The Joseph Novels



IT IS, perhaps, not a matter of indifference to those who listen to an address to know the inner circumstances and the feelings of the speaker standing before his audience. Let me begin, therefore, with the statement that this is a precious and great, a festive and stirring hour for me. To speak here, not as a stranger or outsider, but, to a degree, in an official capacity, as a member of the staff of the Library of Congress — that is a great honor, a great joy for me.

It is a fortunate coincidence that the topic on which I am to speak is in itself a festive topic, not only because all art as such has, or should have, a festive character, but because a literary work is to be discussed whose very object is the idea and nature of the festival.

You have been told, of course, that I am to speak about Joseph and His Brothers, a tetralogy of novels, or epic in prose, of which the final volume, Joseph the Provider, is just about to be completed. Let me say first that I was quite startled and disconcerted when Archibald MacLeish suggested this book to me as my topic for tonight — I was much more inclined to refuse than to accept. Would it not seem terribly presumptuous, vain, and egocentric if I talked today, and here, about my own affairs, my own work — in other words, about highly personal and private matters instead of general and important ones, of the great cares and hopes of our time, of the war and its objectives?

This is a time when it makes almost no difference what we talk about — we always talk about one and the same thing. Categories crumble, the borderlines between the different spheres of human thought become unessential.

Once it was possible to distinguish between a “purely aesthetic,” “purely philosophic,” “purely religious” sphere and the sphere of politics, of human society, of national and international community life, and to declare that we were interested in the one but not in the other. This is no longer possible. We are interested in the whole or we are interested in nothing. “Totalitarian” is an oppressive word in its strictly political meaning; we do not like to hear it because it signifies the voracious absorption of all things human by the state. But then, we are indeed living in a totalitarian world, a world of totality, of spiritual unity and collective responsibility, before which all sovereignties have to abdicate. Unity is the word of the historic hour. The world wants to become one, all the way, in practical reality, down to economic matters. It is a world of infinitely mutual implications; and to talk about belletristic literature, about a novel, is not necessarily insipid infidelity toward the great and burning concerns of our time, and toward the plight, the struggle, the longing of humanity. Of course, it depends a little on the novel.

I have often been asked what induced me to transform the Biblical legend of the Egyptian Joseph into a broad cycle of novels requiring many years of work. In answering this question there is little importance in the circumstances which prompted me, almost a decade and a half ago when I was still in Munich, to reread the story in my old ancestral Bible. Suffice it to say that I was delighted and that immediately a preliminary probing and productive searching began in my mind as to what it would be like to renew and to reproduce this charming story in fresh narrative and with modern means — with all modern means, with the spiritual ones and the technical ones.


Almost immediately these inner experiments significantly associated themselves with the thought of a tradition: the thought of Goethe in fact, who relates in his memoirs, Dichtung und Wahrheit, how he as a boy had dictated the Joseph story to a friend and in doing so had woven it into a broad narrative. However, it soon met the fate of destruction because, in the author’s own judgment, it still lacked too much in “substance.” As an explanation of this youthful and premature venture the sixty-year-old Goethe observes: “This natural story is highly amiable; only it seems too short, and one is tempted to carry it out in all its details.”

How strange! Immediately, these words from Dichtung und Wahrheit came to my mind, in the midst of my reveries. They were in my memory, I did not have to reread them, and indeed they seem most fitting as the motto for what I then undertook. They furnish the simplest and most plausible explanation for my venture. The temptation which the young Goethe had naïvely followed—namely, to carry out the short legendary report of Genesis in “all its details” — repeated itself in my case at a stage of my life when the poetic execution could obtain definite human and spiritual substance as well. But what does that mean? It is exactness, realization; it is to draw into proximity something very remote and vague, so that you believe you see it with your eyes and grasp it with your hands, and you think that finally you have learned the definite truth about it.

