Commentary Magazine

God, Man, the Devil—and Thomas Mann

At one point in the 20th century, everyone who read serious books knew that Thomas Mann was the most important German writer of the age and one of the most important writers, period. And what an age it was: prominent among the other modernists who mattered were Marcel Proust, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But the accepted canon of great 20th-century writers changed significantly from, say, the 1930's to the 1970's. By the latter date, with politics, sex, and religion tending to trump literary judgment as such, Proust had begun to be celebrated less for his aestheticism than for his inverted sexuality, Eliot to go behind a cloud because he was an orthodox Christian and possibly an anti-Semite, Lawrence to come under suspicion as a male supremacist, and Woolf to be exalted as the reverse. As for Mann, the author of such once-familiar novels as Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain and of stories like “Tonio Kröger” and “Death in Venice,” he either ceased to be read at all because he was supposed to be too Teutonically difficult, or was read selectively because of a homosexual sensibility in his writing that was perceived to be at least as marked as Henry James's.

It is true that Mann can be difficult; but, like any great writer, he helps us to overcome whatever may be difficult in his thought as we go along. It is not true that he can be thought of as a spokesman for homosexuality—which, like James in fact, he tends to see as a stage in human development that most young people grow out of. But misapprehensions like these are, among other things, what make the publication of John E. Woods's new and extraordinarily bright translation of Joseph and His Brothers1 so welcome an occasion—an occasion for re-appreciating Mann not just for his powerful novelistic imagination or his attitudes toward sexuality but for his broader concerns with the human condition in the modern world.


The author of this huge tetralogy based on the second half of the book of Genesis was born in Lübeck, by the Baltic Sea, in 1875. By the astonishingly young age of twenty-six, Mann, the son of a well-to-do merchant, had already justified his pursuit of a literary rather than a commercial vocation with the publication of Buddenbrooks (1901), a naturalistic saga about his own family. It became a huge favorite with the reading public, and in 1929 would be expressly cited by the committee that gave Mann the Nobel prize for literature.

By that time, he had advanced beyond straightforward naturalism. In “Death in Venice” (1912), which is about an artist who falls in love with a beautiful adolescent boy and then dies, he combined a study of the psychologically peculiar with an affirmation of the mythically universal. In The Magic Mountain (1924), a young man's seven-year stay at a tuberculosis sanatorium before World War I prompts 700 pages of enthralling discussion about everything from religion to medicine to politics; in the end, as Europe begins the dance of death that will last four years, the young man leaves the sanatorium to answer the call of the German army, resolving at the same time to strike a balance between the two human goods of instinctual impulse and rational control—a balance that Mann, who cherished both, proposed as the humanistic ideal.

There were strong motives for clinging to that ideal during the Weimar Republic of the 20's, which Mann, correcting his wartime tilt toward German “instincts” as against French “ideas,” defended with zeal. Those motives grew only stronger in the 30's as the Nazis promoted instincts of the ugliest variety. In essays, in speeches—and in the Joseph novels that engaged him intermittently from 1926 to 1942—Mann became the most eloquent literary opponent of the New Order. This was not just a matter of lining up with the good Germany against the bad. It was a complicated business of German self-examination, setting the Germany of “Brother Hitler” (as Mann pointedly called him), the propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and the race-theorist Alfred Rosenberg side by side with the Germany of Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven. Like the cells within a body, they were all somehow related.

Mann was in self-exile from Germany starting with Hitler's accession to power in 1933. He spent the war years in southern California, aiding the Allies with his pen and all but worshipping Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he saw as saving the world with the same cunning and strength the biblical Joseph had shown in saving Egypt, Israel, and all of the ancient Near East. In 1947, he followed the Joseph novels with Doctor Faustus, arguably his greatest work. Relating the life of a musical composer who, in order to make a creative breakthrough, strikes a Faustian bargain with the Devil, Doctor Faustus was a parable for the fate of Mann's native land from the late 19th century through World War II.

After the war, Mann nurtured friendly feelings for Joseph Stalin. He was not exactly a Communist, but he was certainly an anti-anti-Communist. In 1952, considering himself too un-American for a country hypnotized by Joseph McCarthy, he returned to Europe. He died in Zurich in 1955, with his last novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954), still in progress.


