“Any attempt to examine the moral foundations of our exceedingly complicated world requires a certain amount of learning.” – Thomas Mann, Joseph the Provider
Since Alfred Nobel established his prizes at the turn of the 20th century, there have been any number of recipients who have been, shall we say, arguable choices. The two prize areas where perhaps the greatest arguments have occurred have been the prize areas for peace and literature. On at least two occasions I have weighed in myself, once concerning Peter Handke, once concerning why the Nobel committee has refused to award an American writer the literature Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993.
In making my way through the world literature section of the 2015 reading list, I’ll be looking at several literature Nobel winners including Sigrid Undset, Andre Gide, Herman Hesse, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Yasunari Kawabati. In the case of finalists not selected, such as Yukio Mishima from the reading list and the aforementioned Handke, their non-selection has spurred argument and controversy proving yet again the truth in that old and variously attributed adage, all art is political.
Thomas Mann won the literature Nobel in 1929. If one has read Mann’s work, one knows the Nobel committee got his selection right.
It’s a shame that most who have read Thomas Mann know him from shorter works such as Tonio Kröger or Death in Venice. The real Thomas Mann is a master of the sprawling epic, and his genius as a novelist can best be appreciated in works like The Magic Mountain, Buddenbrooks or the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers of which Joseph the Provider is the fourth and final volume. To give some idea of Mann’s epic vision, this single volume clocks in at over 400 pages and retells the part of this Old Testament story wherein Joseph is reunited with the brothers who sold him into servitude and the father who has spent decades mourning him. Joseph is, to place him historically, the son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, great grandson of Abraham and, of course, a pivotal figure in Biblical history (it is he, who has at this point in the saga risen to second-in-command in Egypt, who coaxes the Hebrews to Egypt and sets in motion the events that will culminate in Moses’s struggle with Ramses II and the “great escape” of the Israelites known as the Exodus).
Mann sees the literary retelling of this well known Biblical saga (only the Moses story and, of course, the life of Christ are more famous) as an opportunity to explore multiple issues related to religion, myth, and storytelling. Perhaps it is the latter of those issues we should look at first. At various places in the novel, Mann reminds us that we are reading a story that we may already know intimately:
We, of course, are in no suspense: in the first place we know all the phases of the story by heart…. So in our wisdom we may smile….
At this and other points in the narrative Mann drops the fictional pretense of invisible narrator and meta-textually engages us in a consideration of what we are doing: reading a novel based on a famous and (we think) familiar Bible figure. We are indeed engaged in what critic Northrup Frye would call a discussion of the “Great Code,” all the while using that same code as the language of our discussion.
If this seems like double talk, it is but part and parcel of a central theme that Mann examines in Joseph the Provider: the duality of human existence. Joseph is a splendid foil for such an examination. He is both alive and dead (alive in the reality of his existence in Egypt; dead in the belief of his father Jacob and younger brother Benjamin). For his other brothers, those guilty of trying to kill him and of selling him into banishment, thus putting their knowledge of his fate into a psychologically tortuous limbo, he is Schrödinger’s cat – both alive and dead, duality at its most perplexing.
Mann does more with this idea. His examination of the Joseph story casts light not simply on the story itself and its anthropological, archaeological, and cultural historical bases. In exploring and explaining why the Joseph story is so significant, Mann subtly leads us to the realization that the story of Joseph is the story of Christ; not only are many of the motifs the same (Jacob, the father/teacher [i.e., rabbi], and his twelve sons obviously parallel Jesus and his disciples; Jesus, like Joseph is betrayed and, literally, sold out – Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, Joseph, whose father was only Jacob, after all, not God, for a mere 20 pieces of silver; both stories end with the one thought dead revealing himself, Joseph to his brothers and father, Jesus to the remaining disciples [though Christ did appear to Mary and Mary Magdalene, he did not reveal his identity] both revelations causing consternation), Mann leads us to a nearly unassailable realization. The revelation of Jesus as “not dead” is a direct parallel of the revelation of Joseph as “not dead.” In religious terms, perhaps, the Joseph story carries less weight because Joseph never was dead. Mann has already however, undercut this claim by noting the duality of Joseph’s being alive/dead in the minds of his brothers (who, after all, as the original twelve – well, eleven – represent the progenitors, spiritually if not genealogically, of all Jews and Christians). So Joseph’s “deadness” is, in a pure psychological sense, the very mirror of Jesus’s. Believing someone is dead, Mann suggests, is the same as believing someone is not dead. Since religious experience is based on faith – belief – Mann has, it would seem, offered an analysis of mythological experience that makes the rationale (whether one accepts it or not is another matter) of religious belief psychologically understandable.
Besides this sort of deep intellectual examination of religious experience, Mann offers us numerous observations on human nature that make Joseph the Provider a delight. Here he explains the mind best suited to crime, a type of mind we seem to see too much of these days:
Only the thick-witted should commit crimes; they do not mind, they live from day to day and nothing worries them. Evil is for the dull-witted; anyone with even traces of sensibility should avoid it if he possibly can, for he will have to smart for it.
Here he explains the concept of hell in a way many of us have not considered it but in a way that makes almost too much sense:
Hell is for the pure; that is the law of the moral world. For it is for sinners and one can sin only against one’s own purity. If one is like the beasts of the field one cannot sin, one knows no hell. Thus it is arranged and hell is quite certainly inhabited only by the better sort; which is not just – but then, what is our justice?
Mann reminds us, too, that despite the delusions the Internet has caused many to embrace, most of us are Prufrocks, attendant figures in the great drama called life:
Let us be clear: everybody has a place in the history of the world. Simply to be born into it one must, one way or the other, and roughly speaking, contribute by one’s little span one’s mite to the whole of the world-span. Most of us, however, swarm in the periphery, far off to one side, unaware of the world-history, unsharing in it, modest and at bottom not displeased at not belonging to its illustrious dramatis personae.
Joseph, of course, is no peripheral figure. He is central to Biblical history. His youthful talent – and hubris about that talent – causes his brothers to sell him “down into Egypt.” There his hubris matures into understanding of his talent and confidence in how to use it. And, like his father Jacob, he is capable of both insight and vision, as here in the conclusion of the novel when he tells his brother the following:
When you talk to me about forgiveness it seems to me you have missed the meaning of the whole story we are in. I do not blame you for that. One can easily be in a story and not understand it.
Joseph does understand the story. It has been a story about redemption and forgiveness. Joseph is lost because of his brothers, but he is redeemed by his talent and confidence. He is lost again because of Potiphar’s wife and her unjust accusations, but he is redeemed again by his talent and confidence. These sorts of trials have given him perspective and understanding he might not otherwise have had. He realizes that being lost has allowed him to find himself. He realizes that his brothers’ actions might have been part of a greater plan that neither he nor they could understand – a plan that eventually allowed him to rescue his father and brothers and their families from famine and misery. For a man of Joseph’s gifts, how could he not forgive those who set such a wonderful plan into motion?
Redemption. Forgiveness. In a world like ours such words seem to have lost much, if not all, of their meaning. Perhaps, as with Joseph’s brothers, that is because we do not fully understand our story.