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Joy in Eternal Recurrence: The Unexpected Comedy of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers

“Deep is the well of the past.  Should we not call it bottomless?”

So begins the Prelude to Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers.  He answers this opening query with an emphatic yes—yes, if the past into whose well we are descending is that of humanity alone, it is right and just to call it bottomless.  For, to our chagrin, “the deeper we delve and the farther we press and grope into the underworld of the past, the more totally unfathomable become those first foundations of humankind, of its history and civilization, no matter to what extravagant lengths we may unreel our plumb line.”  Apprehension overtakes us as we, pursuing the mystery of human existence, descend still deeper, “because what is inscrutable has a way of teasing our zeal for placing it under scrutiny; it offers us only illusory stations and goals, behind which, once we reach them, we discover new stretches of the past opening up.”[1]  And why should we not waver and grow faint, why should we not conclude that we are caught in a nightmare, as each origin turns out to be a waystation pointing to still more profound depths?

To enter the world of Mann’s Joseph novels, then, is to enter a nightmare.  It is not for nothing that he calls the journey on which he embarks in writing them “a descent into hell.”[2]  If we are to inquire into the depths of the human past, we must descend into the world of matter, and see how soul came to be mixed with such formless, sluggish stuff—that is, how the world came to be created.  For Mann’s world, predicated on a gnostic creation myth, is a mistake; it is the consequence of sin.  And God’s salvific action, according to the terms of this myth, is to send his spirit into the world:

“. . . to awaken in the soul—still entangled in form and death—the memory of its higher origin, to convince it that its having become involved with matter was a blunder that gave rise to the world, and finally to strengthen its sense of homesickness until it one day frees itself totally from pain and carnal desire and floats homeward—and with that, the end of the world would be instantly achieved, matter given its old freedom back, and death removed from the world.”[3]

So the work of the spirit is to awaken the soul from the hell of life in a body and from the desires that enticed it to mix with matter in the first place.  And on the day of fulfillment, there will be not a new heaven and a new earth, but only the world of the spirit, no wedding feast of the Lamb, but, for the soul, only reversion to what it was before: pure light.  The old world, relapsing into its primal formlessness, will linger only as an embarrassing memory.  From an earthly standpoint, then, the story that we are entering must be a tragedy—if earthly life is the ultimate woe, and death the ultimate good, are we not right to expect that with sanctification will come a longing for death, for release from this endless and nightmarish succession of waystations?  That is, should not Joseph, born into a world of woe, and God, for whom the world is but a concession to man’s original sin, long for an end to stories?

I. Feast of Death: Myth as a Descent into Hell

Indeed, if this is the origin to which all our inquires point, why tell this story at all?

Mann, following his storyteller’s star, plunges into a retelling of an ancient story.  But a story told again and later must be told differently—and Mann, the intellectual heir of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, swerves as he falls into this well of the past.  But, like his own Adrian Leverkühn, the tragic hero of Doctor Faustus, Mann embraces an artistic freedom that seeks “dialectic reversal,” that “very quickly recognizes itself in restraint, finds fulfillment in subordinating itself to law, rule, coercion, system—finds fulfillment in them,” but does not, for all that, cease to be freedom.[4]  And so Mann will not give birth to a “new mythology” of cosmological pessimism, the kind that Schlegel, in his “Conversation on Poetry,” imagined for philosophical idealism.[5]  No, in swerving satanically as he falls from his predecessors, the inspired author of Genesis and the philosophers who furnished his intellectual milieu, into a hell of his own creation, Mann rises above the sternness of life to which their work does justice in the high delight of storytelling, its irony and subtle jest.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Mann gives us, his fellow pilgrims, a Prelude that, contrary to the advice of his translator, John E. Woods, not to begin at the beginning,[6] we dare not skip, for it narrates the creation story in whose context Jacob’s stories and Joseph’s faith must be understood.  And foremost among the questions raised in the Prelude is this: What makes this pilgrimage a descent into hell?  Mann proves a remarkably charitable reader of Genesis—his method, throughout the four Joseph novels, is not to say “It happened this way instead” but “It happened just as it is said to have happened—and this is how.”

Yet his creation story is an exception wherein he says, “It didn’t happen as it is said to have happened, for the story we have inherited is, in this case, guilty of moralistic overstatement.”  For Mann, the Fall does not precipitate after the act of creation, the fruit of which receives divine affirmation; rather, creation is the tragic consequence of the Fall.  Adam, “the first or perfect human being” is “a youthful creature of pure light” and not of dust, and his sin is not eating from the forbidden tree so that he and the woman might be as gods, but of “notic[ing] his reflection in matter, bec[oming] enamored of it, descend[ing] into it, and thus [finding] himself ensnared in the bonds of nature.”[7]  What is reflected of this man, or soul (for man by this telling is not by nature composite), in matter is his desires: in matter, he sees a means by which his desires may be gratified.  So the mixing of soul with matter begins with and consists of desire, for:

“. . . even after the soul had let itself be seduced to descend from its home, the desire and pain of its passion did not abate, but instead became so strong that it was pure torment—due to the fact that matter, being indolent and stubborn, wanted nothing more than to remain in its primal formless state, did not wish to know anything whatever about taking on form merely to please the soul, and offered up every conceivable resistance to being formed into any shape.[8]

God, to support the soul “in its amorous struggle with obstinate matter,” allows man to gratify his desires through matter by creating the world—that is, by imposing forms on formless matter.  The act of creation, then, is the consequence of man’s original sin, which is its seduction by matter, or “sensual enterprise in passion,” and what could we rightly call the soul’s imprisonment in matter, this estrangement from its true home, if not hell?

One ought to be forgiven for reading Mann’s creation story as one of garden-variety gnosticism.  In Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont deems every Manichaean interpretation of the universe to hold “the fact of being alive in the body to be the absolute woe, the woe embracing all other woes; and death . . . to be the ultimate good, whereby the sin of birth is redeemed and human souls return into the One of luminous indistinction.”[9]  And can we consider Mann to hold the soul’s imprisonment in the body to be anything but the “absolute woe”?

Mann’s God sends his spirit to man to convince the soul “that the formation of the world is the result of its having foolishly mingled with matter,” and, awakened to this insight, the soul would “recognize its home in the world above, drive out every thought of this lower world, and strive to return to the sphere of peace and happiness in order to regain its home there.”[10]  Does this not sound like the askesis that Rougemont describes, by which the soul learns to despise the world and the particular people who inhabit it as representing “merely so many deficiencies of Being,” so preparing it to “escape out of life”[11] and be dissolved into the divine Light?  The unhappiness of unhappy mutual love, which Rougemont takes to be an expression, conscious or otherwise, of gnostic longing preserved in Western courtly romance, is inflicted by the lovers on themselves as they seek obstructions to the ostensible fulfillment of their love—ostensible because their love is an alibi for the longing that truly animates them: the longing for death, which, in being prolonged and intensified, will purify them for dissolution into the divine.  For the soul to live according to the truth of his creation it must awaken to the woe of its life in a body and desire, ever more intensely, the good that is death.

But Mann’s account resists this simplistic reading, for his God is not the “One of luminous indistinction,” nor is he the God of Augustine and Aquinas.  Like an ambassador who sympathizes too profoundly with the hostile realm to which he is sent and thus makes himself unfit to speak on behalf of his homeland, the spirit, God’s “second emissary,” though sent “to remove death from the world…learns to regard itself as just the opposite, as the deadly principle, as that which brings death upon the world.”  In its endeavor to dispense with its reputation as “the deadly principle intent on destroying all forms,”[12] the spirit betrays something “that might be termed an illicit infatuation with the soul and its passionate ways.”[13]  Is the spirit a traitor to its mission?