The four novels that comprise the Joseph tetralogy—The Stories of Jacob (1933), Young Joseph (1934), Joseph in Egypt (1936), and Joseph the Provider (1943)—came out in the worst of times. Not only had Mann left Germany, but Nazi persecution limited distribution of the first two volumes and relegated the publication of the last two to presses in Vienna and Stockholm. Readership in Germany was minimal, and after the war, as Woods remarks in introducing his translation, Joseph stood no chance: many Christians thought it heretical, German Jewry had been largely eradicated, Communists in East Germany looked askance at a Left-leaning author's flirtation with theism, while Anglo-American audiences mostly shrugged. Mann may have regarded Joseph as the “pyramid” of his career, but the winds of history had covered it with sand.

To be fair, he had managed to blow more than a little sand of his own onto the reader's path. Turning these pages, I occasionally felt guilty for having spent too little time in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum, or for never clinching the differences among Ra (or Rê), Amun, Amun-Ra, Atum, Ra-Atum, and so forth. At other moments, I worried about readers who expect a novel to tell a story from the first page.

Similarly worried, Woods sensibly suggests that they begin with the action-filled “Story of Dinah” in part three of the first volume, then go back to part one, “At the Well,” for Jacob's meeting with Rachel, after which the drama of courtship, sex, tricksterism, and rivalry among brothers and generations will carry them along nicely. Then, at their leisure, they can return to the actual beginning, “Prelude: Descent into Hell.” Its theology is at least recognizably Judeo-Christian, and as for the Egyptian and other mythologies, Mann soon turns us into conversant amateurs.

In any case, more than history and Mann's alleged difficulty have stood in the way of English readers of his work. A good part of the fault has surely lain with the standard translations done by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter (1877-1963). The publisher Alfred Knopf had favored her back in the 1920's, when she rendered Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain into English, and she remained Mann's official translator thereafter. While publicly complimenting her, he complained privately about her word-for-word inaccuracies and general infelicities of tone. The heaviness, the obscurity, the “impression of Olympian arrogance” (Mann's phrase), the lack of humor—these, in English, are most often Lowe-Porter's own.

Ever since 1993, however, John Woods has been offering us a livelier, funnier, earthier, more transparent Mann. His Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and Doctor Faustus have been triumphs, and now, with Joseph, he has achieved a stunningly happy blend of crispness and sublimity. To those of us whose German is imperfect, he has given a Joseph that is as close as we are likely to get to the one Mann wrote. By a coincidence of cultural history, this is also a Mann of whom we ourselves may just now be most in need.


Even as a schoolboy, Mann had been enchanted by ancient Egypt. In middle age, he recalled how the young Goethe had dictated the story of Joseph to a friend, but without getting past the bare outline in Genesis; “it seems too short,” the great poet later wrote, “and one is tempted to carry it out in all its details.” In his own carrying-out, Mann begins in the beginning with Joseph's great-grandfather Abraham, who “discovers God” and is rewarded by God's choice of him and his seed. Then Mann quickly moves to Abraham's grandson Jacob, who tricks his father Isaac into giving him “the blessing” in place of his elder brother Esau, flees east of Canaan to sojourn with his uncle Laban, dreams on his way of a ladder stretching between earth and heaven, and hears reaffirmed God's covenant with Abraham's seed.

Coming “into the land of the people of the east,” the biblical Jacob falls in love with his cousin Rachel, but is deceived by her father Laban into marrying Leah, the older sister, first. Although he succeeds in marrying Rachel, too, for many years only Leah and two concubines bear him any children—ten sons and a daughter named Dinah. Rachel finally gives birth to Joseph, the “true son,” then dies in bearing Benjamin, the twelfth son. That she dies by the roadside, perhaps needlessly, is the result of the family's retreat from Shechem, a town the ten brothers have destroyed on the pretext of Dinah's having been dishonored—an episode Mann treats at length.

Mann's second volume, Young Joseph, treats of Joseph's youth and the structural enmity between him and his half-brothers, a rivalry exacerbated by his beauty, his brilliance, and his dreams of his own exaltation. Both Mann and the Bible emphasize those dreams—his brothers' sheaves bowing down to his, and so forth—and tell how, in anger, they finally strike back, tearing his coat of many colors (conceived by Mann as Rachel's bridal veil). But instead of killing him outright, they throw him down into a well and then sell him to traders who will take him to Egypt. Upon returning home, they tell their father Jacob that a wild beast has slain his favorite son.

Mann's third volume takes place in Egypt, where Joseph works as a steward in the house of Potiphar, a eunuch high in Pharaoh's service. Potiphar's wife asks Joseph to go to bed with her; he chastely flees, leaving his garment in her hands; she cries rape, and Joseph is sent to prison—here begins Mann's fourth volume—where he proves adept at interpreting the dreams of two prisoners, formerly Pharaoh's butler and baker. This leads to an interview with Pharaoh, Joseph's successful interpretation of the Egyptian ruler's dreams about a coming scarcity, his elevation to high office as administrator of Egypt's granaries, and his ultimate reunion with his brothers.

