Wednesday, December 04, 2013

A Young Man's Destiny

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Joseph stood there beneath the stars and before the giant riddle for a long time, his weight on one leg, an elbow propped in one hand and his chin in the other.  When he was once again lying beside Kedma in the tent, he dreamt of the sphinx, which said to him, "I love you.  Come to me and name your name to me, whatever my nature may be."  But he answered, "How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?"

Joseph has entered into Egypt in the third volume of Thomas Mann's magisterial tetralogy, Joseph in Egypt.  His destiny that was identified in the opening pages of the tetralogy when he was given the promise, along with his father Jacob, "And you shall be a destiny"(p 7).  As the descent into Egypt begins Joseph is chatting with Kedma, son of the leader of the Midianite caravan that purchased him from his brothers after they saved him from the depths of the pit.  The reborn Joseph asks "Where is God leading me by having me travel with you?"  Kedma responds,
"What a fellow, always good for a laugh.  You have a way of putting yourself in the middle of things that leaves a man not knowing whether to be amazed or angry.  Do you suppose, Hey There, that we journey simply so that you may arrive somewhere your god wants you to be?"
Joseph responds that "you are the means and the tool by which I am to arrive at my goal.  That is why I asked you where you are leading me." (pp 541-2)  He has recognized his destiny and is confident that he will be able, wherever he ends up in this new land, to realize that destiny.

Thomas Mann is consummate in his ability to depict the details of the land Joseph is entering whether it is the great monuments or the common people he meets at a ceremony praising the gods of Menfe (Memphis) like a simple "potbellied man in bast sandals" standing next to them whose detailed description is a paragraph in length -- just one of many such seeming diversions that make the story all the more readable and believable as the interstices of the brief passages from the story in Genesis are filled in by the narrator. 
This is part of one of the primary themes in Thomas Mann's Joseph tetralogy.  The theme of Up and Down, Top and Bottom, Heaven and the Earth below in a metaphorical sense.  From the opening overture to the rest of the book, Descent into Hell, this theme recurs in many settings.  With major characters, often Joseph as in the quotation above, dreaming of the stars and the heavens above while pages later the narrator is sharing the details of the streets and the people that are encountered whether on the caravan trail or in a ceremony encompassing hundreds of common everyday people.

Throughout the story the narrative builds an image of an archetype, that is Joseph the young man on an heroic journey to claim his destiny.  He has been singled out by his father;  he was cast into the pit and left for dead only to be reborn and sold to traders headed for Egypt; and now he is entering "the Land of Mud" as Egypt was known pejoratively, a "Sheol" on earth.  In this journey he has left one father behind and in the head of the Midianite Traders found a second whom he will also soon leave behind.  At this most recent step he has acquired a new name.  The unknown young man who knows that he will be passed on to new owners in the not too distant future and who the traders referred to as "Hey There" has a lengthy discussion with the old man leading the traders which ends with this exchange:

""But you must at least be able to name the slave when you pass him on to that blessed house in Amun's city."
"So then, what is your name?"
"Osarsiph," Joseph replied.
The old man was silent.  Although there was no more than a respectful distance between them, they could perceive one another only as shadows now." (pp 564-5) 


Brian Joseph said...

Great post james.

As you have been putting up entries on this work it is seeming to me that this is such a rich and worthwhile series of novels. Interestingly I was barely aware of their existence previously.

James said...

Thanks Brian, The novels come alive in John Woods new translation. He has translated all of Mann's major works from Buddenbrooks through Doctor Faustus.