The Alchemical Devilry Series, Part III: The Master and Margarita, The Man Who Sold The World, And The Nature of Artwork As Faustian Contract
You look like a perfectly rational sort of person, and I certainly know that I am, which is why I am always a little flabbergasted to find myself sitting down and writing essays about contacting the Devil. Again, when I say ‘the Devil’, I mean the chthonic personification of the unconscious, a Mercurial archetype which both favors and tests man. When I talk about artists ‘contacting the Devil’, or the potential of evoking or invoking anything dealing with the Spirit, I want to make it clear I am talking about a psychological experience, as reflected through dream, fantasy, and creative products. In the most purely rational of senses, this amounts to ‘talking to’ or in some way accessing the allegedly silenced right brain. Of course every human being uses both sides of their brain, barring some heinous incident or anomaly, but corpus calloscotomy patients, who have had their brains split to avoid epileptic seizures and thus experience a lack of communication between hemispheres, demonstrate fascinating implications which have been outlined in a vast array of experiments which imply that the right hand, quite literally, does not have the slightest clue what the left hand is doing. But the left hand has a quite sinister grasp upon events, if you will. Indeed, this talent can be used to play tricks—it is the right half of our brain which is the ultimate archetypical trickster, in a sense.
The right half, which specializes in spatial judgments, relies on the left half to articulate these judgments. In the film-documented case of a split-brain patient named ‘Joe’ being tested by Mike Gazzaniga, a former colleague of split brain research pioneer Roger Sperry, it is shown that when Joe focuses on a point, everything to the right of the point is clearly registered by his consciousness and articulated. Upon seeing the word ‘barn’ to the right of the point, he could say it. Upon seeing a picture of grapes to the right of the point, he says the word ‘grapes’. When he is shown the word ‘pan’ with his left eye, however, he cannot consciously see it, outright denies he saw it; yet when he closes his eyes and holds a marker in his left hand, it produces an image of a frying pan, which proves the means by which he guesses the word. What this indicates, then, is that the right hemisphere observes the field and communicates through symbols which the left hemisphere is forced to interpret. In other studies, patients encouraged to select a specific object with their left hand and then pass it to their right hand are then grasping at straws when it comes to explaining why, exactly, they are holding said object, and often form a narrative which sounds reasonable— much as we all form a narrative of our own reality, as the final censor of what is or is not conscious.
There are a multitude of interesting videos presently available on the subject, and though I make the mistake of dating myself in a Robert Anton Wilson-esque gambit to appeal to the modern times, I will take a gamble here and suppose that, in the future, such videos will continue to be readily available on the Internet, and more about the right brain will be known and entirely integrated into the consciousness of those who would pay attention to it. But it seems to me, from all one can experience in the mystical/psychological realms, and from all the information readily and openly available in all human myth, religion, literature, music— knowledge, say— that the right brain is the home of, say, a fetus in fetu of the psyche.
Have you ever heard of that? I’ve always been fascinated by that phenomenon. It’s a thing where someone in their thirties or forties will feel sick, go into the doctor and discover what they thought was a tumor has really been a lifelong, undeveloped twin. Imagine that! That is the physical side of the phenomenon— but all physical phenomenon has a psychic parallel, as it were, and I mean ‘psychic’ as in ‘in the realm of the psyche’ and not in a manner which implies crystal balls and divination. It brings to mind, rather, the homunculus of the alchemists, does it not? Alchemy is also a psychic phenomenon— Jung showed confidently that alchemy was a process of projection, of the mind projecting upon matter, and he is far from the only person to find such use and success in alchemy. Indeed, the accepted and invited presence of the silent watcher as experienced through alchemy, psychological individuation, psychedelic ritual, is a far preferable experience to the uninvited presence one experiences, say, as a Parkinsons patient taking the drug L-Dopa, who, if they do not find themselves living with out and out hallucinations (that is to say, three dimensional reinterpretations of previously ‘accurately’ categorized environment sensum which functions as externalized projections of inner neuroses), some of them describe something even more fascinating.
Ed W. often describes a persistent feeling of a “presence”–something or someone he never actually sees—on his right. Professor R., while doing very well on L-dopa and other anti-parkinsonian drugs, also has “a companion” (as he calls it) just out of sight on his right.
-Sacks, Oliver, “Hallucinations”, p. 81
And lest we forget, Socrates conversed with his ‘daemon’, and was not the last man to do so. The devil only knows what Aldous Huxley, for instance, sat thinking in his special chair! And Jung was likewise a proponent of “active imagination”– that is to say, the active and conscious personification of various unconscious contents for greater psychological understanding and completion. What I am really describing in the end of the day is the process of individuation via active imagination, but specifically I am describing the process of individuation via the production of artwork.
However, I and all the other occultists know what’s really going on.
ALCHEMY AND WRITING, AND WHAT THIS HAS TO DO WITH MAGIC
Some of you out there may be familiar with the term “hypersigil,” coined by the comic book artist Grant Morrison. Others may remember what he did to the characters of Batman and the Joker and be so bitterly crushed by it that you refuse to use the term, which also happens to lend itself a distinct ‘magickal’ cheesiness. Those of you who are not familiar with the term, nor with the general concept of a sigil, I would advise to contemplate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, or read Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned: a hypersigil is just a word which means, in my opinion, “a profoundly powerful work of art into which a creator has poured years of work, which often draws from the creator’s personal experience and incorporates facets of his life which, from time to time, seems to possess an eerie predictive/causal effect upon the creator’s waking life or seems to present in microcosm an encapsulation of something greater.” It is in theory a method of individuation or self-actualization; it is alchemy in practice in the purest sense; and it is also an extremely dangerous thing, if you let it be. It can consume you and literally kill you. Remember always that your mind is your reality and you can very easily lose it. We will go into it more later, but in The Master and Margarita, the theme of beheading is very prevalent, and it arises again and again, for instance, in fairy tales. This represents, in the Jungian symbolic system, possession by the archetype, and it is a state to be avoided. However, there are intentions and occasions which merit the psychic journey, the opus as produced through artwork being just that thing, and the true nature of what we are discussing here, in a sense.
The act of writing gives us a keen insight into the creation of the world. If you are familiar at all with the alchemical triad of Sulphur-Mercurius-Sal, you will realize with some consideration that the pattern presented fits perfectly with the act of writing. One begins with the four elements–air works upon water to produce Mercury, fire works upon air to produce Sulphur, water works upon the earth to produce Sal. Then, with the assistance of the hermaphroditic Mercurius, Sulphur expresses the masculine principle, which engenders, and Sal expresses the feminine principle, which is impregnated. From the masculine and feminine principles together, then, arise the perfect One. Another way to think of Mercurius is as the ‘he’ in YHVH, married to both the ‘yod’ and the ‘vau’. This is all mere symbolic thinking, alternative methods of contemplating the creative process. All paths lead to Rome, but some are straighter and less perilous than others. The fact of the matter, though, is that the Devil is the gateway to the unconscious: he is that which teaches men to pray, he is Janus who marks the doorway, and he wants nothing more than to see each and every man reach his fullest height, as the tremendity of an oak tree lifts its branches towards the sun. Those interested in the occult, truly, deeply interested, will look within themselves and find him there, and those who are wise and willing will learn more than they could ever hope to teach. Let us go into some examples of works of art which represent those journeys, and which in themselves are deals with the Devil.
- THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, BY MIKHAIL BULGAKOV
“Do you know whom you are speaking to now?” Woland asked the newcomer, “Do you know whose guest you are?”
“Yes,” answered the Master. “My neighbor in the madhouse was that boy Ivan Bezdomny. He told me about you.”
“Well, well,” replied Woland. “I had the pleasure of meeting that young man at Patriarch’s Ponds. He nearly drove me out of my mind, trying to prove to me that I don’t exist! But you, do you believe that it’s really me?”
“I have to believe that,” said the newcomer, “although it would, of course, be a lot more soothing to regard you as a product of my hallucinations. Excuse me,” added the Master, catching himself.
“Well, if it’s more soothing, then by all means do so,” replied Woland politely.
“No, no,” said Margarita fearfully, shaking the Master by the shoulder. “Come to your senses! It really is him!”
