Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Thomas Mann (page 1 of 1)

Wystan and Erika

Erika Mann WH Auden.

The couple above are W. H. Auden and Erika Mann. The photo was taken by a student at The Downs School, where Auden was then teaching. Erika, the daughter of the novelist Thomas Mann and an ardent opponent of Nazism, had been living in England but was in imminent danger of being repatriated to Germany. To prevent that from happening, Auden agreed to marry her. (Both were gay and not otherwise interested in matrimony.) On June 15, 1935 they were married in Ledbury, a town near the school. This photo was taken around that time, perhaps even on their wedding day.

Thomas and Katia Mann were very worried about Erika’s safety: had she been repatriated, a lengthy prison term was the best that she could have hoped for, especially since on her mother’s side she was of Jewish descent. Thomas and Katia were themselves safely on their way to New York City, traveling by ocean liner, when, on June 16, they received a terse and to-the-point telegram:


Eventually the Mann family would be reunited in America, and Erika and Klaus would write a book about their deliverance from Nazism.

Mann erika klaus escape to life.

In January of 1939, Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood arrived in New York City and were greeted at the pier by Erika and Klaus. They all drove down to Princeton to meet Papa and Mama Mann, and Life magazine sent a photographer to capture a family photo:

Carl mydans christopher isherwood and w.h. auden with thomas mann and his family at mann home, princeton, nj.

A happy reunion!

Wystan and Erika never divorced, so for decades Auden got to enjoy making jokes about “my father-in-law.” When Erika died in 1969 some of the obituaries noted that she was survived by her husband, the poet W. H. Auden — a piece of information that came as rather a shock to some of her friends, and his.

All that said, after their marriage Auden was very eager for his parents to meet Erika and insisted that she travel to Birmingham with him so they could receive the parental blessing. (“My husband is a tyrant,” Erika sighed in a letter to a friend, not thinking Birmingham a sufficiently interesting or beautiful city to make a visit worthwhile.) They remained friends always, and Isherwood thought that later there was even “a touch of eroticism” to their relationship. So to call it a “marriage of convenience” is perhaps not to tell the whole truth.

Future Mann

I don’t know how many people read my recent series of posts on Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers — but then, I don’t know how many people read any of my posts, because I don’t have analytics enabled on this site. I always write under the assumption that I have somewhere between 40 and 50 readers. Anyway, I have been reading much more by and about Thomas Mann, focusing especially on the decade he lived in America — the 1940s, more or less — and have been fascinated by the ways that that period of Mann’s life, and what he wrote and spoke in those years, connects with the major themes of my own writing. So I will be returning to Herr Mann.

But not immediately. I have classes to finish, and then between now and the end of January I’ll be trying to finish a draft of my “biography” of Paradise Lost. So I’ll be setting aside my work on Mann in the interests of Getting Things Done, and in the coming weeks blogging will be inconsistent and desultory, though there will be, as always, a drizzle of links and images at my micro.blog page.

Mann’s Joseph: 7

Last post in a series. Previous installments: 

Joseph, the next-to-youngest son of Jacob, rises in his father’s estimation and love, but then is cast down into a pit. He is lifted out of the pit, but then sold into slavery, taken to the underworld of Egypt. He is slave to a rich and powerful man named Potiphar (or, as Mann sometimes calls him, Peteprê), but then is falsely accused of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife and cast into prison. But then, unexpectedly, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later to become Aktenaten, calls Joseph to him: he is in great need of one who can rightly interpret dreams. (“Behold,” his brothers had said, years earlier, “this dreamer cometh.”) And so Joseph rises once more, to become the teacher of the Pharaoh, the vizier of all Egypt, and, eventually, the provider for his family, whom, despite the years of separation, he has never ceased to remember and to love. 

Thomas Mann in his home in Pacific Palisades

Thomas Mann wrote most of this fourth book, Joseph the Provider, in southern California, having done some planning and preliminary drafting while still in Princeton, where he had lived from 1938 to early 1941. In his house near the ocean, he lived the life of an exiled Prince of Literature — and in a matter befitting royalty, he gave audiences: for instance, he once served tea and conversation to “an embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child” — the 14-year-old Susan Sontag. And, thousands of miles from home, he wrote the story of a stranger in a strange land — a clever and victorious one. 

During the years of World War II, a large and disorderly community of refugees assembled itself in the Los Angeles area, primarily in Pacific Palisades — a kind of emigré civilization unto itself. There were novelists (Mann, his elder brother Heinrich, Franz Werfel, Aldous Huxley), composers (Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky), philosophers (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno), film directors (Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls), dramatists (Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger). They were mostly friendly with and grateful for one another — though one had to be careful to make sure that Schönberg and Stravinsky were never in the same room — and some of them stayed for the rest of their lives in California, though others returned to Europe when they fell under the indiscriminately hateful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its associated organs. (Several books have been written about this little world of exiles, but you may read a skillful brief overview by Alex Ross here.) 

