The Transformation of Jewish Mysticism in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard

Rina Lapidus

Abstract


The article analyzes the elements of Jewish mysticism employed by Mikhail Bulgakov in his The White Guard and aims to trace the sources of motifs used to create a sense of mystery in the novel. The author enumerates multiple uses of Jewish mystical elements in the depiction of the characters. Mikhail Shpolyansky is both an image of the evil and refers to the Messiah. According to Jewish beliefs, the Messiah must suffer from disgusting open fester wounds. Likewise, Shpolyansky suffers from a repugnant disease but his ailment is unknown to the public unlike that of the Jewish Messiah. The disgust caused by the Messiah’s wounds is meant to verify the scale of humaneness and the capacity for mercy in the ones for whose sake the Messiah must descend to this world. If Jews can overcome the disgust they feel when looking at the Messiah’s wounds and help him, demonstrating benevolence and compassion, God will heal the Messiah’s imaginary diseases and send him to people where he will rule in God’s name and usher in a time of peace and eliminate all suffering. The author questions whether the use of Jewish sources was a conscious decision made by Bulgakov, when he interpreted the Messiah’s diseases and gave gory details of them. The question is that if Bulgakov emphasizes disgust caused by the patient and by his demonic nature, why he did not consider the motif of the repugnant wounds of the Jewish Messiah then. The author describes the writer’s digression from the traditional Jewish interpretation of Abaddon used by Bulgakov to refer to Antichrist who symbolizes the Demon of Darkness and Destruction. The elements of Old Jewish sources extensively used by Bulgakov when describing the supernatural, mystical and demonic quite often possess a meaning uncharacteristic of the one used in the Jewish original and are quite often presented inaccurately. It is likely to have been caused by the fact that while creating the mystical background of the novel, Bulgakov relied on the data on Jewish mythology he could find in the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary. However, it does not reflect the original meaning of Jewish mythology but gives a distorted picture of it. Despite the discrepancies, Bulgakov managed to create an atmosphere filled with Old Jewish mystical beliefs and do it convincingly for the reader.


Keywords


M. Bulgakov; The White Guard novel; poetics of a symbol; Jewish mysticism.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15826/qr.2015.1.088

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