Where honesty ends and denial starts - literature, life, therapy

Literature has this unique feature of offering us a safe space to experience emotions and to identify with the characters we read about. We experience emotions alongside the characters, but without the consequences – the fear is felt, but the reader can always detach when it becomes too much. The excitement and joy are there with little risk of disappointment or loss.


I am proposing a brief exploration of little-known literary characters. The purpose of this is to shed some light on their struggles, see how we could apply learnings in our lives and how counselling and therapy can enable this journey.

Our character today - Who is A.A.?

Without further ado, let us have a look at the character Archibald Archibaldovich – will refer to him as A.A. - from The Master and Margarita, authored by Mikhail Bulgakov. Most of the story revolves around Satan's presence in Moscow for a couple of days and the calamities his assistants cause.

Archibald is the manager of the restaurant of the writer's house - Griboedev. In this sequence, A.A. notices the two visitors - Satan's assistants - walking into his restaurant. He connects the dots between the description some witnesses gave regarding the perpetrators of recent calamities (explosions) across the city and the appearance of the two who had just walked into the restaurant. He understands quickly what is about to happen based on what had happened a couple of days before in similar places. His presence in the novel is scarce but the sequence that makes him stand out for me is quoted below: 

"Ah, how intelligent Archibald Archibaldovich was! And his powers of observation were perhaps no less keen than those of the writers themselves! Archibald Archibaldovich knew about the seance at the Variety, and about many other events of those days; he had heard, but, unlike the others, had not closed his ears to the word ‘checkered’ and the word ‘cat’. Archibald Archibaldovich guessed at once who his visitors were. And, having guessed, naturally did not start quarrelling with them.

"A knowledge of the latest events, and above all Archibald Archibaldovich’s phenomenal intuition, told the chief of the Griboedov restaurant that his two visitors’ dinner, while abundant and sumptuous, would be of extremely short duration. And his intuition, which had never yet deceived the former freebooter, did not let him down this time either. " 

A.A. and denial mechanisms

Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita at a time when many of his compatriots were seeing but looked the other way, heard but refused to understand. They were closing their eyes and ears. We are not here to judge those people, for those times were barbarous. But the phrase "close his ears" has a certain sense of immortality. Closing one's ears and eyes to what is out there is not a behaviour specific to Bulgakov's place and age. It is a denial reaction to whatever does not make sense, triggers discomfort and results in psychological pain.

Since it is timeless, why not consider it and see how it manifests in our age and space? It is a denial of what one is experiencing, hearing, seeing - denial of one's reality. The new and unknown pushes one to choose between at least two painful options. The first option is to face reality and not close your senses despite the discomfort. There are consequences for choosing this option – assessing, taking action, making changes, and re-adjusting to the new reality. The process is painful and energy-consuming. The person is aware of this, hence the reluctance. That is why some need to hit rock bottom before going there. And those might be the blessed ones - some might never get to do anything about it.

The other option is going along with the narrative, ignoring reality, hoping that what you perceive will go away, and miraculously hoping for an inversion to happen. An inversion is when one hopes that what one perceives as real will become a momentary misjudgment and what one perceives as made-up might be reality.

Practical application of A.A.'s life experience in our lives

1. A.A. knew about the recent events because these were not secret across Moscow. Authorities tried to cover them but failed in doing so. It was not something only a few knew about. A.A. is by no means a distinguished character in the society he lives in. He is not endowed with special attributes and the author's praise for his intelligence comes as a result of his spirit of observation, not intellectual capacities.

His position in society brings him some advantages, but just because he is willing to pay attention to the cues he is getting. It is his groundedness and trust in his instinct, his capacity to observe reality, and his honest lens through which he engages with the world that set him apart. He finds the courage to acknowledge reality, even when it sounds terrifying or crazy. A.A. adjusts his actions and makes decisions based on reality rather than living in denial. 

How is this relevant for you? Perceiving reality and admitting what is in front of you is not reserved just for some. It is a matter of courage, available for each of us if we are ready to engage genuinely with our senses. 

2. A.A. did not have a clear picture of everything that was happening. He did not have all the pieces of the puzzle in place, but he understood the imminent danger, did not ignore it and trusted his instinct. 

How is this relevant for you? You do not need to wait until it all becomes clear before taking action and experiencing the effect. You never know where exploring inner struggles might take you. Waiting to have it all together before taking any steps will keep you in a perpetual state of confusion and hesitancy. In A.A.’s case, it was external circumstances that were a danger. In your case, you might be struggling with an internal conflict. Your instinct might not always be accurate but it can be a resourceful tool that you do not want to silence when is telling you something might be off. It might not always be as dramatic as it was in A.A.’s case but it might lead to alleviating emotional pain or getting a better understanding of your experience and reality. 

3. Others did close their ears. Do not expect others to have the same approach or to agree with you. Blaming them does not help. Maybe they are genuinely not experiencing what you are. Maybe they numbed their senses, or they are missing the courage to admit it. So what? Should that stop you?

How is this relevant for you? We appreciate being acknowledged, valued, and validated but that should not be our guide in life. Being honest with oneself is always the better choice than going along with the flow, especially in the long term.

How will counselling and psychotherapy help? 

Denying your true feelings, emotions, and perceptions is painful and takes a lot of energy that could otherwise be used differently. Thinking that it is not "that bad", that "it will go away with time" or that "everyone goes through this" is just a short-term fix. Look again at point three - others did close their ears. That is why many of them denied being in danger until the restaurant exploded. They were not willing to understand what was happening because it was not aligned with their conception of the world - Satan and speaking cats do not exist. 

Denial and repression of your inner experience can take different forms. One of the common ways to do that is through numbing. Substance abuse or excessive focus on work are just two of the most spread forms of numbing. Leisure, travelling, and entertainment can become ways to avoid pain. Anything can become a numbing tool if it serves the purpose of shifting away the focus from the pain. These things are not bad in and of themselves, they become a blocker when used as a displacement for not dealing with the underlying issue. 

So, what can you do about it? How can counselling and psychotherapy help? Stop denying reality and start addressing the issue. You might have blind spots, but that is perfectly fine. Like in point two, A.A. did not have the whole puzzle together but that did not stop him from taking action to protect himself. 

In best-case scenarios, denying reality and what you are dealing with can lead to missed opportunities. In the worst of cases, there is no limit. You might experience living a life that you feel is not yours and always wearing a mask. A professional counsellor or therapist can help you understand what is happening and how to approach the situation without sweeping it under the rug. For A.A. did not close his ears and saved his life. What can opening your senses and trusting your instinct do for you?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Surbiton KT6 & Central London EC4Y
Written by Robert Preda, BSc. Psychology, MNCPS Accred, ACC, BPS | Counsellor
Surbiton KT6 & Central London EC4Y

Robert Preda is a Transactional Analysis Counsellor, based in London.
The series entitled "Literature, Life and Therapy" aims to draw parallels between the inner world of fictional characters and our everyday experiences.
Learn about them and you'll learn about yourself!
Find out more about counselling: https://www.seekandbecome.com/counselling/

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