The locus of the flaw, which seems to be the spirit’s susceptibility to corruption, and, being a flaw, threatens to wrest from God the attributes of goodness and omnipotence, is not in the nature of the spirit but in the audience’s interpretation, which arises from its mistaken conception of God—and the audience in this case consists of the angels, pure spirits who look with horror and bewilderment upon God’s love for a race that mixes soul and matter.  To speak of the Fall as a sin, or to conceive of that sin as man’s violation of the divine prohibitions against eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is to fall for the exaggerations of pious tradition.  For Mann’s God is not angered by the romance of the soul, its desire to merge with matter; he is touched, “if not by sympathy, then by pity”[14] and comes to aid the soul in gratifying its desires.  Might the Fall be not calamitous as it seems but anticipated and willed by God?

For God knew that with the creation of mankind, evil would come into the world along with the just, and so he kept silence before the Realm of Sternness—his psalm-singing angels, who would never have granted permission for the creation of such beings.[15]  His silence and, after the Fall, the disingenuously defined mission on which he sends his second emissary are meant covertly to serve his real intention, which is woven into the fabric of myth and, more specifically, into myth’s tense.  The soul was imprisoned in matter in the past, but will be free of the world in the future—that is the way the myth is narrated, but “mystery uses time’s tenses freely and may very well speak in the past when it means the future.”  God’s hope lies not in the soul’s linear progression from matter to spirit but “in their union, that is in the spirit’s genuinely entering into the world of the soul, in the mutual penetration of both principles, and in the hallowing of the one through the other, thus actualizing in the present a humanity that would be blessed with blessings of heaven above and blessings of the deep that lies below.”[16]  The mystery forms a sphere where a line is expected—at least by the non-composite angels and, perhaps, human beings dead to paradox.

Having distinguished between the explicit, and explicitly gnostic, creation story to which the angels adhere and the clandestine hopes of God, which involve a dualistic world of soul and matter, good and evil, and which roll toward their fulfillment by the principle of opposition, we can answer the question that the Prelude raises: What makes this a descent into hell? —and we should hasten to clarify that “this” encompasses all four novels.  If we are not angels who, ignorant of God’s plans for the world and contemptuous of the composite beings of whom he is so inexplicably mindful, consider hell to be the material world itself, due to its materiality, what makes this plunge into the past a plunge into hell?

The peculiar spiritual stamp that the nature of Mann’s God and his plans imprint on the brow of those who come to know him is one of restlessness—of “[t]his knowing no rest, this questioning, listening and searching, this wooing of God and bitter, doubt-filled striving after the true and the just”[17] that are manifest in Jacob’s “provisional, shifting, impromptu, seminomadic attitude toward life.”[18]  So it must be with one who “served a God whose nature was not rest and comfortable repose, a God of future plans, within whose will grand and indefinite and far-reaching things were in the making, who, along with His brooding plans and His will for the world, was Himself actually only in the making and thus a God of unsettling uneasiness.”  Our heart is not restless until it rests in God; only when we seek God does our heart become restless after his nature.

And the storyteller bears a similar stamp.  For the storyteller is “ordained to restlessness and given a heart that knows no repose.”  And if we feel as dizzy peering over the edge of a well to the depths below, how much dizzier must we feel, how much faster must our hearts beat, when we plunge into those depths, not of the familiar past, but of “life’s past, the world that was, the dead world to which—deeper, ever deeper—our life will one day belong and to which its beginnings are already consigned to considerable depths.”  To enter myth is to enter the timeless present; though myth speaks in the past tense, this “is merely the garment of the mystery”[19] by which the Feast of Storytelling establishes “timelessness in the mind of the people” and evokes “the myth to be played out in the very present.”[20]  And what is entering the timeless present, entering eternity, but “tast[ing] death and the knowledge of it”?

Only in death do we lose time and gain eternity, and only through myth can we taste the timeless present of life’s past to which our lives are consigned, progressively with the passage of time and completely in death.  All storytelling is a way to taste death, and thus all storytelling is a descent into hell.  It is hell because it is death and it is unknown.  But we, as storytellers, desire it; that is why we tremble as we descend.  Do we then desire death?  Is this the gnostic longing for death that typifies every Manichaean interpretation of the universe, and must we be resigned to relegating Mann’s theology to garden-variety gnosticism?  No—for there is life in this desire, and what is desired is not death itself, but “humanity—for which we shall search in the underworld and in death…in order to know it there where the past is.”[21]  Mann’s invocation thus addresses the Feast of Storytelling, or Feast of Death, which celebrates humanity and is doubly—by opposing principles—blessed: “Feast of Death, descent into hell—you are truly a feast, the reveling of the flesh’s soul, which not for nothing clings to the past, to the grave and the ‘It was’ of piety.  But may the spirit be with you as well, and enter into you, so that you may be blessed with blessings of heaven above and blessings of the deep that lies below.”[22]

II. “Not in Darkness, but in Light”: Eternal Recurrence as an Occasion for Faith

And so we as storytellers plunge into the past in order to know humanity even in death.  The desire for death is, in truth, an affirmation of life.  But, even if we descend in pursuit of humanity, can we expect to find hope in such a place? Perhaps the more pressing question is, why is the pit into which he is cast not a hell for Joseph?

The pit is to be his grave.  In recompense for his arrogance, for the dreams that he revealed to them on the assumption that “he need not take other people into account because they all loved him more they loved themselves,”[23] his ten older brothers, sons of Jacob and Leah or the handmaids but not of Joseph’s mother Rachel, the true wife, have descended on him like wolves, tearing Rachel’s bridal veil, an heirloom that he inveigled his doting father to bestow upon him early, stripping him naked, and brutalizing him with fists and teeth.  Stopping short of killing him (for they are resentful and savage enough to let his blood flow but not enough to shed it), they cast him into a well, where they will leave him to die as they slay a lamb and soak Rachel’s veil in its blood so that the blood of the lamb might be taken for Joseph’s.  When Judah reproaches Dan for speaking of their plans at the edge of the well even in whose depths Joseph is close enough to hear them, Dan objects, “Where’s the harm? . . . Should I whisper and lisp for his sake?  It’s all about things beyond his life—our business, but no longer his.”[24]  His brothers may speak of him as one already bound to death.  Joseph has good reason to feel dizzy, both at the edge of the well and in its depths, for he will do more than taste death—he will be wholly consigned to it.  The bottom of the well is a station at which he will merely linger in his descent into hell.

But no despair is born in Joseph at the prospect of death.  For he is “the true son of Jacob, the man of dignified ponderings and mythic knowledge, who always knew what was happening to him, who in all his earthly dealings gazed up at the stars and knotted his life into the divine fabric.”[25]  Even while he suffered the blows of his brothers, “he had opened his spiritual eyes to see what was ‘actually’ happening”: in ripping his mother’s veil from him, the veil that a husband removes on his wedding night so that he might know his bride, his brothers’ rage “had unveiled him and known him as he stood there naked, shudders of deadly shame passing through him.”  In the midst of his pain he is filled with “the joy of reason” as he recognizes in this accumulation of allusions “a higher reality, as transparent and prototypical, as the present of the revolving sphere.”[26]

And in the pit, he is suspended in the musical composition of his thoughts, in which the “shadowy ground bass”[27] of these heavenly resonances gain dominance over the “upper voice” which is “the fear of death.”[28]  He knows the story into which he has been thrust: he is to sink into the abyss like the evening star, “[b]ut the concept of a star’s death—the descent of the darkening son who then takes up residence in the underworld—included the idea of light’s return, of new light and resurrection; and it was in this sense that Joseph’s natural hope for life justified itself by faith.”[29]  The evening star does not retrace its steps; it dies to be born again.  Joseph will not emerge from the pit to run to Jacob and be his father’s favorite again.  But he will be born anew—and so the well is both a pit of death and a womb that houses new life.  Even Dan’s callous remark, that there is no harm in speaking of things beyond Joseph’s life within his hearing, gives strength to Joseph’s resolve to “affirm his brothers’ trust in death.”[30]

