Censorship: Transcending Ordinary

A Case Study in Gogol and Bulgakov

‘Write “for the table” or risk their freedom by trying to make themselves heard in samizdat or tamizdat’ writes Goryaeva, succinctly adumbrating the dilemma faced by Russian authors of the Stalinist era. By censoring their own work, authors ended up undermining their own ideas in order to be published, repressing their own selves. In his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin discusses the idea of monologic discourse (where the authorial presence is ubiquitous) and polyphonic novels (in which each characters’ ideology is given an equal weighting). The use of a polyphonic novel was likely used as Menippean satire, characterised by attacking mental and philosophical attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities. Bakhtin defines it as a genre ‘не позволяющий мысли остановиться и застыть в односторонней серьезности, дурной определенности и однозначности [which prevents thought from becoming frozen in one-sided seriousness, ill-defined and unambiguous]’. Indeed, the linguistic monologism of the state under Nicholas I and Stalin’s regimes is countered by the dialogism of Gogol and Bulgakov’s texts, and thus instead of being forced into repression, Bulgakov and Gogol developed a style of writing that both expresses and conceals their own views and at the same time undermines the univocal view that state censorship and contemporary criticism imposed. In this sense, the internal censor becomes liberated into self-expression.

A Madman’s Experience

Whilst in Dostoevsky, dialogism or polyphony may relate to different ideologies, Gogol’s writing is not so much polyphonic in structure, but in terms of a split self of person and narration. Take, for example, Diary of a Madman. A diary is, of course, inherently monologic, but in a similar way to Raskolnikov where his mind is split into two, so too is that of Poprischin. This monologism is just one of the ways Poprischin appears to be suffocated by a ‘monologic world’ in which only one ideology, that imposed on him by the state, is allowed to exist. Maguire argues that ‘madness’ in the Gogolian universe is ‘a compulsion to occupy a place to which one is not entitled’ and so we may understand it as the attempt to become part of a ‘monologic’, censored world when the natural state of life is dialogic. What I mean by this is that throughout Diary of a Madman, when the narrative voice is based on Poprischin and his dialogues with an ‘other’ part of himself there is relative tranquillity in the state of affairs. When he engages in dialogue with someone who is socially superior (i.e. Sophie, his boss or the Grand Inquisitor) the conversations are inherently monologic, whilst two people are involved, the ‘other’ allows Poprischin little freedom to respond. For example, when his boss tells him: ‘Ведь ты волочишься за директорскою дочерью? Ну, посмотри на себя, подумай только, что ты? Ведь ты нуль, более ничего. Ведь у тебя нет ни гроша за душою [‘Are you pining after the principal’s daughter? Well, look at you, just think, what are you? For you are inconsequential, nothing more. You don’t have a penny to your name.]’. Poprischin, in this sense, becomes an embodiment of the oppressed author, whose self desires expression but who also feels compelled to be silent.

Poprischin is at least mildly content in his world, particularly when he creates conversations in his head e.g. when he imagines a conversation with a man across the street: ‘Эге! Нет, голубчик, ты не в департамент идешь, ты спешишь вон за тою, что бежит впереди, и глядишь на ее ножки [Hey! No, chap, you’re not going to the department, you’re going after the girl in front, and you’re looking at her feet]’. The colloquial, bantering tone seems to imply a levity that is found only when he is in his private sphere of dialogue with the ‘other’ inside himself. Indeed, here he is no longer constrained to the monologic monotonous world, but he has, as Gogol does in his writing, made an abstraction of the world, turning it into a polyphonic design, allowing him creative incite not available in the real world: ‘Я начинаю иногда слышать и видеть такие вещи, которых никто еще не видывал и не слыхивал [I sometimes start to hear and see things that no one has ever seen or heard before]’. In this sense, the external censor (that of the state) is transcended in Poprischin’s discussions with himself.

