Time and Thomas Mann

THE story of Joseph, told in the Book of Genesis for all times and all peoples, contains that which makes it bear retelling for every new age. We are fortunate in that it is no lesser poet than the author of The Magic Mountain who dedicates a section of his mature life to retelling it for ours. Probably no man living could have read into it more of such special meanings as our troubled generation is able to use, while reading out of it so little of what is there from everlasting to everlasting.

From the stately opening volume of the saga as Thomas Mann is reconstituting it one observation keeps coming back with a specially momentous and increasing impact. That patriarchal prelude, first of the four volumes 1 now ours in the happy English of Mrs. H. T. Lowe-Porter, is centrally the story of Jacob through his sons’ treacherous massacre of the Shechemites, the fraternal reunion with Esau, and Reuben’s adultery with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and the observation that takes on this peculiar potency occurs in connection with the patient tenacity of Jacob’s service to Laban for Rachel. The thought conveyed is one possible only to those who live on profoundly intimate terms with spacious inward experiences, outside the tumultuous hastes and pressures of this time-hounded age. Briefly, what Thomas Mann there suggests is that the tempo at which an individual life is lived is the outward response to a silent, calm, obscurely imperious monitor within, and that this monitor is nothing other than our secret foreknowledge of how long we have to live.

Every soul has, then, its own timesense, which dictates unanswerably how much or how little of our span we can allot to this or that present one of a life’s necessities without theft from its future necessities. Because this time-sense is of all human realities the most mysteriously personal, the least communicable, what might be idle temporizing or wanton waste in one man’s life may in another’s be steadfast obedience to a deep, occult law of individual growth. Many must spend their days with one eye on the sundial that says ’It is later than you think’; these now commonly think of themselves as the ‘moderns,’ and so Mann lets them think of themselves in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. To the few, the ones born knowing that their days shall be long in the land and that it is theirs to make haste slowly, all hurry is a form, an anticipation, of death. So it is to Mann’s Joseph, who in this supreme trait is identical with his Biblical prototype. His time-sense is of the most leisurely; and his time-sense is the most important fact about him.

Joseph in Egypt begins with his resurrection from the pit into which (as Young Joseph, the preceding volume, relates) his jealous brothers cast him, not without occasion, at seventeen. It ends when, at twenty-seven (and also not without occasion), he is cast into that second pit, Potiphar’s dungeon on an island of the Nile. Between the two episodes his life is a recurrent, almost a perpetual ‘Not yet.’ The caravan of Ishmaelites that takes him as a valuable chattel toward Egypt, for sale there, plods on at the dreaming gait of serene immortals with eternity in their drawing account, but Joseph feels no great impatience. At one point he knows that he could easily slip away and go straight, to his father Jacob in Hebron; but the strong time-sense in him, which is one with his sense of destiny, forbids. He is truly to see his father again, but only in the fullness of time.

He is Joseph now no longer, but Osarsiph. For a sin of overweening conceit he has died to his former life and identity, and his new self is to be son only to a succession of transient fathers — the elderly Ishmaelite who has bought him, and then Mont-Kaw, the dying steward of Petepre’s (Potiphar’s) household, and finally Petepre himself. Stronger than any other force in the new Osarsiph, strong enough to stamp itself on his racial pride, his shrewdness, his wit, his worldly polish, his very dedication to the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, is his serene inner knowledge that there is time enough and that he is not the man who must take destiny by storm.

It is, above everything else, just this knowledge that keeps him chaste through the three years (and the three hundred vivid pages) of his exposure to the beauty and the blandishments of Petepre’s chief wife, Mut-em-enet the radiant, who is here conceived as an incomparably more potent temptress than the strumpet of Genesis. She is a virgin, a priestess of Amun, and the wife of a courtier-eunuch to whom she was given as a child-bride in a marriage purely expedient and ceremonial; and it takes the demands of her awakened womanhood three tortured years to trample her under the ultimate agonies and obscenities of balked lust. The godlike slave’s difficult denial of her passion and of his own is no denial of life, and assuredly it is no mere assertion of chastity per se, for already he understands that he too is an ancestor, a patriarch. Rather, here is the crowning assertion of Joseph’s timesense, his destiny. What he refuses is that for which he and the occasion are not ripe. Not procrastination, but opportunism, is such a man’s thief of time. He knows beyond a peradventure that to snatch greedily and dishonorably at life now will be a loss of life.