But what does Joseph’s faith that “God looked farther than just to this pit, that as usual He had far more extensive plans and was following some purpose of the distant future”[31] have to do with the Prelude and its descent?  How does it help us to clarify what Mann means by hell?  As Erich Heller observes in Thomas Mann: The Ironic German, the Prelude’s descent turns out to be “a journey into a ‘bottomless well’” because of the narrator’s “unwittingly traveling not in a straight line—a movement which would have held no mysteries—but along the mysterious curves of the sphere”[32] and the image of the rotating sphere is the “tectonic principle” of Joseph and His Brothers.  Mann’s sphere is the universe, divided into a heavenly and an earthly hemisphere, “so that what is above is also below and whatever may happen in the earthly portion is repeated in the heavenly, the latter rediscovering itself in the former,” and the sphere, according to its nature, rolls: “In an instant top is bottom and bottom top…It is not just that the heavenly and the earthly recognize themselves in each other, but thanks to spherical rotation the heavenly also turns into the earthly, the earthly into the heavenly, clearly revealing, indeed yielding the truth that gods can become human and that, on the other hand, human beings can become gods again.”[33]

It is according to this principle by which the strange way of saying “I,” the forking of the tongue to speak both of heavenly and of earthly reality, might be understood, and the character who uses this pronoun with the least precision is Eliezer, the servant of Abraham whom the land leapt up to greet when he traveled to woo Rebekah for Isaak, the averted sacrifice, but who also, impossibly, instructs the young Joseph, twenty generations later, in the art of writing.  Among Abraham and his descendants, there has always been an Eliezer, a freed slave with that name, and the clan is accustomed to speaking of “him” when it means “Eliezers in general.[34]

And yet when Joseph’s Eliezer tells the story of the wooing of Rebekah he speaks in the first person.  Ought we to forgive this dreamy imprecision?  Isn’t it less excusable than the clan’s speaking of “him” and not “them,” or than Joseph’s conflating the primal Abraham with his own great-grandfather?  Eliezer can surely distinguish between his own memories and stories of the Eliezers who preceded him.  But perhaps this way of speaking reveals more about the poverty of our conception of the ego than about Eliezer’s imprecision, and his unconventional grammar, countenanced by the light of the moon but not of day, expresses something true in earthly reality as well as heavenly.  For, Mann asks:

“. . . is the human ego something closed sturdily in on itself, sealed tightly within its own temporal and fleshy limits?  Do not many of the elements out of which it is built belong to the world before and outside of it?  And is the notion that someone is no one other than himself not simply a convention that for the sake of good order and comfortableness diligently ignores all those bridges that bind individual self-awareness to the general consciousness?”

He concludes:

“Ultimately, the idea of individuality stands in the same chain of concepts that includes unity and entirety, totality, universality; and the differentiation between human spirit in general and the individual spirit has not always had anything like the power over the mind that it has in today’s world, which we have left behind in order to tell of a different mind, whose mode of expression provided a faithful image of its understanding, as when for notions of ‘personality and individuality’ it knew only more or less objective terms like ‘religion’ and ‘confession.’”[35]

If we are willing to concede that the elements making up our bodies belong to the external world and that to claim them as our own is only to point to a temporary arrangement, why should we not recognize that our consciousness is not neatly closed off but opens to the general consciousness?  If our bodies are modes of elements that belong to the world, then might our selves likewise be modes of consciousness, so that Joseph’s Eliezer, as but one mode of Eliezers in general, is justified in collecting all of those selves in the word “I”?  The rotating sphere which defines both heavenly and earthly reality is manifest in the latter as imitation, as “pouring the present into given forms, into a mythic model founded by one’s forefathers, and making it flesh again,”[36] so that what is in heaven descends to earth.  What happens on earth must move ahead, but “what is below would not know what must happen—would not even occur to itself, so to speak—without its heavenly model and counterpart.”[37]  In Eliezer, Mann finds “the phenomenon of a more open identity”[38]: in the earthly hemisphere the present is poured once again into the mythic model from the heavenly, and the archetype of Eliezer is given flesh.

The “open identity” might account for the truth of Genesis in spite of or expressed in its factual imprecision, but, as Heller points out, it might as well serve as the imaginative counterpart to Schopenhauer’s “nunc stans—the Eternal Now which resides at the center of the illusory motion of Time,” or of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Recurrence.”[39]  In the sphere whose rotation produces mythic imitations, Mann “found a world in which Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s philosophical speculations meet, as it were, their historical reality.”[40]  Indeed, Heller notes that Mann acknowledges Schopenhauer’s influence with nearly verbatim quotations from The World as Will and Representation:

“He says, for instance, of the Eliezer type of man that to him “the life of the individual is only superficially distinct from that of the race, and birth and death seem mere vibrations of that which always is.”  This could all but be replaced by Schopenhauer’s observation that “if we think of the changes brought about by death and birth as infinitely rapid vibrations, we shall behold the lasting Idea of the individual creature, motionless as a rainbow above the rush of the waterfall.”[41]

Schopenhauer counsels that this “lasting Idea of the individual creature” ought to quell that individual creature’s fear of death, but Heller charges him with disingenuousness.  The comfort he offers by means of the nunc stans is “metaphysically cold”[42]: “the eternity he so lyrically invokes is and remains with him an offense to the spirit, and his true hero is the man who defies the ‘always’ and breaks the never-ending round: ‘He alone must be exempted who says from the depth of his heart: It delights me not.  I do not will it any more.’”[43]  If Eliezer takes comfort in the Eternal Now to which each manifestation of Eliezer points, Schopenhauer scoffs; he ought instead to look stoically upon the mortality of his present manifestation.

But in Nietzsche, Heller asserts, “stoicism turned to despair.”[44]  For Nietzsche, the Eternal Recurrence is the Darwinian test that will sort the spiritually weak from the spiritually fit.  But the Eternal Recurrence can serve as such a test only because the terror that it evokes is so great.  Heller finds Nietzsche’s despair in his confession “behind Zarathustra’s back: ‘Let us think that thought in its most terrifying form: existence, as it is, senseless, aimless, yet inescapably returning, without a finale in nonbeing.’”  In Schopenhauer’s Eternal Now one finds comfort without warmth; in Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, one finds only a catastrophe to be endured.  “Only an heir, creative in his irony and rebellious in his humor,” Heller declares, “could choose [the sphere] as the cosmic home for ‘God’s beautiful invention,’ the story of Joseph and His Brothers.[45]

God’s beautiful invention—if this invention, this story, comes to be by means of the rotating sphere, then this rotation, this Eternal Recurrence, is an occasion for rejoicing.  And Joseph does rejoice in Eliezer’s “open identity”: his gaze upon his lecturing teacher would “break through to an unending perspective of Eliezer figures—and each of them said ‘I’ through the lips of the one seated before him.  And since Joseph was sitting in the dusk of the tree’s vast shade while breezes shimmered hot in the sun beyond Eliezer, this perspective of identities lost itself not in darkness, but in light…”[46]  “This,” notes Heller in the mode of understatement, “does indeed sound like a farewell to the pessimism of Schopenhauer.”[47]

And is Mann not justified in bidding farewell to pessimism?  The repetition of mythic forms is not senseless as Nietzsche would have it, for stories belong to both heaven and earth and, in repeating, serve the truth.  God’s story plays out only because it is meaningful, and thus its players give the assent of their will to their parts.  Joseph’s faith as he lay at the bottom of the well—which is his grave—is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the well does not merely seem to be but is indeed a station on his journey into hell—Egypt, the land of the dead, where he will live the “next life” for which he has been anointed with oil “laid at the grave of a dead man.”[48]  He holds himself within the realm of death even when he is tempted most sorely—when, traveling by a western route in the company of the Midianite merchants to whom his brothers sold him, he becomes aware that his father’s camp lies due east.  Mann relates how acutely Joseph is tempted in the desert by a return to life without first suffering, without first descending into hell: “How the urge itched in his limbs, tugged at him, half stirred in the ferment of his mind and impetuously forged ahead to accomplished deeds in his imagination”![49]  But he stays faithful to his resolve, not only because of the bodily dangers he would face if he were to escape, but because “the very special way Joseph had of considering things” generates “a clear, intelligent perception that [to escape] would have been an oafish blunder, an attempt to erase God’s plans.”  And God’s plans are intelligible and good.