For decades the brothers Mann had persisted in a slightly ridiculous practice: Every five years they booked a hall somewhere and invited an audience to come listen to each of them read a speech addressed to the other. These events combined sibling rivalry, mutual respect, and sheer pomposity — one German friend called them “ceremonial evaluations of each other” — but how could such an event possibly be staged in Pacific Palisades? 

Enter Salka Viertel, whose comical attempts to get Schönberg a job composing a Hollywood film score I wrote about here. As far as I can tell, almost every Jew and anti-Nazi who escaped Europe during the war years was told to head for Los Angeles and get in touch with Salka Viertel. She was (in addition to her paid work as a screenwriter) a hostess, a therapist, a travel agent, an employment service, an introducer — and the maker of flourless chocolate cakes so extraordinary that Thomas Mann once showed up at a wedding of a couple he did not even know because he heard that Salka was baking a cake for the reception.

Of course Salka hosted the soirée for the brothers Mann. 

Salka Viertel and her friend Greta Garbo

She invited forty-five people, somehow squeezed them into her small house (bringing a ping-pong table inside to make a second dining table helped), and got a friend to make the dinner while she presided as mistress of ceremonies. A few others showed up, purportedly to help serve, but in fact just to hang out in the kitchen and listen to the goings-on. As Donna Rifkind notes in her fine book on Salka Viertel, “Every person in the house that night was an émigré.” 

Writing decades later, Viertel primarily remembered the comical aspects of the evening. After Thomas gave “a magnificent tribute to the older brother, and acknowledgment of Heinrich’s prophetic political wisdom, his far-sighted warnings to their unhappy country, and a superb evaluation of his literary stature,” Viertel — not then knowing the brothers’ long practice — was surprised to see Heinrich stand up: “First, he thanked me for the evening then, turning to his brother, paid him high praise for his continuous fight against fascism. To that he added a meticulous literary analysis of Thomas Mann’s oeuvre in its relevance to the Third Reich.” (In fact, Heinrich toasted Viertel’s hospitality at the end of his speech, and a gracious toast it was too.)  

But more than this was said. Near the end of his speech, Thomas declared, 

Our Germans believe too strongly in crude success, in force, in war. They believe that all they had to do was create iron facts, before which humanity would surely bow down. It will not bow down before them, because it cannot. Be one’s thoughts of humanity ever so bitter and dubious — there is, with all the wretchedness, a divine spark in it, the spark of the intellect and the good. It cannot accept the final triumph of evil, of lies and force — it simply cannot live with it. The world, the one resulting from the victory of Hitler, would indeed be not only a world of universal slavery, but also a world of absolute cynicism, a world that flew in the face of every belief in the good, in the higher qualities within human beings, a world that belonged utterly to evil, a world submissive to evil. There is no such world; that would not be tolerated. The revolt of humanity against a Hitlerian world of the complete negation of what is best in human beings — this revolt is the most certain of certainties; it will be an elemental revolt, before which “iron facts” will splinter like tinder. 

And near the end of his speech, Heinrich said, 

We must preserve the hope of growing older than virulent hatred and sensation, which is the source of its own ghostly mischief. And, not to forget a wholesome measure of doubt: “When the world drags itself out of one mud hole, it falls into another; moral centuries follow centuries of barbarism. Barbarism is soon swept away; soon it comes again: a continual succession of day and night.” This was said in a century of morality — by Voltaire, and the age was moral only with him. 

It was an early May evening in Pacific Palisades, and the view from the end of the block disclosed the beach and, beyond, the sun setting over the Pacific. Flowers were everywhere in bloom. And, Saska Viertel tells us, as the brothers Mann spoke their words of defiance and hope, the refugees hiding in her tiny kitchen wept. 

That is the context in which the final volume of Mann’s tetralogy — what he called “this invention of God, this beautiful story” — was written. 


All this may help to explain something that otherwise might seem odd: the almost complete disappearance from the story of all the metaphysical and mythological games that I have been tracing through each of the posts in this series. What we get instead is something simpler: a story of lost years redeemed, of enemies (including the enemies inside each of us) thwarted, and of the power of reconciliation. 

One of the most extraordinary moments in the whole tetralogy comes when Joseph’s brothers beat him and throw him into a pit, and what’s extraordinary about it is Joseph’s reaction: For he realizes that they have only treated him this way because he had been very mean to them — belittling, arrogant, taunting. In the pit he begins to know himself. 