The move to letters between dogs shows a shift in narrator, аnd yet, even in this change in perspective there are hints that tell us that Poprischin is in dialogue with himself. For example, Madgie, like Poprischin, is in a servile position, acting almost as maid to Sophie who confides in her: ‘Меджи! Если бы ты знала, кто это… [Madgie, if only you knew who that was]’. Furthermore, she displays the same sense of hauteur that Poprischin possesses: ‘Милая Фидель, я все не могу привыкнуть к твоему мещанскому имени [Sweet Fidel, I still can’t get used to your bourgeois name]’ is similar to Poprischin’s: ‘Что, если бы вы знали, кто между вами сидит… [If only you knew who it was sitting between you…]’ later in the story. If we take the dogs, then, to be the mental creation of Poprischin, we can assume that he is in his most sober mental state when he is in a polyphonic mode. This is because he is aware that he has no chance with Sophie, Madgie says: ‘Он всегда сидит и чинит перья […] Софи никак не может удержаться от смеха, когда глядит на него [He’s always sitting there fixing his quills […] Sophie can’t help laughing when she looks at him]’. When Poprischin tries to manifest his multivocal imagination in reality (‘я на самом главном месте черкнул «Фердинанд VIII» [I signed my name as Ferdinand VIII]’ ) he fails and is mocked by society. This occurs because a world in which only one interpretation is allowed, where rank is everything, can never accept someone who provides a different interpretation to life (his polyphonic view of the world). Polyphony, then, is rejected by society because it is too liberal. To reject this form of expression, however, would be to lose one’s own individuality, something which is truly dangerous.

Furthermore, the madman is ashamed of his own ‘тряпки [rags]’, and tries to conceal himself from Sophie: ‘Она не узнала меня, да и я сам нарочно старался закутаться как можно более, потому что на мне была шинель очень запачканная и притом старого фасона [She didn’t recognise me, and I was deliberately trying to cover myself up as much as possible, because I was wearing a very dirty overcoat, and an old fashioned one at that]’ . By concealing his real identity, he is trying fit into a monologic world, trying to censor himself, but this is not his true nature and is in fact dangerous because it leads to his arrest and his madness. His futile attempt to assert himself is later suggested in the diary entry with no date and reference to the devil. All Porischin can do, is accept the identity imposed on him by the authorities: ‘Сначал закричал: «Поприщин» я ни слова. Потом «Аксентий Иванов! Титулярный советник! Дворянин» Я все молчу. «Фердинанд VIII, король испанский!» [At first he shouted: “Poprishchin” I didn’t say a word. Then “Aksentius Ivanov! Titular Councillor! Nobleman!” I keep quiet. “Ferdinand VIII, King of Spain!”]’. He says ‘они не видят, не слушают меня [they don’t see me, don’t listen to me]’ showing how any attempt at asserting himself is punished, as protest is nonacceptance of the monologic universe in which he exists. What is most striking in the final entry of the diary is the fact that he is no longer in dialogue with himself. He himself has become monologic. He appeals in apostrophe to his mother: ‘мать ли моя сидит перед окном? […] Матушка! Пожалей о своем больном дитятке!… [Is my mother sitting in front of the window? […] Mother! Have pity on your sick child…]’ but the use of a rhetorical question and ellipses suggests an emptiness, a lack of response: there is no ‘other’ entity in this dialogue. The monologic world has won and destroyed the polyphony that Poprischin embodied. With that gone, he ceases to exist, and the diary must end. Comprise never wins out, it suffocates the true individual, revealing him naked and silencing his voice.

By creating a diary in which the narrator is in polyphonic dialogue with himself lends a certain chaos (a madness) that, to use Nabokov’s phrasing, ‘imply flaws in the texture of life itself’. Gogol’s polyphonic narration, then, is part of life itself. Limiting culture and life to a monologic ‘straight-jacket’ is not like reality at all. This is the only way Gogol can be considered to be a ‘realist’: in that he faithfully represents the chaos of a world in which dialogue must exist. Poprischin’s madness is the result of life’s madness and any attempt to restrict this into one lane results, in a loss of individuality: arguably the most dangerous censorship of them all. A contrast, here, could be made to Zamytain’s We, in which we see the same diary form and a narrator who seems to be part of the state’s monological language, who then becomes disenchanted by that monologism. Indeed, a case could be made for the crossing of the ‘wall’, as the escape from the monologic constraints of submission to a benefactor out into dialogic possibility. Like Poprischin, the narrator then returns to stable norms at the end (i.e. having an operation and falling into silence). In essence, he compromises, although, like most authors, not on his own terms.

Bulgakov’s Durable Manuscript

In contrast to Gogol, Bulgakov is writing against the early phase of socialism. Whilst The Master and Margarita did end up being spread through samizdat (clandestine distribution of literature banned by the state), thanks largely to its polyphonic structure, the author’s own opinion is difficult to tie down. Bulgakov, like Dostoevsky, does not expound any particular ideology, but treats ideas as an object of portrayal.

