Wielding the Sword of Truth
There is that famous saying that “pen is mightier than sword”. A common interpretation to this statement goes like this: a pen is a better weapon, may it be for offense or defense, than any weapon for destruction. But another interpretation is also apt for the statement: the pen of the writer, and the output it produces, shall be able to withstand any blow from any weapon, however destructive, that tries to destroy or repress the ideas it tries to share to the world.
Throughout the world, through countries’ experiences of political turmoil and all the civil repression that comes along with most of it, time only seems to lend more and more credibility to this statement. “Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn? ” (Bulgakov, 1967), this is a much-quoted line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It was spoken by Satan (in the person of a foreign professor/magician named Woland) to The Master, a writer who burned his completed novel in an effort to keep the Soviet authorities from reading it.
Being one of Bulgakov’s main theme in the novel, it highlights the important role of writers: observing and writing about the social situation, amidst all the threat of a repressive and controlling government, with the object of sharing to others what the writer has seen and not just putting it away, never to be read, out of fear of arrest or torture—to shed the light of freedom in the darkness of an unfree world. This theme was said to be based on Bulgakov’s personal experience of burning the early version of The Master and Margarita in fear of punishment from Soviet authorities.
Thus it can be said that The Master has some autobiographical element from the author itself. The period when the novel was set corresponds to the time that Bulgakov wrote it: 1930’s, with the communist Bolsheviks reigning over all of Soviet Russia, and Stalin as the head of the said ruling party and of the country. This period was characterized by severe government control, not just on the economy, but on almost every move of the citizen of its country.
And while in this time Russia is deemed to deliver good results, as it is considered as one of the superpowers of the world, internally, the system is mired with conflict and threat-and-control-subjected citizens. Those people who challenge the status quo and the government’s way of running the country are immediately taken into custody and sent to psikhushka where they are to be imprisoned as to stop them from “polluting” other people’s minds. Thus, to avoid imprisonment and torture, several writers, Bulgakov included, chose to destroy their deviant literary works.
However, in writing the second draft of the novel, and with it having the abovementioned theme, it seems that Bulgakov has realized the futility and repugnancy of destroying one’s own work in favor of a trouble-free existence. This is reflected in the much-quoted line and in Woland’s returning of The Master’s burned novel. The scene and the theme corresponding to it signify the author’s revised stand that a person whose eyes had been opened and exposed to the truth has then the responsibility of spreading this truth to the society, no matter how much that person is to be oppressed.
That person has to have the courage to bump through the walls that the oppressors build before them because he/she has been entrusted with a great responsibility. It is cowardly for that person to deny the world of his/her knowledge since with it; the person denies the world the chance to know what they ought to know. At the same time it is cowardly, destroying one’s own truth-revealing work is also futile since even though the output has been destroyed, thus removing any implicating physical evidence of deviance, the idea is still on the person’s, and perhaps of other people’s minds.
Bulkagov, upon making the statement about the futility of manuscript burning, sends a hopeful and encouraging message, most especially to writers to shed their fears and rally for truth even amidst the threat of retribution from the authorities who seek to repress the truth by repressing the writers’ and the people’s ideas. Knowing the truth, it is said, is a privilege of everybody. Therefore, those who have initially been exposed to it have to extend this privilege to others—the truth becomes their responsibility.
And since this world of ours there are people who try to deny this privilege to persons other than themselves—those autocrats who usually believe that common people deserve to know only what they choose to divulge, however small a peek to the whole picture it is—the truth-knowing person, in this case, the writer needs to whip out his pen and use it as the weapon that shall thwart the repression of truth. True, the pen is mightier than the sword. But the pen is only as strong as the courage and nerve of the writer that wields it.
By the bye, a pen is only a pen; a written paper is still only a paper; easily destroyed by fire or any other means, but the idea and observation of a writer, or any person for that matter, remains his/hers alone—irrepressible, and once acknowledged, indestructible by any controlling authority. Unless the writer sharpens his/her pen with courage for the revelation of truth, however sad to say, in that case, the pen shall forever lose to the swing, no, even from the mere presence of the sword of repression.