Book Review: Metamorphosis

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.”

Franz Kafka is an incredible writer and one of my favourite novellas, Metamorphosis, stands out as a masterpiece in twentieth century literature. The emotional response that I felt when I completed it was similar to the anime film Grave of the Fireflies where for several days I felt a heavy melancholy, a deep ache within me at the highly imaginative manner in which Kafka was able to portray his existential pain, his isolation and the longing that he felt to connect with his loved ones. The bug both conveys the grotesque image of the impotence he felt together with how his family came to see him as vermin for failing to live up to their expectations. Read More

Book Review: Ethical Writings of Maimonides

For centuries, from Aristotle to Confucius, Aquinas and Thoreau, moral philosophers have endorsed the idea that a balanced, moderate regularity of character is an important step towards genuine happiness, that excess or deficiency of any sort and the failure to attain a principled attitude toward guiding and cultivating the self toward this mean will lead to the reverse. Thus, one who leads a life attempting to walk down this dutiful path toward a balanced and constant frame of mind is demonstrative of a noble and even a superior person. As said by Socrates, “with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just… all other considerations he will dismiss, for we have seen that this is the best choice.”[i] This choice to lead a life of virtue and justice and abandoning all that is vulgar, vulgarity being interpreted as “the masses and the most vulgar seem – not unreasonably – to believe that the good or happiness is pleasure. Accordingly they ask for nothing better than the life of enjoyment,”[ii] will allow one to adopt a standard that will link them closer to what is beautiful, namely love and honesty.

So what constitutes perfect virtue? Is it defined by the strength of individual will? Is it how one determines right from wrong, the capacity to overcome the influence of a defective ego, the intelligence and the confidence to be autonomous by engaging independently with the world around them? Is it to identify and distinguish the kind of moral values that are functional, valuable and aesthetical, of what is prohibited, useful and authentic, to be capable of ascertaining intent and to act on and maximise moral principles? It is simply the strength of will, the capacity to overcome the proclivity of the ego and the wayward pleasures of our instinctual drives, to recognise the scope of the activity of leading a morally virtuous life by searching for the golden mean. It is to be courageous enough to deliberately abandon a false environment and find the veracity and sense of honour to pursue a life of virtue, to maintain and personify it. “True virtue can only be grafted onto principles, such that the more general they are, the more sublime and noble they become,”[iii] thus distinguishing between the subjective aesthetic toward a universal aesthetic, the former having the possible inclination to waywardness as it remains dependant on the moral disposition of the individual.

It is for this reason that the disposition of the individual and obtaining the correct character traits necessary to reach true virtue is indispensable. Moses Maimonides discussed in detail the importance of this mean in several of his works including Hilkhot De’ot or the Laws Concerning Character Traits and Eight Chapters aside from his more famed work in Guide of the Perplexed. All of which can be found in the Ethical Writings of Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon), edited by Raymond L. Weiss with Charles Butterworth. Maimonides (1138 – 1204) was born in Cordoba, during the short-lived Moorish Almoravid Dynasty that ruled over present-day Morocco and Spain. Known as Rambam, he trained as a physician that later enabled him to become court physician to the Sultan Saladin and was well versed in medicine both in reading and in writing. His writings stretched out to include Rabbinic Law and Jewish Philosophy and his influence as a scholar has maintained his place as authoritative figure in Jewish law and ethics. His metaphysical and epistemological writings are included in his prolific repertoire but his studies on ethics and virtue exemplify the type of obedience and dedication required to preserve the divine wisdom and the t’amei ha-mitzvot that explained the reasons for the commandments.

According to Maimonides, there exists two types of moral standards in an individual, namely those that are pious and those that attempt to find the golden mean, the former considered to be obligatory since such a characteristic is required to encourage the subjective poise required to engage in the middle way.[iv] In his Laws Concerning Character Traits (27-59), he traverses through eleven commandments that attempt to direct one toward the equilibrium required to reach a state of moral virtue that epitomises the ‘right way’ or as said by Solomon, “Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established.”[v] All people have different character traits, different personalities and dispositions, whereby one person may have the calm that another may not as they become intensely angered and impatient. One can be lazy and gluttonous while another ascetic by nature. Maimonides writes about eleven commandments that include 1. to imitate God, 2. to cleave to those who know of God, 3. to love your neighbours, 4. to love converts to God, 5. not to hate brothers, 6. to rebuke, 7. not to put (anyone) to shame, 8. not to afflict the distressed, 9. not to go about as a talebearer, 10. not to take revenge, 11. not to bear a grudge. “The right way is the mean in every single one of a man’s character traits” (29). The golden mean is to find the balance toward establishing a good character indicated by the way they conduct their affairs, by being humble and loving. It is to reach for ‘wisdom’ by finding the mean between the extremes of our character traits before sensibly and continuously practicing until it becomes firmly established.