From drought-stricken Canaan, they have come to Egypt for grain. In one of the Bible's most moving episodes, they encounter Joseph the Egyptian. They do not know who he is, but he knows them, and he orchestrates a recognition scene in which he forgives them their past violence. Their father Jacob is now brought down into Egypt—into Goshen, close to the border. Genesis, and the Joseph tetralogy, end with his deathbed speech and burial back in Canaan.

Mann had many reasons for wanting, à la Goethe, “to carry [this Genesis narrative] out in all its details,” but one in particular deserves mention. “We were talking about God and religion today,” he wrote to a friend in 1941, “and I said that with the best will in the world I can't tell whether or not I believe. Nevertheless, I sometimes suspect myself of believing; for without a faith I don't suppose one could hate ‘l'infâme’ as much as I do.” L'infâme was of course Nazism, whose beerhall deity was but the reincarnation of Baal or Moloch. A wicked god could be declared wicked only if one was willing to hold fast to a good one. Religious myth had been hijacked by Hitler's propagandists, and Mann was determined to take it back—a process similar, he said, “to what happens in a battle when a captured gun is turned around and directed against the enemy.” The enemy was fomenting a barbarous faith. Mann met it with a civilized faith.


Now, chapters 27-50 of Genesis fill 43 pages of my edition of the Bible; the new Joseph runs to over 1,500 pages. This means that Mann has expanded each biblical page to about 35. Some of the additional material comes from the Quran (Sûrah XII) and from Persian poems devoted to Joseph's career, some from the scholarly excavations of rabbinic experts like Jakob Horovitz and Louis Ginzberg or historians of Egypt like J.H. Breasted, and a great deal from the psycho-mythic findings of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

Mann was proud of the soundness of his Oriental researches, and of the artistry with which he had assimilated them. The question is whether his account reads like dry-as-dust history, or like psychological jargon, or like what he himself called the musty “archaeological brocade” of Salammbô, Gustave Flaubert's 1863 romance about ancient Carthage. In the event, Mann avoids these and many other traps—a feat all the more amazing in that he is hardly averse to letting his story cool its heels for long stretches of philosophizing and motive-hunting. But, through taut action, quick dialogue, penetrating monologue, and sensuous description, he brings his biblical principals and a host of secondary characters vividly to life. We cluck over yet adore Joseph, revere and sympathize with Potiphar, love and fear his wife, jeer yet cheer Pharaoh, and by turns flare with anger and dissolve in sobs at episodes involving the favored son, the envious ten, the youngest Benjamin, and their father Jacob.

A masterpiece of character and plot, the Joseph novels are also a tour de force of moral, political, and especially religious ideas. Here Mann's literary achievement is to make antique psychology real for us. This he does in a number of ways. In the foreground is, for instance, a Jacob who says “I” as you or I would but whose ego is always open to his own vast and significant background. This Jacob is forever thinking about his forebears Isaac and Abraham; at the same time, as a younger son himself, he merges his identity with the countless other “younger sons” of countless Isaacs who have lived during the centuries that have passed since the original Abraham.

Each character in this tale, and especially the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is thus necessarily plural, the myths about them being summary legends of corporate Hebrew identities. History proper, as it were, begins with Joseph. His sojourn in Egypt is dated by Mann to the time of Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten (here called Ikhnatôn), meaning “glory of the sun-disc” (1352-1338 B.C.E.). Even Joseph, however, understands himself mythically. Not only is he part of a family chosen by the one God, but his story is like the story of the forefathers who had to suffer before they could rejoice. Joseph's being thrown down the well, or into an Egyptian prison, is analogous to Isaac's being nearly sacrificed by his father Abraham, or to Jacob's being exiled east of Canaan, in each case only to find himself raised up. It is also like the story of the folk heroes or mythic gods Tammuz and Osiris, who had to go down (be killed, dismembered) before they could come up (be resurrected, deified).

At bottom, in other words, the story we are reading is, in Mann's conception, an “invention of God” and not of man. But it cannot happen without man's cooperation—something of which Joseph is much more conscious than the patriarchs before him. They have done their part in what amounts to a divine comedy, but there are immense gaps in the script. Joseph, though well aware of the stories about God and man's cooperative dealings, is more noticeably on his own, left to improvise in ways that both stay within and expand upon his scripted role.