I still remember how amused I was, and how much of a compliment I considered it, when my copyist in Munich brought me the typewritten copy of the first volume, The Stories of Jacob, and said: “Now we know at last how all this actually happened.” That was touching — for, after all, it did not happen. The exactness, the realism are fictional — they are play and artful illusion, they are realization and visualization forcibly brought about by all the means of language, psychology, presentation, and in addition critical comment; and humor, despite all human seriousness, is their soul. What above all is inspired by humor in the book is the analysis and scientific research, which are, just like the narrative and the descriptions, a means of establishing reality; and the command to the artist to create forms and not to talk is invalid in tills case.

The reasoning also is playful; it is not really the language of the author but of the work itself; it has been incorporated in its linguistic sphere; it is indirect, a stylized and bantering language, a contribution to the pseudo-exactness, very close to persiflage and at any rate to irony; for scientific treatment of wholly unscientific and legendary matters is pure irony.

It is quite possible that such secret charms played their part at the time of the earliest conception of the work. But this does not answer the question as to how I came to select this archaic subject matter from the dawn of mankind. Different circumstances, some of a personal and others of a general temporal character, contributed to it. The readiness is all. As a man and as an artist,

I must somehow have been in readiness to be productively attracted by such subject matter, and my Bible reading was not mere chance. The various stages of life have different inclinations, claims, tendencies of taste — as well as abilities and advantages. It is probably a rule that in certain years the taste for all purely individual and particular phenomena, for the individual case, for the “bourgeois” aspect in the widest sense of the word, fades out gradually. Instead the typical, the eternally human, eternally recurring, timeless — in short, the mythical — steps into the foreground of interest.

The attainment of the mythical viewpoint is of decisive importance in the life of the narrator; it signifies a peculiar enhancement of his artistic mood, a new serenity in recognizing and shaping which, as I suggested before, is ordinarily reserved for the later years of life: for the mythical, it is true, represents an early and primitive stage in the life of humanity, but a late and mature one in the life of the individual.

There, the word “humanity” has been pronounced — in connection with the ideas of the timelessly typical and the mythical it automatically made its appearance. I had been in readiness to feel productively attracted by a subject matter like the Joseph legend because of the turning of my taste away from the bourgeois toward the mythical aspect. But at the same time I was in readiness for it because of my disposition for generally human feeling and thinking, — I mean a feeling and thinking in human terms, — a disposition which was not only the product of my individual time and stage of life but that of the time at large, and in general of our time, of the historic convulsions, adventures, and tribulations by which the question of man, the very problem of humanity, was presented to us as an indivisible whole and imposed upon our conscience as hardly ever to a generation before us.

I believe that the sufferings and stirring adventures through which humanity has been going now for decades will bring forth a new, deepened feeling of humanity, indeed a new Humanism, remote from all shallow optimism but full of sympathy, which will be only too necessary for the work of reconstruction that will confront us after the tremendous moral and material devastations, after the collapse of the accustomed world. In order to build up, or at least lay the foundations for, the new, better, happier, and more social world, freed from unnecessary suffering, which we want our children and grandchildren to have — the City of Man, as I should like to call it — we shall need a binding and all-determining basic pathos, guiding us all the way to detailed and practical matters; we shall need sympathy for it, and love. And with all this the mythical novel has something to do which was conceived in 1925 and of which I am speaking to you: it is by no means an out-of-the-way, evasive, extra-timely product, but inspired by an interest in humanity transcending the individual: a humorous, ironically softened — I am tempted to say a “bashful” poem of man.

Rather, it turned out that way unintentionally; for the author was far from attributing it this quality in the beginning. Once again it came to pass that a work developed a much greater aspiration than was inherent in the rather skeptical and by no means ambitious nature of the one on whom it imposed itself, and from whom it exacted efforts far beyond all plans and expectations.


To begin is always terribly difficult. Until one feels oneself master of a subject, until one learns the language it speaks, and can reproduce it, much courting and laboring, a long inner familiarization, are required. But what I planned was so new and unusual that never did I beat about the bush longer than this time. There was the need of establishing contact with a strange world, the primitive and mythical world; and to “make contact” in the poetic sense of the word signifies something very complicated, intimate a penetration, carried to identification and self-substitution, so that something can be created which is called “style,” and which is always a unique and complete amalgamation of the artist with the subject.