-Bulgakov, Mikhail “The Master and Margarita”, (First Vintage International Edition, 1995), p. 244
Although most, I think, would be compelled to begin with the Goethe Faust, I think it is better that we work our way towards it, beginning with more contemporary and varied iterations of the theme. The first place to touch on, I think, is that masterwork of inner contact between the author and the Devil, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
To call this novel, as so many do, a “modern update” of the Faust legend is to do it a great injustice, as is to lend too much focus on its fearless exploration of life in the USSR at the height of paranoia and bureaucratic oppression. It is a book which had deep psychological meaning to Bulgakov, which was written between 1928 and 1940.
Born May 15th, 1891, Bulgakov was one of seven children (and, in true fairy tale form, the oldest of three brothers). As a child, he wrote voraciously, was sucked towards the theater, and, after studying literature, married, volunteered as a World War I medic, and had brief dalliances in the medical field, which would lead to the short story collection A Country Doctor’s Notebook, itself now a series which I believe at the time of this writing is available on Netflix for those who would be interested in watching it. As to Bulgakov, meanwhile, he was working as a journalist by 1919 but, due to a life-threatening bout with typhus, he was not able to leave the country; as a result, during the Civil War and the rise of the Soviet state, most of his family emigrated to Paris, and Bulgakov never saw them again.
It was the year 1919 that he allegedly began writing, having written a short story on a train ride and gotten in published in the newspaper of the town where the train stopped. Moving with his wife to a new city in December of that same year, he struck up a promising career as a playwright, producing two scripts (Self Defence and The Turbin Brothers). Another move found him in Moscow, a city which seemed to captivate him, and he and his wife moved near the affluent Patriarch’s Ponds: this location is Bolshaya Sadovaya Street 10, apartment no. 50. Appointed secretary to the literary section of the “Central Committee of the Republic for Political Education,” he also began to work as a correspondent for papers based in Berlin, and to write and publish short stories and novellas. The most interesting work he produced in this time is a story called The Fatal Egg, which is rife with symbolism and an eerie presience: the novella tells the tale of a scientist who, with an out-of-focus microscope, produces a red light which increases the rate of binary fission in an organism, resulting in the rapid growth and doubling of cells, and the rapid evolution of, say, frogs. When a mysterious disease sweeping the country causes the extinction of all Soviet chickens, and only Soviet chickens, the scientist’s device is confiscated by a government man whose name means ‘Fate’, who intends to use the thing to fix the chicken problem; instead, by mishap, Fate uses the device not on the shipment of chicken eggs from outside of the country, but rather the snake eggs intended for the scientist. As a result, Moscow is overrun with snakes, and, in a deus ex machina particularly appropriate (or disturbing) given the pre-World War II publication of the story, the citizens and army must rely on the harshness of a strange August snowstorm to destroy their reptilian invaders. The scientist who created the device in question is torn apart by an angry mob. The symbolism here, of a doomed scientist who creates an expanding device which is intended to be used to produce a rebirth but instead causes the multiplication of snakes which attempt to overrun Moscow and must be frozen to death, is eerily, unarguably reminiscent of the Nazi party’s abuse of Nietzsche and occult symbols in its rise to power. (A powerful morality tale to remember in this treacherous time, I think!)
In 1925 Bulgakov divorced his first wife and married his second amid a torrid period of writing play after play which would be refused production time and again. When defamed by critics, he was personally protected by Josef Stalin, who would continue to inform his career throughout Bulgakov’s life: the dictator would be responsible for its brief revitalization after the writer’s reputation was ruined in 1929 as a result of censorship. On May 10th 1930, with Stalin’s special permission, Bulgakov was allowed to work in the Art Theater, where he became the stage director’s assistant. In 1932, he married his third and final wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, who allegedly served as his external inspiration for Margarita. By then, he had been working for four years on the novel which would carry him through the rest of his life, and which would become all he had after his career was decimated by censorship and Soviet critics. Though Stalin protected him from prosecution, Bulgakov’s works were more or less universally derided by all those who could possibly allow them to be produced, and the author was forced to work fruitlessly amid his failing health. With the support of his wife, he managed to finish his great work, as finished as something so sublime may ever be in this world, though he was still rewriting and editing here and there; then, on March 10th, 1940, at the age of 48, Mikhail Bulgakov succumbed to a kidney disorder inherited from his father. It was a disease which Bulgakov had predicted to be the cause of his death for all of his life. Please note, I am not doing the life of this noble and deeply private man any justice; I have simply summarized a few important details to which I hope you were paying attention.
The Master and Margarita, then, is a fantastic and wonderfully-nested story about a man called The Master who, himself an author, has been driven to the madhouse by critical reviews of his work as a result of his attempts to write a novel about Pontius Pilate. He cannot bring himself to write, has burned the last copy of his failed manuscript, has been, ostensibly, abandoned by the woman he loves, and has had his apartment seized. We will not meet him until nearly a third of the way into the book. Instead, in the opening chapter, “Never Talk To Strangers,” we are introduced to two literary types, the poet Ivan Bezdomny (‘Bezdomny’ meaning ‘Homeless’) and the editor Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, who shares his initials, indeed, his personal name, with the author of the work he inhabits. Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz will, incidentally, be beheaded by the end of the third chapter, after being made by accident to slip on sunflower seed oil purchased and spilled by the bad omen, Annushka, who we will see again later.
For now, however, in the first chapter, we are treated to the meeting of the poet and the editor with a man whom they perceive as being a very strange foreigner, a distinguished professor carrying a poodle-head cane. Before that, we have seen the pair in conversation at Patriarch’s Ponds, near Bulgakov’s home, in heated debate regarding the poem commissioned by the editor, a long antireligious poem which Ivan Nikolayevich (the real name of the poet Bezdomny) has turned into a travesty: he has painted a portrait of a believable Jesus, who seemed as though he might have actually existed, even if he was provided with negative traits in the process. Berlioz has in the process of this conversation had a premonition of a man wearing a jockey cap and a checked jacket made of air materializing from the middle of nowhere, but this he dismisses as mere hallucination. A staunch rationalist and good, warm-blooded Communist atheist, Berlioz continues to point out something similar to what we have thusfar pointed out in this series of essays, but with the usual atheist focus on Christ—demonstrating that there are many religions where a virgin gives birth to a child, where there are death-resurrection cycles, as demonstrated by Osiris or Tammuz.
It is in the course of this conversation that the foreigner arrives, and we are given what passes for a description in the loosest sense of the term, since we are of course talking about the Devil, who, as we have already noted, can only be fixed to one particular manner with great difficulty, particularly between observers.
Afterward, when, frankly speaking, it was already too late, various agencies filed reports describing this man. If one compares them, one cannot help but be astonished. For example, one says that he was short, had gold teeth, and was lame in his right foot. Another says that he was hugely tall, had platinum crowns and was lame in his left foot. Yet a third notes laconically that he had no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.
We should add that all of the reports were worthless.
To begin with, the subject was lame in neither foot, and he was neither short, nor hugely tall, but simply tall. As for his teeth, the left ones had platinum crowns, and the right—gold. He was dressed in an expensive gray suit and wore foreign-made shoes of the same color. A gray beret was cocked rakishly over his ear, and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head. He looked to be a little over forty. Slightly crooked mouth. Smooth-shaven. Dark brown hair. Right eye black, left—for some reason, green. Black eyebrows, but one was higher than the other. In a word—a foreigner.
Alchemically astute readers will note in the above description that individual observers tend to observe the devil as having either gold teeth, or platinum crowns, but in reality he has both gold and silver material in his mouth. The devil is balanced between gold and silver, masculine and feminine, psyche and matter, consciousness and unconsciousness, though individual human beings tend to interpret him as being one way or another. Similarly, his left eye is the feminine and nourishing green, a color associated with Tifaret upon the tree of life; appropriate, since the Spirit Mercurius, of whom the Devil is the chthonic aspect, can be likened to Yesod. Much like Yesod, then, we will see that he is the connecting force of all characters in the novel, and he demonstrates it mere moments after his arrival by his choice to sit between Bezdomny and Berlioz.
“May I join you?” asked the foreigner politely, and the friends moved apart involuntarily; the foreigner deftly seated himself between them and immediately joined their conversation.
“Was I mistaken when I heard you say that Jesus never existed on earth?” asked the foreigner, focusing his left green eye on Berlioz.
