s face making him look ghoulish. Rimsky tries to sound the alarm but it doesn’t work. And earlier he got a phone call from a mystery woman telling him to keep quiet.

But then Rimsky sees that Varenukha has no shadow. He is a demon ghoul there to kill him. A naked woman appears at the window with rotting green skin and reaches a rubbery hand through to open the latch. The desk tilts with waves of icy cold and the girl gets in with cadaverous fingers and the stench of the grave. Her decaying breasts reveal a walking corpse. Rimsky’s hair turns suddenly from black to white as he prepares for death with the demon monsters closing on him.

And then the cock crows.


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Post Re: Chapter Fourteen - Saved by Cock-Crow
The revelation of truth in the evaporation of the devil's high fashion clothing, reminiscent of the Emperor's new clothes, is echoed by the cock crow that signals release from the grip of the ghoul. It crows three times, of course. This is borrowed directly from the crowing that reminds Peter, who has been denying Christ, that Jesus knew he would do so.

It is a bringing-to-one's-senses. It is a waking up when in the grip of fear. And somehow the thing feared loses its power when the subject awakens.

Did writers such as Solzhenitsyn come to their senses and disarm the fear? Yes and no. He had a point of view from which to critique the ideology of communism, and direct experience of its injustice. Perhaps because of these, he was able to survive and maintain a more honest perspective. However, it is not clear to me that the fear and the power that goes with it were in any way overcome. Maybe, as the #MeToo movement holds, just telling your story is a victory over fear.

But in the end, I think one has to believe that the machinations of the ruthless do not really matter, that the faithfulness of one's own heart is what really matters, to consider the truth-telling a victory. And maybe that is the point of using the cock-crow to signify the turning point against the darkness.



Wed Jan 10, 2018 5:04 am
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Post Re: Chapter Fourteen - Saved by Cock-Crow
Harry Marks wrote:
The revelation of truth in the evaporation of the devil's high fashion clothing, reminiscent of the Emperor's new clothes,
In that famous children’s story by Hans Christian Anderson, swindler tailors defraud the emperor by playing on his foolish vanity. It somehow reminds me of Rasputin and the Tsarina. The moral of the fable is that deference to authority can generate absurdity, which is inevitably eventually revealed.

Your mention of The Emperor's New Clothes made me think of Cinderella, with the coach turning into the pumpkin at midnight, ending the fantasy whirl of excitement with a thud.

Bulgakov is probably using the dissolving magic clothes as a parable for the five year plans, where initial dreams of abundance dissolved in bitter poverty and lies. Today the magical loss could stand as a story of the whole Soviet Union, with its superpower status mocked as Upper Volta with Rockets, and the final collapse of central planning from within.
Harry Marks wrote:
echoed by the cock crow that signals release from the grip of the ghoul. It crows three times, of course. This is borrowed directly from the crowing that reminds Peter, who has been denying Christ, that Jesus knew he would do so. It is a bringing-to-one's-senses. It is a waking up when in the grip of fear. And somehow the thing feared loses its power when the subject awakens.
There is a sense that Peter is in the grip of Satan in his three denials of Christ before the cock crows. His extreme fear of persecution by the fascist empire and its compradors led Saint Peter into unconscious or accidental lies, which in the story protect the holder of the keys of heaven and enable the construction of the church.

Here, the cock crow comes from vampire lore, as the signal for sunrise and the dissolution of the ghosts. In looking through a Gutenberg collection of Russian Folk Stories at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22373/2 ... m#Page_178 , I came upon The Two Corpses, which looks to be Bulgakov’s source:

THE TWO CORPSES
A soldier had obtained leave to go home on furlough—to pray to the holy images, and to bow down before his parents. And as he was going his way, at a time when the sun had long set, and all was dark around, it chanced that he had to pass by a graveyard. Just then he heard that some one was running after him, and crying:
“Stop! you can’t escape!”
He looked back and there was a corpse running and gnashing its teeth. The Soldier sprang on one side with all his might to get away from it, caught sight of a little chapel, and bolted straight into it.
There wasn’t a soul in the chapel, but stretched out on a table there lay another corpse, with tapers burning in front of it. The Soldier hid himself in a corner, and remained there, hardly knowing whether he was alive or dead, but waiting to see what would happen. Presently up ran the first corpse—the one that had chased the Soldier—and dashed into the chapel. Thereupon the one that was lying on the table jumped up, and cried to it:
“What hast thou come here for?”
“I’ve chased a soldier in here, so I’m going to eat him.”
“Come now, brother! he’s run into my house. I shall eat him myself.”
“No, I shall!”
“No, I shall!”
And they set to work fighting; the dust flew like anything. They’d have gone on fighting ever so much longer, only the cocks began to crow. Then both the corpses fell lifeless to the ground, and the Soldier went on his way homeward in peace, saying:
“Glory be to Thee, O Lord! I am saved from the wizards!”
Even the possession of arms and the presence of a dog will not always, it seems, render a man secure from this terrible species of cut-throat.
Harry Marks wrote:
Did writers such as Solzhenitsyn come to their senses and disarm the fear? Yes and no.
The Biblical idea is that the truth will set you free. For Bulgakov, dying in 1940 in the depths of Stalin’s Terror, the ghouls are advancing and the rooster’s distant dawn voice is the only hope of salvation.
Harry Marks wrote:
He had a point of view from which to critique the ideology of communism, and direct experience of its injustice. Perhaps because of these, he was able to survive and maintain a more honest perspective. However, it is not clear to me that the fear and the power that goes with it were in any way overcome. Maybe, as the #MeToo movement holds, just telling your story is a victory over fear.
In the story of Christ and Pilate, which of course is central to The Master and Margarita, Jesus calls himself a μαρτυρήσω τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, a martyr for truth, to the face of the emperor’s man. That willingness to die for a pure moral cause is the Christian background to the captive nations’ sense that unrelenting honesty and courage would cause the collapse of the evil empire.
Harry Marks wrote:
But in the end, I think one has to believe that the machinations of the ruthless do not really matter, that the faithfulness of one's own heart is what really matters, to consider the truth-telling a victory. And maybe that is the point of using the cock-crow to signify the turning point against the darkness.
You have me perplexed here Harry over the theology of the cross. Normally, we believe that efforts of the powerful to oppress and control do matter a lot. However, the perspective of faith is that nature is intrinsically good, and any victory of evil can only be temporary and illusory. This faith in the power of love produces a strong belief among the Christian faithful that the blood of the cross is redemptive, that in dying, Christ achieves our salvation through his action of selfless love.

In your phrase ‘the machinations of the ruthless’, the Christian idea in the conventional ransom faith is that the efforts of evil to suppress the good must lose. In Jesus, God has paid Satan’s fee, and the thrall of evil is conquered. It is of the nature of Christ that he marks the turning of the tide from evil to good, much as the cock signifies the turn from dark to light.


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Post Re: Chapter Fourteen - Saved by Cock-Crow
Robert Tulip wrote:
It somehow reminds me of Rasputin and the Tsarina. The moral of the fable is that deference to authority can generate absurdity, which is inevitably eventually revealed.
I think the connection to Rasputin is interesting, but I don't really see the Emperor story as being about deference to authority. A wily tongue plays on our credulity and our fatuous pride.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Bulgakov is probably using the dissolving magic clothes as a parable for the five year plans, where initial dreams of abundance dissolved in bitter poverty and lies.
I still have trouble with this. Perhaps we do not have a proper accounting of the costs that went into the building, but building certainly happened. Ore and steel and tractors and railroads definitely got built.

The dissolved dreams still seem to me to be those of the intellectuals and idealists who thought everything evil would go away when the corrupt systems of aristocracy and capitalism were overturned. Yes, the crowd also bought into fantasies of abundance, but were it not for Hitler, the country as a whole (but not Ukraine? not Ukraine's agricultural sector, anyway) would have had abundance not long after Europe and the US. There is much truth in the old claim that instability in capitalism made communism a surer path to industrialization.

It is an open question whether the ruthless violence and starvation that went with collectivization was unnecessary collateral damage created by Stalin's determination to use domination or an inherent part of the supposedly scientific plan to lift the country industrially by extracting resources from a "backward" and dead-end agricultural sector. I tend to favor the former interpretation, if only because Lenin's NEP had allowed some private profit.