The mistakes of Joseph’s prior life, his acting according to the assumption that everyone loved him more than they loved themselves, “might perhaps have been part of the plan, have had a purpose, that is, and, blind as they were, have been steered by God,” but to escape would be a mistake of a different kind, a “blatant and foolish evil; it would literally mean wanting to be wiser than God—which, according to Joseph’s prudent insight, was simply the height of stupidity.”[50]  Joseph, therefore, does not look back to the life in which he was his father’s favorite; he looks forward to “a new, higher favor and election,” and the wreath with which he crowned himself in that life he now wears “no longer in dreamy play, but in truth, and that meant: in his spirit.”[51]  When Jacob is presented with Rachel’s soiled veil, the father is meant to take the blood of the lamb for the blood of the son, and “that Jacob must, of necessity, have believed the animal’s blood to be incontestably Joseph’s blood also had a reverse effect on Joseph, practically removing in his eyes any difference between ‘This is my blood,’ and ‘This signifies my blood.’”[52]  In the beginning was the feast, the ritual, but the sphere rotates, and the ritual turns from symbol to reality.

III. Restlessness without Dignity: When Myth Recurs as Nightmare

How terrifying!  The plunge from symbol to reality is yet another plunge into hell, and thus it is not to be undertaken in the wrong spirit.  When the sphere upends itself so too do our bowels often upend themselves.  We are nauseated, for instance, at the ritual performed by Laban, the father of Leah and Rachel, in that business-minded devil’s attempt to procure a blessing on his house and commercial enterprise: as Jacob tells Joseph, Laban “slaughtered his own firstborn son as an offering and buried him in a pot in the foundation of his house to protect it.”  Human sacrifice—whom would it not sicken?  And yet, Jacob is troubled to acknowledge, “Laban would not have placed his little son in the wall had that not brought blessing to his ancestors in times past.”[53]

The memory of the primal darkness in whose depths the ritual was born, conjured by the persistence of the ritual (even in diluted form), is a scandal to the civilized.  This, Mann says, is the phenomenon best captured by the word “shame.”  Shame is what upends the bowels of Isaak’s family when he, the son in place of whose sacrifice a ram is slaughtered, begins to bleat like a ram and babble about a “god” who “shall be slain” and “the father and the animal” of which “we ate.”  In his words and in his resemblance to a ram in face and sound, “they sensed something primal and obscene, ghastly and ancient, sacred and yet prior to all sacredness, something that lay beneath all the layers of civilization in the most forgotten, shunned, and suprapersonal depths of their souls.”[54]  The primal, made present by Laban’s outdated sacrifice and Isaak’s delirious bleating and babbling, is a nightmare that civilization cannot keep from recurring.  But what bars these recurrences from the life-affirming optimism of myth?  Why, instead of entering eternity in search of truth and according to God’s plans, which are ordered toward the good, do we find ourselves, like Nietzsche, in a nightmare?

Not even Jacob, that man stamped with the dignity and restlessness of the spirit, is immune to experiencing the rotating sphere in this way.  When Jacob receives the token by which he is to understand that his son has, as he always feared, been devoured by a wild beast, he tears his own clothes until he has stripped himself naked.  The sight of such extravagant grief is terrible, but extravagant grief manifest in Jacob’s nakedness—in his disregard for the limits of the bourgeois custom of “rending the outer garment as a sign of deep mourning”[55]—is unbearable; it sends his family and servants running from him in shame.  For shame is “the monosyllabic paraphrase for the horror that wells up when the primal state breaks through the layers of civilization, where it lives on only in superficial, muted traces of allegory.”[56]  Jacob’s nakedness reveals the reality behind the allegorical gesture of rending the outer garment, the destruction of the mourner’s dignity.

But the extravagance of Jacob’s mourning does not end there.  Naked, he sits on the dust heap, pouring ashes over his head and scraping his body with shards of pottery as if he were afflicted with boils or leprosy.  But though his sorrow is sincere, its expression is symbolic, “part of his performance intended for that other witness”[57]—that is, God.  The outward show of his mourning is a pretext for an argument with God, an excuse to castigate him for what Jacob deems an “abomination” that is “against the arrangement”—“not as regards the law.  But as regards human feeling, which also has reason and courage on its side!”  For why, Jacob demands of his Lord, “has man been given fear and foresight if not to ban evil and to prevent fate early on from even thinking its wicked thoughts?”[58]  He can conclude only that “the covenant is broken! …God has not kept pace.[59]  Jacob is cast and casts himself into hell—the first in that his Joseph, the firstborn of the true wife, is lost to him, and the second because, retreating to the darkness of the primal out of indignation at God, he moves from symbol to reality in the wrong spirit.

For Jacob’s is a God who moves on and demands that his people move with him.  Jacob recalls Laban’s sacrifice of his son when he consults Joseph about the Feast of Pesach, which Mann envisions as a sort of pre-Mosaic Passover in which the families of the tribe slaughter an animal, apply its blood to the doorposts, and consume it in its entirety at night in order to satisfy the hunger of the Destroyer and protect the flocks.  But, Jacob worries, “does the lamb we slaughter atone only for the flocks?  What would we slaughter and eat if we were as foolish as Laban?  And what was slaughtered and eaten in filthy times past?”  As the spiritual heirs of Abraham, Jacob and his tribe must ponder the will of God and be ready to leave behind what is outworn, “so that we may extricate ourselves from the things that the Lord wishes to move us beyond and is perhaps already beyond Himself.”[60]  Mann’s God is restless by nature, and thus as those who enter into the covenant with him are sanctified by it, they participate in this divine restlessness.  Jacob is conscientiously restless about the Feast of Pesach, but stubbornly stationary when he is confronted with the death of his favorite—who is perhaps a better reader than his father of heavenly stories when they make themselves present on earth.  Gently chiding his father’s punctiliousness, Joseph advises:

“. . . that the feast be spared, that it not be zealously assailed because of its past stories, which over time may perhaps be replaced by some other, which you might then tell during the eating of the roast . . . Or let us simply wait until such a time as God may glorify Himself in some great act of deliverance and mercy, the story of which we will then make the basis of our feast, singing songs of jubilation.”[61]

The child counsels patience—wait, he entreats, for the stories to be replaced by another and greater story, one that reveals God’s mercy and salvific power and thereby testifies to his glory.

But Jacob will not wait.  When he takes the blood of the lamb as the blood of the son, he plunges himself headlong into the hell of the primal darkness, and he does not wait for God to “glorify Himself in some great act of deliverance.”  Indeed, even before Joseph descends into the pit, Jacob, harboring hopes of passing over his ten sons born to Leah and the handmaids and making Joseph, the eleventh, his heir, tries to orchestrate a reconciliation with those ten, who have banished themselves from Jacob’s sight in protest of Joseph’s dreams and the election they suggest.  To reconcile Rachel’s firstborn with the ten, he sends Joseph on a journey to his disgruntled brothers so that he may bend low before them.

He considers this is a recurrence of an earlier story, his own flight from the rage of his brother Esau, from whom he stole, by deception, the blessing of their father Isaak, in that both consist of “the golden son” being “readied for a journey rooted in fraternal strife,” and acts in conscious and meticulous imitation of his mother Rebekah when she prepared her favorite son for that journey: he sees “to other similarities as well, making sure that Joseph rode off in the early morning, before sunrise, just as he had done in his own day,” and so intent is Jacob upon dragging that story from the past and making it present again that “[h]e was scarcely even Jacob as they said their farewells, but rather was Rebekah, was the mother.”  For when he bent low before Esau, his goat-like brother, and called him “lord,” Jacob was reconciled to him; why should Joseph not be reconciled likewise with the tenfold Esaus tending Jacob’s flocks in a pasture several days’ journey away?