Mann's point about ancient psychology is also a point about modern psychology. Individuality, which the West in particular has valued, can have significance only within a tradition. Just being different or unique does not count. One needs to be different in a recognizable way, unique in one's manner of adding to what has gone before.


But which tradition is one a part of? After all, individual Nazis, too, had their “roles” to play within a mythic drama. Here is where Mann's philosophical and especially theological intentions in the tetralogy become most pertinent.

In brief, Mann's position, built on Jewish and Christian theologies and expressed at length in the overtures to volumes one and four, is a variant of the mystical doctrine of Gnosticism. Our material world was created not by God Himself but by a divine delegate, and the job of human beings is to return, as pure spirits, to the God from Whom they essentially derive. Their passport on this voyage is their secret knowledge (gnosis) of their high derivation.

Mann's development of his ambitious heterodoxy invites comparisons with the opening of the book of Job in the Bible, Goethe's “Prologue in Heaven” in Faust, and Raphael's recounting of the war in heaven in Milton's Paradise Lost. In it, Mann gives body to the spirits of God, Satan, and those discontented courtiers known as angels; and, improbable as this may sound, the drama they act out is quite as gripping as any palace intrigue put on stage by Shakespeare.

In Mann's theosophical scheme, Joseph is at once a model for provident living in the time between the creation of the first cosmos and the creation of a second, and an anticipation of the one whom God has secretly appointed to come and redeem history. That redeemer will, like Joseph, “know what to do,” because he will be aware of how his predecessors have acted their parts. The terrain will have changed, but the footprints will still be visible.

The least one might expect from this rather unsystematic version of divine history is some idea of progress: in the in-between time, God ought to be shaping a drama that, from humanity's point of view, promotes long and happy, or at least happier, life. And that is what we get. A single example: when Jacob goes east to the house of Laban, his mother's brother, he notes a general gloominess and learns that his uncle and aunt have no sons. He later finds out that “early in their marriage the couple had indeed had a little son, but that when building the house they had sacrificed him by burying him alive in its foundation inside a clay pot, along with lamps and keys, so as to call down from on high blessing and prosperity for both house and farm.”

No such blessings have come, of course, and the adult Jacob knows why. On his way to a reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob would wrestle at night with an angel and afterward be renamed Israel—“God goes to war,” in Woods's translation. Child-sacrifice of this kind, infamous in Canaan as the worship of Moloch, is exactly what God would war against. Jacob's son will in turn tenderly remind his father of this same principle when the old man frets that he loves his favorite son too much ever to emulate Abraham's readiness to sacrifice Isaac at God's command. No, Joseph says, the moral of the story is that God sends an angel to stay Abraham's hand and to point to the animal substitute. Times have changed: pious people—who have kept pace with God, and vice-versa—no longer slay their children.

By the time of Joseph's rise in Egypt circa 1350 B.C.E., we are a long way from the “idyll of the arch-fathers” and well into a culture where old and new are in dialectical competition. On the one hand, there is the polytheistic religion of Amun, with its harlotries, devotion to animal gods, and preoccupation with the dead. On the other hand, there is the monotheistic religion of Atôn, with its puritanism, devotion to the sun-disc (or to the one God the sun-disc symbolizes), and stoicism in the face of death. Joseph's role is to help Pharaoh articulate, refine, and, when he is not busy providing bread, promulgate this monotheistic reformation.

Mann underscores the fin-de-siècle, latecomer ambience of this Egypt. The descendants of the great Pharaohs of old have lost confidence in the traditions of their own culture. Joseph, himself a latecomer in relation to Abraham but with the advantage of being an outsider, a colonial from Canaan, fits right in. Knowing the religions of the Near East along with that of his fathers, he can recognize affinities between the myths of Amun, Osiris, et al. and the “strange gods” of his earlier neighborhoods, or between Pharaoh's rhapsodies about Atôn and the gently proselytizing speculations about El Elyon, the Most High, that his father Jacob would engage in after dinner with his pagan business partners.

Under Joseph's tutelage, Ikhnatôn has the freedom to choose: sun god, or the God of the sun, moon, stars, the whole show? Even though Ikhnatôn will in fact fail, his ideas and monuments effectually erased from the record until uncovered by modern archaeologists, he understands where history is going. So does Joseph and, if somewhat more obscurely, so do the patriarchs before him.

