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an axe for the frozen sea inside us

Kafka quote in Den Bosch

Great hard-hitting Kafka quote, spotted in Den Bosch, "Een boek: "Een bijl voor de bevroren zee in ons" ("A book: An axe for the frozen sea inside us").

the master and margarita

The Gospel has been the subject of many literary interpretations in the 20th century - famous examples that come to mind are Kazantzakis' 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and Saramago's 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ'. But by far the strangest and most modernist is Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita', a fantastically scathing satire of the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930's and the atheism it preached.

This radically subversive novel, which Bulgakov worked on in secret for twelve years until his death in 1940, wasn't published until 1966. And even then, the fact that it survived the Soviet censors at all was a form of poetic justice, especially as it proved one of the book's most famous phrases: "Manuscripts don't burn".

On one level, 'The Master and Margarita' tells the story of the Devil descending upon communist Moscow with a grotesque retinue of demons, who in a matter of days create complete chaos in the city, driving many of its inhabitants - who refuse to accept the supernatural nature of what is going on - insane. From the opening chapter, when he discusses religion with a poet and a critic, the Devil's mission seems to be to challenge the Moscovites' atheism.

"...this is what disturbs me: if there is no God, then, the question is, who is in control of man's life and the whole order of things on earth?"
"Man himself is in control," was Bezdomny's quick and angry reply to what was, admittedly, not a very clear question.
"I'm sorry," replied the stranger in a soft voice, "but in order to be in control, you have to have a definite plan for at least a reasonable period of time. So how, may I ask, can man be in control if he can't even draw up a plan for a ridiculously short period of time, say, a thousand years, and is, moreover, unable to ensure his own safety for even the next day?"

Note Bulgakov's irony in using the Devil, this "stranger" who is introduced as having had breakfast with Kant, to argue for the existence of God. In fact, after Aquinas' famous five proofs, and Kant's sixth, the Devil is about to demonstrate his own seventh proof to the sceptical Moscovites! But this is only the start of a much more subtle argument, which attacks religious doctrines as much as it does the doctrine of communist atheism.

It is in the mental hospital, almost one third into the book, that the hero is introduced. Known simply as the Master, he has published a novel about Pontius Pilate and has suffered a nervous breakdown after being villified in the press. The Master sums up the absurd and stifling effects of state censorship - which Bulgakov himself struggled with for most of his life - when he recounts his critics' zeal to denounce him:

There was something uncommonly fake and uncertain in every line of these articles, despite their threatening and self-assured tone. I kept thinking - and I couldn't rid myself of the thought - that the authors of these articles weren't saying what they wanted to say, and that that was why they were so furious.

Interspersed with the story of the Devil in Moscow are chapters from the Master's novel, offering an interpretation of the Gospel from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. While the elements of this story are familiar, Bulgakov (or the Master) presents a deliberately unfamiliar version of it, focusing not on Jesus (who is here called Yeshua Ha-Notsri) but on the doubts that plague Pilate after sentencing him to the cross. This strange version of the Gospel not only strips the story from all supernatural elements, but also ridicules it as a historical source. For instance, when questioned by Pilate about his role in inciting rebellion, Jesus answers - with supreme irony:

"These good people (...) are ignorant and have muddled what I said. In fact, I'm beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly."

(The "he" is Matthew, here called Levi Matvei, writer of the Gospel of Matthew.)

Now, as if this weren't complex enough, Bulgakov introduces a third theme, one that our expectations were set up for by the book's motto, taken from Goethe's 'Faust'. After all, in a story about the Devil, a Faustian bargain needs to be struck. This is where the real heroine of the book comes in: Margarita, the woman who stood by the Master when he lost faith in his creation and who is still looking for him after his disappearance into the insane asylum.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, suffice to say that in return for hosting a Satan's Ball, Margarita is finally reunited with the Master. Significantly, however, amid all the novel's characters who are prey to doubt, apathy and insanity, only Margarita actively pursues what she believes in. (That is, not counting the Devil and Jesus, who both play their supernatural roles with full conviction.)

Thus Margarita underscores what is perhaps the novel's ultimate message. It is voiced in the report Pilate receives of Jesus' death.

"Did he try to preach anything in front of the soldiers?"
"No, Hegemon, he was not talkative on this occasion. The only thing he said was that he considered cowardice one of the worst of all human vices."
"What made him say that?" the guest heard a suddenly cracked voice say.
"There is no way of knowing. His behavior was strange in general, as it always was, I might add."
"What was strange about it?"
"He kept trying to look those around him in the eyes and he kept smiling a distracted kind of smile."
"Nothing else?" asked the hoarse voice.
"Nothing else."

For more on this rich and complex novel, see these resource sites.

(Quotes are from the translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor.)

Update: Of course, another important reference point is Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses', for which 'The Master and Margarita' served as a source of inspiration. Besides being as much of a literary rollercoaster, Rushdie in a way continued Bulgakov's satirical quest against religious doctrine, and translated it from Christian to Islamic culture.

An interesting article discussing the similarities between Bulgakov's and Rushdie's mission is 'Healthy Blasphemy' - although this brief quote from 'The Satanic Verses' goes a long way in epigraphing its point:

A poet's work (...) to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.

the whitest boy alive

Quite unexpectedly, and after a lukewarm start, The Whitest Boy Alive in Paradiso on Tuesday turned into one of the most exciting concerts of the year, contagious, danceable, and winning over the sold-out house with their nerdy showmanship.

Their first album, 'Dreams', contained mostly pleasant summer pop songs mixing the hushed wistfulness of Kings of Convenience (the other band of singer Erlend Øye) with some Talking Heads funk. The follow-up, 'Rules', already hinted at a more danceable streak, and this is what they fully exploit live - laying down jumpy grooves and transforming their pop material into playful and at times outrageous jams, though without losing sight of the catchy basis of their songs.

Here's the best moment of the evening caught on phone-quality video, when after playing '1517' the band freezes, and the crowd goes wild.

a dissimulation of birds

Collective nouns (not to be confused with mass nouns like water, sand or coffee) describe groups of countable things, people or animals. For animals, English has a large and colorful store of collective nouns, also known as terms of venery. Some well-known examples are a school of fish, a pack of wolves and a pride of lions.

But it's in collective nouns for birds that English really goes overboard. Here are some of the strangest and most poetic:

  • A dissimulation of birds
  • An unkindness of ravens
  • A murder of crows
  • An exaltation of larks
  • A parliament of owls
  • A dole (or dule) of doves
  • An eyrar of swans

(And many more in these lists for birds and for mammals.)

The practice also extended to people, with hilarious examples like an illusion of painters or an impatience of wives. In modern times, this has evolved into a kind of poetic sport, with coinages like an annoyance of neighbors.

And ultimately: a yawn of collective nouns.

the man who invented the zero

Along with Borges and Cortázar, the Serbian writer Milorad Pavić was a great experimenter in non-linear narratives, creating dense labyrinths of prose, full of historical and mythical stories, parables and anecdotes and strange Balkan magic.

Most famously, his 'Dictionary of the Khazars' is composed of three different dictionaries - Christian, Islamic and Hebrew. Mixing historical fact with fiction, all three 'sources' are concerned with the Khazar people and the polemic surrounding their conversion from their own "to-us-unknown faith" into one of the three religions. Moreover, the book is available in two versions, a male and a female one, which differ in one crucial paragraph.

Pavić also experimented with digital hypertext - narratives that are non-linear as well as interactive. An interesting example is 'Damascene', subtitled 'A tale for computer and compasses'.

Another of his novels, 'Landscape Painted with Tea', is also a crossword puzzle, complete with a solution printed upside-down at the end of the book. Here's a short vignette from it, titled 'The Man Who Invented the Zero'.

The man who invented the zero came back after many years to the marketplace where, before he invented the zero, he had liked to sit and think. He used to sit here and think about how the unriddling of unknown laws and their implementation was our life. He used to think about this sitting on a rock amid the trash cans in the marketplace, because all the other, nicer spots in the square were always taken whenever he came by. There was a stone bench with a superb view that especially caught his eye, but that spot in particular was out of the question, because it was always claimed by somebody else. There was always somebody already sitting there. And so he invented the zero sitting on his rock amid the trash cans.

Now, when he returned so many years later to this place where he had invented the zero, it was winter, and all the seats in the square were empty. He could have his choice. However, he had come here not to invent the zero, because the zero he had already invented years before, but to sit once again in the spot where he had invented the zero and to remember how he had invented the zero. And so once again he headed straight for that rock by the trash cans. That spot was now his forever, and he could no longer choose.

And with a smile which was a bird forced to fly through water, he walked up to the rock by the trash cans, to his rock where he had invented the zero, but he did not stop. He walked on and finally installed himself on the beautiful stone bench with the superb view.

"I piss on the man who invented the zero," he said, sitting down.