But Mann remarks, ominously, that “it was a risky correlation he was making here,” not only because he sends Joseph not to a safe distance from Esau’s anger but into Esau’s arms, but also because “his role did not compare with that of Rebekah, his heroically courageous mother, who knowingly sacrificed her own heart by arranging a deception that set things right and then, fully aware that she might never see her favorite again, sent him off to strange lands.”  Rebekah knew the story and her part in it; she knew that her part demanded that she offer up her heart as a sacrifice and be separated from her beloved son forever, and she gave the assent of her will to the story.  But Jacob fails to recognize the story.  He does not offer up his will to God; he instead tries to impose his will on reality and force a recurrence according to his terms and in order to bring about his preferred outcome: “[i]t was the scene beside the Jabbok that Jacob had in mind and whose recurrence he was trying to hasten—an external humbling, the forms of a makeshift reconciliation filled with reservations, the cobbling-over of an irreparable breach, the sham resolution of something never to be resolved.”  His extravagant passion for Joseph (that is, his extravagant passion for Rachel, which settles on her first son after her death) weakens Jacob, impairs his spiritual sight, and compels him to tempt fate by sending his son on what he might call a mission for reconciliation but what is in fact a mission to restore the previous situation, of the ten in the sight of their father, growing in rancor at his undisguisable favoritism, “already abundantly proved untenable.”[62]  And Jacob’s plunge into the past, undertaken in the wrong spirit, proves hellish for him.

The “wrong spirit” for one to enter into myth, to pour the present into mythic forms of the past, is one of jealousy and mistrust.  For what else is Jacob doing when he attempts to orchestrate the recurrence of that story but jealously guarding his favorite son and his intention to bestow the blessing on him?  And is he not thereby claiming sovereignty over the future—not trusting that God’s story will unfold and that it will serve truth and redound to his glory?  Jacob, that man after the Lord’s own heart, who seeks out the highest, ponders his stories, and conscientiously cultivates restless, nevertheless suffers from a problem of governance.  His soul tends toward emotional despotism and thus is not always ordered toward the highest—which is to say that Jacob is idolatrous.  But how can that be?  Jacob, the son of blessing whose head God raises up when, at Beth-el, he is given the gift of a dream, a vision of the ladder that reaches to heaven—guilty of idolatry?  But we know that he is, because we know how he was punished for it—how much death lay in his idolatrous love of Rachel and how God ripped open the winding sheet of death so that life might be drawn from its barren womb, so that the myth, by recurring, might conquer time.

IV. “Not What is Good, but What is All”: The Descent into Hell as Sanctification

Jacob’s love for Rachel is beautiful.  When he meets her by the well he is smitten immediately by the look in her eyes, “sweetened and strangely transfigured by her nearsightedness, a look into which nature, let it be said without exaggeration, poured all the charm it can lend to any human gaze—a deep, flowing, melting, cordial night that spoke both in earnest and in play.”[63]  But he is a fugitive, fleeing the wrath of Esau, and owns nothing but the clothes on his back.  He will serve seven years for her, and kiss away her tears of impatience.

But his love is also despotic.  For as he feasts himself on Rachel’s loveliness, he spares not a thought for her older sister Leah, whose crossed eyes debase and render undesirable a stately body.  Yet even when Rachel first beholds Jacob at the well and stirs him with an “eager, probing look,” she “had certainly not been thinking only of herself.”  From the moment that Jacob enters Laban’s house, he is “more or less foreordained as their [Leah’s and Rachel’s] natural spouse,” and Jacob’s merely polite treatment of Leah is an occasion for bitterness on her part and jealousy on the part of her father “for the sake of his neglected Leah.”[64]

But this same Leah will bear Judah, on whom, according to God’s will and against Jacob’s heart, Jacob must bestow the blessing—she must be his wife.  And so God, working through Laban, “cleft [Jacob’s] soul on his wedding night”[65] that his divine will might be fulfilled.  For Laban, that devil, leads Leah to Jacob in the dark of the bridal chamber that is meant to be his and Rachel’s so that Jacob might embrace the wrong wife unaware.  But the punishment takes time to make itself known in full.  For twelve years after her marriage to Jacob, Rachel remains barren, while Leah gives their husband six sons and a daughter.  Rachel, who wept for seven years in her impatience to give Jacob children, who was so sure that he would make her fruitful, is driven to desperation: “Give me children,” she pleads, “Otherwise I shall die.”[66]  Why does God close the womb of the true wife when the unloved wife’s is open?  Mann follows the “kernel” of an explanation:

“God’s action . . . was meant as an instructive chastisement for Jacob himself, who was in fact rebuked inasmuch as the selectivity and gentle despotism of his emotions, the arrogance with which he nursed and proclaimed them, did not have the approval of the Elohim—even though such a tendency to single out by displaying unbridled preference, this pride of feeling that evaded all criticism and desired the whole world’s reverent acceptance, could appeal to a higher model and indeed represented its earthly imitation.”[67]

The sphere turns, and what is in heaven comes to be on earth.  Jacob’s love for Rachel imitates its heavenly counterpart, which is God’s proud and unbridled preference for Abraham and his seed.  But God chastises Jacob not even though he imitates his creator’s manner of loving, but “precisely because it was an imitation” of a privilege that “He intended to designate as His privilege”—that is, God’s jealousy is his motive for punishing Jacob.  Mann anticipates objections on the grounds that jealousy, being “petty and passionate . . . is inappropriate for explaining divine decrees,” but the justification he offers is even more objectionable: consider God’s jealousy “the intellectually undigested vestige of an earlier and more savage state in the development of God’s nature,”[68] he counsels.  God’s nature develops!  Precisely what kind of God is sovereign in the universe of Mann’s Joseph novels?

God’s passion is the key to his nature.  For Jacob’s punishment is not limited to the deception of his wedding night or Rachel’s protracted barrenness, but reveals itself again: when Rachel, in the thirteenth year of her marriage, proves fruitful and bears Joseph in excruciating pain and nearly at the cost of her life; when, nine years later, Benjamin is ripped from her womb and she dies; and when Joseph must descend into the pit and keep the silence of the dead before his father.  And, Mann muses:

“when . . . one thinks of Rachel’s dark destiny, and learns, moreover what young Joseph had to endure—and how only by great astuteness and a charmer’s finest skills at dealing with both God and man he managed to turn things around to the good—then one cannot doubt that it was a matter of jealousy in its purest meaning and finest luster, not jealousy in some general sense based on a privilege, but rather highly personal and directed in vengeance toward the objects of an idolatrous emotion.  In a word, a matter of passion.[69]

So let us not politely equivocate as we try to define “jealousy” in a way that preserves God’s perfection and immutability.  Mann’s God can be affected by passions—indeed, must be affected by passions, for by his passion, God lives: “it is in passion, first and foremost, that the tempestuous term ‘living God’ is actually and demonstrably fulfilled.”  His passion, sealed in his covenant with Abraham, is a means by which he develops.  For Mann, God is as reliant on man as man is on God, and the end of their covenant is “the sanctification of both parties.”[70]  Yes, God develops: his development consists of his sanctification.  And if he can become more holy, he must have been imperfectly holy before—in the depths of the past so profound that, peering into them, we grow dizzy.

It was not for nothing that we turned pale at the beginning of our descent.  For the myth into which we have entered, what is past and has become present before us is a universe whose God becomes holy—and, in so doing, becomes “not what is good, but what is all.”  But what is the holiness of this God—how is it manifest?  In his vanquishing chaos, in his “array[ing] the stars . . . and dispos[ing] the life of animals and men by nourishing them according to the seasons” (348), in his ordering of time and space—therein is his holiness expressed and fulfilled.