It is through the time-sense, and quite without the expedients of ordinary symbolism, that Thomas Mann has contrived to make these latest volumes so rich in the haunting, dreamlike beauty of eternal recurrence, which is perhaps the most magical of all the effects open to very great fiction. He makes us live at Joseph’s tempo, which is a gradually changing tempo as the chronicle progresses. Is it gradually slower? Is it faster? We are baffled and bemused for the answer, for it is somehow both and neither. To Joseph, as the years pass, it becomes perpetually more necessary to relive in every crucial moment the crucial moments of others, the giant figures of his racial and familial past. There is an eternity in every one of his great moments, and yet it is a racing eternity. Time folds and unfolds as a vast fan.

Joseph in his dilemma with Mut-emenet might be, but for the grace of God, his eldest brother Reuben over again, unstable as water and doomed not to excel; but the grace of God has so patterned him that excellence is as indispensable as air. The sense of recurrence reaches not only backward through time, but likewise forward. In the Egypt that Mann slowly animates for us with his magnificent descriptive power — an Egypt already lapsing Into fin de siècle decadence and constantly being adjured by volunteer preachers of the ancient virtues — we are shown more than foreshadowings of the Egypt of Moses, of Cleopatra, of the flight from Herod. And Joseph himself has carious visionary moments of beholding himself not only as a modern man confronting dilemma in the dissolute society of the Pharaohs, but also as a forerunner, a fabulous character in a tale already ancient.

In his grasp of how the tribal God of Abraham has evolved since Abraham’s simple day, in his canny system of interpreting as the revealed will of God the things that he must do lest his own nature be thwarted and his ego starved, he is as near to us as modern liberalistic theology. We feel the last turn of the screw of recurrence in the wise and just eunuch’s casual remark that Joseph on trial must be dumb ‘as the sheep before its shearers is dumb’—words deemed to have been spoken as prophecy a thousand years after Joseph and fulfilled the better part of a thousand years after that. Joseph dies to his second self, after a second forfeit of sonship; and the three years of his awaiting resurrection in Potiphar’s island pit prefigure the three days of Jesus in another Joseph’s sepulchre.

A glacier has its gravel pockets, and there are spots even on the sun. Are there, too, flaws in this tremendous biography of mankind learning from its errors, slowly and painfully evolving its better from its worse, forever having to die that it may live again? Flaws of a sort there must be, for the biographer is trying to tell the story that cannot be told. Worthy of searching and prolonged thought is the unhappiness of one of the very keenest of Mann’s readers — one who, though a penetrating writer, has never written a line about him for print — who finds between the lines of his every page the half-conscious torment of a deeply hurt man torn between equal needs to contemplate and to act, between temperament and conscience, and thus doomed to partial mutilation whatever he chooses or does. A perverse obsession? A brilliant half-truth? Sheer divination? It would take a man of great courage or great folly to say to the public that he knows; and it is surely more desirable just now, as well as incomparably easier, to perceive the majestic onflow of the glacier, the animating light and warmth of the sun, than to extricate the gravel from the one or map the occulting spots on the other.

In Berlin — where, by the way, antiSemitic fury is if anything a little more implacable than it was in Joseph-Osarsiph’s Egypt — modern barbarism has already burned two volumes of Joseph and His Brothers and, worse, deprived the greatest living German of his publisher of thirty-five years. Before these words are print that same transiently enthroned barbarism will have burned the other two volumes in Vienna and deprived their author of still another publisher — that is to say, of his very voice as a German. Nevertheless, the complex, beautiful saga of recurrence shall go on to its appointed end. How many volumes to bring us to that supreme cry of humanity and of literature, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom ye sold into Egypt’? We do not know, but this we know: many or few, they shall presently belong to the whole world of our larger citizenship. And in the day when some remnant of Goethe’s Germany, which is Thomas Mann’s, rises in resurrection from the noisome pit of Hitler’s, these burned pages, all shining with intrinsic light, shall belong to Germany, too.

  1. Joseph and His Brothers: Joseph and His Brothers (1934); Young Joseph (1935); Joseph in Egypt (2 vols., 1938). — AUTHOR