Friday, January 24, 2014

Potiphar's Wife

 Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Love is an illness, though perhaps more like pregnancy and the labors of childbirth, and thus, so to speak, a healthy illness, even if, like them, it is not without its dangers.  The woman's mind was dazed, and although as an educated Egyptian she could express herself with literary and, after her own fashion reasonable   eloquence, her ability to differentiate between what was permissible and impermissible was greatly diminished and blurred." (p 916)

In other words she was smitten with love, a condition entirely new to her, after many years in a merely symbolic relationship with Potiphar who, for reasons too recondite, or perhaps merely complicated, to relate, was not in any position to demand or persuade her emotional or physical participation in his bedroom.  No, his wife, Mut-em-enet, referred to simply as Mut, has fallen "head-over-heels" for Joseph.  Joseph, too, is confused as his growing maturity has increased his masculinity yet his position as Potiphar's chamberlain following the death of Mont-kaw, settled a new formality in his relations with Potiphar and his household, including Mut.  He was not a little dazed by the apparent change in her look and language used toward him and would fend off presents she offered as inappropriate for one in his position.  It is only when he reluctantly refuses a gift of "festive garb" that a realization occurs, his eyes suddenly cleared of the mist that had hampered them, which the narrator compares to the reaction that Gilgamesh had "when Ishtar besieged him because of his beauty and solicited him, saying: "Come then, Gilgamesh, you shall pair with me and impart your fruit to me," while holding out to him the splendor of many gifts should he comply with her wish."(p 920)

Joseph reflects on this and on Mut's rash actions and deliberates, concluding that "I understand myself in him [Gilgamesh], as I understand him through myself. . . and girded himself with his chastity against your pursuit and your gifts."(p 921)  Thus Joseph reflects on the chastity required and the reasons, enumerating seven reasons of varying validity and strength, perhaps the strongest of them being his loyalty to Potiphar and his recognition of the power of the covenant that he must maintain with his fathers, both Jacob his earthly father and God his spiritual father.  This is done as the years have passed and his memory of his earthly father seems to dim and with it the memory of what Jacob must continue to feel in his mourning for his dead son, yet Joseph's relation with his god seems to be continually refreshed bringing strength to his will that yields unexpected success in his dealings with the Egyptians for someone who is still a foreigner in their midst.

These internal vows determine that the narrative will be one of a smitten woman who, in spite of her relative power over Joseph, is hindered and thwarted in her increasingly heated and threatening attempts to conquer him in the sense that one gains the love of another.  Her increasing desire leads the narrator to compare her state that of a witch and the familiar metaphor of witchcraft in the tempting of a man is one that would fit her with the exception that she lacks any control over her actions.  Returning to a classical trope one would better describe Mut as being under the spell of Eros, engaging in an increasingly irrational series of actions that appear Maenadic in their Dionysian fury.  Through all their relations it appears that Joseph and Mut are talking past one another.  While Joseph is certainly aware of Mut's  desires (although perhaps not their strength), she is definitely not aware of the power of his reasons for chastity, especially a covenant with a god that is literally unknown to her.
At the same time, the evil dwarf Dudu is attempting to use the situation to his own benefit by persuading Potiphar to banish Joseph based on his telling tales about the so-called affair between Mut and Joseph.   Joseph, who does not appreciate the danger Dudu presents, remains unaware of these machinations.  We all know the outcome of these events, but the lengthy narrative once again demonstrates Thomas Mann's ability to create interest through detail and suspense and in this instance through relating a powerful story of unrequited love.  The power of the story raises Mut to the level of quintessential or perhaps even an archetypal woman; one who would compare with Eve or Delilah, Clytemnestra or Penelope.  

Joseph, for all his saintly chastity and growing maturity, is still a person who is both demonstrably hindered by his own "amor propre" and is overtly hubristic, losing sight of all the potentialities and possibilities of his situation.  Could not he have confided in Potiphar when Mut first approached him?  Potiphar certainly loves Joseph as the son that he never had, but this love will eventually be tested when Potiphar is faced with the pleading of his wife when she changes her fury from the pursuit of love to the rage for revenge. 

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)
Image of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Guido Reni.


Brian Joseph said...

The characterization of Mut-em-Enet sounds marvelous. Among other things, the way that Mann has built upon these Biblical characters make this work sounds appealing. There is something very appealing exploring these figures, who often had only a few intriguing lines written about them in the Bible. in such depth.

James said...

Thanks for your observations. Mann's imaginative ability is part of his literary genius.