Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers
"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."(p 23) - T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
All men dream as T. E. Lawrence observed in his magnificent memoir, but not all men are interpreters of dreams. At least not all men are capable of interpreting as astutely as the mature Joseph, who, imprisoned in the island prison Zawi-Re, put his interpretive abilities to good use as he, once again, began to rise up from the pit into which he descended based upon the accusations of Potiphar's Wife.
The very young Joseph was described by the narrator as being in a state that "includes a certain feminine consciousness; -- more at home really in heavenly realms". (p 60) Perhaps it was this aspect of his consciousness that was the source of his preternatural ability to read, analyze, and interpret dreams. Perhaps the source was his nightly vigils meditating upon the moon or, and this is more certain, it was a gift from his father Jacob who was also known to dream and, especially, ponder. If the source is uncertain, the ability, first to dream and later to interpret dreams, was something he demonstrated in his youth. His own dreaming ability, when young and brash, was shared with his brothers whose hackles were understandably raised; just one of the many missteps and misspeakings of Joseph that would lead to his entering the first pit. Joseph's dreaming was corollary to his meditative mode and it is this that consumes him on the journey to a second pit, the island prison Zawi-Re. This "added to his uneasiness, to the general depression and gloom that overshadowed him, but that was also accompanied by a lofty awareness of destiny and a meditative play of thought.
For the son of Jacob and his true wife had been unable to resist such play his whole life long, no more as a grown man, whose years were now counted at twenty-seven, than as a callow lad. But for him the dearest and sweetest form of play was allusion, and whenever events in his carefully monitored life grew rich with allusion and circumstances proved transparent for a higher correspondence, then he was happy, for transparent circumstances can never be entirely gloomy."(p 1053)
It is here in the island prison Zawi-Re that he he meets yet another father-figure in Mai-Sakhme, the would-be artist who is Warden of the Prison. Mai-Sakhme recognizes the talents and competency of Joseph and puts him to work as a prison overseer. This would be surprising if we had not seen Joseph rise again and again in his previous roles from the lowest of the low to a valued place that, if not high itself, was close to those that were high in social standing. It is in his new role as a trusted convict that he is also given the opportunity to improve his status even further; for he is given the duty to serve two new prisoners, the Baker and Butler to the Pharaoh himself, both of whom are awaiting the result of their trial for the alleged crime of attempting to poison the Pharaoh. It is this moment when they bring their dreams to Joseph who offers these words:
"I am not entirely inexperienced in the field and might even boast a certain familiarity with dreams--and please don't take that amiss, but simply as an apt way of stating that my family and clan have always dreamt a good many highly suggestive dreams . . . why not take it with me and tell me your dreams, so that I may try to interpret them?
You're an amiable lad and when you speak of dreams you stare off into space with a veiled look in those handsome, even beautiful eyes of yours, so that we are tempted to trust in your ability to assist us." (p 1102)
While it takes some further persuasion from Joseph, they willingly share their dreams with him and he interprets them with precision and, as it subsequently turns out, correctness. Most importantly he elicits from the Butler, whose dream foretold a successful return to his previous state, a promise that he not be forgotten when the Butler reascends to the court of the Pharaoh. Whether or not the Butler will actually remember his promise is another of Mann's many details that provides the reader with suspense (even if you have the original Joseph story from Genesis in the back of your mind). Interpreter of dreams will be Joseph's talent, one that will carry him to greater heights than he has yet seen; along with his continuing confidence in his god's plan.
Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph by T. E. Lawrence. Penguin Books, 1986 (1926)