Bulgakov was a master of allegory. Born in the Ukraine and trained to be a doctor, he switched careers in 1919 and became a writer in the middle of one of the most dramatic transitions in human history: the Bolshevik revolution. He did not like what he saw, so he put his thoughts on paper.

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Previous article: Spin Doctor: The Power Of Allegory – Part 1

Nothing is set in stone. Those things that are, end up eroded or shattered. Because time is stronger than stone.

In Part 1 I showed how Agora was not really a movie about Hypatia’s persecution by the Christians in 400 AD. Yes, the story was set in that era, chronicling historical events. But it was an allegory too.

It was in fact a cautionary tale about the rise of present-day radical Islam and how it persecutes science, women and progress.

More Than One Meanings

Author Mikhail Bulgakov wrote most of his work in metaphor and allegory in an attempt to avoid Soviet censorship (image: wikipedia.org)

Like all good allegories, Agora was written and shot in such a way that the connection was not blaring. It was in fact camouflaged in a manner that enabled it to fly under the political radar of religious and political sensitivities. Reminiscent of the subtlety and hidden meaning inherent in the works of author and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (The White Guard, Heart of a Dog), who wrote during Joseph Stalin’s reign, it addressed the human element rather than the political one, refraining from causing an uproar, delivering its message quietly and discreetly to those with a knack for connecting the dots. Bulgakov would have probably approved.

Bulgakov was a master of allegory. Born in the Ukraine and trained to be a doctor, he switched careers in 1919 and became a writer in the middle of one of the most dramatic transitions in human history: the Bolshevik revolution. He did not like what he saw, so he put his thoughts on paper, offering the world one of the most incisive representations of early Soviet society.

His run under the Soviet radar was short. Though initially Stalin supported him, paradoxical as that was, the propaganda machine eventually caught up with him, banning his work. Many of his books and stories were published posthumously, in the 60′s. One of them, The Master and Margarita, is now considered one of the best novels of the 20th century.

Agora may not be in the same league as The Master and Margarita, but it makes one hell of a statement. It points to a pernicious way of thinking via uncompromising allegory.

And via history. This is not a work of fiction after all. It may be spruced up here and there, but it is based on fact.

Fact is a tremendous advantage. A historical setting provides not just a story but also a case study, telling the tale of nasty things not as they could happen one day, but as they did happen, step by step, in eras similar to our own, with characters and attitudes similar to today’s.

Speak Deftly…

Sometimes it is good to be ambiguous. It helps everyone figure things out for themselves.

So here we are, examining allegorical stories that address reality, dressing up our themes in ways that enable them to fly under the political radars of the angry and hateful. One would think we were past that, but we are not. No matter the age or political system, there is always someone who takes offence at something, forcing others to respond, sometimes directly, through open confrontation, other times deftly, with stealth and patience. Thought-provoking communication may be indirect and time consuming, but it is one of the greatest assets of human interaction. Spelling things out is good only for certain activities and procedures, not for all of them, least of all for engaging one’s imagination and prowess. Sometimes one needs to remain ambiguous. It helps everyone figure things out for themselves, while letting sleeping dogs lie.

…And Let Others Make Fools Of Themselves

All one has to do is let the zealots open their mouths and put their foot in it

Our battle with self-righteousness says a great deal about the groups under whose radars we are flying. Their reaction to criticism, should they get wind of it, which they eventually do – naturally so, otherwise there would be no point in criticizing them in the first place – brings them to light. The more forceful and indignant they become, the more they reveal their true colors. All one has to do is let the zealots open their mouths and put their foot in it, and the chaff is separated from the wheat, for lack of a better phrase.

Sometimes they keep quiet, not reacting in any way. They have realized that laying low is often to one’s advantage. So let them. By laying low and trying not to show their true colors, they hand over the discussion to others.

Either way, they lose. It may take a while, but the zealots always get weeded out. The patch is never fully weed-free, because weeds keep coming back, but with every new that grows another one is deracinated and thrown away. And the garden pushes on.

Bulgakov’s work identifies this premise. Not to give away any of his stories, let me just say that his endings are not Hollywood material, where everyone drives off into the sunset. Instead people suffer in the course of events and issues are not fully resolved. But the hope is always there, and so is the ability to weather a storm. The experience shapes the heroes in a number of ways and the human spirit shines in the wake of challenge, inviting others to be patient, brave and determined to outdo whatever disturbs them. All by way of deft allegory.

In the final part I will identify the advantage of using historical case studies and letting time be the judge of one’s actions.