This is not to say that the brothers are faultless. They are in many respects a nasty collective piece of work. They are needlessly cruel to their enemies and only slightly less cruel to members of their family. They scheme and deceive. And even after Joseph has done everything for them, they can’t escape their suspicious natures, they can’t stop scheming, they can’t stop fearing that Joseph might not be so much better than them after all. You can read the story here

And here is the speech that Mann gives to his hero at the very end of the tetralogy, “this invention of God”: 

“But brothers, dear old brothers,” he replied, bowing to them with arms spread wide, “what are you saying! You speak exactly as if you feared me and wanted me to forgive you. Am I as God? In the land below, it is said, I am as Pharaoh, and though he is called god, he is but a dear, poor thing. But in asking for my forgiveness, you have not, it appears, really understood the whole story we are in. I do not scold you for that. One can very easily be in a story without understanding it. Perhaps it was meant to be that way, and I have only myself to blame for always understanding too well the game that was being played. Did you not hear it from our father’s lips as he gave me my blessing, that in my case it has always been merely a playful game and an echo? And in his departing words to you did he even mention the nasty thing that happened between you and me? No, he said nothing of it, for he was also part of the game, of God’s playful game. Under his protection I had to rouse you, by my brazen immaturity, to do evil, but God indeed turned it to good, so that I fed many people and matured a little myself besides. But if it is a question of pardon among us human beings, then I am the one who should beg it of you, for you had to play the evildoers so that everything might turn out this way. And now I am supposed to make use of Pharaoh’s power, merely because it is mine, to revenge myself on you for three days of chastisement in a well, and again turn to evil what God has turned to good? Don’t make me laugh! For a man who, contrary to all justice and reason, uses power simply because he has it — one can only laugh at him. If not today, then sometime in the future — and it is the future we shall hold to.” 

Mann’s Joseph: 6

Herodotus (II.42) informs his readers that “the name by which the Egyptians know Zeus is Amun.” Egyptian religion underwent constant change, and varied from place to place, but in general Amun is indeed, like Zeus, the King of the Gods, and already by Herodotus’s time had been fused with the sun-god Ra, who in turn was sometimes fused with another sun- or sky-god, Horus. All very complicated.

Though Horus is quite Apollo-like (or vice versa), some scholars refer to Horus as a sky god rather than a sun god because it is Aun-Ra who is linked more closely with the sun: his kingship over the gods comes increasingly to be associated with the dominance and power of the sun — and then, in the next phase — the one inaugurated by Akhenaten, the subject of a previous post — any such personifications seem unnecessary and indeed irrelevant. He builds temples open to the sky so the sun can be felt and worshipped simultaneously. Akhenaten’s religion is a literalizing movement, a rejection of all likenesses (metaphors, similes, personifications, all the apparatus of mythical storytelling). 

In Joseph and His Brothers, Joseph and his people are set in opposition to Egypt, which is simultaneously the land of sun-worshippers and — as we saw in the most recent post in this series — a kind of underworld. The children of Israel dwell in the highlands, and think of things other than the sun. After the Prelude, the first chapter-as-such of the story is called “Ishtar.” Why? Because the Akkadian goddess Ishtar (or Inanna) is identified with the planet Venus, and that is what Joseph, gazing on the evening sky, is contemplating.

(Interestingly, Ishtar/Inanna is said to have been taken to, and then to have escaped from, the underworld, in stories that are closely linked to those of Osiris, Orpheus, and, if Mann is allowed to have his way, Joseph. Echo after echo after echo.) 

Now, the Semitic version of Ishtar is Astarte, and under that name (or something close to it) she was worshipped by Canaanites, by Phoenicians, by Carthaginians, and, yes, by Egyptians. In the Hebrew Bible she is sometimes called Ashtoreth. Many centuries after Joseph, King Solomon would marry foreign women, with bad results:  

He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom [in other translations Molek or Moloch] the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. 

Again, that happens much later. Still, worth noting. 

As if things are not complicated enough, I have to add one more point: Mann repeatedly associates Abraham with the moon, calls him “the moon-wanderer,” sees his children as inheriting that from him. (In an especially incomprehensible passage [p. 104] he speaks of Jacob as a man of the full moon and Esau as “a man of the dark moon, and thus a man of the sun, a man of the underworld” — huh? Moon, sun, and underworld all at once?) When Joseph and Jacob have their first conversation, in the darkening evening, Mann comments that “the sun’s clarity is one thing and the moon’s another, for the latter had indeed ruled most marvelously over that more than useful discourse. Things look different by moonlight than by the bright of day, and its clarity may indeed have seemed the true clarity to those minds in that time and place” (93, at the outset of the chapter called “Moon Grammar”). So: those in the highlands are linked with the bodies of the night sky, in opposition to the sun-worshippers of that underworld called Egypt. 

