Wednesday, October 09, 2013
Prelude to a Tetralogy
Notes on Joseph and His Brothers, I
"Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?"
With these words Thomas Mann begins his magisterial tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers. The opening "Prelude", "Descent into Hell", is an exploration of the mythology of time. Much as Augustine asks, "What, then, is time?" in his Confessions (Chapter 14 of Book 11), Mann's narrator asks us if the past is not inscrutable in the sense that it "offers us only illusory stations and goals, behind which, once we reach them, we discover new stretches of the past opening up--". This meditation on the past in the Prelude is not unlike a prelude by Wagner for one of his operas where the motifs and themes for the whole opera are explored. We experience this as Mann's narrator moves on to Jacob and Joseph and a vision of the godhead in the abstract--in effect imagining the idea of a god in the Platonic philosophic sense.
It is into this abstract vision of the world on the edge of time that the story is presented as a mythos that explores the relationships of specific Biblical personages, like Joseph and his father Jacob, with their traditions and history. They become the focal point for a personal monotheistic god in a culture that is surrounded by Mesopotamian gods on the east and Egyptian gods on the west and, at least referentially Greek gods to the north or in the mythological mysts of time. These mysts are as deep and distant as can be measured by the extravagant lengths of an imagined "temporal plumb line".
As the prelude wanes the myth of the past and the traditions of Jacob suggest a god who looks to the future--plans that are far reaching for a culture that shared an unease and desire for a god of problems and movement and mystery.
The novel proper begins with the stories of Jacob the father of Joseph. Here we see a beautiful young Joseph and an anxious father who is proud of his precocious son, even as his voice is "charged with emotion" as he states in a questioning way, "My child is sitting beside the depths of the well?"
While Joseph, the bookish child of beauty and brains, asks for a story from his father to entertain him, his father begins a reverie, "pondering" in his own serious way; so much so that he is eventually described as "brooding" over his past life of stolen name and stolen wife and more; yet, through all his pondering in the section called "Names" he ultimately receives from "an extraordinary voice" the name of "Yizrael " . . . "God goes to war". Thus the first novel of the four that comprise the totality of Joseph and His Brothers begins with mythos, an account, a narrative, yes a story of a man of god and his sons.
Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)