“No, you were not mistaken,” Berlioz replied courteously. “That’s exactly what I said.”
“Ah, how interesting!” exclaimed the foreigner.
“What the devil is he after?” thought Bezdomny with a scowl.
“And do you agree with your friend?” queried the stranger, turning to Bezdomny on his right.
“A hundred percent!” confirmed Bezdomny who loved pretentious, figurative expressions.
“Astonishing!” exclaimed the uninvited discussant, and then, looking around furtively for some reason, and muffling his already low voice, he said, “Excuse my persistence, but did I understand you to say that you don’t believe in God either?” He made his eyes pop in mock fright and added, “I swear I won’t tell anyone.”
“That’s right, we don’t believe in God,” answered Berlioz with a faint smile at the tourist’s fear, “but we can talk about it freely and openly.”
The foreigner leaned back on the bench and practically squealed with curiosity as he asked, “You mean you’re atheists?!”
“Yes, we are,” answered Berlioz with a smile, while Bezdomny thought in irritation, “He’s sticking to us like glue, the foreign pest!”
“Oh, how delightful!” cried the amazed foreigner, turning to look first at one writer and then the other.
“In our country atheism comes as no surprise to anyone,” said Berlioz in a polite and diplomatic way. “The majority of our population made a conscious decision long ago not to believe the fairy tales about God.”
Here the foreigner made the following move: he got up, pressed the astonished editor’s hand, and uttered these words, “Allow me to thank you with all my heart!”
“What are you thanking him for,” queried Bezdomny, blinking.
“For very important information that I, as a traveler, find extraordinarily interesting,” explained the eccentric from abroad, raising his finger in a meaningful way.
So the Devil, having established that he has arrived in a city of atheists, goes on to mention offhandedly a breakfast with Kant, puts the editor and poet further on-edge by making them think he might be secret police, makes sly offhanded mention of Berlioz’ death, and then eventually begins to relate a story about Pontius Pilate. You will remember I mentioned only a few moments ago that the title character of the book, the Master, is writing a story about Pontius Pilate; the Devil of course knows this story because he was there, hidden, within every man, but he also knows this story because, like the Anansi we mentioned last week, he is the keeper of inspiration and stories, and the author of this book, Mikhail Bulgakov, has given him free reign of his psyche in order to prepare himself for death and finish his book before its arrival. This may seem a very bold statement, but I would like to emphasize the fact that the Devil moves in to Bulgakov’s apartment, which in the book is the residence of none other than ill-fated Mikhail Berlioz.
“But where are your things, Professor?” Berlioz asked in an insinuating tone. “At the Metropole? Where are you staying?”
“Where am I staying? Nowhere,” answered the half-witted German, his green eye wandering sadly and wildly over Patriarch’s Ponds.
“What? But…where will you be living?”
“In your apartment,” replied the madman with sudden familiarity and he winked.
“I…I would be delighted,” stammered Berlioz, “but you would n doubt be uncomfortable at my place…Besides, the rooms at the Metropole are superb, it’s a first-class hotel…”
“And the devil doesn’t exist either?” the sick man suddenly inquired of Ivan Nikolayevich.
“And the devil doesn’t…”
“Don’t contradict him!” mouthed Berlioz in a soundless whisper, as he dove behind the professor’s back and made a face.
“There is no devil!” exclaimed Ivan Nikolayevich, blurting out what he shouldn’t have because all the nonsense going on had made him flustered. “What a nuisance you are! Stop acting like a loon!”
It is safe to say that this meeting in Patriarch’s Ponds is a familiar one to any rational atheist or agnostic who has ever had the experience of meeting the devil within himself. And that does not even begin to touch the panic a Christian must feel! But of course Mikhail Berlioz is filled with plenty of panic, at any rate, and attempts to slip away to call the police on a foreigner who he perceives as mad; instead, he experiences the seventh proof of God’s existence— the experiential proof, which can come in life or death, can come with the Devil or Christ, psychically or physically. Slipping on sunflower oil spilled by Annushka and falling upon the rails of the train, the last thing Berlioz sees is the moon in the sky as his head is severed; the poet Bezdomny witnesses this and proceeds to lose his mind, vanishing in and out across the city in varying states of undress and sogginess following a baptism in a river and an encounter with a cat riding a streetcar.
Berlioz, then, has been killed—beheaded. And as I mentioned previously, beheading represents possession by the archetype. The Devil orchestrates—or at least predicts in so elegant a way—the beheading of Berlioz and does not fix it, as he will eventually fix the head of George Bengalsky, who has his head publicly removed and replaced during the Variety Theater black magic debacle. The death of Berlioz indicates just how deeply possessed Bulgakov was by both his work and Woland, and this is a fact made even clearer by the insult to injury style possession of Berlioz/Bulgakov’s apartment. It is one thing to behead one’s psychic avatar, and quite another to allow the destruction of the home of that psychic avatar—that is, the symbolic body.
This is as good a time as any to point out that Berlioz was the author of a Faust opera, La Damnation de Faust, and, appropriately, The Master and Margarita as an exceedingly musical book; the ‘bass’ of the Devil’s voice is noted time and again throughout the novel, as is the raspiness of Yeshua’s; and the Master, in fact, in his first appearance, is noted to have a bass very similar to that of the Devil. We are reminded at varying points that throughout the city of Moscow there plays constant music, and throughout the course of the novel, a great deal of which centers around the events at the Variety Theater where an alleged exposé on black magic has gone horribly awry. Not long after we learn that the name of the Devil is Woland he, as promised, moves in to the late Berlioz’s apartment, evicting, in the process, his roommate Styopa. Ivan, meanwhile, has been sent to a madhouse, where he is soon discover he has been made the neighbor of an author who calls himself the Master, who then relates a story of winning the lottery, pouring forth all his efforts into his book on Pontius Pilate, and the resulting condemnation of the critics. Throughout the course of all of this, the Devil and his retinue of servants proceed to absolutely torment the unbelieving citizens of Moscow, personally traumatizing all those who involve themselves with Apartment No. 50 in any way, shape, or form, and causing an entire crowd of citizens at the Variety Theater to run out into the street half-naked. In an Emperor’s New Clothes-style trick, the women are welcomed up to the stage to exchange their old shoes and dresses and perfumes for new ones, seemingly exquisite Parisian fashions, which are revealed to be mere illusion on the street; in true Mephistophelian fashion, Woland causes money to rain from the ceiling of the theater, which results in chaos across the city as twelve hours later the heavily-spent bills are revealed to be nothing more than the labels of soup cans or other pieces of garbage, or, in a seperate monetary incident designed to secure Apartment 50, foreign currency, for which a character is arrested and interrogated. As Woland runs rampant, seemingly completely uncensored, we meet his assistants, of whom there are three worth particular note. Like any alchemical triad, they combine to form a greater whole (that is to say, the miniature army of the Devil) but each in his turn serves a particular function.
The first, Korovyov-Fagot, has a name which not only means ‘bassoon’, but which changes depending on who’s asking or speaking—sometimes Korovyov, sometimes Fagot, the dual meaning of his name is that of ‘trickster’ in French or Italian. Throughout the course of the novel he tends to play the role of tattling accuser, something also picked up at times by Behemoth; he will later prove important when it comes to making guiding suggestions to a particular character towards whom the Devil and his friends seem to show some compassion. Korovyov-Fagot also seems in some ways to be one of the most and least dangerous members of the group; while he is not shown directly interfering with the citizens of Moscow nearly as often or as physically as, say, Behemoth or Azazello, he speaks to all of them in an overly-familiar way and often makes a point of digging up thoughts and emotions that they would rather bury. At the novel’s end, when the clear sky of night reveals the true forms of these spirits, Korovyov-Fagot will be revealed to be a knight. In terms of the alchemical triad, he represents the airy Mercury.
The second we meet, Behemoth, is a tremendous black cat. As described by Jung, animals tend to represent unconscious functions which have not yet been assimilated or recognized fully into consciousness. A fat hedonist with a love of food and liquor, Behemoth is a consummate clown who cannot manage to stay serious for even a paragraph of the novel. By the book’s end, he will have earned an association with fire, moreso than any of his comrades, because it is he who eventually sets fire to Apartment 50 and he who is noted for carrying about a primus stove. For these and other reasons, the clearest being the passive connection of the cat to the Sulphuric principle in alchemy, Behemoth is the Sulphur of our triad, and will later be revealed to be a beautiful demonic pageboy, the greatest of clowns who is paying a debt to the Devil by accompanying him on the Moscow adventure.
