Postmodern Bulgakov

Now I haven’t actually read all of it, but something I did notice about The Master and Margarita, besides the black magic, heads being chopped off, and the naked women, was the inclusion of literary techniques that were quite ahead of Bulgakov’s time, which added to the overall fun and joy of its plot and of reading it.  A big one was meta-fiction.  Now, as someone who used to write short stories and has read some so-called postmodern novels, I found meta-fiction to be a very fun, but also useful literary technique; one can be very indulgent in referencing their own work in itself and create many layers.  An example would be the telling of the Pontius Pilate story and how Bulgakov segues into the story after a chapter.  He always ends a chapter with the beginning line of the next part in the Pilate story and then in the next chapter (which is the actual story) begins it with the same words again and continues the narrative.  Now, this could be seen as a way to connect the modern-day chapters with the ancient chapters, but it is still highly meta-fictional; through having it begun by a character before it starts, it is shown to the reader as more as a story–maybe the events didn’t take place at all (or at least not exactly as described)!–and therefore it is a story within a story.  This becomes even more apparent when the Master tells Ivan that he was writing a book on Pilate.  Now its not just about a story, but it gets more physical; the Pilate story then can be seen as a book within a book, the book that is The Master and Margarita.  Many layers are created and we are unsure whose story the Pilate story is; is it Woland’s or Ivan’s or the Master’s?  This also shows the divide between the fictional and non-fictional.  How much of the Pilate story is real?  Woland was supposedly there, but how about what Ivan dreams or the Master writes?  This also could tie in with the magic happening in the book and people’s disbelief and shock at it and also possibly, in a political way, the role of reality and fiction in Soviet Society (Stalin’s show trials, propaganda, etc.).  The book also becomes incredibly meta-fictional with its ending line (which I glanced at), the same line that the Master tells Ivan he was going to end his own book with, “The fifth Procurator of Judea, the rider Pontius Pilate”.  Kurt Vonnegut does the same thing in his Slaughter-house Five in which he writes about writing the book and tells the reader how he will end the book, which he fulfills.  With The Master… it becomes who’s writing the story, Bulgakov or the Master?  Many times throughout the novel, the ‘narrator’ addresses the reader such as at the end of book one, “the time has come for us to go on to the second part of this truthful narrative.  Follow me, reader!”  The book itself knows its a book.  Usually a book is written to present its own reality, but of course there isn’t any reality, just a fiction.  So again, the book works between the levels of the real and unreal through meta-fiction, especially as it refers to itself as a supposedly “truthful narrative”.

Antigone just doesn’t fit in

Boy, this is going to be a long one.

I, like I think most people, found Antigone’s Claim to be very difficult to understand; I could only catch glimpses of the topics Butler was trying to make about the legacy of Antigone’s act, etc.  The text seemed very distant in its mode of high academic writing.  But after Monday’s lecture, I started to relate more personally with the text.  The final, general question from the lecture to everything that Butler talked about was basically ‘what is the legacy of Antigone’s act?’  And the answer seemed to be that she was an example of someone who didn’t fit to any of society’s norms, was a complete outsider, but was still able to engage with society and affect it, being, as Butler says, not human but speaking in its language.  Butler brings up many contemporary examples of people, who like Antigone, are on the fringes of society, unaccountable in its vocabulary, such as gay families or transgendered people.  These people definitely have a very difficult time in accustoming themselves into our heterosexual society and are at the forefront of existentialist themes like identity crises.  But, and not to sound insensitive, they are not the only ones with this problem.  So called ‘normal’ people have crises of identity; it is a universal sentiment under the colloquial term of ‘fitting in’.  I’m sure most people have had this problem of fitting in and most people will probably fit in eventually, but some may feel for the longest time that they don’t and never will.

Humans, I’d say, are social creatures; they want to fit in and create strong bonds through communities, families, etc. (maybe which is why that family researcher in the Baby Storm video said that gender, and therefore belonging to a certain group, was fundamental to being human).  When alone, they can get despondent and depressed; they are an outsider, someone without a definite ‘term’ in the social vocabulary, a nobody.  Personally, these are things that have plagued me from time to time and then the hardest part of human existence is just wondering how you fit in with everything, the age old question of ‘what is your purpose?’  And you see so many other people forming groups and getting along with each other and you just can’t do that as easily and therefore you feel like an outsider, one who can’t live–and can’t stand living–in such a society that is so different from you.  Existence becomes difficult.  And you may think, ‘why can’t I just exist as myself, why do I have to conform to others?’  This is what I think is Antigone’s legacy.  She answers, ‘you can live on your own terms’.  She is an example of someone who is totally outside of every social norm (the nuclear family, the docile woman, etc.), but is able to still live out her life and her own personal desires (although briefly).  She shows on-the-fringe people that they can still live and function productively in a society that can’t define them and therefore doesn’t readily support them.

I suppose the unfortunate thing is that she does die and I haven’t come to fully understand why she had to die.  Throughout the lecture it seemed to be because she operated on a level above humans, she was non-human, that she just couldn’t go on existing in a structured society lest total chaos happens, which pretty much is what happens at the end of the play.  I’m sorry if this is all very dark, but this is pretty much why suicide is so ‘popular’ amongst the members of the fringe; they can’t exist in its structures as they are disruptions to its structures and therefore must die, to become a part of nothing–what they are–through death, which seems why Antigone had to die.  This may be good for Sophocles to show the consequences of Antigone’s dissident ways and existence, but it may seem insensitive, as I think Butler points out, to how people on the fringes of society, norms, identity and vocabulary have to live.

The story of Baby Storm brought up in the lecture thus seems like a sliver of hope for such people, a baby who is allowed to grow up and choose their own gender instead of having to be classified into an existing one.  He/she/all the other gender related terms that don’t exist in our vocabulary can hopefully, truly, find their own way in life, away from the labels of society.  This may seem too idealistic for most and a complete detriment for Storm, but that is only because we live in such a structured society; I think people should be able to live how they want as long as they are comfortable with it and should fight as hard as they can not to give in to the pressures of societal norms; the extremely social person can be extremely social, the loner can be a loner.  True this way of life will seem extremely uncomfortable to most, but that is only because we are all steeped in tradition and societal norms no matter how much we don’t think we are.  To allow true freedom for every member of our society, we must change ourselves and therefore change society; maybe fitting in and being social are all just societal structures, even though that is an extremely controversial idea.  For the outsiders, relish in being different like Antigone maybe even to the self-destructive point that she holds onto; be comfortable in being different.  This is Antigone’s legacy, her claim.