How much of an adventure I considered this mythical enterprise of mine is indicated by the introduction to The Stories of Jacob, the first volume of Joseph and His Brothers, which forms the anthropological prelude to the whole work. Entitled “Descent into Hell,” it is a fantastical essay which seems like the cumbersome preparation for a risky expedition — a journey down into the depths of the past, a trip to the “mothers.” The overture was sixty-four pages long: that might have made me suspicious in regard to the proportions of the whole, and did so to a degree — especially as I had decided that the personal story of Joseph alone would not do, but that the primeval and original story, the history of the world, demanded to be included at least in perspective. The stories of Jacob filled a heavy volume. In mingled order, anticipating and reverting, I recited them, strangely entertained by the novelty of dealing with human beings who did not quite know who they were or who knew it in a more pious, deeply exact way than the modern individual — beings whose identity was open in back and included the past with which they identified themselves, in whose steps they trod, and which again became present through them.

Novarum rerum cupidus — this characteristic fits the artist better than anyone else. Nobody is more bored than he by the old and worn out, and more impatient for the new, although nobody on the other hand is more bound to tradition than he is. Audacity in confinement, fulfillment of tradition with exciting news — that is really his calling and his business, and the conviction that “such a thing has not been done before” is the indispensable motor of all his industry. I have always needed this spurring conviction in order to accomplish anything; and it seemed to me that I had never experienced it more strongly than this time.

The Stories of Jacob and its successor, The Young Joseph, were completed while I was still in Germany. During my work on the third volume, Joseph in Egypt, the break in my outward existence occurred: the trip from which I could not return, the sudden loss of my life’s basis — the larger part of Joseph in Egypt is work born in exile. My oldest daughter, who dared to return to our already confiscated house in Munich after the revolution, recovered the manuscript and brought it to me in Southern France; and slowly, after the first shock of my new, uprooted situation, I resumed the work which was continued and completed in the Swiss refuge which we enjoyed for five years.

Now, then, the narrative enters into the highly developed and sophisticated cultural sphere of the Nile Empire, which through sympathy and reading had been familiar to me since the time of my boyhood, so that I knew more about it than even the teacher who during Religion Class had questioned us twelve-year-old boys as to the name of the holy steer of the ancient Egyptians. I showed that I was eager to answer, and was called upon. “Chapi,” I said. That was wrong in the opinion of the teacher. He reproached me for having raised my hand when I knew only nonsense. “Apis” was the right name, he corrected me angrily. But “Apis” is only the Latinization or Hellenization of the authentic Egyptian name which I had given. The people of Keme said “Chapi.” I knew better than the good man, but discipline did not allow me to enlighten him about it. I kept silent — and all my life I have not forgiven myself for this silence before false authority. An American boy would certainly have spoken up.

Occasionally I thought of this early incident while I was writing Joseph in Egypt. A work must have long roots in my life, secret connections must lead from it to earliest childhood dreams, if I am to consider myself entitled to it, it I am to believe in the legitimacy ol what I am doing. The arbitrary reaching for a subject to which one does not have traditional claims of sympathy and knowledge seems senseless and amateurish.

Because of its erotic content, this third volume is the most novel-like part of this work which, as a whole, had to make of the novel something different from what is generally understood by this term. The variability of this literary genre has always been considerable. Today, however, it almost looks as though nothing counts any more in the domain of the novel except what is no longer a novel. Perhaps it was always that way. As far as Joseph in Egypt is concerned, you will find that its novel-like erotic content too has been turned into the mythical by stylization, despite all psychology. That holds true particularly for the sexual satire which is centered in the figures of the two dwarfs: the asexual one in his kindly nothingness, and Dudu, the malicious and procreative midget. In a humorous spirit a connection is shown here between the sexual and arch-evil, a connection which must help to reconcile us to Joseph’s “chastity,” his resistance to the desires of his unfortunate mistress, as given by the Biblical model.


This third of the Joseph novels grew under the constellation of my parting from Germany. The fourth grew under that of my parting from Europe. Joseph the Provider, the final part of the work, which brings its length to over 2000 pages, came into being entirely under America’s sky—in fact, largely under the serene, Egyptian-like sky of California.