Finally, then, we come to know Azazello, the crackshot who can hit a playing card hidden beneath a pillow on any one of its spots. A short fellow with fiery red hair and a walleye, he carries a chickenbone in his pocket rather than a pen, and is known as the “demon of the waterless desert.” In the apocryphal Book of Enoch, Azazel is known either as a scapegoat for those fallen angels who were lured to the earth by love of women, or as the angel who taught men the art of metallurgy and women the art of face-painting, thus forever changing the nature of the physical world. He is also said to have created mirrors. At the novel’s end, his appearance is revealed to be far less comical than the people of Moscow had been lead to believe; his eyes are black, empty and cold, and his face is white. This demon, the “demon of the waterless desert,” represents Sal, based on his connection to the material world and the anima, Margarita.
The fourth member of our party, Hella, is of less significance, and is of use mostly as a Vanna White replacement during the Variety sequence; it is, however, worth noting that, being a stark-naked witch in the company of the Devil, Hella frequently represents the chthonic and poisonous side of the anima, who is, of course, embodied in the novel’s heroine, the noble Margarita. As Margarita is in many ways the Mary figure (Margaret/Gretchen in Faust), Hella exists only as her hyper-sexualized shadow, and as a warning to the reader: we see that it is a possible fate of any witch to become a permanent servant of the devil, and it is a risk which Margarita is taking following her appearance in the book.
Married to a man she does not love, Margarita is an affluent and deeply sad woman who is separated from her love, the Master, and who thinks he has fallen out of love with her. One day taking leave of her maid Natasha, she meets Azazello in the park, and is eventually convinced by him to meet and do a favor for his employer, a foreigner; he gives Margarita a cream and instructs her to remove her clothes and apply it at exactly midnight, and she does, indeed. In an utterly sublime scene which marks an end to the first half of the novel, where the unbelieving citizens of Moscow scramble and scrape for any explanation which could possibly put some rational boundary on the chaos caused by Woland, we see for the first time someone who does not just accept the Devil and his magical goings-on, but embraces him. Alchemical readers will note in the following passage that the cream given her by the Salt of the Devil alleviates the rotten yellow of her color palette and replaces it with a combination of red and white.
The cream spread easily and seemed to be absorbed immediately. After several applications of the cream, Margarita looked in the mirror, and dropped the jar on the face of her watch, cracking the crystal. She closed her eyes, took another look, and burst into wild laughter.
Her eyebrows, which had been plucked thread-thin at the ends, had thickened and now arched evenly over her eyes, which had become green. There was no longer any trace of the tiny vertical line on the bridge of her nose which had first appeared back in October when the Master disappeared. Gone, too, were the yellowish shadows around her temples and the barely noticeable crowsfeet at the outer corners of her eyes. Her cheeks were suffused with a rosy blush, her forehead had become clear and white, and her hair-salon permanent wave had loosened.
There in the mirror, staring back at thirty-year-old Margarita, was a twenty-year-old woman with naturally curly black hair, showing her teeth and laughing unrestrainedly.
Having laughed her fill, Margarita swept off her robe, scooped up a generous glob of the light, greasy cream, and began rubbing it vigorously all over her body, which immediately became rosy and began to glow. Then the throbbing in her temple, which had been bothering her all evening, ever since her meeting with Azazello in Alexandrovsky Park, disappeared in a flash, as if a needle had been removed from her brain. The muscles in her arms and legs got stronger, and then Margarita’s body became weightless.
She gave a little jump and stayed suspended in the air, just above the carpet, then she felt a slow downward pull, and was back on the ground.
“Oh, what a cream! What a cream!” cried Margarita, throwing herself into an armchair.
The cream had transformed more than her appearance. Now her whole body, every part of it, surged with joy, and she felt as if tiny bubbles were prickling her all over. Margarita felt free, free of everything. In addition, she realized with utter clarity that her premonition of the morning had come true and she was leaving her house and her former life forever. But one thought from that former life still persisted, namely, that there was one last thing she had to do before embarking on the new and extraordinary something that was pulling her upwards, into the air. So, naked as she was, flying intermittently, she ran out of the bedroom into her husband’s study, turned on the lights, and rushed to the desk. On a sheet of paper torn off a pad, she wrote in pencil, quickly and boldly without any corrections, the following note:
Forgive me and forget me as quickly as you can. I’m leaving you forever. Don’t try to find me, it’s useless. I’ve become a witch because of the grief and the misfortunes that have befallen me. It is time for me to go. Farewell.
This beautiful scene—indeed, this beautiful chapter—represents, we will find, the bodily death of Margarita, who has already that day had the feeling that she will be leaving her house and never returning. The significance of houses and homes in this book is unspeakable, truly. The Devil claims the apartment of Berlioz and his roommate, killing one and sending the other to Yalta; the Master and Margarita experience their time of greatest bliss while living in the Master’s basement apartment, until he burns the manuscript in response to the harsh words of a critic and that same critic, Aloisy, then writes a false report to the authorities so he may have the apartment in which the Master resides; Ivan Bezdomny, one of the few unmolested survivors of the novel who survives unmolested because of his time in the madhouse and his acceptance of the ‘rational’ explanation for the events which put him there, has a name which means ‘homeless’; a great deal of the action revolves around the MASSOLIT writers’ house and the restaurant within, which will also eventually be destroyed while the Maître d’, who greeted Mercury and Sulphur pleasantly and attended to their every need, manages to escape the chaos with a pair of plundered swordfish. Though it is true that in works such as this, in mystical and spiritual works, cities tend to represent an inner state (Jerusalem, Mecca, Babylon, etc), and many of the residents of Moscow in this novel certainly do represent Bulgakov’s psyche, it is not Moscow with which Bulgakov is personally identifying, not Moscow which must be purified by the mystical experience of writing the novel. It is Apartment 50, the center of the chaos, the dwelling place of the Devil and his assistants, and the location which will play host to a grand infernal ball, where Margarita is made Queen. The anima, then, represented by Margarita, is taken from her home, from her original state of being and unmonitored but unconscious life, and brought into Bulgakov’s psyche that she might be better assimilated, and so that he might be then prepared for his own demise.
There is no limit, however, to that which Margarita could be said to represent. While she does strongly represent the anima, a fact which nearly goes without saying to all those even lightly versed in these subjects, she also provides the reader with the remarkable opportunity for a firsthand mystical experience. She is enlightened, made to ascend, by her experience with the Devil; her body is beautified and she leaves behind worldly cares in an incredibly luscious chapter where she flies her broom to meet Woland. One might say, in terms of Timothy Leary’s 8-circuit model of consciousness, that her acceptance of the Devil and her willingness to work with him has propelled her past the cares of circuits 1-4, and in to the shamanistic healing of circuit 5, and then into the infernal ball, a vision of circuit 6 neurogenetic history unfurling before her eyes, the means by which her compassion is tested before she can access the meta-programming level of circuit 7, which is what results in the liberation of the Master. Like all alchemists, Margarita has suffered greatly, and continues to suffer, for her duty at the ball, to welcome and shower attention upon all the infernal and damned guests, causes her great physical pain. At the end of the ball, she is made to drink the blood of Baron Maigel, who is shot in front of her by Azazello, and who is based on a real person who was later, in 1937, also shot to death.