That is why it will not do to say, as many critics have, that Joseph, the versatile and cosmopolitan Canaanite/Egyptian, could have taken on any persona in the extant cultural repertory. It is not Mann's tolerant notion that, for instance, Laban's sacrificing his infant son by burying him alive in a clay pot beneath the house was acceptable—efficacious—for his time and place, but not for another. The law against child sacrifice held before Laban's sinful gesture, as it has held ever after. Only, it takes time for prophets like Abraham, his grandson Jacob, and many of their descendants truly to puzzle it out.


The same holds for at least three other universal moral laws that the Joseph novels do much to illustrate as they argue the case for the superiority of the Judeo-Christian tradition over the barbaric competition (Baalism historically, Nazism contemporaneously). The three laws have to do with preserving our sexual virtue, forgiving our personal enemies, and being firm with our political, especially our foreign, enemies.

By Jacob and Joseph's time, the Most High may have progressed beyond the tribal deity who would knock on the head anyone He arbitrarily took a dislike to, but when it comes to the issue of human love, He has remained very much Himself. Mann never sounds more like Freud (or Jung) than in interpreting circumcision, the mark of the covenant between God and His chosen people, as an assertion of divine connubial rights. The pious man's generative organ belongs to God, and is to do its work within the marital conditions He has set. Those conditions may be subject to progressive change—in the old patriarchal manner, Jacob fathers children with two wives and two concubines, while Joseph has only one wife2—but God's “jealousy” endures, and more for our sake than for His.

The prooftext lies in a chapter titled “Joseph's Chastity” in Joseph in Egypt. Mann was justly proud of his presentation of Potiphar's wife Mut or (more sweetly) Eni. In best romance fashion he understands, sympathizes with, and nearly (but not finally) justifies her thought and action. Eni the seductress is the feminine triumph of the third volume, as Rachel is of the first and Tamar of the fourth.

For his part, Joseph is no deadwood, clueless or incapable in matters sexual. He knows all about it, and wants to “put heads and feet together” with Eni almost as much as she does. But he is “cautious.” Why? Mann posits several reasons, the chief of which centers on the rule that restricts “fleshly intercourse” to fathers and requires sons to wait. The anthropological evolution of this rule was also a theme of Freud's Totem and Taboo (1913), but Mann the novelist has the advantage. Tracing Joseph's own “working through” of its implications, he links the rule to a whole history of family relations with the Father, a history now challenged by Baal-associated sensualities and complicated by Joseph's concerns for a surrogate father, Potiphar, whose asexuality reminds him of God's, and for a surrogate mother, Eni, whose madness has made incest, murder, and the invocation of demons shockingly thinkable.

The ultimate lesson is that sons are supposed to wait until they themselves are married and ready not just to inseminate but to become fathers. Then they may know in the flesh what Joseph already knows in imagination.

Sparring with danger and death in order to familiarize himself with his sexy enemy, Joseph seems to be playing with fire in order to be burned. And, it is clear, he must be burned—thrown into a pit, the prison, for a second time—because he has again “allowed the effects of his amiable charm . . . to run wild,” assuming that he can play godlike with people's emotions (his brothers' hatred, Eni's love) and ‘scape whipping.


This brings us to the second law, forgiving our personal enemies, which is thematically illustrated in the final volume, Joseph the Provider. A brilliant “court Jew,” Joseph has stored grain during the seven flush years so that Egypt will be able to live through the seven lean ones and coincidentally achieve economic hegemony over the region. That, again, is why his ten brothers have come down to buy grain, offering Mann an occasion to segue to Joseph's spiritual gifts.

Those gifts have manifested themselves in his interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams and even more in the pair's brilliant dialogue on monotheism—“The Cretan Loggia” section that marks the theological watershed of the story. The crescendo, however, is reached when the supplicating brothers tremble in fear before the all-powerful figure whom they encounter in Egypt. Joseph has considered the possibility that his father Jacob may be dead, and also that the ten may have “mistreated [Benjamin] the way they once did me.” In which case, he reasons to himself, they will find “a stern stranger as their judge.” As things fall out, however, he forgives them. What is he thinking?

His prompt comes from Judah's spontaneous confession of the brothers' guilt in the matter of the “true son”—an unscripted moment that Mann adds to the Genesis account of Judah's speech. With this, a heavy rock is removed from the family shoulders, and Joseph's forgiveness is given its moral logic. He not only forgives them, he asks them to forgive him for his young moral foolishness, which had effectually taunted them into hatred. More, he tries to help them regard all such who-did-what-to-whom questions from God's point of view:

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.