How to make sense of this — well, of some of this? Perhaps by looking at a long passage from page 100: 

Yet not even in a dream could the people of El-Elyon attribute their interconnection to a unity and purity of blood. Something Babylonian-Sumerian — and so not exclusively Semitic — had passed through Arabian desert stock; further elements from Gerar, from the land of the Muzri, from Egypt itself, had been blended in, as in the person of the slave Hagar, who was found worthy of sharing the bed with the great head of the tribe himself and whose son, then, married an Egyptian; and it was so universally known that one hardly needed to waste words on how sorely vexed Rebekah must have been by Esau’s Hittite wives — daughters from a tribe that likewise did not call Shem its primal father, but that at some point came from somewhere in Asia Minor, pressing into Syria from the Ural-Altaic region. Many a branch was cast off early on. It is certain that the primal Abraham sired more children after the death of Sarai, and in particular — not being particular himself — with Keturah, a Canaanite woman, though he had not wanted his son Isaak to wed a Canaanite. Of Keturah’s sons, one was named Midian, whose descendants lived out their lives south of the Seir mountains of Edom — Esau’s region —  bordering on the Arabian desert, much like Ismael’s children this side of Egypt; for Yitzchak, the true son, had been the sole heir, while the children of concubines had been bought off with gifts and pushed off to the east, where they lost any feeling for El-Elyon — if they ever had clung to Him — and served their own gods. But it was divine matters, the inherited task of thinking about God, that formed the spiritual bond that, whatever its motley makeup in terms of blood, held this clan together, who among all the Hebrews — be it the sons of Moab, Ammon, or Edom — ascribed that name to themselves in a special and narrow sense, especially insofar as they had now begun, at the very period into which we have entered, to restrict it and link it with another name, that of Israel. 

Whew. The essential point here being that when Joseph is meditating on the night sky he is also meditating on the gods of the gentes — the gods of the Akkadians and Sumerians and Canaanites and Phoenicians. He is thinking from within his own complex ethnicity. Abraham may have “invented God,” but these various gods of the peoples north and east of the fields where the children of Israel wander are part of Joseph’s inheritance also. 

Mann is very interested in triangles and triangulation throughout this tetralogy — perhaps a subject for another post — and I think we can see here the beginnings of something that will be developed throughout this long tale: Joseph — the Thoth/Hermes of this story, the mediator and messenger — as triangulator. He stands at the center of a triangle: 


Everyone knows that navigation depends on triangulation; Mann wants to show us how that works in matters of thought and belief. For many years he had hoped to be his country’s Joseph, perhaps even the Joseph of Europe: the navigator, the interpreter, the guide. (The three sides of his triangle are, I think, Culture, Civilization, and Art.) He describes his self-chosen vocation (sometimes with sly indirectness) in his 1918 book Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, about which Chris Beha has written eloquently here. But circumstances denied him that role, a situation which he finally faced in late 1936, in a famous letter denouncing the Nazi regime, especially its antisemitism. 

Soon thereafter Mann made his way to the United States — first to Princeton and then to California — where he wrote the final volume of his tetralogy, Joseph the Provider. He was a nonpolitical man no longer, and perhaps it was easier for him to accept the end of his role as navigator and interpreter because he was able to write the conclusion to his great tale of the ultimate avatar of Thoth/Hermes, the first cross-cultural guide, the advocate for a civilization based on forgiveness and reconciliation. 


File:Thomas Mann's Signature.png - Wikimedia Commons

After Thomas Mann moved to Princeton in 1938, he resumed research on Joseph and His Brothers, and consequently checked out many books on Egypt from the university’s library. When his wife Katia discovered that to borrow a book he had to sign his name on a card kept in a pocket inside the back cover, she cried, “Tommy, you’re cheapening the value of your signature!” She instructed him to get someone else to check books out for him to avoid this catastrophe.

This reminds me that Marc Chagall used to pay for everything — including a tube of toothpaste — by check, because he guessed that at least some shopkeepers, knowing his fame, would keep the check uncashed as a souvenir or to be sold later.

CleanShot 2023 11 09 at 07 58 17 2x

Mann’s Joseph: 5

One of the most fascinating, and to me surprising, elements of Joseph and His Brothers is the way Mann leans into the simplest of mythical themes: descent and ascent. Down and up.

He does this in part because the biblical narrative virtually demands it. Joseph’s family, as we have already noted, are herdsmen and people of the hills. The habitable portion of ancient Egypt, by contrast, is a long river valley. Therefore, one always goes down to Egypt. You hear this phrase over and over again in Genesis: 

Gen.26:2 “And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of.” 

Gen.37:25 “And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.” 

Gen.39:1 “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmaelites, which had brought him down thither.” 