For Maimonides, it is wisdom to walk in the way of God, to seek the path that leads to God and therefore replicate the virtues or commandments and test your obedience to God as exemplified in the Old Testament. To become “slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, just and righteous, perfect, powerful and strong… and a man is obliged to train himself to follow them and to imitate according to his strength.”[vi] It is to uproot the flaws that one may have and ‘cure’ the ailment of immorality by training oneself to understand opposites. If one is wealthy and has a conceited attitude, he should clothe himself in worn-out, shabby garments that will endure him with much degradation until the haughtiness has left him and he is humbled. Whatever the problem may be that causes one to lose the way of this required balance, the individual should move themselves toward the other end of the same extreme until reaching that unaffected balance. As said by David Hume, “[t]he richest genius, like the most fertile soil, when uncultivated, shoots up into the rankest weeds.”[vii]

Although he discusses aspects of one’s personal conduct, including the way that one may eat or drink, sleep and have sexual intercourse, there is one particular aspect that merits further discussion and that was his view on cleaving to those who lead the way of wisdom. “[A] man needs to associate with the just and be with the wise continually in order to learn [from] their actions,”[viii] and by associating with fools one will ultimately enable evil to prosper within. Accordingly, evil is living without adequate care or thought to this measure of behaviour. The human being, says Kant, is aware of the moral law but has failed to incorporate it into his or her maxim, and is thus fundamentally evil.[ix] Regarding the conduct of ones affairs and perfecting eating habits, the way he or she engages with body and desires, and the consistent consciousness to dedicate oneself to moral well being is not simply for the happiness that it enables but also as a way to keep his or her body healthy and strong. There misery therewith when surrounded by the wrong people will prevent one from conducting their affairs correctly. In On the Management of Health (105-113), any such undesirable people and overindulgence leads to excessive mental and physical health issues where strength is spent and “his life and eyes dimmed”[x] or conversely, improving his character traits by cleaving to those who are wise, modest and righteous, his soul ultimately becomes tranquil.[xi] In similar vein, Confucius states that one should, “make conscientiousness and sincerity your leading principles. Have no friends inferior to yourself. And when in the wrong, do not hesitate to amend.”[xii] But it is not merely the afflictions physically, but the afflictions of the soul and the impact of the misery, anxiety and despair that befall people. The remedy is to enable the soul to eliminate the passions and learn to compose oneself ethically and morally by becoming subservient to what is righteous and good. “Thus the passions will diminish, [obsessive] thoughts will disappear, apprehension will be removed, and the soul will be cheerful in whatever condition a man happens to be” [109].

While it is possible that the ego could choose the wrong people to have and thus misconstrue what it means to be surrounded by the right people, the general rule of propriety is that self-development and dedicating oneself to a life of wisdom would enable the faculty accurately observe right and wrong conduct in others and ourselves. The propriety of character and how people conduct themselves and their affairs is a matter of observation and since depravity of character is expressed through impropriety and the product of their behaviour seen by the fruits they produce, the clarity of choice becomes simplified. Those who embody moral virtue and right or wrong behaviour, who – as Mencius expounds – feels a sense of shame[xiii] and is reverently careful in his conduct and affairs is clearly one of right character and mind. This standard establishes a virtuous culture or environment where members equally possess the same will to moral virtue that enjoin to equally share in the development of principles, a formula known as the Kingdom of Ends.[xiv] For Maimonides, “Certain actions necessarily stem from one soul and other actions from another soul” that therefore exemplify the importance of relations with our fellow community.

In Eight Chapters (59-105), Maimonides critically explores piety and the discipline that encompasses morality. Good moral habits initiates the formation of ethics; by obtaining good moral habits, it becomes that very connection between moral virtue and the social and political. Written as an introduction to Pirqei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), he attempts to isolate the permissible and erroneous and the relevance of been rational as n instrument to become empowered to control the appetitive desires. The soul has the power but disobedience through transgressions and the highly imaginative fails to enable the will to become subservient to moral virtues. “For example, moderation, liberality, justice, gentleness, humility, contentment, courage, and others.” (65) This disobedience becomes a disease to the soul that is seen externally in the body, taking pleasure in things that are not good for the body and the mind and never reaching physical excellence. His references to statements made by Solomon enables clarity on his combined efforts to involve Biblical connections to his ethical and medicinal approaches.

