Friday, December 13, 2013

A River and a Destiny

Further Notes on 
Joseph and His Brothers

"Thus life's benefits were always held in check by its drawbacks, and its drawbacks compensated for by its benefits, so that in purely mathematical terms the result was naught and nothing, but in practical terms, it was the wisdom of balance and of middling perfection--in light of which neither jubilation no curses were in order, but rather contentment.  For perfection did not consist of a one-sided amassing of benefits, just as life would be impossible if it were naught but drawbacks.  Instead, life was made up of the mutual cancellation of benefit and drawback, resulting in nothing, which was to say, contentment." (p 622)

The Nile was the source of life for the peoples of Egypt, a land that was known by outsiders as the land of mud, but known by those who live there as the apex of the universe.  The above bit of distilled wisdom, blending thoughts from such disparate sources as Aristotle, Buddha, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, was inspired by the motion of the ship, optimistically named Sparkling with Speed, that carried Joseph and the entourage with which he belonged southward on the Nile or upstream as the Nile flows from the South toward the North where it ultimately empties into the Mediterranean Sea.  The journey of Joseph from the north to the south was taking him toward a future which the narrator in one of his somewhat omniscient moments declares:
"How accustomed he would one day become to this mode of travel, and how familiar to him this stretch between Amun's house and the witty graveyard town of Menfe would become!  And like those nobles in their tapestried shrines, that is how, by the decree of Providence, he would sit one day in stately immobility--which he would have to learn because the people expected it of their gods and great men.  For, under God's care, he was to conduct himself so wisely and with such grace that he became first among those in the West," (p 624)
Thus the reader is given a description of Joseph's future, foretelling his rise from his current position as a slave, a "boy of the sand", who is the lowest of the low.  He is a young innocent boy who in spite of his innocence senses his destiny with face upward, challenging his superiors at some risk, yet having already risen from the dead he is emboldened beyond the limits that would be expected for someone in his lowly position.  Yes,  he is "Osarsiph" and he is destined for more, much more, than the traders and courtiers who haggle over him as a piece of merchandise can possibly imagine.

The Nile journey is one that presents to Joseph a world teeming with life, made of flora and fauna that seem strange to his eyes.  But he takes it all in and uses his eyes, and other senses, to learn the essence of this new world.  Among the many plants are bulrushes, a vision that reminds this reader of another river and another time when a young boy leaves his home to encounter strange adventures on the border between civilization and nature.  That boy was Huck Finn and the river the mighty Mississippi.  It was mighty river for some of the same reasons as the Nile with its magnificent power and importance for the people and culture who lived on and by it and depended upon it for their livelihood.  Thomas Mann has created an archetypal portrait of the world that surrounds Joseph and which he is determined to subdue as he fulfills his destiny.

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

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