Now Potiphar’s demoted favorite slaves as a prisoner in a Nile fortress commanded by a good man — so good a man that Joseph later makes him his major-domo, accepting him into the divine story as a helpful friend. In the fortress Joseph is commissioned to act as a valet to the distinguished servants of the royal court who arrive one day as prisoners under investigation: the baker and the cupbearer. Now the dreamer interprets dreams, and the day comes when he is taken from the prison in haste and stands before Pharaoh. He is thirty years old then and Pharaoh is seventeen. This hypersensitive and tender youth, a searcher after God like Joseph’s forefathers, and enamored of a dreamy religion of love, has ascended to the throne during the time of Joseph s imprisonment. He is an anticipating, a premature Christian — the mythical prototype of those who are on the right way but are not the right ones for that way. It is a widely ramified sequence of chapters in which Joseph gains the unlimited confidence of the young ruler, and at whose end he receives the ring of power.

Now he is viceroy, takes the well-known measures of Providence for the coming famine, and enters into a matrimony of state with Asnath, daughter of the sun priest of On-Heliopolis. But here the story returns from the Egyptian soil to the theater of the first and second volume, to Canaan, and a complete long short-story is interpolated which gives to this volume its outstanding female character, as the first volume had it in the person of the lovely Rachel, the third volume in the fruitlessly desiring Mut-emenet. It is Thamar, the daughter-in-law of Juda, a figure of grand style, the female paradigm of determination whose spiritual ambition scorns no means that might help her, the pagan child of Baal, to get on the path of Promise and to become a forebear of the Messiah.

Now the famine assumes reality, and dramatically the well-known action takes its course, which is nothing but a precious childhood memory, and for which the curiosity of the reader can be captivated only by the most detailed presentation and visualization of every how and why. The arrival of the brothers, the meeting with the prescient Benjamin, the play with the silver cup, the great scene of recognition, the scene in which a musical child sings to the aged Jacob that his son Joseph is alive and lord over the land of Egypt — in minute detail we learn (and some day my Munich copyist, too, will probably learn) how it all really happened. The novel extends to the solemn passing away of Jacob, the father, in the land of Goshen. And with the tremendous procession which brings home the body of the patriarch, so that he may rest in the twofold cave with his fathers, ends the whole work which through one and a half decades of outer stress was my steady companion.

Some people were inclined to regard Joseph and His Brothers as a Jewish novel, even as merely a novel for Jews. Well, the selection of the Old Testament subject was certainly not mere accident; most certainly there were hidden, defiantly polemic connections between it and certain tendencies of our time which I always found repulsive from the bottom of my soul: the growing vulgar anti-Semitism which is an essential part of the Fascist mob-myth, and which commits the brutish denial of the fact that Judaism and Hellenism are the two principal pillars upon which our Occidental civilization rests. To write a novel of the Jewish spirit was timely just because it seemed untimely. And, it is true, my story always follows the dates of Genesis with semijocular faithfulness, and often reads like an exegesis and amplification of the Tora, like a labbinical Midrash. And yet all that is Jewish throughout the work is merely foreground, just as the Hebrew cadence of its diction is only foreground, only one style element among others, only one stratum of its language which strangely fuses the archaic and the modern, the epical and analytical.

In the last book is a poem, the song of annunciation which the musical child sings for the aged Jacob, and which is an odd composition of psalter recollections and little verses of the German romantic type. That is an example of the character of the whole work, which seeks to blend a great many things, and because it conceives and imagines everything human as a unity it borrows its motives, memories, allusions, as well as linguistic sounds from many spheres. Just as all the Jewish legends are based on other, timeless mythologies, and made transparent by them, so Joseph, the hero, is also a transparent figure, changing with the illumination in vexatory fashion: he is, with a great deal of consciousness, an Adonis and a Tammuz figure; but then he perceptibly slides into a Hermes part, the part of the mundane and skillful businessman and the intelligent profit producer among the gods; and in his great conversation with Pharaoh the mythologies of all the world, the Hebraic, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek, are mingled so thoroughly that one will hardly be aware of holding a Biblical Jewish storybook in one’s hands.