Gen.46:3 “And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation:

Num. 20:15 “Our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers.” 

By contrast, one always goes up to Jerusalem: 

1 Kings 12:28 “Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” 

Luke 18:31 “Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.” 

But this is not simply a matter of topographical measurement. Though the literal elevation of Jerusalem is around 2500 feet, many places in Israel stand higher — yet even from them, to go to Jerusalem is to go up:

Isaiah 2:3 “And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” 

And if Jerusalem is spiritually the highest place, then Egypt is spiritually the lowest place, and this is not because of its elevation but because of its fascination with death and the underworld — its cult of Osiris. 

In the introduction his famous and almost unimaginably influential translation of what he called the Egyptian Book of the Dead, E. A. Wallis Budge writes of the mysterious “new-comers from the East” who altered the primitive burial practices of the native Egyptians: 

The indigenous peoples readily saw the advantage of brickbuilt tombs and of the other improvements which were introduced by the newcomers, and gradually adopted them, especially as they tended to the preservation of the natural body, and were beneficial for the welfare of the soul; but the changes introduced by the new-comers were of a radical character, and the adoption of them by the indigenous peoples of Egypt indicates a complete change in what may be described as the fundamentals of their belief. In fact they abandoned not only the custom of dismembering and burning the body, but the half savage views and beliefs which led them to do such things also, and little by little they put in their place the doctrine of the resurrection of man, which was in turn based upon the belief that the god-man and king Osiris had suffered death and mutilation, and had been embalmed, and that his sisters Isis and Nephthys had provided him with a series of amulets which protected him from all harm in the world beyond the grave, and had recited a series of magical formulae which gave him everlasting life; in other words, they embraced the most important of all the beliefs which are found in the Book of the Dead. The period of this change is, in the writer’s opinion, the period of the introduction into Egypt of many of the religious and funeral compositions which are now known by the name of “Book of the Dead.” 

So when Joseph — having been thrown down into a pit and then raised up out of the pit; his first descent and first rise — goes down into Egypt, he enters a world dominated by the Underworld, and by the god-king who rules it: one raised up as King of Egypt, then cast down into death, then raised up again as King of the Underworld.

The vertical oscillations of Osiris are then replicated by this stranger Joseph, who also rises and falls repeatedly: once he gets to Egypt, as a mere slave, he is raised up by Potiphar, and then cast down into prison, and then raised up by Akhenaten. The way up is the way down, and the way down may prove to be but a stage of one’s ascent. Osiris knows this, and Joseph learns it — it is what he knows that his herdsman father Jacob does not. 

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, three movements are repeatedly described: going into the underworld, passing through it, and coming forth from it. Mann is obsessed by these movements, especially, though not only, as they are manifest in the life of Joseph. It is said that the god Thoth is the scribe of the underworld, though he does not remain there. He always passes through, as the messenger and mediator must. And one aspect or element of Joseph’s role as mediator is, through his influence on Akhenaten, to turn the minds of the Egyptians away from the underworld and towards the sun — even if this turn is merely one oscillation among many, even if, in the end, the sun itself cannot hold our attention forever. 

(Many centuries later, these lessons would be learned with great difficulty by a Galilean fisherman named Simon Peter. On the Mount of Transfiguration he declares: “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” But he cannot stay there. There are many more vertical oscillations to come, first for his Master, and then for him.) 

Mann’s Joseph: 4

Akhenaten Egypt Alexandria National Museum jpg

This is Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten. In every surviving representation of him he is immediately recognizable; no one else looks like him. There is good reason to believe that he instructed his artists to portray him in a certain manner, a manner especially evident in full-length portrayals: 

Statue of Akhenaten Egyptian Museum al Qāhirah CG EGY 46992837435

He always bears the same features: a high-cheekboned face with slanting eyes and full lips; a narrow waist; a bit of a pot-belly; wide, feminine hips; full thighs and spindly calves. It’s hard to imagine why he asked to be portrayed in this way unless this is, to some degree anyway, what he actually looked like, but some scholars — for instance, Jacobs Van Dijk here — have noted that the artwork that survives from his reign portrays all people in a similar way, though no such mode of representation preceded this era. It is as though Akhenaten decreed himself the image of humanity. It can’t be accidental that he looks like a pregnant woman, like someone about to give birth to something. 

His wife, Nefertiti, gave birth to at least six daughters, but what he gave birth to was the most radical religious reformation ever undertaken: the elimination of the entire vast system of Egyptian worship and the replacement of every cult of every god with a single cult: that of the Aten, the disc (or globe) of the sun. The Egyptians already had a sun-god, of course, Ra, or Amun-Ra, who looked like this: 


Sometimes (after he was in some sense united with the sun-god Ra) he has a falcon’s head. But Aten looked like this: 


The refusal of human or animal imagery was very much the point, though I guess the Aten in a way has hands: like the Beatles, it has arms enough to hold you. 

