Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mann the Teacher

  Final Notes on 
Joseph and His Brothers

"That my brothers mutilated me and threw me into the pit and that they shall now be standing before me--that is life.  And life is also the question of whether one should judge the deed by its consequences and so call what is evil good, because it was necessary for a good result.  Those are the questions that life poses.  One cannot answer them with a long face.  The human spirit can rise above them only in serene delight, so that in its own profound amusement over what is unanswerable, it may move God Himself, the great unanswering God, to laughter." (p 1304)

As Joseph and His Brothers moves inexorably toward its conclusion the reader is reminded again by the narrator of this fact.
"We are astonished to note that this story is moving toward its end--who would have thought it could ever run dry and come to an end?  But ultimately it no more has an end than it actually had a beginning, and instead, since it  cannot possibly go on forever like this, it must at some point excuse itself and simply cease its narration." (p 1431)

At the beginning of the story we were regaled with the "Tales of Jacob" and his clever wresting of the birthright from his elder brother Esau.  Now, as Jacob is reunited with his lost son Joseph in Egypt he bestows his rightful blessing on Ephraim, the younger of Joseph's two sons, instead of Manasseh, the elder.  Thus we have the beginning in the end and as Joseph points out to his father Jacob what he has done Jacob says to him, "What I have done, I have done, and it is indeed my will that it become a proverb and saying in Israel, so that whenever anyone wishes to bless, he shall say, 'God make you as Ephraim and Manasseh.'  Let Israel take note." (p 1461)

Again, the narrator has lectured the reader about what to expect, "How remarkable, how it tickles one's fancy, to note how events in this story are ordered in such lovely correspondence and one piece finds its fulfillment in its counterpart." (p 1388)  
Jacob's sons have just returned from Egypt with the news that his son whom he thought was dead is instead alive and prospering in Egypt.  Yes, Joseph has risen to the penultimate level in the whole country.  Thus the second fall into the pit of prison has led to an even greater outcome than the earlier apparent death and rebirth from the first pit.  In the meantime the narrator has regaled the reader with Joseph's dream interpretations and his continued faithful adherence to what he believed to be God's plan for his life. Yet his life story was interpreted in light of episodes that mirrored Mesopotamian and Greek mythology, and involved Joseph becoming an Egyptian. In Jacob's eyes "Joseph was the man set apart, who in being exalted had stepped back, was now separated from his tribe, and could not be a tribe himself." (p 1450)  This would devolve upon his sons as we saw above.  

At the end of the fourth and final novel in the massive tetralogy, after his sons had buried Jacob, the brothers are united in a positive spirit respecting Jacob's last wish and the story ends on a beautiful note.  The magnificent story of Joseph and His Brothers was complete, a story in the even greater comedy of humankind.

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


Brian Joseph said...

I have really enjoyed your commentary on this tetralogy. What a monumental and impressive work it seems to be.

Someday I hope to read it myself.

James said...


Thanks for you words of encouragement. Mann's novel is magnificent and also filled with love and encouragement for the reader. I continue to struggle with the reasons why I love Mann's books but this is probably the primary reason.