There is a symptom for the innate character of a work, for the category toward which it strives, the opinion it secretly has of itself. That is the reading matter which the author prefers and which he considers helpful while working on it. I am not thinking in this connection about factual sources and material research, but about great works of literature which in a broad sense seem related to his own effort, models whose contemplation keeps him in the right mood, and which he seeks to emulate. All that can be of no help, does not fit, has no reference to the subject, is hygienically excluded — it is not conducive at the moment and therefore disallowed. Well then, such strengthening reading during the last Joseph years was provided by two books: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Goethe’s Faust — a perplexing combination, but each of the two heterogeneous works had its particular function as a stimulant; and in this connection it was a pleasure for me to know that Goethe had called Sterne one of the finest intellects that had ever lived.

Naturally, it was the humorous side of the Joseph which profited by this reading. Sterne’s wealth of humorous expressions and inventions, his genuine comical technique, attracted me, for to refresh my work I needed something like this. And then, Goethe’s Faust — this life’s work and linguistic monument developed from a tender, lyrical germ cell, this enormous mixture of magic opera and mankind’s tragedy, of puppet show and cosmic poem. Time and again I returned to this inexhaustible source — especially to the second part, to the Helena scenes, the classical Walpurgis Night — and this fixation, this insatiable admiration, indicated the secret immodesty of my own endeavors, they revealed the direction in which the ambition of the Joseph story pointed — its own, for the author as usual had at the outset been quite innocent of such ambition.

Faust is a symbol of humanity, and to become something like that in my hands was the clandestine tendency of the Joseph story. I told about beginnings, where everything came into being for the first time. That was the attractive novelty, the uncommon amusement of this kind of fable telling — that everything was there for the first time, that one foundation took place after the other, the foundation of love, of envy, of hatred, of murder, and of much else. But this dominant originality is at the same time repetition, reflection, image, the result of rotation of the spheres which brings the upper, the starlike, into the lower regions; carries, in turn, the worldly into the realm of the divine so that gods become men, men in turn become gods. The worldly finds itself pre-created in the realm of the stars, and the individual character seeks its dignity by tracing itself back to the timeless mythical pattern giving it presence.

I dwelled on the birth of the ego out of the mythical collective, the Abrahamitic ego which is pretentious enough to assume that man should serve only the Highest, from which assumption the discovery of God followed. The claim of the human ego to central importance is the premise for the discovery of God, and from the very first the pathos for the dignity of the ego is connected with that for the dignity of humanity.

At the same time, these humans remain confined in the mythical, the collective, to a large extent of their being. What they call spirit and culture is just the conviction that their lives are the embodiment of the myth; and their ego detaches itself from the collective in the same way that certain figures of Rodin wrest themselves out of the stone and awaken from it. Jacob, weighty with stories, is also such a half-detached figure: his solemnness is still mythical and already individual; the cult which he devotes to his feelings, and for which he is punished by the jealousy of the Highest, is the bland but proud assertion of an ego which loftily feels itself the subject and hero of its stories. It is still a patriarchal and respectable form of human individualization and emancipation.

It grows far more bold and daring in the complicated case of his son Joseph. There is one who has not only discovered God, but knows how to “treat” Him; one who is not only the hero of his stories, but also their director, indeed the one who poetically “adorns” them; one who it is true still participates in the collective and mythical, but in a banteringly spiritualized and playful, purposefully conscious manner. In short, we see how the ego in the process of its emancipation soon becomes an artistic ego, attractive, delicate, and — endangered; a tender concern for the respectable father, but with inborn possibilities of development and maturing that have not existed before. In its youth the artistic ego is of inexcusable egocentricity: it lives under the dangerous assumption that everybody must love it more than himself. But because of a sympathy and friendliness which nonetheless it never renounces, it finds its way into the social, while it matures, and becomes the provider and benefactor of a foreign people and of its own. In Joseph the ego flows back from arrogant absoluteness into the collective, the common; and the contrast between artistic and civic tendencies, between isolation and community, between individual and collective, is fabulously neutralized — as, according to our hopes and our will, it must be dissolved in the democracy of the future, the coöperation of free and divergent nations under the equalizing scepter of justice.