Readers, this is dangerous business. Though of course it is easy to scoff at such a thing as coincidence made all the more likely by the political environment of the day, I urge us all to take to heart the lessons of the Muscovites imparted in this very book. The more we attempt to rationalize away as happenstance and coincidence the works of the unconscious, the more likely we are to slip on sunflower oil and find ourselves beheaded. Annushka, who is specifically called out by the author as being an omen of bad luck, makes another, later appearance and is revealed to live in the same building as Apartment No. 50; Azazello nearly kills her for her aborted attempt to steal a golden horseshoe given Margarita by Woland, but does not. One cannot help but think in retrospect that perhaps if Bulgakov had wanted to live, himself, he might have allowed Azazello to shoot this unlucky omen, and would have bade Behemoth to leave Apartment No. 50 unburned; but, to be fair, the story could not have gone any other way, and it is impossible to say with certainty if the events of Bulgakov’s life and impending death compelled him to write it, or if his writing of it influenced the unconscious enough that it fostered his sickness. Any occult-savvy reader who reads this novel, however, will doubtless have an uncanny feeling of realism in spite of its sometimes surreal or ludicrous goings-on; and any occult-savvy writer, who himself is familiar with the process of writing and symbolic interpretation, will see what Bulgakov did and do well to take his lesson to heart. Much as in Faust, it is the anima, Margarita, who is responsible for the liberation and ascension of the Master; representing as he does many of Bulgakov’s worse qualities, the writing of the novel was doubtless for Bulgakov a kind of psychological and spiritual purification, and it is something which the reader experiences firsthand upon reaching the end and seeing the liberation of the spirit of Pilate. Throughout all of this, it is the Devil who fulfills Margarita’s wish to free the Master; it is the Devil who acts towards the main characters as a psychopomp, guiding them from earth, to death, in one of the most luscious and beautiful death transitions ever written. It is also, most importantly, the Devil who has a conversation with the scribe of Yeshua Ha-Nostri, Levi Matvei, which reveals the true significance, the true meaning, of the Devil’s visit to Moscow, and the true meaning, then, of Bulgakov’s masterpiece.
“…What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid.”
And so, then, if it has not already, Bulgakov’s message is crystallized, and we are made to feel compassion for not just the Devil, but for Pilate, and all the foolish citizens of Moscow, much as Margarita is, despite warnings, unable to help herself but feel compassion for at least one of the dead. When one takes the structure of the novel for a representation of Bulgakov’s inner world and his relationship to the publishing world and oppressive environment of Moscow where he foresaw no future as a writer, it is nearly impossible to see The Master and Margarita as anything but the very clear communion of Bulgakov and the alchemical Devil, the avatar of the unconscious which is present in all of our psyches; but to what end, one must wonder, did he write this book he knew would be unpublished for years after his death, to which he referred as his ‘Sunset Novel’? History has left that unclear, but my suggestion is very simple. Bulgakov did not want to write a novel about the Devil, I do not think; I think he wanted, truly, to write a book about the redemption of Pontius Pilate, which is, in the end, what The Master and Margarita is about. That is what the Devil gave Bulgakov in exchange for writing The Master and Margarita. I am lead to this conclusion for two reasons: one, it is the Devil who tells the story of Pontius Pilate in the novel, as much as chapters of the Master’s novel which, though burned, is in fact restored by the Devil, who is in possession of multiple copies of the manuscript; and two, my own personal experience.
It does not take you 12 years to write a book whose contents are known to you; it takes you 12 years to write a book for which you’ve a vague concept, but no real clarity. I personally decided one day nothing more than “I would like to write an elegant literary work about a serial killer,” and I suspect perhaps that Bulgakov said to himself something similar— if not that he would like to write a book about Pontius Pilate, then perhaps he wanted to write a book about the extreme consequences of the atheism he saw growing around him. A theme as nebulous as ‘atheism in Moscow’ can lead to a wonderful story, but it can also lead to a great deal of trouble. Either way, it was a book which gave Bulgakov a great challenge over the years— a book which he, like the Master, burned in a moment of hopelessness. This theme, “manuscripts don’t burn,” is of great import in the book, and what is emphasized, ultimately, is the eternal nature of stories, which can never be truly halted by even the greatest of censorship. But the deeper theme, that which lies at the heart of the work, at the heart of every and any work near half as tremendous as this one, is that of the eternal nature of being; and it is that lesson which, like Christ, the Devil teaches the souls of the world, whether they listen or not. When a writer struggles with his work, when he wrestles the many-headed hydra of creativity, it can seem as though he is all alone— but there is another way. Astute readers of The Master and Margarita will note that, after the Master burns his first manuscript, he does not rewrite it— it is the Devil who reproduces it for him. Note again— Bulgakov burned his first copy of The Master and Margarita. Let this be a lesson to you, young writers: if you wish to write a masterpiece, you need only turn off the conscious left-brain need for control, and allow yourself guided utterly by the right.
I have only begun to barely touch upon the spiritual masterpiece which The Master and Margarita truly is; to do so in-depth would take an entire essay unto itself. Suffice to say it is required reading for anyone interested in communicating with his unconscious, as much as it is a cautionary tale for the literary-minded occultist. Alchemists and psychiatrists alike would do well to sit down with a copy with a close eye for symbolism, and they shall find swiftly not a wasted word. When Woland points “a black-gloved hand towards the other side of the river where countless suns were smelting the glass, and where the sky over these suns was thick with mist, smoke, and the steam from the city left incandescent by the day’s heat,” something within us sees far more than even that luscious image could communicate to our eyes; and it is that something which Bulgakov sought to understand, to catch in the black and white of print, that you and I and all the world might benefit from it, whether he knew it or not. Ultimately, Bulgakov’s goals for the creation of the novel do not matter: it is Woland’s goals which do, and if one is curious, one can always write a story to ask him, oneself.
- THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD, BY DAVID BOWIE
In the corner of the morning in the past
I would sit and blame the master first and last
All the roads were straight and narrow
And the prayers were small and yellow
And the rumor spread that I was aging fast
Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree
And I looked and frowned and the monster was me
-”The Width of A Circle,” The Man Who Sold the World, David Bowie
Oh, David Bowie. We’ll be having an entire long and rambling essay about this genius of an occult artiste quite soon, but for purposes of this article I want to focus on his third studio album, The Man Who Sold the World.
For those of you who were hitherto unaware, David Bowie was a crazy occultist. It may not be clear if you’re just in it for his amazingly catchy tunes and flamboyant stage personas, but the more you roll up your sleeves and really listen to his lyrics, the more you realize he was tapping into the unconscious in a very serious way. Released in 1970 by who else but Mercury Records (because, again, let us never forget the universe’s deeply self-satisfied sense of humor), The Man Who Sold the World was the follow-up to Bowie’s fairly successful Space Oddity, whose one-hit wonder, as pointed out by those lovable fellows on Last Podcast On The Left, probably would have proved Bowie’s only hit if not for his occult studies. Though the hosts of the aforementioned series credited Hunky Dory with its opening track of “Changes” as being the moment of his transition, greater attention needs to be paid by any interested occult artist to the album which preceded it and the types of songs we find within. I maintain that the songs on his third studio album were the reason for David Bowie’s success, for the incredible power of the Messiah story of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and for the tragic nature and timing of his death at the age of 69 just this past year.
The first song, “The Width of a Circle,” is the gateway by which we (and David Jones, the birth name of the performer in question) enter the unconscious. David opens the song with the bitter lamentation that, just as the protagonist of “Amazing Grace” was once blind, up to this point he has received no spiritual satisfaction or material reward for the intensity of his spiritual endeavors; indeed, he simply feels his life progressing without any actual progress— until he meets the Spirit Mercurius, so often found in relation to trees (similar, again, to Yesod) and realizes that the Spirit is also him. With the help of his guiding Self, David receives spiritual advice in the form of a literary recommendation from the Sulphuric principle (“So we asked a simple blackbird/ who was happy as could be/ but he laughed insane/ and quipped ‘Kalil Gibran’”), which is either the cause of or concurrent with his experience of the Spirit of God in every man. The song as a whole is long and so complete a psychedelic experience unto itself that one truly needs no acid to appreciate it, and could separate it from the rest of the album as a shining example of the Self and the Devil in music— indeed, its very title, “The Width of A Circle,” could be said to be a reference to the completed Self, to the transcendent function which David is trying to describe in this song, which so often represents itself in symbols of roundness and wholeness, like stones, gems, and circles. Eventually, the David of the song begins to absent his unconscious, ending his psychedelic experience/his dive into the abyss of mysticism to again dwell in consciousness, but in the process he has ‘smashed [his] soul and traded [his] mind’–that is to say, he has seen the diviso of the Self into the holy quaternity, and has, as a result, finally successfully traded the left-brained ego of David Jones for the right-brained nous of David Bowie. We are then treated to something which, so far as I can tell, most people miss: the acknowledgment that the song you have listened to is a magic spell.
