Reflections on The Master and Margarita

The first published edition of The Master and Margarita appeared, censored, twenty-six years after Bulgakov died in 1940. The full translation appeared years later. It is a magnificent book, reworking the stories of Faust and Pontius Pilate into a powerful account of life (particularly for authors) in 1930’s Russia. Only in reading the afterward did I learn that Bulgakov himself had been criticized for being anti-Soviet and in a display of impressive intestinal fortitude, he wrote a letter to the government in 1930, defending his right to satirize them. In this letter he asked to emigrate if they continued to bar him from writing. Stalin answered the letter with a call and, in effect, gave him permission to continue. Obviously there were still limitations on his craft.

The Master and Margarita is an incredible book, and the Burgin and O’Connor translation provides commentary, an afterward, and some biography after the text of the novel. I highly recommend reading it all, but there was one particular glaring ommission in the analysis and commentary.

Repeatedly throughout the text there is a line that says “cowardice is the most grave vice.” In a story where the active characters are Satan and his servants, most people are terrified of what is happening, or otherwise oblivious to the nature of the chaos taking place. Those few people who perceive what is happening and confront it without fear (even when conversing with Satan) are the most successful. In a retelling of Faust and satirizing a totalitarian regime, that is an incredible message to propagate and, given Bulgakov’s own experiences, it is both autobiographical and correct. Yet, somehow, there was not even a single note about this seminal theme.

Ivory Tower

I recently heard the opinion that ancient history (and possibly even Classics more generally) should only be taught at a graduate level at a select few universities across the country. Schools not in that elite core (e.g. the Ivy League, most Big 10 schools, Berkeley, Stanford, Duke, UNC, etc) should offer programs for undergraduates, but should not offer graduate degrees. Though I heard this opinion third hand, it originated from an ancient history professor. I agree to a limited extent with the sentiment about the necessity of standards, but wholeheartedly disagree with the actual opinion–not least of which is because I have thrice failed to gain acceptance into those elite programs and am therefore at another school.

I have three qualms with the opinion:

  1. There are too many deserving applicants for too few spots at those top programs
  2. There are too many quality advisors who, for one reason or another, are not at those universities
  3. The notion that those are the programs that can produce doctorates and none other can is a cause of stagnation in the profession. It is not only possible, but also necessary for “tier-2” schools to build viable programs.1</sup

1For the moment overlook the increasingly vocal proponents of reducing the number of people who get advanced degrees in the humanities.

Let me examine each of these in somewhat more depth. Despite the overall trend wherein a lower percentage of the population attains a college degree than in recent history, there has been record application and acceptance rates at most, if not all colleges. A college degree is seen as necessary for advancement or employment in many jobs and though I have strong objections to both this and the claim that college is a place to learn jobs skills and the the movement to turn colleges into money making machines, the perception is transformed into a reality because businesses actually put it into practice. So, with enrollment at record highs, and the job market remaining spare, particularly at those jobs that college does prepare students for, the rates (and the percentages, I think) of application to advanced degrees has gone up. For some students this is a dodge on student loan payments or an extension on college in the same way they received extensions on papers, and in these cases the academic world only serves to further coddle them. But for others, graduate school or other post-Baccalaureate programs are the right fit and it stands to reason that these numbers are also at an all-time high. Lump these numbers together and combine it with funding cuts across the academic world, and there simply are not enough spots at the top universities for all deserving applicants. The rejects, as they may be, then go to other schools where classics and ancient history are taught, and they may join the other rejects to study the field they love, build a program, and so on. Note that reject here is not a negative term and applies to all graduate students in the field not at these universities–you can not succeed if you do not try, so not applying is not an excuse (unless you are pointing out how much money you saved).

A second issue is that many, if not most, potential advisors are not at those top universities. The best programs have larger staffs, more students, and more opportunities. These are all boons to graduate work, however if none of the programs have a potential advisor for your interests, then it may behoove you to cast a wider net. There are scores of excellent teachers, advisors, and scholars whose careers, for any number of reasons, bring them to schools that are not among the traditional academic factories. Slowly, the field is moving into a time when production counts for as much or more than the name. It is not yet, nor will it likely ever be a true meritocracy, but it is moving in that direction. Would I like the name to bolster my ego and look impressive on my wall? Yes, but the truth is that the name often has little bearing on the formal apprenticeship of graduate school.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that Classics and ancient history are very old fields. Livy, one of our great historians, wrote about events 700 years before his birth, which could easily be considered ancient even in his own day. Gibbon, Napoleon, Collingwood, and all of the founding fathers were at the very least amateur ancient historians, and some of the chairs of Classics at UK universities are themselves hundreds of years old. The field is old, and the only way to keep it relevant is to innovate and change, something best achieved by building new programs to see what can happen. Keeping just a few in their ivory tower will lead to stagnation. In no way am I claiming this is a novel stance–Who Killed Homer first came out in 1998, and there has seemingly always been a tension between tradition and innovation.

The point I have to emphasize is that the only time in which so-called elite universities hold a mystical status is when professors and students at the “lesser” universities accept the status quo. The top programs may remain elite and coveted, but they also work to remain at that level by actively recruiting top scholars and prospective scholars. Yet the position is not guaranteed or divinely mandated. In fact, competition for the services of scholars from a more diverse set of institutions, with a larger number of talented writers and thinkers involved in the process would be good for the field. Scholarship in its own right would advance, and at no point would elite programs be able to take their status for granted. Of course I want to study and teach at premier schools, but until such time as I am seen as Ivy League material, I want to do whatever I can do make the school I am at be the best it can be and, as much as it can be, I want that to be my fault.