Bringing order out of chaos is surely good, but in this act of creation by which he conquers chaos, he also absorbs it: “just as when a man slays an enemy, he is likely to take on his foe’s qualities in victory, it appeared that in cleaving the monster of chaos in two, God had incorporated its nature.”[71]  Let us not forget that the act of creation in the Prelude consists of God’s giving forms to formless matter out of pity for or sympathy with the soul’s desire to use matter for the gratification of its passions.  God’s holiness is realized in his creation of the world, but if that world is to be a living world, its creation must involve a descent, for a living world will always be in conflict with justice.  And yet, Mann ventures, “the contradiction of a living world that was also supposed to be just resided within God’s greatness itself.”  To bring life to lifeless matter by giving it forms and mixing it with soul is to exalt matter, but also to make it a means by which evil can be done, by which the soul can act even on evil desires.  Perhaps that is why Mann insists on a God who “was not good or merely good among other things, but was evil besides” and whose “living presence embraced evil and was at the same time holy, was holiness in and of itself, holiness that demanded holiness.”[72]

But if God’s living presence embraces evil, what does it mean for Mann’s God to be the living God?  Does living, of necessity, involve evil?  Yes—for life is motion and becoming; to live is to descend into hell, so that one may be resurrected.  And God resorts to deceiving by reticence his sternly gnostic angels so that he might create “a living world of good and evil” that he knows will invite them to “assume—probably more rightly than wrongly—that behind it lay a weariness with their psalm-singing purity.”[73]

Mann places eternal psalm-singing purity in opposition with a living world of good and evil—that is, he places uniformity in opposition with change.  With the psalm-singing purity and unfailing piety of the angels, God grows weary, but with man God forges a covenant, through which “something had come into the world that had never been there before and of which the nations knew nothing: the damnable possibility that the covenant could be broken, that one could fall away from God.”[74]  Why would God establish a covenant that makes infidelity possible?  Why would he bind himself to fallible man?

Lowly and mixed with matter as man is, he is needed by God because he is other than God.  God stands apart from his creation and his works, but because Abraham, “with the help of his own largeness of soul,”[75] discerns God’s qualities, he is in Abraham, and yet Abraham remains himself.  God’s presence in him “strengthened and fulfilled the first father’s sense of saying ‘I,’ for in no way was this God-filled and courageous ‘I’ inclined to vanish into God, to be one with Him and no longer be Abraham.  Instead he very alertly and clearly held himself erect opposite Him—at a vast distance, to be sure, for Abraham was only a man, a clod of earth, but bound to Him by that knowledge and made holy by God’s sublime there-ness and Thou-ness.”[76]  There is no dissolution into any One of indistinction in the covenant; Abraham is “made holy by God’s nearness outside”[77] his soul, and God jealously guards this covenant because he needs Abraham and Abraham’s seed not only to teach about him, but to tell about him.

Yet in the beginning, there is nothing to tell about God, for “[t]here were no stories about God”[78] as there are for other gods—that is, there are no stories of the past.  But the past tense of myth may very well point to the future, and God does indeed have a story of the future to tell—the story of his doing away with the old world and bringing out of chaos a new heaven and a new earth.  On this day would he be revealed as the King over men and gods.  And yet, Mann asks, “was He not that already?  To be sure, in the stillness and in Abram’s perception.  But no as a recognized and appreciated reality, and thus not in fully realized terms.”[79]  God is indeed sovereign over heaven and earth, but his sovereignty, because it is not yet “a recognized and appreciated reality,” is imperfect enough that Mann calls this day of fulfillment the day of God’s “apotheosis.”  And so, for the realization of his kingship, God depends upon man to tell his story of expectation and promise, a story which, to be sure, partakes of the descent into hell that is the act of creation and of the “quality of suffering” that the “not-yet” lends to God’s countenance,[80] but which also points to that glorious day of his fulfillment, as anyone can see if only his spirit embraces the “high delight” and a gift for “subtle jest” that God imparts to it “so that we might make this stern life laugh.”

Only in this high delight, says Joseph to his steward as he plans the reception of his brothers, who do not yet recognize Rachel’s firstborn in the Overseer of Egypt, can the human spirit rise above life’s question, which is “whether one should judge the deed by its consequences and so call what is evil good, because it was necessary for a good result.”[81]  But the psalm-singing purity of the angels has no admixture of evil, and thus no life, and no rising above life’s question in laughter.  Without evil, there can be no eternal recurrence, only eternal uniformity—without evil, there can be no myth.  If God is sanctified as Abraham and his seed surrender themselves to the eternal recurrence of myth, so that there might be stories about God to tell and God might realize his kingship in their telling, then man is sanctified by learning to hear with a double ear and to speak with a forked tongue—to hear the archetypal story and the present into which it is poured, and to speak of what is in heaven and what is on earth, so that the present evil might be seen in the light of expectation and promise.

When Isaak’s sons entomb him, they must remember, for instance, that they relinquish his body to a comic universe: Jacob and Esau “gave him over to devouring time, who eats his children so that they may not set themselves over him, but must also regurgitate them so that they may live again as the same children in the old and same stories.  (For as he fingers them the giant does not notice that their clever mother has given him something like a stone, wrapped in skins, and not a child.).”[82]  Stories lived again by one’s children make a fool of time, which thinks to conquer man with death.  Just as God’s descent into hell—the hell of sluggish matter, of formless chaos—gives life (for by it he becomes the living God and his apotheosis is set in motion), so too does man’s descent into hell bring life.  For man’s first death is sex: marital union is life’s summer solstice after which one decreases so that one’s seed might increase.  On his wedding night, “Jacob was to know the woman he loved, and begin to die.  For all of life was not to be present exclusively in Jacob alone from now on, and he would no longer stand alone, the sole lord of the world; but instead, he was to dissolve into his sons, and his person be given over to death.”[83]

The individual dies, and yet, as Anup, the Egyptian god and dog-boy conceived by error, tells Jacob in a dream, “sex rips open death’s winding-sheets and stands up against death”[84]; he lives again in his children, who enter into the eternal recurrence of myth, as the sphere rolls on toward the day of God’s fulfillment.  And so, when Jacob moves, in the wrong spirit, “from symbol to crude reality and terrible fact,”[85] uncovering his nakedness and exposing, to his family’s horror, the heart of the ritual, he fails to hear the story of Joseph’s descent into the pit with a double ear.  He presumes to judge the deed by its consequence—which turns out not to be the final consequence, as all consequences lose themselves, like the succession of Eliezers who say “I,” not in darkness but in light.  And so, failing to rise above life’s question, he sees in Joseph’s descent only savagery on God’s part, and his despair inspires the narrator to apostrophize:

“Ah, pious old man!  Could you ever have imagined what bewildering goodwill is hidden yet again behind the silence of your curiously majestic God, and, by His counsel, with what incomprehensible rapture your soul is to be mutilated?  When you were young in the flesh, morning revealed to you that your most ardent happiness was deception and illusion.  You will have to grow very old in order to learn that, by way of compensation, your bitterest suffering was also deception and illusion.”[86]

V. Embellishment, not Orchestration: The Festal Adornments of Myth

Deception and illusion—perhaps these give us pause.  We may speak of God’s nature as encompassing “not what is good, but what is all” and say “therein does his holiness lie.”  But we are alive in his stories; we are in the midst of evil, and as we strain our eyes to see its end our heart beats faster with dread.  Let us not trivialize what it is to live the stories of the living God, terrible in his holiness; let us confront the evil, the darkness, that he wills (for Mann seems not to distinguish what God wills from what he permits) and turns toward the good.