And the moral of this magic spell
Negotiates my hide
When God did take my logic for a ride
The coda, then, goes on to describe, presumably, the event mentioned in the final stanza of the previous section— Bowie being ‘laid by the young bordello who was vaguely half-asleep’ for which his ‘reputation swept back home in drag’. This young bordello, also the androgynous Spirit Mercurius, proves to be the guardian, of sorts, to the unconscious— much as David met him beneath a tree at the song’s beginning and as a result stumbled into a tremendous journey into the depths of his mind, in the second part of the song the Spirit Mercurius has ceased to reflect David and instead presents itself very clearly in the form of the chthonic archetype of the Devil. We see repeatedly throughout the course of the coda three elements: the heiros gamos, or sacred union, of David’s ego and the masculine Devil; the intense desire of David’s ego to pursue this union and plunge further into the unconscious; and the programmed condemnation of society’s many voices forming a chorus of doubters advising our protagonist to go back and repent.
He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said do it again, do it again
(Turn around, go back)
His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil’s love
The snake and I, a venom high
I said do it again, do it again
(Turn around, go back)
He refers to the Devil as a “spitting sentry, horned and tailed” for whom he has been waiting— that guardian of the gateway of the unconscious, the Devil, is not just a guard of its entrance, but a guide. Just as he proves guardian and guide for Bowie’s psyche, then, and yours and mine, he will also prove guardian and guide to the album— we have met him at the entrance, and he will follow us throughout each song, and, we will have the sense, not quite leave us when all is said and done.
“All The Mad Men” picks up where “The Width of A Circle” leaves off— that is, with Bowie fresh from his experience with his psyche and struggling with whether he had ought to integrate his vision or rationalize it away, like Ivan Bezdomny. He is confronted with the many mystics, philosophers and magicians of the past who have been condemned for their ideas and die in obscurity and illness despite the truth of their words; he faces a society where the saints are forced to linger underground. But David is no saint— rather, he is a singer, and so though he is himself heavy and imperfect, mad by the standards of society, he will rise up and risk his very life to pass the message of the unconscious from mind to mind. He sees the sanity, the altered perspective of those deemed ‘mad’, and sees that it is only insanity insofar as society is concerned—and he would rather be fulfilled among the mad men, talking to his wall with his foot (both a phallic object and that which we shod with shoes, or the symbolic foundation of our principles) than perish bleakly among the sad men. Note, also the song ends with the phrase “Zane, zane, zane, Ouvre le chien” which means ‘open the dog’ in French— Faust’s Mephistopheles emerges from the image of the black poodle. The song which follows, “Black Country Rock,” is of a similar vein; now that David Bowie has decided to make friends with the Devil and reside among history’s mad men, he invites you to follow him along by listening to his rock music, imbued as it is with the power of the ‘black country,’ the unconscious; you can rest up there, you might find ‘it’ (presumably the stone, the answer, God, etc.) there, and although some say the view is crazy, you may adopt another point of view— but if it’s too hazy, too unclear and uncertain for you, you can leave David Bowie and his friend, the Devil, just as you found them, and they’ll let you go perfectly fondly. Black Country Rock could also be considered a literal rock, that is, a stone, because his music is the platform by which he converses with the Devil and explores the unconscious.
The next song on the album, the fourth and final on the first side of the record, “After All,” is a song which consists of the advice which the Devil gives Bowie as they sit together upon Black Country Rock. “Please trip them gently, they don’t like to fall,” pleads the Devil to Bowie, doubtless giving Bowie the advice that he is better off being subtle about the transmission of his messages. But as we know from Hermetic wisdom, “As above, so below; as within, so without.” And so this song serves a peculiar dual purpose: it is the Devil’s advise to Bowie, while simultaneously consisting of Bowie’s advice to the audience.
“After All,” then, presumes that you, the listener, have implicitly agreed to linger in black country’s rock, since you’re still listening to the album. Thus, it functions as a plea to the enlightened listener, whose enthusiastic response to realizing the nature of the unconscious and the transcendent function might be to run about trying to shake awake his friends and spread the message of the psyche. This is, however, not recommended; Bowie advises a gentle awakening with the remembrance that we are all the same, all equally small and all equally unworthy of casting judgment or perpetuating anger. It is commonly the feeling of fundamentalist Christians, atheists, and all others who condemn the arts, alchemy, and the occult, that there is some “secret society” to which they are not being invited—hundreds of thousands, millions of people across the globe believe in absurd conspiracy theories which are obviously nothing more than the symbols of the neuroses of those who believe in them, things like ‘Project Monarch’ being nothing more than a gross misinterpretation of the efforts of the unconscious to awaken into consciousness. Reaching into his Nietzsche, Bowie tells us that “man is an obstacle, the saddest of clowns.” Let us remember that Prometheus must be freed from his rock— the Spirit must be purified from matter. The idea “man is an obstacle” is not a negativistic, anti-humanist view as some would misinterpret it; rather, it is an obstacle in the sense of a wall which must be scaled. We could not have the ecstatic experience of the freeing of the Spirit without the matter which enchains it.
“Live your rebirth, and do what you will. Forget what I’ve said, please bear me no ill.” The final line of the song is, once more, a plea, from the Devil to Bowie, and from Bowie to the listener, referencing the work of Crowley: the plea to realize that rebirth is possible in life, and to consider that one had ought to have a little sympathy for the devil, for lack of a better term. That man had ought to do what he will— and that does not mean “man had ought to do whatever he pleases,” but rather, man had ought to make his true, often unconscious will, awaken and manifest.
Because we must admit that the unconscious is as dark as it is light, if not far more darkness than all that, we are then faced with the wartime song, “Running Gun Blues.” The Vietnam War was a bleak time in Western history, and provides the background upon which Bowie’s shadow runs rampant in a way it will not again until the emergence of the fascistic, third-circuit Thin White Duke. For now, though, David’s latent fascination with mass murder and genocide peers through the veil of the song, and serves, doubly, as a metaphor— he is killing his egos/perceptions of reality one by one, and those of the careful listeners, as well. Much as the journals of his schizophrenic half-brother provided some of the external imagery for this triumph of an album, so did the then-ongoing war— that does not make the album about schizophrenia any more than this song is really about war.
The following song marks the end to the internal war/massacre, ended by an omniscient supercomputer, the “Saviour Machine” of the song’s title, named Prayer by its creators. Prayer’s answer to war, to the chaos and violence of the unconscious, is to establish laws and make order of the universe. This is a concept I will elucidate in a further essay, which I refer to as The Observer, but which, called Tao, Kia, The Holy Spirit, Indra, or a multitude of other things, has taken many forms over the centuries but is formless. The Observer is of intense importance in an understanding of the psyche and the universe. It is that which is ‘I’ as opposed to ‘Me’. If you have experienced The Observer, have awakened it within you, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. It is The Observer whose observations cause the creation of the world. It is The Observer which is the non-temporal, non-spatial experience of 8th Circuit consciousness when set free from its earthly bonds; and it is The Observer who takes the role of the Savior Machine in David Bowie’s song, becoming both the first and last archon, Michael and Ialdaboath, whose observations order the world and cast into it souls.
I need you flying, and I’ll show that dying
Is living beyond reason, sacred dimension of time
I perceive every sign, I can steal every mind
This is as much an important lesson about the nature of The Observer as it comes into the minds of those humans who awake and become Super-men, and death as a whole. This album is a trip, and the trip is beginning to end— the ego-death is recovering and reality is again becoming ordered, and we emerge having had imparted to us a profound lesson, a tremendous experience. But those of us who have read Dr. Timothy Leary’s book The Psychedelic Experience, or had one ourselves, will remember that a sexual phantasmagoria or feeling is often accompanied in the come-down— the viewer of the magic theater must be reborn, and to be reborn we must pass again through the Yab-Yum, that elaborate net of male/female couplings which produce us, which form the foundation of or fleshly being. Thus, the next song on the album, “She Shook Me Cold,” is a King Crimson-esque chronicle of an intense sexual experience had by Bowie, but its true meaning is of that of his experience with his anima, who we will meet again in her gentle, Great Mother aspect several albums later in the song “Lady Stardust”. For now, however, the anima appears as a sort of witch or succubus (let us recall Woland’s courtier, Hella), an insatiable nymphomaniac who demands of Bowie all his creative being and potential—she seeks to devour him, and he loves it. She sucks his dormant will back to life, awakening him; like the sun, and so many images of the self, and a woman who would be aptly named Lady Stardust, she has golden hair. This man who has broken so many hearts has never experienced anything like this, like his anima, like his unconscious. It is his true love, and he will search for its manifestation everywhere. The psychedelic experience has riveted him, the music has officially claimed him, and with his third album, he has crossed the barrier from ‘singer’ to ‘artist’.