A symbol of humanity — in a certain way my work was entitled to this secret opinion of itself. After all, from the original and simple, the typical and canonical, it led to the complicated, involved, late. The way from Canaan to the Egypt of the New Kingdom is the way from the piously primitive, the Godcreating, God-contemplative idyl of the archfathers, to a highly developed and sophisticated culture with its luxuries and absurd snobberies in a land of the grandchildren, a land whose atmosphere is so much to Joseph’s taste because he is himself a grandchild and a late soul.

The feeling for the way, the advancement, the change, the development, is very strong in the book; its whole theology is connected with it and derived from it: namely, from its conception of the Old Testament “bond” between God and man — from the conviction that God and man are mutually dependent upon each other in common aspiration for enhancement. For God too is subject to development; He too changes and advances, from the desert-like and demoniacal to the spiritual and holy; and He can do so without the help of the human spirit as little as the human spirit can without Him.

Were I to determine what I, personally, mean by religiousness, I should say it is attentiveness and obedience — attentiveness to the inner changes of the world, the mutation in the aspects of truth and right; obedience which loses no time in adjusting life and reality to these changes, this mutation, and thus in doing justice to the spirit. To live in sin is to live against the spirit, to cling to the antiquated, obsolete, and to continue to live in it because of inattentiveness and disobedience. And whenever the book speaks about the “concern with God” it speaks about the just fear of this sin and folly. “ Concern with God” is not alone the creating of God in one’s thoughts, and determining and recognizing Him, but principally the concern with His will with which ours must coincide ; with the demands of the present, the postulate of the aeon, of the world hour. It is the intelligent listening to what the world spirit wants, to the new truth and necessity, and a special, religious concept of stupidity follows from that — the stupidity before God which does not know this concern, or complies with it as clumsily as Laban who still believes that he must slaughter his little son and bury him in the foundation of his house, a custom which once was quite beneficial but is so no longer.

Must I add that we owe the tribulations which we now have to endure, the catastrophe in which we are living, to the fact that we lacked intelligence toward God to a degree which had long become criminal? Europe, the world, was full of stale and outworn things, of evident obsolete and even sacrilegious anachronisms which had been clearly outdistanced by the world will and which we permitted to continue, in dull mind and in disobedience to this will. It is understood that the spirit is always ahead of reality, that reality follows it clumsily. But never, perhaps, had there existed before such pathological, such unmistakably dangerous tension — in the social, political, and economic life of the peoples — between truth and reality, between things long reached and accomplished by the spirit and between things which still took the liberty of calling themselves reality; and foolish disobedience to the spirit or, religiously speaking, to God’s will, is undoubtedly the true cause for the world explosion which stuns us. But explosion is equalization, and I think that here in this hall is quite the right place to express the hope that after this war we — or our children — shall live in a world of happier equalization between spirit and reality, that we shall “win the peace.” The word “peace” always has a religious ring, and what it signifies is a gift of intelligence before God.

You understand I am eager to prove that it is not wholly vain and idle to speak about my private work at a moment like this instead of general and important matters. I may tell myself that there are connections between my work and general and important matters — indeed underneath all badinage that is its secret motor. In a discreet and unpathetic manner, the case of mankind is tried in it; and therefore the manner in which this book treats the myth is so different from a certain contemporary manner of employing it — a malevolent and antihuman manner whose political name we all know.

After all, the word “myth” has a bad reputation nowadays — we only have to think of the title of the book which the “philosopher” of German Fascism, Rosenberg, the preceptor of Hitler, has given to his vicious textbook The Myth of the Twentieth Century. So often in the last decades had the myth been abused as a means of obscurantic counter-revolution that a mythical novel like the Joseph, upon its first appearance, inevitably aroused the suspicion that its author was floating with the murky stream. This suspicion had to be discarded, for at a second glance a process could be observed similar to what happens in a battle when a captured gun is turned around and directed against the enemy. In this book the myth has been taken out of Fascist hands and humanized down to the last recess of its language. If posterity finds anything remarkable about it, it will be this.