To enter into Jacob’s grief and be tempted to mire ourselves in life’s question, we need only recall Jacob’s wedding night and let Mann make the familiar story strange.  For when he wakes to behold that it was Leah, and not his beloved Rachel, whom he embraced in the dark, Mann’s Jacob does not ask Laban only “What is this thou hast done unto me? did I not serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?” (Gen. 29:25 KJV), and then receive silently Laban’s anemic appeal to the custom of Haran and demand for another seven years of service for Rachel, as the “fine discourses” which preserve the story would have it.  His words, rather, expose the evil that Laban does by deceiving him so.  If Jacob, by knowing the woman he loves, begins to die, and yet will rejoice in the sons into whom he is dissolved because “he had knowingly poured [them] into Rachel’s womb,”[87] then to deceive him so that he might unknowingly make the wrong wife fruitful is truly to cleave his soul.  In the dark, Jacob says, “I…gave of my soul, gave my best to the wrong wife, which I now repent beyond telling.”[88]  But he cannot take back that night; he cannot recover Ruben, whom he begot when the intent was Rachel’s but the reality Leah’s.  Yes, once he has fulfilled his week with Leah, he will be given Rachel, but theirs can never be a marriage of total self-gift (nor can any polygamous marriage) for he has already “squandered [his] soul and [his] best with the wrong wife.”[89]

Compounding the revulsion that this deception raises is the archetypal story that prefigures it, as told in Jacob’s dream by Anup, in whom the head of a dog is joined to the slender body of a boy, “sadly debasing it, so that all the rest . . . might have been lovely, but certainly not with that head.”[90]  His parents conceived him by mistake, he tells Jacob, for Osiris “was in pursuit of Isis, his sister-wife, and in the blindness of night inadvertently stumbled upon Nephthys . . . So the great god embraced her, assuming she was his wife, and both embraced in the perfect indifference of a night of love.”  For night is a cow, the goddess Hathor, and “[i]n her blindness, in her bovine warmth and goodness she embraces everything that happens within her, and out of the fullness of her dull passivity simply lets happen what happens, if only because it is dark.”[91]  Night awakens shame; her indifference allows the primal state to break through the layers of civilization—that is, the custom of Haran, that a man might wed two perfectly legitimate wives, the elder sister before the younger.  And the horrifying primal truth, Anup says to Jacob’s anguish, is that:

“Even in her indifference, night knows the truth, and the awakened prejudices of day are nothing to her.  For one female body is like another, good for loving, good for conceiving.  Only the face marks the difference between one and the other, making us think that in conceiving we want the one and not the other.  For the face belongs to day, which is full of awakened illusions, but it is nothing to night, which knows the truth”.[92]

Night’s indifference is indeed in-difference, a negation of what differentiates one individual from another—in the case of women, their faces.  Yet Night’s indifference is not God’s.  For God’s love is particular, not general; in his covenant with man, each man may say “I” even more emphatically, for the “I” of man and “Thou” of God are retained and strengthened, each by being near and outside the other.  Indifference to persons is evil, and yet, as we earlier established, God uses Laban’s deception to tell his story and to bring his promise into fruition—for his only begotten Son is born of the line of Judah.

How are we to rise above such evil?  And how are we to keep pace with such a God—a restless God, “within whose will grand and indefinite and far-reaching things were in the making, who, along with His brooding plans and His will for the world, was Himself actually only in the making and thus a God of unsettling uneasiness, a problem God, who wanted to be sought out and for whom one had to make oneself ready to move at all times”?[93]  Can we be blamed for taking Jacob’s course and, in excessive restlessness, discarding the feast and moving past God in our zeal to keep pace?  If God countenances and even wills evil, how much evil can we countenance without, like Jacob receiving the garment soaked in the blood of the lamb, falling back in a faint?

We rise above evil by plunging into its depths.  We enter myth.  We open our eyes to see, as Joseph did when his brothers descended upon him like wolves, what is actually happening—that the sphere is rotating and the mythic past is being poured into present forms.  And yet even as we recognize the story that we are living, we must not assume that we know who we are, that we know what mythic archetype is made present in us, and attempt to orchestrate the story, to force its recurrence—for we thereby invite God to plunge us into a pit of bitterest suffering which, though it may turn out to be deception and illusion, is no less suffering and no less bitter.  No, we must embellish the story, and wait to find out who we are.

Yes, we must be patient—for “why,” Joseph asks of his steward Mai when he remarks upon the time that his master’s story will take to unfold, “shouldn’t a man take his time for God’s story, why not demand patience for its careful embellishment”?[94]  Jacob has grown very old and his lost son has become the lord over all Egypt when Joseph learns that his brothers, driven to desperation by the famine afflicting the land that once supported Jacob’s flocks, are coming to buy grain from Egypt’s stores, made plentiful by Joseph’s husbandry.  And Joseph, whose “culpable trust and blind expectation” make him a “jackanapes” and yet equally a man after God’s own heart, can receive the news that the brothers who once descended on him like wolves and cast him into the pit are on their way with jubilation, and be grateful to them because that pit was also a womb that gave birth to all his happiness and glory in the land of the dead.  He is ready to thank them because “God has shaped them to the good and to everyone’s favor, and one must look to the result at which He was aiming.  Before the result has made itself known, there is only the deed, and it may appear evil.  But once it is known, then the deed must be judged by its consequences.”[95]  The present good—his worldly elevation—means that he can countenance the past evil, and he turns his mind to his part in the story, “to shape it well and fine, to make of it something truly delightful and place all our wits at God’s disposal.”[96]

And yet even he who justified hope by faith as he lay in the depths of the well falters at the edge of yet another well-curb.  For he is tempted to wrest authorship of the story which must culminate in his pronouncing “It is I” from God and claim it for his own.  The brothers descending into the land of Egypt to bend low before its lord are ten; Benjamin is not with them.  And Joseph, his full brother, finds himself ready to deny the story its fulfillment if the ten have done unto Benjamin as they did unto Joseph:

“. . . if the ten have thrust him aside and been nasty to him, if—I dare not think of it!—they have mistreated him the way they once did me, then may the Elohim preserve them, for they’ll get an unpleasant reception from me.  I won’t even reveal myself to them.  The beautiful words, ‘It is I,’ will never be spoken.  And if they do recognize me, I shall say, ‘No, I am not he, you villains!’ and all they will have in me is a stern stranger as their judge.”[97]

For Joseph to turn “It is I” into “I am not he” is to attempt, as Jacob did, to usurp the story; it is to utter a falsehood in an attempt to manipulate the story’s ending.  Mai observes lightly that Joseph now seems to him “a man who can indeed distinguish between a deed and its consequence.”  And Joseph, who had hesitated, surrenders himself, tremblingly but joyfully, to this descent into the well—for any entry into the timeless present of myth is a descent into the depths of the unknown, and if we are to be sanctified by our nearness to the living God, we must embrace what is unknown and thereby come to know ourselves.  “I don’t know what sort of man I am,” Joseph tells his steward.  “A man never knows beforehand how he will behave in his own story; that is revealed only when the time comes and he finds out who he is.  I am curious about myself and about what I shall say to them, for I have no idea what it will be.”[98]

The Feast of Storytelling is God’s.  Far be it from us to assail his feast out of over-zealous piety.  Do we presume to interfere with his brooding plans because we cannot, from the standpoint of time, see the good consequences that justify the evil deed?  No, he provides the ram for the sacrifice, and we the festal embellishments.  The meeting for which Joseph prepares, of the Dreamer and the ten who cast him into the pit, is “the encounter of deed and consequence,” and that “is a feast of a special sort and needs to be celebrated and adorned with all sorts of trimmings and holy mischief, so that the world can laugh and cry over it for five thousand years or more.”[99]  Indeed, what story moves one to laughter or tears without some “holy mischief”—that is, without deception and illusion?  And Joseph attempts to change not a jot or tittle of the story, which “has already been written . . . in God’s book,”[100] but, bearing the stamp of his restless God, and following the moon, the “storyteller’s star,”[101] he reaches for the same materials to fashion his embellishments.  His brothers must descend themselves into a pit—he must not speak the false words “I am not he,” but he will deceive them.  He will address them as strangers and, announcing his suspicions that they are spies scouting out the weaknesses of the land, and saddle them with the insulting epithet of “daialu.”[102]

And the disgrace of this accusation will remain with them for the passage of a year—for that is how long it takes the nine who return (as Joseph holds Shimeon hostage) to wear Jacob down, to bring him to wrestle with necessity and conquer himself.  Joseph demands that the ten return with the youngest—as far as Jacob knows, all he has left of Rachel, the true wife.  Deception precedes illusion.  When his brothers return, they are ten, and become eleven when Shimeon is released and added to their number.  Joseph treats them, now free of suspicion, to a feast, and astonishes them with his apparent powers of divination—whose source, he claims, is his silver cup.  And this is embellishment by means of illusion that presumes not to alter the story’s framework but participates in the darker parts of its mischief.  Joseph affects to consult the cup to describe Rachel’s grave, not omitting to provide the detail that makes Benjamin’s eyes spill over with tears: a boy has left provisions at the grave, “a dandy . . . [who has] wrapped himself in some colorful garb, the ninny, with images woven into it, and . . . thinks he’s just out for a ride, but the ride will lead to his ruin.”[103]  In this “ninny” and his “colorful garb,” Benjamin recognizes his lost brother and his mother’s bridal veil.  Joseph lets him grieve, and later, to complete the illusion, lets him suffer under the suspicion of having stolen the silver cup that Joseph has planted among his things.

