Monday, October 21, 2013

Moonlight as Leitmotif

Further Notes on  

Joseph and His Brothers

"As they spoke the moon, its shimmering light so pure that it transfigured its own materiality, had continued it high journey; the position of the stars had changed according to the law of hours.  Night wove peace, mystery,  and the future out into far expanses" -  Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, p 92.

Imagine you are there in the midst of the arid countryside with Jacob and Joseph under the moon.  The mysteries of the night are broken only by the light of the moon.  What would you be thinking about?  Peace and the future of your family?  The importance of the moon's light for the culture within which Jacob and his family moved cannot be overemphasized.  This importance is brought home over and over in "The Stories of Jacob", the first book in the tetralogy.  The phrase "A World Lit Only By Fire" comes to my mind.  It is the title of a luminous work of history by William Manchester about the beginnings of the sixteenth century more than two millenia after the time of Jacob and Esau, yet the world he described still depended very much on the moon in the dark sky of the night.  

It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrors the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--".  The moon as leitmotif serves two main functions. One aspect is the beautiful orb as the goddess of love, Ishtar or Astarte.  Although either of these ladies are also the planet Venus; remembering that Mann's "moon grammar" ignores logical contradictions (even as Mann maintains a sort of narrative logic as he weaves the tales).  Pagan in its eroticism the moon, represents a threat to Jacob's personal standards of sexual behavior; but we see Joseph at the well under the moonlit sky sitting half-naked, flirting with the moon, as it were.  Yet another aspect of the moon is one of mediator between the sun and the earth; feminine to one and masculine to the other. As the story goes forward we see this mirroring Joseph's mediation between Pharaoh and Egyptian Society and an anticipation of Jesus' mediation between god and man.

Mann himself spins out his story weaving themes like tradition, culture, and moonlight into a mesmerizing mosaic of tales of individuals within the whole of the tribes from which Joseph emerges.  Moreover, just as Mann interweaves the themes he also plays loose with time weaving backward and forward as he builds the mosaic-like narrative.  Just as many of the stories yet to be told were foreshadowed in the Prelude: Descent into Hell, the stories of Jacob are related out of order; for example, the rape of Dinah narrative is related before returning to the story of the trials of Laban that occurred almost two decades earlier.  This method suggests some of Thomas Mann's personal approach to modernism that was still at its height in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Most of all the first book of the tetralogy is Jacob's story.  It is the story of a man whose "soul was moved and exalted by thoughts of emulation, recurrence, the past made present."  Throughout the long narrative these ideas, especially recurrence, will blend with questions of identity, unity, and tradition to limn this distant world and challenge our idea of the world today;  Mann as always tells it better when he lectures the reader:

"And here, to be sure, what we have to say flows into a mystery in which our own information gets lost--the mystery, that is, of an endless past in which every origin proves to be just an illusory stopping place, never the final goal of the journey, and its mystery is based on the fact that by its very nature the past is not a straight line, but a sphere.  The line knows no mystery.  Mystery lies in the sphere.  But a sphere consists of compliments and correspondences, a doubled half that closes to a unity;" (p 151)

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)


Brian Joseph said...

Great post James.

I really find the allegory of the past and the sphere fascinating. If I am understanding him correctly I think that it is very logical.

James said...

Thanks, and you are correct in your understanding. One of the many impressive aspects of Mann's novel is the way he blends the spiritual side of men with the reality of everyday life and does it all with impeccable logic.