Bulgakov believed that the reality of socialist realism gives a falsely perfect view of reality, the Soviet state is so wedded to their idea of reality that they can’t see a different reality, and contrasts this with his fantastic mode to achieve a ‘real’ realism. Indeed, if we take the definition the critic Todorov gives to the fantastic in his essay of the same name (a literary mode where the reader must hesitate on possible explanations), then we see how rather than compromising, Bulgakov has elevated his work to a level that avoids censorship in the limitless possible interpretations of it.

The narrative of the Moscow sections in the novel can be seen as exchanges of character points of view, such as the dialogue of Berlioz and Ivan. Indeed, the fact that the narrator passes his role to Margarita in the fantastic sections of the novel, suggests the narrator is in no way more or less reliable than any of the characters. By the use of verbs of perception such as ‘увидела [she saw]’ , ‘как поняла Маргарита [as Margarita could understand]’ or ‘Маргартиа попробовала оглядеться [Margarita tried to glance at…]’, the effect of narrating events from her viewpoint is achieved. A good example of this is at the Black Mass Ball. Margarita’s ignorance when it comes to the guests could well be clarified by the narrator. Instead, Korov’ev tells Margarita: ‘этот был любовник королевы и отравил свою жену [this was the the queen’s lover who poisoned his wife]’. This provides the explanation of what is happing, without any omniscient figure explaining to the reader.

There is of course another setting in the novel: Yershalaim. In these sections, Pontius Pilate shares the narrative role with Matthew, who gives the account of the Crucifixion, and Afranius, who provides the account of Judas’ murder. During his questioning by Pilate, Yeshua is referred to as ‘арестованый [the arrested],’ ‘человек двадцати семи [man of twenty seven]’ ‘обвиняемый [the accused]’ and ‘говорящий [the one who talks]’. This seems to be free indirect discourse in the voice of Pilate, and thus the narrator’s voice becomes Pilate’s. The Yershalaim sections all originate from different sources as well (Woland, Ivan’s dream, the Master’s manuscripts) but they all have the same narrative tone. This would suggest that all sources are equally reliable. There is, then, also a link between Yershalaim and the Master, as it is his creation, suggesting also a link between the Master and Yeshua. Indeed, whilst they both share a gift of vision, they both perish through society’s monologic inability to accept their values and the master’s cowardice suggests his own compromise and repression. Bulgakov is more concerned with artist’s duty to follow his own inspiration. By using his own version of the Gospels, Bulgakov also sets up a polyphonic dialogue with the Bible: truth as artistic freedom is what is important, not truthful accounts. This can be linked to Shlovsky and the Russian formalist notion of ostranenie [defamiliarisation]: distorting reality through artistic devices in order to change human perception.

A novel starting from monologism, which appears censored, ends on note of dialogue into eternity. When the Gribodyedov House is burnt down at the end of the story, paralleling Ieshua’s ‘рухнет храм старой веры и создастся новый храм истины [the temple of the old faith will collapse and a new temple of truth will be built]’, suggests the constant need for corrupt ideology, symbolised in both cities by their temples, to give way to a new and purified truth. In this way, dialogic creativity becomes the highest manifestation of the human spirit. Whilst the state may denote this diologism as madness, it is the only way to avoid compromise and avoid the dangerous censor that the state brings out within us: ‘Человек перейдет в царство истины и справедливости, где вооще не будет надобна никакая власть [Man will move into the realm of truth and justice, where no power will be needed at all]’.

Why Do We Care?

Polyphonic art aims to free the reader from authorial monologism. For Bulgakov, his paramount concern was the survival of freedom of conscience, avoiding censorship of self, and attaining freedom but not fame, just like the Master: ‘Он не заслужил света, он заслужил покой [he had not attained light, he had attained peace] ‘. Bulgakov not only used polyphony as the chief technique but also made it one of his chief messages. Whilst Gogol destroys the monologic straight jacket by using a polyphonic chaos, Bulgakov takes the monologic restriction and liberates it through the polyphonic. Both result in not strict and dangerous censorship of self, but the self’s liberation to a transcendent level, giving their art, imagination, speech and thought a magnificent durability and freedom, hence Bulgakov’s line: ‘рукописи не горят [Manuscripts don’t burn]’.

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