Saturday, November 09, 2013

Beauty and Knowledge

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Seldom are beauty and knowledge found together on earth.  Rightly or wrongly, we are accustomed to imagine that erudition is ugly, and that charm lacks all intellect--indeed it is part of charm that it lacks intellect in all good conscience, since it not only has no need of letters, of intellect and wisdom, but in fact also runs the risk of being distorted or destroyed by them."(p 331)

HERMES is the name the Greeks gave to the messenger of the Gods.  He was the cleverest of the Olympian gods, and messenger to all the other gods.

Hermes is the son of Zeus and Maia. He is Zeus messenger. He is the fastest of the gods. He wears winged sandals, a winged hat, and carries a magic wand. He is the god of thieves and god of commerce. He is the guide for the dead to go to the underworld. 
Versatility and mutability are Hermes' most prominent characteristics. His specialties are eloquence and invention (he invented the lyre). He is the god of travel and the protector of sacrifices; he is also god of commerce and good luck. The common quality in all of these is again consciousness, the agile movement of mind that goes to and fro, joining humans and gods, assisting the exchange of ideas and commercial goods. Consciousness has a shadow side, however: Hermes is also noted for cunning and for fraud, perjury, and theft.
While Hermes is regarded as one of the earliest and most primitive gods of the Greeks, he enjoys so much subsequent prominence that he must be recognized as an archetype devoted to mediating between, and unifying, the opposites. This foreshadows his later role as master magician and alchemist, as he was regarded both in Egypt and in Renaissance Europe. His Egyptian name was Thoth which is the title Thomas Mann gave to the opening part of Young Joseph, the second novel in the tetralogy that comprises Joseph and His Brothers.  

Joseph is seventeen as the book opens and his beauty approaches perfection.  But what does that mean?  Our narrator tells us that "Beauty is magic worked upon the emotions--always half-illusionary, extremely precarious, and fragile in its very efficacy."(p 317)  He reminds us that beauty may be hidden in the dark, or the lack thereof as in the case of Jacob's bridal night with Leah.  It seems that "deception, Deceit, trickery, fraud"--these play a role in the "realm of beauty", and these bring us into the realm of Thoth (Hermes).  But there are more considerations such as the role of sexuality, love and desire in the realm of beauty.  He suggests that beauty lies in a realm suspended between masculinity and femininity.  With this thought he concludes that:
"A lad of seventeen is not beautiful in the sense of a purely impractical femininity--that would attract only a few.  But let us grant this much: Beauty as youthful charm always tend in both psychology and expression somewhat toward the feminine; that is part of its nature, which has its basis in its tender relationship with the world and of the world with it--it is painted in youth's smile.  At seventeen, it is true, someone can be more beautiful than woman or man, beautiful both as woman and man, beautiful from both sides and in every way, handsome and beautiful enough to set any woman, any man gawking, tumbling, head over heels in love."(p 318)  
Now that is an impressive picture of beauty!  But more important even than that for young Joseph is learning.  And for this he must sit under the tree of God to be tutored in the science of knowledge.  His tutor is Eliezer, Jacob's steward and oldest servant, mysterious man with a "divine vagueness" about his person.  Notably, Joseph alone among the sons of Jacob received this sort of education.  And in the tradition of Thoth (Hermes) it was one that was broad and deep ultimately initiating Joseph in "Secrets that made learning a great and flattering delight, precisely because they were secrets known to only a few tight-lipped and arch-clever men in temples and closed lodges, but not to the great masses."(p  327).  Thus Joseph is further set apart from his brothers and prepared with secret knowledge that would, unknown to him at the time, stand him in good stead in his future life.


Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary James.

I am fascinating by the entire secret knowledge thing when it pops up literature. Though in my opinion it is contrary to the way human learning and knowledge has developed over the eons.

James said...

In the mythology of Joseph's time the idea of "secret knowledge" seems more reasonable than in our own era. I like to think merely that there will always remain mysteries for humans to solve.