The second to last song, then, is the title track, and the clearest allusion to the nature of the over all piece. I think it would suffice to simply copy and paste the lyrics to the song, but that would be lazy of me.
We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone
A long long time ago
Nearing the end of his mystical experience, whether drug or music-induced, Bowie meets the Devil once again, upon the stair, that which man uses to ascend and descend. Based on its placement in the album, it is easy enough to presume that this represents the Devil meeting him again on his return from his experience, but, as with the title track, it could just as easily be representative of Bowie’s over all experience. Either way, as in “The Width Of A Circle,” where the Spirit Mercurius gave way to the Devil, it is the Devil who meets Bowie again, approaching not as his Self, but as his guiding friend. All occultists who have or will have this experience, this recognition of the Devil’s friendliness, will regard it with some profound surprise and questioning, and will of course wonder to themselves if this archetype has not been condemned for good reason. The skeptical philosopher may say to themselves that the story of Prometheus, of Loki, of the Dragon, is all a bunch of outmoded nonsense which man has outgrown— but the Devil disagrees. The archetype will never die. “Oh no,” he says, “not me. I’ve never lost control. You’re face to face with the man who sold the world.”
When Bowie has reached the end of his conversation with the Devil, they shake hands, either as a sign of good faith, or, far more likely based upon the title of the song, they make a deal. It is important at this juncture to remember a point I reminded you of in the previous paragraph: that is, the Spirit Mercurius is simultaneously the Devil and the highest Bowie—the Black Star, if you will. What we have been privy to in the course of this album is Bowie first experiencing with clarity his idealized vision of himself, the highest form of his potential which lay in wait within his DNA and psyche and circumstance, to which he will be guided by the Devil, the unconscious, with which he makes the deal. The Spirit Mercurius is that which guides, and the final result— the Man Who Sold The World is both the Devil, and the non-existent David Bowie, a character inhabited by David Jones until his death in 2016. The album’s final song, then, “The Supermen,” is simultaneously an attempt by Bowie to understand the work of Nietzsche and the mythos of the Thule Society, and an attempt to fully encapsulate the theme of the overall work: that all men are Super-men, all men have within them giants chained to life. As all who have experienced the transcendent function, The Observer, the philospher’s Stone, etc., can attest, one is given a feeling of immortality, and Bowie describes this with the line “no death for the perfect man.” From that 8th Circuit, that high mountain of Keter, all men think with “uni-mind” and there is no room for the distinct experience of feeling or emotion because all are present simultaneously. Because of this, those indistinct spirits dwelling within it would give anything at all for a chance at the experience of death, if it meant they could but live. “The Superman” is far from Bowie’s best song, but it is an encouraging one in light of his recent passing.
What, then, of “Black Star”, and his untimely death? Well, I would fast-forward the conversation two albums, to Bowie’s second and arguably more linear allegory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. In the to-be-finished article we will discuss the themes of the album in depth, but for now I will summarize by pointing out that Ziggy Stardust is essentially a messiah figure and, like many a messiah figure, he suffers a death/rebirth experience. The final song on the album, titled “Rock and Roll Suicide,” is ostensibly about Ziggy being torn apart onstage by the clamoring fans begging him for his help in “Suffragette City”; the lyrics, however, are pertinent to Bowie, himself. Just as The Man Who Sold The World is the manner in which David Jones tapped into the true David Bowie, this fifth album is the manner in which David Bowie taps into Ziggy Stardust. He is operating at a very deep psychological level in the writing of this work; the writer writing about a writer writing, as we saw in The Master and Margarita, expressing itself in a slightly more subtle way, but with the same level of power. Thus, when, in “Rock and Roll Suicide”, the first lyrics we hear are
Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall to wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Ohhh, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide
we are forced to ask ourselves, is not every smoker who dies of cancer a suicide, truly? Is not the rock and roller’s surest form of suicide through drugs like tobacco, or worse? Bowie, like so many artists, succumbed to the treachery of time in tandem with vice— he predicted it, released it in the manner of a sigil which was lost in the unconscious, where it fomented. Much as Bulgakov predicted throughout the course of his life the manner of his death, so too did Bowie, with the otherwise beautifully uplifting “Rock and Roll Suicide”, presage with the talent of his pen the nature of his very demise. The question is but that of synchronicity, or causation—and whether or not there is any difference between the two.
A GLIMPSE OF GOETHE’S FAUST: THE DEVIL IN ART AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE ARTIST
I was hoping to have more than two examples in this essay, but to be frank these two were both such thorough and intensive examples that I suspect they will suffice for the average reader. Interested parties are encouraged to contact the author for further discussion or reading suggestions, though I will at some point likely produce a universal recommended reading list. Above, I have highlighted two deals with the Devil, though throughout the history of Western art and civilization there have been many, many more. What is it that is required of one who wishes to make such a deal? For that, I turn to the classic deal-within-a-deal, the be-all, end-all so far as Jung was concerned: Goethe’s Faust, for which we will be quoting the University of Toronto Press’s 1970, relatively prosaic edition. Like Job, God and the Devil make a bet over the soul of the main character; but, unlike Job, and more like Jesus wandering in the desert, Faust is made to be a willing participant. We know that the bet has been made, but Faust does not, and so when Mephistopheles arrives in his study, manifested from a black poodle, the professor is rightly suspicious.
Stop playing with the misery that gnaws at your life like a vulture. Any company, the meanest, will make you feel that you’re a man among men. Not that I propose to thrust you among riff-raff. I’m not one of the great, but if you care to join forces with me for life, I shall be happy to oblige you on the spot. I’ll be your companion and, if I suit, I’ll be your servant, your slave.
And what have I to do in return?
There’s plenty of time for that.
Not a bit of it. The devil’s an egoist and not disposed to help others free gratis. State your terms. You’re not the safest of servants.
I pledge myself to your service here and will always be at your beck and call. If we meet over there, you can do the same for me.
Over there is no concern of mine. If you can shatter this world to pieces, let the other come. My joys and sorrows belong to this earth and this sunlight. When I part with them, the rest can follow, whatever it is. There may be top and bottom in the other place; people may go on loving and hating. I simply don’t care.
I see no difficulty in that. Come, agree. My tricks will delight you. I’ll show you things no one has ever seen before.
You poor devil, what can you have to show me? Did the likes of you ever comprehend the mind of man and all its great endeavor. But come on. Perhaps you have food that never fills you; red gold that trickles through your fingers like quicksilver; a game at which you can’t win; a girl who while lying in the arms of one lover with the wink of an eye picks up someone else; honors that lift you to the seventh heaven and then go out like shooting stars. Come along with your fruit that rots in the hand when you try to pick it, and your trees that grow new leaves and shed them every day.
There’s nothing there that I don’t feel equal to. Entertainments like those are just in my line. But, my friend, the day will come when we shall want to relax and savor a good thing quietly.
If ever I lie down in idleness and contentment, let that be the end of me, let that be final. If you can delude me into feeling pleased with myself, if your good things ever get the better of me, then may that day be my last day. This is my wager.
And shake again. If ever the passing moment is such that I wish it not to pass and I say to it ‘You are beautiful, stay a while,’ then let that be the finish. The clock can stop. You can put me in chains and ring the death-bell. I shall welcome it and you will be quit of your service.
Consider what you’re saying. We shan’t forget.
Quite right. I haven’t committed myself wildly. If I come to a stop, if I stagnate, I’m a slave. Whether yours or another’s, what does it matter?
There’s the doctoral dinner this very day. I shall be there as your servant. But, to meet all emergencies, could I have a word in writing?
So you want it in writing, do you, you pedant? Don’t you know the worth of a man, the worth of a man’s word? Isn’t it enough that my given word is to rule my life for the rest of my days? I know that, when you see the world raging along like so many torrents, you may well ask why a mere promise should bind me. But this is the way we are. We cherish the illusion and cling to it, it keeps us clear, and clean-spirited, and responsible. But a parchment all filled out and stamped is a spectre that everyone dreads. The written word dies, leather and sealing-wax take over. What do you want, you devil? Bronze, marble, parchment, paper? Shall I write with a style or a chisel or a pen? Take your choice.