In Ghana the agricultural sector is still backward because Nkrumah set up a system of extracting from it (as did many developing countries) by contrast with Cote d'Ivoire next door where private investment in agriculture raised productivity, but here it was never collectivized and no heavy-handed violence was needed. It seems clear to me that family farms could have been tractorized without collectivization if Stalin had been willing to work with the kulaks rather than insisting on dominating them.
Robert Tulip wrote:
Today the magical loss could stand as a story of the whole Soviet Union, with its superpower status mocked as Upper Volta with Rockets, and the final collapse of central planning from within.
Yes, the Soviet Union proved a failure when quality of production began to be more important than quantity. Its stultifying centralism has turned into rampant kleptocracy, and its dominance by fossil fuels has fed this new monster.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
It crows three times, of course. This is borrowed directly from the crowing that reminds Peter, who has been denying Christ, that Jesus knew he would do so. It is a bringing-to-one's-senses. It is a waking up when in the grip of fear.
Here, the cock crow comes from vampire lore, as the signal for sunrise and the dissolution of the ghosts. I came upon The Two Corpses, which looks to be Bulgakov’s source:

Fascinating! You are clearly correct, and Peter's role is at best indirect. I would not rule out Bulgakov, as an explorer in magical realism, bringing the two together (or perhaps Peter's story having been incorporated in the original vampire story).

I have not yet figured out what he is doing with the theme of terror, but it is clearly present in the last few chapters, with characters being driven as much by their own fears as by actual threats. Maybe the dovetailing of the two is the point - the system works by terror, and the victim amplifies the power of it by even worse imaginings and by letting it possess their mind. The Master was in that situation, as was the Financial Director.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
But in the end, I think one has to believe that the machinations of the ruthless do not really matter, that the faithfulness of one's own heart is what really matters, to consider the truth-telling a victory. And maybe that is the point of using the cock-crow to signify the turning point against the darkness.
You have me perplexed here Harry over the theology of the cross. Normally, we believe that efforts of the powerful to oppress and control do matter a lot. However, the perspective of faith is that nature is intrinsically good, and any victory of evil can only be temporary and illusory. This faith in the power of love produces a strong belief among the Christian faithful that the blood of the cross is redemptive, that in dying, Christ achieves our salvation through his action of selfless love.
All that you said makes sense to me, with the possible exception of "nature is intrinsically good." I will return to that. However I think I should explain that when I said the machinations of the ruthless do not really matter, I meant that they do not matter in the ultimate sense, more or less as Tillich analyzes things. Death matters, but life matters more. And to let life be controlled by our fear of death is to give in to despair.

I am having lunch tomorrow with a man whose son committed suicide some years back after earning a promising Master's Degree from Stanford. The man has himself suffered from depression, and is concerned about his daughter's struggle with it. Depression here is like death - an implacable foe from within nature, threatening to make everything in life mean nothing. To assert that life is more important takes courage, sometimes more courage than a person has.

A similar kind of courage is needed to believe in truth-telling as a victory over totalitarian terror. Or even over the slide back into domination systems that is threatened by the authoritarians of the right. The church itself has been complicit in enabling domination by authority figures, leading to sexual exploitation in catholic and protestant churches. People give in to the opportunities to satisfy their compulsions at the expense of others, indeed requiring the domination of others, because they somehow feel that the power to get away with something makes it right.

So about nature. I think the new theology looks at nature as "chaos" into which life must be breathed, rather than as an intrinsically good garden which humans somehow spoiled. It is simply not tenable to reason that sin somehow led to all the nasty genetic disorders, the violence of predator and prey or the equally ruthless predation of parasites. Sin may be a species of these, but it is not the root cause.

So when we ask for a "good" nature which we believe has the ultimate last word over evil systems of exploitation and domination, we are looking for a relationship between humans and purpose. It makes some sense that humans, in the absence of fear of other humans, are capable of reasoning their way to a society in which the purposes are all creative and nurturant, in which teachers and healers are honored above soldiers and weapons-makers. What we are to be redeemed from is the grip of fear. In that sense I agree that any victory of domination systems is temporary and illusory. I believe God liberates us from fear, and I choose to believe my commitment to that process is itself part of the redemptive process.



Wed Jan 10, 2018 4:29 pm
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