Akhenaten of course doesn’t mean to suggest that this is what the only God actually looks like: it is merely a visual representation of universality. The idea that a god “looks like” anything, even metaphorically, is part of what he wants to overcome. The great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie wrote of this new theology,

If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe. 

On the other hand, a later Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, in his classic Egypt of the Pharaohs, has a terser description of Akhenaten: he calls him a “heretic.” 

The wonderful idea at the center of Joseph and His Brothers is this: Akhenaten is the Pharaoh who made Joseph his vizier. And thus the thematic tension between monotheism and polytheism is heightened — for, when these two men meet, who is more of a monotheist? 

Mann is of course neither the first nor the last to speculate on the possible relationship between Akhenaten’s monotheism and that of Israel. I am not sure, but I believe that the American archaeologist James Henry Breasted was the first scholar to note the relationship between Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten and (for instance) Psalm 104. Speculation has usually focused on the possible influence of Egypt on the Israelites, in part because the Israelites were a dependent and then an enslaved people, but also in part because the tradition of seeing Egypt as the source of religious ideas for the rest of the world goes all the way back to Herodotus (see the Histories, Book II ¶ 50ff). 

This is how Freud thought of the matter, in Moses and Monotheism, which presents us with Moses as an Egyptian adherent of Atenism. (It’s an incoherent book, alas — written as Freud was dying and little more than a confused riff on Breasted’s work.) This is also how C. S. Lewis thought of the matter. In his Reflections on the Psalms — written twenty years after Freud’s book, which Lewis may or may not have known — he wrote of Akhenaten’s revolution,

As we can see, it was a total failure. Akhenaten’s religion died with him. Nothing, apparently, came of it.

Unless of course, as is just possible, Judaism itself partly came of it. It is conceivable that ideas derived from Akhenaten’s system formed part of that Egyptian ‘Wisdom’ in which Moses was bred. There is nothing to disquiet us in such a possibility. Whatever was true in Akhenaten’s creed came to him, in some mode or other, as all truth comes to all men, from God. There is no reason why traditions descending from Akhenaten should not have been among the instruments which God used in making Himself known to Moses. But we have no evidence that this is what actually happened. Nor do we know how fit Akhenatenism would really have been to serve as an instrument for this purpose. 

Lewis’s thoughts on Akhenaten are interesting enough that I may have to return to them in another post. But for now I just want to note that his way of considering the relationship (which is also the archaeologists’ way) is not the only possibility. What if the flow of influence were reversed? What if one son of Israel, having risen to the position of Pharaoh’s vizier, had the eloquence and imagination to plant the monotheistic seed? — to plant it in fertile and ready ground, to be sure, but to plant it nonetheless. That is the possibility that Mann invites us to consider. 

And perhaps he reminds us also of another point, not a possibility but a reality. Akhenaten’s revolution failed utterly: his son Tutankhaten removed the Aten from his name and became Tutankhamun, affirming his loyalty to one of the gods his father had attempted to banish, Amun-Ra. Of course, ultimately all the gods of Egypt failed; but the children of Israel thrived, and despite countless setbacks, persecutions, and pogroms, despite living for centuries among people who have wanted and still want to destroy them altogether, still to this day worship the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Mann’s Joseph: 3

This difference we have identified between Jacob and Joseph is essential to the story that will unfold, for whether Joseph is a better or worse theologian than his father, his habits of mind are essential to the calling he will assume, the vocation of saving his family.

Again in this opening chapter, Joseph reflects on his name and the important fact that it contains the word sepher (or sefer), which means book or scroll or document. “He loved composing with the stylus and was so skilled at it that he could have served as a junior scribe at some place where documents were collected” (68).

Later, after his brothers sell him into slavery and he finds himself in Egypt, working in the household of a rich and powerful man named Petephrê (Potiphar), he actually becomes a scribe, and Petephrê’s overseer, Mont-kaw, contemplates this boy:

And here Joseph stood before him, scroll in hand, and, for a slave, even a scribal slave, he spoke clever, rougishly subtle words — and that combination of ideas was unsettling. This young Bedouin and Asiatic did not have the head of an ibis on his shoulders, and was, needless to say, a human being, not a god, not Thoth of Khmunu. But he had intellectual connections with that god, and there was something ambiguous about him…. [651]

Again and again in the tetralogy Joseph is associated with the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth was the god of writing, of communication; he was also a wise counselor and mediator, and a messenger. In a story Socrates tells in Plato’s Phaedrus, Thoth offers the gift of writing to one King Thamus, who rejects it. When the Greeks learned about Thoth they immediately recognized him as a version of Hermes, or rather — since they were often inclined to see themselves as inheritors of Egyptian wisdom — recognized Hermes as a version of Thoth. 