Why do you get so heated and exaggerate so when you start speechifying? Any scrap of paper with do. Only you must sign with a drop of blood.
Did you catch that? Have you understood what I have been trying to show you? In order to make a deal with the Devil, you must produce artwork for him— produce artwork in which a part of your Self makes a deal with him. For Bulgakov, this was Margarita; for David Jones, it was David Bowie; for Goethe, it was Faust. The ‘contract’ which one produces, signed in blood, is a work of art. The devil favors writing (whether music, prose, comics, etc.) over other forms of art because it is through writing that a linear chronology is developed— the Devil is the unconscious made conscious, therefore he favors that which best articulates the unconscious, just as infants are unconscious and therefore develop memory, which makes conscious a narrative of the child’s growing life. Man and the Devil, all things which are initially unconscious, favor that which best brings them into the world, into light. Into relief.
For what is the Devil to man, if not relief? Relief from struggle, from pain, from the burden of loneliness? The introverted man is at pains to be relieved of the sheer arrogance of living, for he knows he can only know so much. But the Devil knows a great deal more— above all, he knows you. And, as the Lord commands: “Man, know thyself.”
The struggle with the Devil is to prevent him from stagnation. One must fix him without petrifying him, as the Spirit Mercurius is petrified in the fairy tale of Faithful John as recounted by Mary-Louise von Franz in Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. The second struggle with the Devil is to avoid succumbing to desire. The unconscious wishes nothing more than to be known; to be experienced. One must attack the thing with motive pure, as it were, and patience true, for trials and tests will ensue. I refer readers interested in working with the Spirit Mercurius to the story of Khidr and Moses recounted frequently by Jung and summarized best in his magnificent essay, The Philosophical Tree.
Khidr, the messenger of God, at first frightens Moses by his misdeeds. Considered as a visionary experience or as a didactic tale, the legend sets forth the relation of Moses on the one hand to his shadow, his servant Joshua ben Nun, and on the other hand to the self, Khidr. The lapis and its synonyms are likewise symbols of the self. Psychologically, this means that at the first meeting with the self all those negative qualities can appear which almost invariably characterize an unexpected encounter with the unconscious. The danger is that of an inundation by the unconscious, which in a bad case may take the form of a psychosis if the conscious mind is unable to assimilate, either intellectually or morally, the invasion of unconscious contents.
-Jung, Carl G. “The Philosophical Tree”, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung volume 13, “Alchemical Studies”, page 321.
This can also take the form of a physical invasion— I think it is safe to say if you spend your life perpetually assured that some horrific fate shall befall you, then you all but guarantee it shall befall you. You have visited the Oracle of Delphi within your own heart, and the Sybil there has prophesied your demise. If you are convinced that you will die of inherited kidney disease at the same age as your father, then by God, your kidneys will bow to your wishes just in time for you to finish your masterpiece! If you pick up smoking and write a song called “Rock and Roll Suicide,” don’t be surprised when black star melanoma develops and kills you! The relatives of a very dear friend of mine was convinced a mugging would befall them if ever they visited New York (perhaps specifically Times Square), and by God, the first time my very dear friend convinced those relatives to come visit New York, they were, naturally, mugged. Consider, wouldn’t you, the sheer, staggering odds of such a thing! That mugger born and raised to be the sort of man he was, in that city, at that time, picked exactly those people. Consider the level of orchestration required! Of course, life is full of such strange synchronicities, rising again and again, and I have heard it postulated that synchronicity as a phenomenon is due to the right brain, which orchestrates various situations based on its own motives, while the left brain is left to grasp, then, for an explanation and so develops a narrative of experience. If there are non-temporal faculties available to the human brain, as there certainly are to consciousness, then those non-temporal faculties almost certainly dwell in the intuitive right brain, based on those above-mentioned split brain patient experiments. There is a video out there by C. G. P. Grey which is fantastic, at the time of this writing available on the platform Youtube. When we are talking about things like our connection to the unconscious, the Devil, the psychopomp, etc., we are something which seems to be dwelling quietly alongside us, waiting for acknowledgment. This entity waits in us, watches us, and taps in to a deep form of awareness which allows it to be a sort of judge to us. We truly do judge ourselves, and yet we are judged by something greater than ourselves, for we are part of something so much greater than ourselves that it bears no comparison, no proper encapsulation. And yet it asks, all the same, that encapsulation! The silent right brain is the dwelling place in noble, mindful men of Logos, of Nous; and, as Terrance McKenna puts it in his fantastic lecture, “On Alchemy, The Occult, And The Hermetic Tradition,” Logos seems to have little more than the goal of manifestation. Language wishes to become visible; to be made thoroughly visible, to be experienced, and to achieve something greater still.
What does this have to do with you, the thinking man? The thinking man owes a duty for his thoughts; that is the true meaning of the word, ‘duty’. The tax on your life is that you contribute something to your life. Blossom greatly; grow rich with fruit; feed the Lord who passes by, or, better yet, recognize that you yourself are the Lord and have the power to transform rocks to bread, dust to water. You have every power to create within you. As Mephistopheles says to Faust, slyly referring to the fact that they are themselves figures in a play taking place in the mind of their author, Goethe,
Good enough. There’s only one thing I’m afraid of. Time is short and art is long. Take my advice. Engage a poet. Let him turn on his imagination and load you with all the virtues and distinctions—the courage of the lion, the speed of the stag, the hot blood of Italy, the endurance of the North. Let him solve the problem of combining generosity with cunning, and plan a young man’s impulsive love-affair for you. I’d like to know the gentleman. I’d call him Mr. Microcosm.
Mephistopheles, like all Devils, speaks in heady meta-fiction and often seems to be directing his speech to Goethe, or even to the reader, as much as to Faust or anyone else. Naturally he has more than his fair share of soliloquies, but the fact of the matter is that, to the intrepid and alert alchemist, Faust is essentially an instruction manual, and the above is the key. These characters are all facets of Goethe’s psyche operating in the microcosm of his poetic mind, captured, then, upon the page; and Mephistopheles, naturally, knows it, in the same way that he knows Faust is doomed one way or another, that Christ is doomed one way or another, that you are doomed one way or another. But why not make a choice and employ the active principle of the unconscious, that one might learn better how to strive, and pass down a legacy of consciousness rather than a simply genetic legacy?
The nature of this agreement is universal, inescapable whether it is brought into conscious awareness and made advantageous, or not— it is the agreement of trees which, in nature, feel they have grown enough. It is the agreement of animals which feel they have grown enough, of grass, of insect colonies. That which reaches the highest potential of its growth and stagnates there must inevitably give way to entropy, must fall apart. Death is naught but change, and when man loses the wherewithal to make change, change is forced upon him by the unconscious. When we find we can no longer accept the condition of the world, we slip on sunflower oil and glimpse the moon as we are beheaded; when we say to the moment, “You are beautiful, stay a while,” we are telling our deepest inner selves what we wish from Eternity, and we risk, then, making it our eternity. For Goethe, and for mankind, indeed, striving is everything. Bulgakov’s Yeshua declares that cowardice is one of the greatest vices, and Pilate emphasizes it is nothing less than the greatest vice: the characters of The Master and Margarita are haunted by their cowardice, by the moment when they ceased to strive, when they gave into their fear or their comfort, and ultimately they are punished or rewarded for it by no one but themselves. This is true of all art, and it is true of all life; but one should live life with a mind towards making the unconscious achieve consciousness. It is, after all, our duty; the price of the contract we made, the covenant we hold, by sheer virtue of our birth: a contract made, a covenant held, not just with the gatekeeper of the cosmic unconsciousness, whether holy or chthonic, but the universal mind, itself.
Come again next week for the fourth and final part of the Devilry Series, and an in-depth examination of Writing and Alchemy.
M. F. Sullivan is the author of the tragic DELILAH, MY WOMAN, and is hard at work at ALBEDO, an alchemical fairy tale within a Faustian nervous breakdown within a speculative literary novel. Subscribe to the blog for weekly essays on psychology, spirituality and the occult, and click here to buy DELILAH, MY WOMAN.