These words, at the very end of the tetralogy, sum up Mann's variation on the “fortunate fall” interpretation of Adam and Eve's disobedience in Eden. The evil is folded into the good, namely, God's redemptive scheme of law and grace. It is a scheme that, in the Christian story that the Jewish story in Mann's telling so frequently prefigures, will climax historically in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Not that Mann has written a Christian book, however. His survey of mythology, undertaken during the struggle against Nazi anti-humanism, was meant to affirm all of the pillars that upheld the roof of Western culture. He himself, as he wrote to a correspondent in 1944, was promoting a “new Humanism,” but one annexed to the structure of the old. Hebrew monotheism did not so much supersede Ikhnatôn's as subsume it—gather it in. By implication, though no more, Mann suggests that, for its believers, Christianity similarly subsumed Judaism, just as the Enlightenment and, now, his new humanism subsumed Christianity. And so on.


The moral seriousness of this scheme becomes still clearer when we come to the third law: being firm with our political, especially our foreign, enemies. Would Mann have us extend a Joseph-like forgiveness to “brother Hitler” and the other monsters who had killed 6 million of “Abraham's seed” and all but destroyed Germany? Doctor Faustus, the novel he wrote next, cries out no. Forgiveness is a move God obliges us to make in circumstances like Joseph's—among family and friends. But those who make deals with the Devil deserve hell: indeed, they are in hell already.

On this point, the key passage occurs in one of Joseph's colloquies with Ikhnatôn, who is a sentimental pacifist. “Purify the idea of god,” Pharaoh says, “and you purify mankind”; love your enemies and you will bring them into the peaceable kingdom. Joseph replies, realistically, that his great-grandfather Abraham had known better. He had been spiritually vigorous, but also, Joseph insists, “vigorous in other ways, a man of strong hands, and when the robber kings from the East attacked, burning and plundering,” he gathered soldiers to defeat them.

Was this before or after he discovered God?, Ikhnatôn asks. “In the midst of discovery,” Joseph answers. “In the midst of laboring at it and in no way weakened by it.” And he continues:

What can you do with robber kings who burn and pillage? You cannot teach them the peace of God, they are too stupid and wicked for that. Only by striking them can you teach them so that they feel it—feel that the peace of God has strong hands. For it is your responsibility before God to see that things on earth occur halfway according to His will and not entirely according to the intentions of incendiary murderers.

Mann would have been thinking here of Nazi and Japanese murderers, and of the “strong hands” of the Allied forces opposing them—as we today are encouraged to think of other “Us-Them” situations in which idealists have to arm themselves against ruthless aggressors. “The sword is stupid,” Joseph says, magnificently, “but I would not wish to call meekness wise. Wise is the intermediary who advises meekness to be vigorous, so that in the end it does not stand there stupidly before God and man.”


At the close of a lecture on the Joseph novels at the Library of Congress in 1942, Mann recalled his schoolboy fascination with Egypt—and how, at age twelve, during religion class, a teacher familiar only with the Hellenistic or Latinate equivalents of Egyptian names had put him down for calling the holy steer “Chapi” instead of “Apis.” “I knew better than the good man,” said Mann, “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,” he added, “would certainly have spoken up.”

That, if I read it right, was more than a polite compliment to Mann's American hosts. It was a gesture toward the tension between (German) discipline and (American) cheek, respect for authority and love of liberty, adherence to tradition and the boldness of the individual talent. The strands continually unravel, but the novelist's job is to weave and reweave.

That is how he both upheld Western culture and extended it. Do we not owe it to ourselves, and to the traditions that America defends now as when Mann lived here and became a citizen, to re-acknowledge our own debt to the culture that produced a genius like him? A propitious occasion offers itself in John Woods's wondrous translation of Joseph. The “pyramid” of Mann's career, it is more than a towering monument to Western culture, good for staring at. It is a site to explore and, for a while, to live in.



1 Everyman, 1,536 pp., $42.00.

2 Despite the imaginings of academics who have colonized Mann's life and work under the empire of “queer studies,” Mann does not discern any such “progressive” attitude toward homosexuality. In The Stories of Jacob, where homosexual sporting between Ishmael and Isaac leads to the former's expulsion, Ishmael is the homo- or pan-sexual corrupter while Isaac and others carry “the blessing” associated with propagating the race. As for Joseph's own adolescent beauty, Mann first lavishes on it the kind of praise he gives Tadzio in “Death in Venice,” then insists that when his hero comes to manhood he properly becomes interesting to, and interested in, women. Potiphar's wife, for instance.


About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.

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