At several key points in the story Joseph encounters a nameless figure who is a guide — especially a guide to the Underworld that is Egypt — and a messenger. This is clearly Thoth/Hermes. Maybe I’ll write about him in a later post. But right now I am concerned with Joseph’s own Thothness: what he ultimately becomes is the go-between, the messenger, the mediator, who links his family — his radically monotheistic nomadic-shepherd family — with the great Egyptian empire, full of magnificent cities and temples and a near-infinity of gods. Only Joseph can mediate those two worlds.

For much of the book, I assumed that in telling Joseph’s story Mann was essentially writing a critique of monotheism, at least in its Israelite form; that he was teaching us that Joseph’s flexible and quasi-syncretic way is the better way. But eventually I was forced to reconsider that view.

Mann’s Joseph: 2

Joseph, unlike his ancestors, delights in the gods of the gentes: he knows their names and attributes. He thinks about them, he plays in his mind with those names and attributes; he can’t help himself. When Jacob comes upon his son in nude contemplation he thinks Joseph is “blowing kisses to the stars,” which the lad denies, but in a flood of verbiage — he is an incessant chatterbox and will one day pay mightily for it — that takes him right back into danger. He soon finds himself describing the worship of the Mesopotamian moon-god Sin, whose “day of festive contemplation,” Shapattu, is coming soon, and recalls that the moon does not shine on its own, no, we know that “He made it to shine” and —

“Who?” Jacob asked softly. “Who made it shine?”

Marduk-Baal!” Joseph cried all too hastily, but followed this at once with a long, drawn-out “Aeh-h-h-h,” shaking his head to undo it, and now continued, “… as He is called in the old tales. It is, however — as my dear papa has no need to learn from his poor child — the Lord of the gods, who is stronger than all the Annunaki and Baals of other nations, the god of Abraham, who defeated the dragon and created the threefold world.” (76)

Joseph is this, if not consciously and intentionally polytheistic, imaginatively so; moreover, he is, even when speaking conciliatory words to his father, not a strict monotheist but rather a henotheist — which suggests that that he thinks this may be acceptable to his father. (Mann is surely aware of the passages in the Hebrew Bible that sound henotheistic, for instance Psalm 95:3: “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”) But we readers know that it is not so acceptable. In this very chapter Mann describes a conversation Jacob had on just this subject with a man named Jebshe:

If the God who had established the sun, the signs along its path, and the planets, including the earth, was the highest God, then he was also the only god, and it would be best not even to speak of other gods, in such a case, otherwise one would be forced to label them with the name Jacob had refrain from using, precisely because reason demanded that the term and concept of “the highest God” be equated with the only God. [56]

Jacob is horrified by any suggestion that the gods of the gentes are to be treated with anything but contempt and revulsion, and Joseph has to employ his best and most charming eloquence to calm his father’s troubled spirit. (It is, fortunately for him, a task he is always up to.)

So this opening scene of the story-as-such establishes this tension between the single-minded devotion of Jacob to the Fear and Joseph’s playful delight in contemplating the religions of the gentes. It wouldn’t be right to say that Joseph simply is polytheistic. But he is inclined to enjoy correspondences and to seek whenever possible a reconciliation of opposing forces. The tetralogy as a whole is called Joseph and His Brothers, but I think in a more fundamental sense it’s about Joseph and his father. It explores the difference between a radical uncompromising monotheism and a more … flexible approach to matters of faith.

Mann’s Joseph: 1

There’s a long Prelude to the tetralogy — called “Descent into Hell” — which I may discuss later on. After the Prelude we enter the first of the four parts of the tetralogy, The Stories of Jacob. And while the main character of this book is (theoretically) Jacob, we don’t get his story in chronological order: we begin with a scene between Jacob and Joseph, his teenage son — indeed, we see Joseph before we see his father. This scene strikes certain notes which then resonate, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes discordantly, throughout the rest of the tetralogy.

The first substantive thing that we learn about Joseph is that he is widely and deeply aware of the religious practices of what the Israelites called the nations, the peoples that surround his little familial world. (“Nations” = Latin gentes = our word “gentiles.”) He sits, at evening, in a contemplative pose, and intently contemplates the moon. Or does he worship the moon? Moreover, the whole scene takes place under the influence, one might even say the patronage, of the goddess Ishtar, who gives her name to the first section of this first chapter. (Here, as is traditional, she is associated with the planet Venus.) Mann also tells us that there is something indefinably Egyptian about Joseph’s appearance.

