More Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature

Homeless Devil Berlioz

In an earlier post—Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature—I compared Bulgakov’s Satan with the Devil that appears to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan, one of the Brothers Karamazov. There are many similarities. Both seem to be gentlemanly, and in Dostoevsky, Ivan is sure that this character is the product of the delirium from his own “brain fever”, in Bulgakov, when the Master first encounters the Satan character, he says, “it would, of course, be much easier to consider you the product of a hallucination.” (These are reminiscent, too, of Scrooge’s argument that the ghost of Jacob Marley may be the result of a “slight disorder of the stomach,” in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”).

In that earlier post, I was concerned mainly with the outward appearance of the Devil, as described by both authors, and his manner. But I also included some discussion of how Dostoevsky’s Devil muses on the nature of good and evil, and his place in the conflict between them. He argues to Ivan that he is not inherently evil, or even bad, but that fate had chosen him to be the representative of these things, as a counterpoint to good:

Before time was, by some decree which I could never make out, I was pre-destined ‘to deny’ and yet I am genuinely good-hearted and not at all inclined to negation. ‘No, you must go and deny, without denial there’s no criticism and what would a journal be without a column of criticism?’ Without criticism it would be nothing but one ‘hosannah.’ But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style. But I don’t meddle in that, I didn’t create it, I am not answerable for it. Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there’d be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events.
(Translation by Constance Garnett)

I had written about this after only having gotten as far as chapter 15 in The Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream”, and so didn’t really know of a passage from that novel to compare to this one from The Brothers Karamazov. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I got around to translating Chapter 29, “The Fate of the Master and Margarita Decided”, and found this exchange between Voland (a.k.a. Satan) and Levi Matvey (a.k.a. Matthew, disciple of Jesus and author of one of the gospels):

     “I come to you, spirit of evil and lord of shadows . . .” replied the intruder, glaring at Voland with hostility.
     “If you come to me, then why do you not give me greetings, former tax collector?” Voland spoke dryly.
     “Because I do not wish you to be well,” the intruder answered coolly.
     “But you must come to terms with the fact,” Voland objected, and a wry smile twisted his mouth, “that you had no sooner appeared on the roof than you smacked of absurdity, and I’ll tell you where it is—it’s in your tone of voice. You utter your words as if you do not acknowledge shadows, or evil for that matter.Wont you be so kind as to consider the question: what would your good accomplish, if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if the shadows were gone from it? Shadows come from things and people, in fact. Behold the shadow from my sword. But there are shadows from trees and from living beings. Do you want to skin the entire globe, tearing away from it all the trees and the living things, for your fantasy of basking in pure light? Youre a fool.
(translation by John Dougherty)

Both Dostoevsky and Bulgakov both put forth the proposition that evil is essential to existence, that without it, good would not be good for anything. The Devil has a bad job, but it is crucial to life as we know it, and for that reason, he should be shown some sympathy, and some taste.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *