The Fantastic, The Grotesque and The Sublime in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

Sofya Khagi, Brown University

Commenting on the present state of The Master and Margarita criticism, Andrew Barratt suggests that "a monistic style of interpretation has become increasingly unfashionable over the years, " and that it may be appropriate to consider the novel "as a kaleidoscope that has the capacity to generate a multitude of patterns: it depends entirely on the beholder how many of those patterns one decides to observe." "The Master and Margarita and the Poetics of Aporia: A Polemical Article," a highly engaging piece by Gary Rosenshield, goes a step further, arguing that the novel is not well integrated, whatever interpretive model one may attempt to apply to it.

This essay will seek to dispute the latter view through exploring the novel's employment of the fantastic, the grotesque and the sublime. As Laura Weeks justly pointed out, "any search for formal solutions to the novel's structural peculiarities invariably ends up in the realm of the novel's theology and, to an even greater degree, in the realm of its metaphysics." Adapting this outlook and drawing on Wolfgang Kayser's study of the grotesque as well as on Tzvetan Todorov's analysis of the relationship between rhetorical figures and the discourse of the fantastic, I shall demonstrate that Bulgakov's particular usage of the fantastic, the grotesque and the sublime reproduces on the formal level the novel's metaphysical concerns. The choice of the supernatural forces and their functions in the novel comply with the technique of highlighting the incongruous and the contradictory (demons working good) that one observes in terms of the juxtaposition of the miraculous and the banal as well as in terms of the oscillation between a majestic and a parodically lowered representation of the spiritual realm. Likewise, a constant juxtaposition of contrasting stylistic registers (comic and tragic, grotesque and sublime) duplicates on the formal plane the gnostic "light/shadow" philosophy of the novel. Additionally, numerous "realizations" of figurative expressions' literal meanings effectively institute the novel's neo-romantic preoccupation with heterocosmic analogies (parallels between creating art and creating the universe). Finally, the novel's dialogue of the grotesque and the sublime dramatizes a crucial motif of nostalgia for an unattainable ideal. Linking these formal aspects to the work's metaphysical concerns, I will show that the novel is well integrated artistically; that is, not in the sense that it espouses a transparent or unequivocal metaphysical vision that would offer itself conveniently for a monistic reading but, rather, in the sense that its formal and philosophical interests are coordinated in an aesthetically effective way.