And the reason for living a life dedicated to finding the Golden Mean? Virtue – which is mental health – and the golden mean are necessary for a healthy life. In his Letter to Joseph (113-129), that he writes to his disciple Joseph Ibn Aknin, it is to lead by example and develop a pattern of excellent. The chapter provides some extraordinary insights into the man himself, about his vision and his enormous commitment to his moral objective. “In sum, if you are indeed my disciple, I want you to train yourself to follow my moral habits” (120). His affection and criticisms shed an amazing light on his dedication to justice and his love of knowledge, or as St. Thomas Aquinas states, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.”[xvii] Love is the unity formed through knowledge and establishes a state of happiness resides, making knowledge fundamental to this development. Through Rabbinical law and adherence to the commandments along with the dedication to attain a balance of mind will the adherent become suffused with love. It is not simply the mean itself that supplies the individual with the tranquillity required to be happy, but the righteous ability to discern the right time and way to think and behave, to rationally approach ones own emotions.

By improving your character and reaching a state of clarity in mind and reason, one will enable the qualities necessary to reach the balanced standard that Mainmonides expects. In the Guide of the Perplexed (129-155), which is one of his most famous works, is to guide those possessing positive character traits by learning to understand God. The work is addressed to Joseph ben Judah and elucidates ways of overcoming the disillusionment and existential angst of philosophy and law by understanding the differences between the practical and the subjective or speculative. Having strong theoretical foundations and thus continuously ameliorating knowledge, one can uncover the mental capacity necessary to acquire to attain a solid understanding of themselves and the world around them. That laws are not natural but necessary to manage the natural. “The Law as a whole aims at two things: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body. As for the well-being of the soul, it consists in the multitude’s acquiring correct opinions corresponding to their respective capacity” (139). The final chapters, Treatise on the Art of Logic (155-165) and The Days of the Messiah (165-177) continue along with the same themes. By distinguishing biblical themes such as the world to come, formulations that deal with immorality and the benefits of the laws particularly the coming messianic era will provide one with an understanding of repentance. “It has become known that the life of the world-to-come is the reward for performing the commandments and is the good that we merit if we have kept the way of the old referred to in the Torah” (169). Discussing the instrument of logic as a necessary condition of the mind in order to appreciate the correct approach of practical reasoning and to think and behave correctly remains an important aspect to the power of rational thought.

I was compelled to his work for my love of history whether it is ancient or medieval, in this case the latter. I have a strong appreciation for literature such as the Ethical Writings of Maimonides that promotes the value of ethics and the moral concerns relating to our conduct and behaviour. His criticism is harsh, views absolute and his beliefs that the actions of our soul, our intent, the choices that we want to make and whether we are thinking correctly formulate the groundwork necessary to compel the right choices that we act out in reality. The book provides additional insight into rabbinical literature and the significance of moral laws that authoritatively posit the necessity of moral conduct. By finding the golden mean and teaching oneself to discover a proper balance of thought and behaviour, compelled by our desire to lead a virtuous life, Maimonides believes that we can reach both physically and mentally excellence in health and in moral virtue.

[i] Plato, Republic [618e]
[ii] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics from I.M.N. Al-Jubouri’ History of Islamic Philosophy, (2004) 74
[iii] Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 2:217
[iv] Raymond L. Weiss, Ethical Writings of Maimonides, Dover Publications New York (1975), 7
[v] Proverbs 4:26
[vi] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 30
[vii] David Hume, Moral and Political Philosophy, Simon and Schuster (2010)
[viii] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 46
[ix] Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, 6:32
[x] Weiss and Butterworth, op. cit., 40
[xi] Ibid., 43
[xii] Confucius, The Analects, Chapter XXIV
[xiii] Menicius, Bk. vii., pti., c.vii., v i.
[xiv] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 4:439

I Shall Not Hate

Book Review
Izzeldin Abuelaish
I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey On The Road To Peace And Human Dignity
ISBN: 978-1-4088-2209-8

I found myself in a fairly difficult situation when I initially encountered this book. That staunch determinism in the face of such horrendous circumstances came to me as being both admirable and inspirational in as much as it was frustrating and almost agitating. Could there possibly be any logic or reason that could make a man who experienced continuous mistreatment under Israeli occupation, who lost several of his daughters to indiscriminate bombings by the Israeli army and yet who remained dedicated to the concept of peaceful relations between the Palestinian and Israeli people? Surely something is wrong with him, something that has deluded him into occupying a mindset that makes no sense, that his idealism and optimism is an exposure of a failing psychological condition? Read More

Book Review: The Master and Margarita

I believe that genuine love between two people is possible. Any attempt I make to express this always appears inadequate and yet, images of a breathtaking dance as two melt through and into one another, magnetic lips fastening as a voltaic current sweeps through the body until it ends as both whisper to one another face to face deep into the night, her fingers intertwined through his as she draws her nose towards his neck, her hair gliding down over his chest as she slips away into a long and safe sleep. But they are dreams that cause me nothing but anguish as I can never truly explain the authenticity, the existential aesthetic, the timelessness and whether it is merely me and only me that can love as deeply as I know I can feel. But to reach that authenticity, one needs to truly understand themselves and to understand God or that we are in a universe much greater than we can ever comprehend. When I read the following by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita it almost clearly explained how I felt about the eternal and the indestructable that is expressed between two genuine people who meet one another:

She was carrying some of those repulsive yellow flowers. God knows what they’re called, but they are somehow always the first to come out in spring. They stood out very sharply against her black dress. She was carrying yellow flowers! It’s an ugly colour. She turned off Tverskaya into a side-street and turned round. You know the Tverskaya, don’t you? There must have been a thousand people on it but I swear to you that she saw no one but me. She had a look of suffering and I was struck less by her beauty than by the extraordinary loneliness in her eyes. Obeying that yellow signal I too turned into the side street and followed her. We walked in silence down that dreary winding little street without saying a word, she on one side, me on the other. There was not another soul in the street. I was in agony because I felt I had to speak to her and was worried that I might not be able to utter a word, she would disappear and I should never see her again. Then, if you can believe it, she said:

    “Do you like my flowers?”

    ‘I remember exactly how her voice sounded. It was pitched fairly low but with a catch in it and stupid as it may sound I had the impression that it echoed across the street and reverberated from the dirty yellow wall. I quickly crossed to her side and going up to her replied: “No”.

    ‘She looked at me in surprise and suddenly, completely unexpectedly, I realised that I had been in love with this woman all my life.

Mikhail Bulgakov was born in the Russian Empire in 1891 and is considered one of the greatest playwrights and authors of fiction amongst other greats such as Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoyevsky. His novel is both a comical and a frightening fable that pirouettes between the literal and the metaphorical. The story is broken into a framed narrative concerning morality and reality that entertains the decline in Russia’ commitment to spiritual love both individually and within a social and political atmosphere during Stalinist era. The plot links the love story between the Master, a writer in despair, his lover Margarita and her sacrificial and almost divine love for the Master verified through the machinations of Satan who tries to tempt her away from such love, along with the symbolic conversation between Yeshua or Jesus with Pontius Pilate.

Allegorical and highly imaginative, the clarity of the semblance between the story and the Stalinist era is easy to discern. Woland, or Satan, delights in the power he has over others, his cruelty almost cheerful and calm and this disinterest is clearly accommodating the characteristic of Stalin himself. One of the particular aspects of Woland’s behaviour is the torment toward the intellectual community of Russia, a resemblance to the painful experiences Bulgakov himself had endured at the time. Initially careful with his artistic approach and early in his career able to successfully write and produce plays, following his move to Moscow the playwright struggled with anguish as is similarly seen with the Master character in the novel as his plays were continuously banned and criticised. By 1929, however, all work by Bulgakov was forbidden and while he sought to emigrate, remained and continued to work despite the authoritarian measures against his creativity. It was during this period he began working on the Master and Margarita.

For Bulgakov, there appears to be an artistic triptych regarding the nature of our existence, namely there exists a psychological line segment where on one end you have good and on the other evil, with the mean being love. The formula, as such, of reaching the midpoint between good and evil is usually followed by proof, a test that verifies the intent and is usually authenticated by taking a leap of faith. The outcome is subjective, but independently so that even through temptation or fear, one can confidently choose love and thus, the midpoint is almost transcending anything that is actually good or evil. “Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil” [F. Nietzsche] Margarita, despite not being with the Master neither knowing his whereabouts, nevertheless remained dedicated to him. This ‘faith’ in him and the strength or the eternal nature of her love for the lost and tormented soul of the Master is a unique expression between the plotlines of good and evil. Namely, her love is unconditional, transcending the biblical rules or divine laws and overriding any utilitarian or deontological modes of moral action. She loves him and neither good nor evil can change that. “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved” [E. Fromm].

Unconditional love therefore involves this sacrificial element, demonstrated biblically with Jesus and in addition to the story there stands another narrative based during the time of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, where a conversation between Yeshua and Pontius Pilate takes place. This biblical aspect to the tale noticeably contrasts with the story relating to Satan or Woland, the Good vs. Evil, thus it is clear that the purpose or intent of the novel itself is about Good vs. Evil in both the individual and in society, the story between the Master and Margarita being about personal love and the rest being about the importance of a divine love or love of God socially and culturally. Under Stalin and Russian Communism at the time, the absence of God and religion in society is symbolically seen through the interactions between Pilate and Yeshua, the former a representation of Russia and the latter of the divine, and becomes an analogy that the absence of faith would ultimately lead to ruin. While rational, Bulgakov used fiction as a prophetic warning that an immoral society as in Russia at the time will lead to disaster and only a moral society can produce a positive and contented environment that is sustainable. “The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life”[E. Fromm]

Love, therefore, is the ultimate maxim and clarity to reach this pinnacle of consciousness can only be done so through choice, through free will as Margarita proved by the choice she made for the Master; the freedom of ones Will is often influenced not just by temptation but also by fear. Lars Svendsen explored the nature of fear in several different areas including political, social and the emotional and purports that fear is caused by our environment – socially and domestically – as it dictates a fear to think independently and be free, thus ‘tempting’ society to trust in the whole outside of oneself [society, family etc &c.]. “[F]ear has become a kind of culturally determined magnifying glass through which we consider the world” [Svendsen 2008]. This is comparative to the Stalin era as is also mentioned by Svendsen, who ruled with Machiavellian tyranny and that the threat of an impending difficulty unconsciously forces one to second-guess the decision making process as an automated reaction and thus mind-controlled. Bulgakov satirised what was essentially a waning morality in Russia at the time. This period was of significant instability and totalitarian violence under the communist regime and the eradication of religious – namely Christian – values. The opening chapter itself finds the devil having a conversation with two who confidently discuss the non-existence of Jesus [biblically referred to a culture forming an ‘anti-Christ’]. The novel parodied disappearing individuals that at the time were a reality under the regime of Stalin as seen by the reactions following events and this is perhaps the reason why Woland or Satan placed particular interest in Margarita, as she herself appears to be the only person who is fearless. “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices”[M. Bulgakov]. In doing so, her fearlessness is the reason for her capacity to love genuinely.

Questions about good and evil are raised through the plotlines, particularly the latter and why evil exists in the world. From an Augustinian perspective, it is due in part because “evil” is not a thing that is created and therefore the source of its existence is merely the will to turn away from what is essentially our nature, our nature being naturally good since all that God created is good. Thus, it is the choice to avoid, turn aside or corrupt the will away from goodness, thus perverting the will and ultimately becoming evil. “Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in his works unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil”[St. Augustine]. Kant offered a secular theory toward the concept of evil, whereby humans by nature are naturally inclined toward goodness but also evil under the umbrella of a radically free will. As a consequence, only by free will are we able to choose what is right and thus when we do not make the choice to do good, we are thus evil. But the latter ‘evil’ is graded into several levels, being:

“The possibility of hubris is accounted for by the concept of freedom. There are thus three levels or gradations of evil: (1) mere counterlegality, (2) the lower level of countermorality, occasional single-cases of evil, and (3) the worse level of evil  “as a rule”… full-fledged evil designates the constitution of an agent or of an agents maxim”[O. Hoffee, 2007].

Thus (1) is a type of failure of will, a morally right person who slips or is too weak to maintain a strong will to commit to any lapse in judgement, whereas (2) is a corruption of the will, an intent of not wanting to perform morally right actions unless there appears an incentive for doing so, thus moral goodness is merely self-interest hidden under the guise of morality. On the other hand (3) is wickedness, that one narcissistically places the self above all moral laws and conforms only to moral laws as a way of promoting the self. This includes an act in which an individual wills with intent to commit evil solely because it contradicts moral laws, a type of wilful arrogance. Whilst it has been argued that Kant’s claim of the worst kind of evil is objectionable since an indication of evil is the level of harm that it produces, it is according to Kant the subjective motive that is evil and not just the outcome. In this instance, perhaps consider a sociopath and the fact that there are many sociopaths who are not actually violent, the latter perhaps because it is not in their own best interest rather than for any moral worthiness.

The similarity with Johann Goethe’ Faustus, a satirical play about striking a deal with the devil, is clear, particularly with the division of the work whereby with Faustus the play is divided into two parts with the first set in reality and the second figurative or subjective. Faust is considered noble in character with his utmost desire for knowledge until Satan or Mephistopheles claims to God that he is capable of luring him away from righteousness. Faust himself is struggling with the existential crises that befalls those that became aware or conscious of the vanity of such pursuits and whilst attempting to alleviate the struggle through ethereal or magical attempts toward an infinite knowledge – since infinity would imply a type of combustion of vanity – he sadly realises the futility and perhaps the trickery of such an attempt. Finally, Faust is seduced by the temptation set by the Devil, particularly through Gretchen with whom Faust is attracted to and ultimately their relationship ends in sorrow and death, only Gretchen herself – when rejecting the final advances to be removed from prison by Faust – is ‘saved’ leaving Faust to remain grievously ashamed.

While it is knowledge or access to knowledge otherwise inaccessible to the human mind and cognition in general that became the desire compelling Faust, his fatal relationship with Gretchen or, ultimately, his failure to understand that love is the answer to his quandary and that the very ‘infinite’ exists in a free will that chooses righteously, the ultimate result is a cyclic return to the very same point of his initial misery. His thoughts at the beginning of the fable when facing his existential crises compelled him to the idea of suicide and thus an exposure of his unhappiness. The outcome of this unhappiness that led him to agree to the advances or temptation of the devil also led to the misery and death of Gretchen and members of her family. This result was Goethe’ exposure of the importance of our moral responsibility toward others as part of our endeavours toward reaching happiness. “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honour.”[Romans 12.9] Hence why Mephistopheles, or the Devil, is banished to the ‘Eternal Empty’ or symbolically the unhappy place of living without the fulfilment one receives when choosing the will to be good. It is a dark or heavy feeling where one can never be satisfied or that place lacking in the longevity required for a peaceful approach toward the entrance gates of infinite happiness that Faust longed for. Since one cannot know love save for the love that they have within and what they are able to give to others, the riddle to love itself is unknown as this ‘within’ or subjective self is infinite, hence why love surpasses knowledge and becomes the very purpose of existence that Faust initially craved for. In the choice to commit to love through our own free Will can the scales between good and evil truly balance. Faust finally tames the desires for war and of his own nature that he experiences happiness, becoming conscious and thus the devil is unable to take his soul due in part to Gretchen’s unconditional ‘sacrifice’ through forgiveness of Faust and in part because of Faust’ dedication to reach the infinite, albeit doing so imperfectly.

The Master and Margarita is a gripping story based within an entirely corrupt Moscow, inhabited by citizens with loose morals and a waning spirituality. Bulgakov manages to entrance the reader by capturing the approaching story in the very first chapter, when Satan himself and his extraordinary entourage gracefully stroll into the city with almost a haughty, arrogant elegance. While fantastic in nature, the bizarre fictional themes reveal within them the very nature of the book, of good and evil and the purpose and power of love. It can be said that reaching happiness is our ultimate motivation, however happiness is reliant on its sustainability and longevity. Desires and a passion for ultimately futile endeavours eventually result in the sorrow and misery one initially attempts to escape from, as seen from the opening scenes of the play of Faustus and continues through with Faust’ relationship with Gretchen. This is the paradox; that in order to reach a state of happiness, one must first traverse through the murky realms of knowledge toward the gates of love; that love surpasses knowledge and yet it is not in knowledge can one attain happiness. From the multiple layers of narrative, stories within stories, metaphors, satire and political and spiritual agendas truly makes the Master and Margarita one of the most successful and inspiring novels of the twentieth century.

Bulgakov is certainly among the very few great writers to have ever lived who is capable at combining fantasy and satire into one complex yet simple whole, just like my other favourites writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. His capacity and concern for ethical problems that he is able to express using metaphors and surreal situations or plots is irresistible, skilful and admirable.