Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature

Satan the pitiable victim in Bulgakov and Dostoevsky.

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While translating Chapter 15, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” of Master and Margarita, I was reminded of another chapter in Russian literature devoted to one character’s dream—“The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare”, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. On revisiting this old favorite, however, I was inspired to reform my purpose of comparing dreams in Russian literature to comparing depictions of the devil there. While far from identical, both Dostoevsky’s Devil and Bulgakov’s Satan are portrayed in ways that invite the reader to feel some compassion, pity and sympathy for them.

Descriptions of the dress and manner of these two incarnations are extremely detailed and beautifully rendered. Bulgakov paints a picture of “a man of wealth and taste”; a dapper yet odd looking sort who must, therefore, be a foreigner. He comes across initially as intelligent, pleasant, courteous, though puzzling and perhaps insane. Dostoevsky’s demon takes the exact form of a particular type of man from the nobility, common in Russia in the late 1800s—”a poor relation of the best class.” He is described in this chapter as one “wandering from one good old friend to another and received by them for his companionable and accommodating disposition and as being, after all, a gentleman who could be asked to sit down with any one, though, of course, not in a place of honor. Such gentlemen of accommodating temper and dependent position, who can tell a story, take a hand at cards, and who have a distinct aversion for any duties that may be forced upon them. . .”

From the third chapter of Master and Margarita, I was reminded of the popular Rolling Stones’ song, “Sympathy for the Devil.” My suspicion that Bulgakov’s novel had influenced the writing of the lyrics to that song were confirmed when I found references to an acknowledgement of this by Mick Jagger in the BBC video documentary, “Crossfire Hurricane.” A practically inescapable spoiler for this novel is that the character variously referred to as “the consultant,” “the professor,” and “the foreigner,” is, in fact, Satan. When asked if he has arrived in Moscow alone, or if he has a wife, he responds, bitterly: “Alone, Alone. I am always alone.” As Berlioz goes off to make a phone call, promising to return and show this visitor around the town, the “foreigner” delays him with a plea: “But I a beg of you at the last, at least believe that the devil exists! Oh, I ask nothing more of you.”

This question of whether or not the Devil exists is central to the conversation in The Brothers Karamazov between one of the brothers, Ivan Feodorovich, and the product of his fevered brain/The Devil. Is this Devil in Ivan’s room real? A figment of his delirious imagination? Can it be both? At one point Ivan suggests the existence of his own inner devil when he admits, “You are the incarnation of myself, but only of one side of me … of my thoughts and feelings, but only the nastiest and stupidest of them.” Ivan’s quarrel with this Devil is a manifestation of his own inner struggle between his faith in the power of reason alone, with its denial of all things not supported by observable fact, and his inner Slavic/Russian Orthodox nature. This conversation between Ivan and his demon is one more manifestation of the Westernizer vs. Slavophile debate that runs through so much of Russian literature.

Regardless of the nature of the Devil with whom Ivan converses—whether he be real, unreal or both—his own characterization of himself goes to the root of the nature of Good and Evil, and of life itself. This characterization portrays him, fairly convincingly, as a victim, and evokes the greatest sympathy for the devil:

God preserve me from it, but one can’t help complaining sometimes. I am a slandered man . . . I have naturally a kind and merry heart . . . 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. So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what’s irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course … but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious. But what about me? I suffer, but still, I don’t live. I am x in an indeterminate equation. I am a sort of phantom in life who has lost all beginning and end, and who has even forgotten his own name. You are laughing—no, you are not laughing, you are angry again. You are for ever [sic] angry, all you care about is intelligence, but I repeat again that I would give away all this super-stellar life, all the ranks and honors, simply to be transformed into the soul of a merchant’s wife weighing eighteen stone and set candles at God’s shrine.

(This and all references to The Brothers Karamazov are from the Constance Garnett translation, found online at gutenberg.org)

This Devil inspires not only sympathy but also respect—and even, perhaps, honor. Without his sacrifice there would be no life, as we know it. Anything without its opposite is nothing. This Devil is doomed to be the opposite of everything.

A third literary incarnation of the Devil—this time from Germany—is mentioned in this chapter of Dostoevsky, and looms large in Master and Margarita. Goethe’s Faust provides Bulgakov with a name for his Satan—Voland, and the nature of the Devil’s torment is echoed in the quote from Faust at the very beginning of the novel: “I am a part of that power that ever wishes evil, and ever accomplishes good.”

These portraits of the Devil point to a much more nuanced and thoughtful view of the subject than the simple, “God is good, the devil is evil!” They hint at a world in which everything has its place, the good and the bad. These perspectives may also help to explain the importance of fate in the Russian worldview.

© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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