The Devil is a Woman, Part V: Unless She Isn’t

After much effort I finally finished Mikail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which a student recommended to me years ago when she heard that I was interested in exploring how and why the “devil” becomes female in literature.  This, my seventh installment, presents what may seem at first a challenge to the rule that the devil is feminized or female, at least at some point, in most texts.

I generally enjoy reading Russian literature of the 20th century but my first dance with Bulgakov had me shooting in all kinds of directions.  I was enamored with his satirical imagery that often bordered on surrealism.  At times he painted such vivid pictures of the most ridiculous acts and people that I found myself pausing to imagine these images as they would appear in a film.  Maybe one directed by Maya Duren or David Lynch.

While the imagery verged on the cinematic, the prose read, for me, very much like a play.  The dialogue was so much like a tennis match that I couldn’t help but play out the conversations in my mind as if they were happening on the stage.  So, Bulgakov comes packing some not-amateur flair.

On the other hand, on nearly every page of the text appears a phrase that was funny at first but then quickly became the bane of my reading experience.  Characters are constantly interjecting remarks relating to the devil: “The devil take you!,”  “The devil I did!,”  etc.  A subtle touch of irony would have been nicer than the gratuitous overuse of such phrases.  I almost stopped reading the text because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Yes.  Yes, this book is about the devil in Russia.  Got it.  Thanks.

My primary interest in the text was to understand how Bulgakov fashions the devil and gender.  Unfortunately, he seemed not to take up the topic very interestingly.  The devil is Woland, male.  He has an entourage, mostly male except for a naked green witch.  (The cat Behemouth reminded me lovingly of Hoffmann’s Tomcat Murr.)  Gender matters in Master and Margarita because a woman is responsible for the first catastrophe and a woman is also responsible for the redemption of the soul.  Margarita believes in “the master,” her extramarital lover: a writer who, much like Geoffrey Tempest, is undervalued during his time as a creative thinker adhering to “old-fashioned” ideas.  Margarita believes in the master’s power of conjuring the story of Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov shifts his narrative between the story of the devil in Russia and the master’s story of the crucifixion.  Caught between these two stories is the love story of Margarita.

Margarita can withstand Hell for her lover.  In fact, she can even relish it.  Woland likes this.  The master, not so much.  She, in many ways, becomes the devil for some shining moments.  Like Hella (the female witch of Woland’s entourage), she performs devilry in the nude.  Her mischief, though, is for avenging her lover, who has ended up (with most of the other characters) in the insane asylum.  Margarita’s sins are the only ones forgiven — forgivable — in the text.

So, the devil has a soft spot for love.  But he isn’t feminized nor does he slip into a performance of female-ness at any point in the novel that I could find.  Then again, it was hard for me to stay focused.  The text was arduous reading; it didn’t hold my interest well.  Maybe Master and Margarita is an exception to the rule.  But I don’t want to read it again to find out.

The Nameless Dread, for Psychos

If Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho doesn’t actually sadistically kill numerous women,  children, and maybe a few men, then this novel is possibly the saddest story ever told.

Many years ago I watched Christian Bale play Bateman in the film American Pscyho but for some reason while I do remember the INXS and the murder scenes, I do not remember the abundant fascination with AIDS, Bateman’s barely concealed homoerotic desires, nor the very important role of the homeless (and dominating theme of homelessness).  These three aspects of the novel — AIDS (and disease), homosexuality, and homelessness — seemed to be what the novel is ABOUT: much more so than it is about a rich, bored, and crazed trust-fund kid who goes on a murder spree.

The most repeated phrase in the book is “a nameless dread,” which Bateman uses over and again to describe his feelings.  Other than this phrase, the second most repeated word was “sad.”  Then, maybe “red.”

Bateman’s fantasy of brutally raping, torturing, and killing women — especially — is interesting.  It, of course, suggests that he is not only misogynistic but repressing his own sexuality.  The first murder scene “fails” but is telling of the nature of Bateman’s grotesque fantasies.  Wanting to kill Luis he corners him in a bathroom stall.  I think that he is strangling Luis.  So does he.  Come to find out, he’s actually kissing Luis, stroking his cheek.  Loving him.  Luis tells Bateman that he loves him and Bateman, flabbergasted, realizes for the first time what he tries to cover up throughout the rest of the novel: that he loves Luis.

His latent desire morphs into a fun-land fantasy of killing women — and their children.  However, I am never really sure if his murders are “real.”  In the film, I remember that they are made, in the end, to be pure fantasy.

In the novel, too, I get the sense that at least his murders of men are not real: Owen and Luis are still alive.  The women, might be real.  But if none of them are real, then American Psycho is the saddest story I’ve ever read.  It captures a man’s longing to scapegoat women due to his own feelings of inadequacy.  He can’t feel how he wants to feel.  Love whom he wants to love.  And he blames women.  He wants to kill them all in the most brutal way.

I felt bad for Bateman to a certain extent.

For me, the book was, of course, about gender roles.  The “nameless dread” I attribute to a kind of masculine ideal.  His fantasies of harming women were so pathetic.  So sad.

Bateman is really homeless.  Literally.  He is unheimlich.  Uncanny.  Away from the mother’s genitals.  Trying to get back in.

Of the Uncanny

Schelling wrote in 1835, in his book Philosophie der Mythologie, that “all things are called uncanny which should have remained secret, hidden, latent, but which have come to light.”

The “uncanny” pervades human experience, accumulating a variety of definitions — some of them contradictory — through time.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche, for example, observed that “Uncanny is human existence and still without meaning: a buffoon can be fatal to it.”

In a word, the uncanny is anthropomorphic because it is a signal of human vulnerability.  Just that.

As the uncanny has its roots in German idealism (or does it?), a look at its German word may be more revealing of this vulnerability: unheimlichUnheimlich means, loosely, a stew of these concepts: not-at-home, dislodged, and unhomely.

Sure.  To be without a home suggests vulnerability.  But of what kind?

The root word of unheimlich is, of course, heimlichHeimlich is much more definitive of the uncanny.  In its various definitions, it can be described as some combination of these: familiar, native, belonging to the home, intimate, comfortable, surrounded by close walls, concealed, esoteric, hidden, behind someone’s back.  

This list gets more juicy as it progresses, doesn’t it?  It begins with the “familiar” and ends with a series of concepts that seem quite contradictory to homeliness.  The “canny” is, in many ways, more uncanny than the uncanny.

It certainly reveals human vulnerability more clearly.

Heimlich suggests that the most familiar aspects of human experience are the hidden ones.What goes on behind closed doors is always exposed to the public somehow, though — through gossip.  Confabulation.  Sharing with some — only pieces, maybe.  Embellishing our lives for others.  Keeping yet others in the dark.

The uncanny is gossip.

A fantasy of the inner space.

Is there anything more terrifying?