Above I wrote of “Israelites,” but really there are no Israelites yet, just the family of the man born as Jacob and later re-named Israel — Yiśrā’ēl, “strives with God.” He is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham; so we are just three generations into this new adventure in human history — and, Mann says, a new adventure in the life of God. For one of the points that he makes at several points in the story is that Abraham was the man who invented God.

Mann doesn’t think that Jacob is literally the grandson of Abraham — he believes that many generations separate them — but he accepts that Jacob is in some … other sense Abraham’s grandson. Mann has a notion, often referred to in the narrative, that certain personalities recur generation after generation: people as it were imagine themselves into the lives of their ancestors, so that they become their own ancestors: they inhabit the stories they have inherited. So for instance, when Jacob comes upon the contemplative Joseph, the boy is naked, and Jacob tells him put to put some clothes on — and as he does he finds himself recalling the mirror image of his experience, the moment when Noah’s sons saw his nakedness, and Jacob fells that he is in some way entering into that story, a story he had been told by his father and grandfather. That’s what happens, in this narrative, to old stories: through inhabitation they are revivified, generation after generation. (This is the beginning of typology.) 

So Abraham learned certain essential stories which he then passed them down to his descendants, one of whom is Jacob. And the central story is that of Abraham himself having been called from his old life by God, a God who is jealous and singular — so much so that Abraham, reflecting on his encounters with this strange disembodied presence, comes to think that he is not encountered merely another god among the many gods, but Something more extreme, Something that can’t be classed with anything else. And this is the sense in which Abraham invents God: he discovers — or imagines; Mann allows the reader to judge, though he sometimes hints that this God really does exist, though perhaps only because Abraham imagined Him — a universal Deity, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Lord of all the nations, even the nations who do not recognize him. That’s the God Abraham invented, and that’s the God that that Jacob has inherited, and Jacob is fierce in his monotheism. He thinks always of his God and imitates Him. “El-Elyon’s choice and preference of some individuals, absent, or at least beyond, any merit on their part was absolute and splendid; by any human measure, it was hard to comprehend and unjust, a sublime emotional reality that was not to be quibbled with, but to be honored with trembling and rapture in the dust. And Jacob, himself aware – though in all humility and fear — that he was the object of such favor, imitated God by existing exuberantly on his own predilection and giving it free rein” (63).

But Joseph doesn’t think this way. Joseph is, as I said earlier, highly aware of the gods of the peoples whom the children of Abraham regularly encounter. The children of Abraham, these herdsman and wanderers, don’t occupy the cities where the gentes dwell, with their temples and priests. They may visit such places to trade goods, but they don’t live there. They live, rather, in the places between, in the fields and on the hills. They take their herds with them wherever they go, and when their herds flourish, they become people of real substance. They buy and trade, and that become substantial figures in the economy of their world, but they remain always nomadic, and have no need for a city, a city with a temple in the midst of it and statues of God to bow down before. The God they worship, and whose voice in the fields and on the hills they can hear, is the one who has called them out of a dead life and has accompanied them; is also the one with whom Jacob wrestled on the banks of a river. He is the Fear (Gen. 31:42). But Joseph may not be as fearful as his ancestors. 

Mann’s Joseph: Prelude

I recently read Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers — one of the more extraordinary reading experiences of my recent years. I had started it once, decades ago, and then again a few years later, but it’s probably been 25 years since I’ve even tried to read it.

I have a kind of instinct for reading, or at least I think I do. I always have plans for what to read; sometimes I follow those plans and sometimes I don’t. But every now and then I’ll be planning a series of books to read, or articles and essays — or maybe I’ll actually be in the middle of reading something — when I’ll suddenly think, You need to drop what you’re doing and read this other thing instead. That doesn’t happen often; two or three times a year, maybe. But it is an inner prompting (like Socrates’s δαιμόνιον) that I have learned to obey. I don’t know where it comes from, but I do know that when the impulse comes I find it irresistible. I have learned to accept the prompt and to be grateful for it.

So: a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of planning some reading, and I looked up from whatever I had on my lap, my computer or my notebook, and my eyes fell on my copy of Joseph and His Brothers, and I thought: It’s time to read that. I did, and I couldn’t possibly be happier that I did; it’s an outrageously brilliant work of art. While reading I had thought that I might write a long essay about the experience of reading this book, but on further consideration I doubt that my responses to it would fit into an essay. They’re too complicated and digressive. (In that sense, they’re much like the book itself.) So I’ll be writing about it here, on themes and topics and events that interest me, in no particular order. It’s not the sort of book that you comprehend on one reading – it’s not the sort of book that you can even confidently navigate in in one reading – so my attempt to write about it will require me to re-navigate it, to return and reread and rethink and reconsider. Stay tuned. I mean, if you’re into this kind of thing.