In the idea of humanity, the human idea, the sense for the past and that for the future, tradition and revolution form a strange and, to my mind, infinitely attractive mixture. The slogan of the “conservative revolution” has played a pernicious part; Fascism has seized it as it seized the myth, and has pretended to be the conservative revolution. Its nature is fraud. But what better formula than just this “conservative revolution” could be found for the spirit and meaning of that famous speech which an American opponent of Fascism, Henry A. Wallace, Vice President of the United States of America, held before the members and guests of the Free World Association on May 8 of this year? This speech, “The Price of Free World Victory,” is, I think, a beautiful example of the unification of tradition and revolution in the sphere of the Humane, the stirring proof that today the conserving and the revolutionary will are one and the same, are simply the good will.

May I say that my composition is of a somewhat similar nature? It bases its concept of piety upon the idea of time, of change, of development, of advancement toward perfection — an advancement for which God and man ally themselves; but at the same time the idea of tradition plays in it a thematic part of the first order. I related to you how a Goethe memory, a word of his about the Joseph tale, entered into my first reveries when I tried my hand at this subject;

I also told you of the secret reference to Goethe’s Faust which my work dared to take while it grew. That was playful boldness which sprang from the sense of tradition and succession and corresponded to the inner nature of my task, a mythical task. For what else is myth but succession and recollection, the forming and coining of the present with the past, the childlike identification with an admired idol — in short, tradition? Myth is tradition, and to live in tradition means to live in the myth.


An artist’s life is a life of experience, in manifold ways; when it strives to follow the great, it also becomes a means of experiencing greatness — not like the scientist, nor like the historian; not objectively and from without, but in a subjective, practical, productive way. Three times, at different stages of my life, have I lived under the prolonged tension of tasks which had a certain affinity to greatness: at the age of twenty-five, when I tried my hand at the novel of the German bourgeoisie, Buddenbrooks; at the age of fifty, when in The Magic Mountain I made a friendly alter ego pass through the adventures of European intellectual controversies; and between sixty and seventy, when I told mankind’s fairy tale of Joseph and his brothers. To participate playfully in the consciousness of great creativeness and to acquire thereby the right to a more familiar celebration of greatness than the wholly inexperienced and uninitiated possess — that is something, that is worth a life. “That a man entertains himself and does not spend his life like dull cattle,” I have my Joseph answer a critic of his mythical temerity, “is after all what matters most; and what heights of entertainment he is able to reach — that is what counts.”

And now let me finally return to the fact which seems to me to have a certain symbolic value, after all — namely, that the mythical play of Joseph and his brothers, begun in Germany, continued in Switzerland, transplanted to America, was completed here, in contact with the American myth. For there is such a thing; you, too, live in a tradition here, walk in footsteps, in paternal footsteps, which you call your “Way of Life.” The pioneer-like optimism and hearty faith in man, the mental youthfulness, the benevolent and confident ideas and principles upon which the Union was founded by the fathers, amount to the American myth, which is alive today.

In his biography, Goethe speaks about an “alleviation for humanity” effected by the American war of liberation; and the European emigration to America (which finds its way into the final parts of Wilhelm Meister), sprang from the constant desire to participate in this alleviation — it was the pilgrimage to a pure fountain ol health. But the measure and the significance which this flight and migration has assumed at present are something new. The diaspora of European culture which we are witnessing, the arrival of so many of its bearers, representatives of all categories of science and art, to these shores; their more or less involuntary decision, transformed however into an amor fati, to complete their work in the American air of life — that is something very strange and unprecedented; it opens unexampled possibilities of exchange and equalization and may be supremely helpful in creating the new feeling of humanism of which I spoke. Our emigration thus assumes an entirely different significance from that of any former emigration: the significance of the coalescence of the hemispheres, of the unification of the earth. “Europe wants to become one” — that is long obsolete; the earth wants to become one. “Unification” is the word and command of the world hour, and the future belongs to the union of knowledge and hope; of profundity and courage; of faith and labor in the face of all doubt, and despite all doubt.

(Dr. Mann and the Atlantic wish to thank Mr. Konrad Katzenellenbogen for his excellent translation of this address.)