But that is a mere parlor-trick compared to the illusion that God has conjured up for Jacob—the raising of Jacob’s son from the dead—and Benjamin’s vindication contains only the seed of the more profound comedy of this cosmos: how weak is the power of death.  Even as Joseph, knowing that it will be temporary, stirs up Benjamin’s latent grief, he speaks of expectation, of hope: the grave “you should not take all too earnestly, not exaggerate its seriousness,” for while we should lament death as befits its dignity as a “serious, grievously sad feature of the world and of the festive story in all its hours,” this pit of death is “empty by nature and powerless to hold its prey.”  A story that ends with death is not worthy of the name.  To enter myth is to taste death, but even bodily death is subject to the brooding will of God, and so it will not remain itself, but become a station on the way to its fulfillment.  No, God is telling a story that does not stop at the pit and know “nothing more to say,” for “the world is not just half, but whole, and the feast, too, is whole, and there is consolation, inviolable consolation, in that wholeness.”[104]

VI. Conclusion: The Music of the Rotating Sphere

“I am never merry when I hear sweet music,” says Jessica to Lorenzo, as amid the “touches of sweet harmony,” they behold the heavenly orbs, each of which “in his motion like an angel sings,” though unheard by those closed in by “this muddy vesture of decay.”[105]  So it must be with myth: the sphere as it rotates makes present what is past, and what is past belongs to the realm of death.  And yet only by death can there be life.  If this world is to be a living world, it must be one of both good and evil, and if God is to be the living God, he must be not only what is good, but what is all.  For his greatness is wrought from the tension of a living world that is also supposed to be just, a tension that eschews the eternal self-sameness of the psalm-singing angels, and is released as the sphere rotates and on earth mythic archetypes manifest themselves in recurring stories.  Yet with the sphere’s rotation the myth does not merely repeat, but the divine storyteller, in his restlessness, drives it onward toward the day of fulfillment.  For it will come to pass that even Joseph’s grand story, his descent into hell and resurrection from the pit of a death that turned out to be deception and illusion, is eclipsed by one of surpassing grandeur, wherein the Son born of a virgin, and not merely under the sign of the virgin, dies in truth and is resurrected, and death itself, and not merely the figurative one that keeps Joseph silent before his father, is revealed as deception and illusion.

Yet, in the meantime, it is right that we raise our voices in lamentation, out of deference for death and its gravity and the evil of a world that does not yet recognize God’s sovereignty.  We may not have been, without qualification, merry as we descended into this myth, but even amid death, shame, and indifference of Night, even amid “guilt and passion” without which “nothing would ever move ahead,”[106] we have glimpsed the order of the cosmos that is the stage on which the myth has recurred; we know that in the motion of the heavenly orbs is a music that we cannot hear, and there is joy in that discovery.  How fitting it is, then, that Joseph instructs his brothers to announce to Jacob that his son still lives “in fine style and with love’s cunning…[f]or his heart was treated badly—but now it shall be treated to the sweet music of his son’s glory.”[107]  For music unites beauty and order with tension and longing; it is the embodiment of the ironic hope of Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, a hope into which we can enter only by descending into hell, by furnishing the embellishments for the Feast of Storytelling, which is doubly blessed, “with blessings of heaven above and blessings of the deep that lies below.”[108]



[1] Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2005), 3.

[2] Mann, 39.

[3] Mann, 31.

[4] Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn As Told by a Friend, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 203.

[5] Erich Heller, Thomas Mann: The Ironic German (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1961), 211.

[6] see Woods’ Introduction, xiv.

[7] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 28.

[8] Mann, 29.

[9] Rougemont, Denis de, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 66.

[10] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 30.

[11] Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion (Princeton,  NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 70.

[12] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 31.

[13] Mann, 32.

[14] Mann, 33.

[15] Granted permission?  Mann deploys the phrase without batting an eye: “If God had not remained silent, they say, wisely keeping to Himself the fact that out of humankind would arise not only just but also evil things, permission for the creation of human beings would not even have been granted by the Realm of Sternness” (33).  Does this need for, or at least deference to, the angels’ permission undermine God’s omnipotence?  Mann gives no definitive answer, but in so implying, claims only to account for appearances: on his entourage of angels, God “appears to be dependent in some (though of course in no way decisive) degree, since out of worry that there might be some difficulty on that side He decided to neglect to tell them the plain truth about what was in store” (33-34).

[16] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 35.

[17] Mann, 36.

[18] Mann, 37.

[19] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 39.

[20] Mann, 40.

[21] Mann, 39.

[22] Mann, 40.

[23] Mann, 471–72.

[24] Mann, 464.

[25] Mann, 472.

[26] Mann, 473.

[27] Mann, 472.

[28] Mann, 470.

[29] Mann, 475.

[30] Mann, 544.

[31] Mann, 467.

[32] Heller, Thomas Mann: The Ironic German, 235.

[33] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 151.

[34] Mann, 93.

[35] Mann, 95.

[36] Mann, 98.

[37] Mann, 342.

[38] Mann, 98.

[39] Heller, Thomas Mann: The Ironic German, 235.

[40] Heller, 235–36.

[41] Heller, 242.  cf. Woods translation, p. 98: “since for him the life of the individual was separated more superficially from that of the race, birth and death meant a less profound alteration of existence.”

[42] Heller, Thomas Mann: The Ironic German, 236.

[43] Heller, 236-37.  cf. Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1966), p. 479: “Perhaps an exception would have to be made of the man who should once have said from the bottom of his heart with regard to this game: ‘I no longer like it.’”

[44] Heller, Thomas Mann: The Ironic German, 237.

[45] Heller, 237.

[46] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 341.

[47] Heller, Thomas Mann: The Ironic German, 243.

[48] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 543.

[49] Mann, 567.

[50] Mann, 568.

[51] Mann, 569.

[52] Mann, 344.

[53] Mann, 384.

[54] Mann, 148.

[55] Mann, 514.

[56] Mann, 524.

[57] Mann, 515.

[58] Mann, 518.

[59] Mann, 523.

[60] Mann, 385.

[61] Mann, 386.

[62] Mann, 429.

[63] Mann, 182.

[64] Mann, 204.

[65] Mann, 261.

[66] Mann, 257.

[67] Mann, 256.

[68] Mann, 256.

[69] Mann, 257.

[70] Mann, 256.

[71] Mann, 348.

[72] Mann, 347.

[73] Mann, 34.

[74] Mann, 349.

[75] Mann, 348.

[76] Mann, 349.

[77] Mann, 348.

[78] Mann, 349.

[79] Mann, 350.

[80] Mann, 351.

[81] Mann, 1304.

[82] Mann, 149.

[83] Mann, 230.

[84] Mann, 235.

[85] Mann, 514.

[86] Mann, 538.

[87] Mann, 230.

[88] Mann, 251.

[89] Mann, 253.

[90] Mann, 231.

[91] Mann, 232.

[92] Mann, 233.

[93] Mann, 38.

[94] Mann, 1325.

[95] Mann, 1297.

[96] Mann, 1298.

[97] Mann, 1299.

[98] Mann, 1300.

[99] Mann, 1301.

[100] Mann, 1303.

[101] Mann, 38.

[102] Mann, 1311.

[103] Mann, 1357.

[104] Mann, 1358.

[105] William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells et al., Compact (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), The Merchant of Venice, IV.ii.57-69.

[106] Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, 271.

[107] Mann, 1382.

[108] Mann, 40.

Shannon PepeShannon Pepe

Shannon Pepe

Shannon Pepe received her M.A. in Liberal Arts from the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College. She teaches English at the Cambridge School of Dallas.

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