Breakfast With Kant, Or Why Woland Was So Impressed With Nothingness

Elizabeth M. Sheynzon, Northwestern University

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes: "No one, indeed, will be able to boast that he knows that there is a God, and a future life; if he knows this, he is the very man whom I have long (and vainly) sought." According to Bulgakov's novel, Kant's wish was granted: in the first chapter of Master and Margarita, Woland assures Bezdomnyj and Berlioz that he has spoken to the philosopher precisely about these matters. Bulgakov considers very much the same questions as those that constitute the core of the First Critique: the limits of human understanding, its ability to construct valid concepts of the supersensible, and the correlation between this facility and the state of the morals. In concert with Kant, Bulgakov carefully distinguishes between phenomena and noumena, and uses nothingness as a bridge between the two. Kant describes nothingness as the borderline of the supersensible, specifying that man cannot experience it just as he cannot experience noumena. On the other hand, nothingness is a negation of reality, and can be comprehended by degrees of approximation: "Now every sensation has a degree or magnitude whereby [...] it can fill out one and the same time [...] more or less completely, down to its cessation in nothingness (=0=negatio)."

When Bulgakov makes a noumenon, the devil, into an appearance, and has his Woland interacting with people, he prepares the possibility of this transition —first, he establishes a void, or nothingness. Many essential things are absent in Moscow of the novel, from places to live and other vital necessities to manners and morals, and this void is crowned by the proclaimed non-existence of God, Jesus Christ and the Devil. Bulgakov also substantiates why it is the devil, and not the Divine Being that makes its way from the supersensible to the world of appearances. For Kant, refined morals, which religion helps to develop, lead reason to the understanding of the Divine Being. Bulgakov makes the next logical step and shows how corrupted morals, further deteriorated by vigorous anti-religion, lead to the concept of the ultimate evil, or the devil. The "devil's proof" in Master and Margarita is actually a reversal of the Kantian proof. Woland teaches Moscow inhabitants many important lessons in Kantian theory: about the distinctions between appearance and illusion (the Varieté performance), about the importance of good manners as leading to better morals (as, for example, in the accident with Varenuxa), about the permanence of substance ("manuscripts do not burn"), and, finally, about the worthiness of happiness, or Kantian "practical reason."