“Whats so good etc” (containing Thomas Man’s Joseph in Egypt, a Love Story–and other essays to follow)
What’s so good about Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers?
Thomas Mann’s Joseph in Egypt: A Love Story
Suppose I told you that one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century wrote a vast four-volume novel that next to no one reads; suppose I told you that it is one of his best, in fact one of the most remarkable novels ever written; suppose I added that its third volume tells a story of adulterous love that makes Madame Bovary look trivial and Anna Karenina ordinary and conventional? Well you wouldn’t believe me, but you might wait for an explanation, anticipating hype. You would probably want to know, what’s so good about it?
Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers has never been much read. What prospects did a long novel based on Jewish history have, appearing in the German language between 1933 and 1943? It had neither publisher nor readers in Germany. It was published in Sweden. It had some distribution in the US, translated in one-year delayed step off Mann’s production 1934 to 1944 by Helen Lowe-Porter (great grandmother of Boris Johnson). It was warmly received by Jewish communities. I believe that it was some kind of book-of-the-month choice. I first became aware of it in the 60s because it was on my grandmother’s shelf, a present from one of her daughters. My grandmother was religious, but not literary. It remained unread on her, and I imagine, many other bookshelves of owners more interested in piety than myth and literature. The Lowe-Porter translation is another reason why this work went virtually unread in America. Lowe-Porter made it Biblical, King-Jamesian. A new translation by John E. Woods from 2005 has made it much more accessible to a modern American reader, and has had a good shot at what Lowe-Porter missed: the astonishing, miraculous deftness, wit, profundity, playfulness, of Mann’s original. I quote from Wood’s translation in the following.
So, what is so good about Joseph and his Brothers? A lot is good about the four novels that make up the whole work. But the one I want to tell you about is the third, Joseph in Egypt (=J in E). Some of the things that are good:
The character of Joseph, a kind of spiritual adventurer, God-favored confidence- man, charismatic as can be, supported by the “blessing” that passed from his father Jacob to Joseph, but undercut by his vanity. He knows how pretty he is, how smart, how prophetic, how different from ordinary humans like his brothers. He assumes that everyone agrees with him, that “everyone loves him more than themselves.” His blindness to others got him thrown into the pit by his brothers. The “show-off” couldn’t resist showing off his coat of many colors, flaunting his favor with Jacob and flying in the face of his ten half-brothers, even though he is next to last among the twelve. Sold into slavery in Egypt, he makes his way from slavery up the social and political hierarchy to end as Pharaoh’s right-hand man and the “Provider” in a time of famine.
The two dwarfs, Dudu and Se’enkh-Wen-nofre-Neteruhotpe-em-per-Amun, aka Bes-em-heb: both are courtiers of Potiphar and showpiece curiosities to give color to the court. The former, keeper of Potiphar’s jewels, is ambitious to be a “full-size” man for which he qualifies only by his oversized penis, the envy of many a normal-sized full-grown man, a court intriguer, helper of the conservative, fascist God Amun and his high priest Beknechons, poisonous enemy of Joseph, panderer.
The latter, Bes for short, an amiable twerp with prophetic vision, who sees at once Joseph’s aura of religious election and arranges his purchase from the slave market. Bes hides behind curtains and hears everything going on at court, useful, amiable and ridiculous. Think of him as a relative of Yoda. The shouting matches between the two are a hoot.
The two aged parents of Potiphar, brother and sister/husband and wife, Huji and Tuji: cackling, lizzardy old creatures from the swamp period of Egyptian culture when incest was a divine prerogative. They had lived their life together, brother and sister—twins in fact—husband and wife, and they had a child. But religious fashions changed. The new god, Atum-Re, imposed strict morality, disapproved of incest and promiscuity, and now they had reason to fear his anger. And so to appease this god they pre-empted his anger; they made an offering: the sacrifice was the sex of their baby; they castrated him.
Potiphar, accordingly, is a eunuch, the victim of the “false theological speculation” his parents had made. His life is sumptuous, but like his body, sterile. Being a high court officer of Potiphar, he leads a purely formal, ceremonial existence. He is married to a young, very beautiful Egyptian woman of high aristocracy. But the marriage is of course conjugal in name only. He is a courtier, second in rank of Pharaoh’s courtiers. He is Pharao’s fan-bearer; he has the title and the regalia of office, but none of the duties; some full-bodied person much lower in status carries out the duties. He hunts the crocodile and hippopotamus, but really servants take the risks while Potiphar supervises. He is a titular courtier and a titular man. Joseph learns his secret by overhearing a conversation between Huji and Tuji, and uses his knowledge of Potiphar’s terrible secret for his own advancement. But he does it wisely: he shelters Potiphar from his psychological vulnerabilities, treats him with humane considerateness, and finds favor. That is, Joseph behaves as a flattering, wheedling courtier, in which there can also be traces of humanity.
Potiphar’s wife, Mut-em-Enet is probably the most impressive character Thomas Mann ever created and one of the only two he ever dedicated a full-length love story to (the other being Gustav Aschenbach, hero of Death in Venice.). Egyptian high society, born into an old princely family, given at a tender age to be the wife of Potiphar, an arrangement which gave her family a great advantage in the struggle for power and advancement at Pharaoh’s court. And what could it matter to a girl too young to understand what was sacrificed in this particular parental investment? But the arrangement creates a dire fatedness for both the ceremonial husband and his ceremonial wife:
The claims of her sex, which were thus ignored—claims symbolized by the earth drenched black with water and by the moon-egg, the origin of the very stuff of life—still slumbered mute and embryonic within her, without her even realizing it or raising the softest objection to her parents’ loving but life-denying decision. She was light, merry, untroubled, free. She was like a lotus blossom floating on the water’s surface, kissed by the smiling sun, untouched by the knowledge that its long stem is rooted deep in dark mire. (819).
The big difference between the spouses is that long stem. In Potiphar it’s cut off at the flower.
Mut is anything but a shameless woman. She accepts her condition and the terms of her marriage with girlish naiveté. There is no contempt for her husband, no mockery, no secret resentment, but plenty of respect and a sense of living a highly moral and respectable life, free of the burden of sensuality. She becomes one of the participants in the great role imposed on the household by the special character of Potiphar—to support its master, to comfort him, to nurture the illusions necessary to prop up his castrated ego.
Thomas Mann is really unhappy with the way the Bible treated this remarkable woman. Here is the whole story as told in Genesis 39. 6-7: “Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking, and after a while his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’” That’s it! That’s all She wrote! The author of Genesis compressed into one verse the three years in which Potiphar’s wife loved Joseph with a passion that grew into madness and turned the principled and honor-driven wife of Potiphar into a shameless woman.
Thomas Mann wants to supply all that the Bible story left out; he will retell the events exactly as they happened when the story told itself for the first time, to use Mann’s parlance. He claims the narrator’s gift of second sight, backwards-looking prophetic vision, to know all or most of the details of what really happened, must have happened, to flesh and spirit them out, to reconstruct the psychology of Mut-em-enet and trace the progress of her love from self-preserving resistance to passion to madness. A single line in the Bible turns into about 200 pages of narrative; Mann corrects the misleading impression of a shameless woman.
The author of Genesis forgot to tell you that the real story of Mut-em-Enet is of the gradual erosion of a powerful moral and cultural resistance to the single act to which the Genesis reduces a complex woman.
Mut is a woman of the highest Egyptian aristocracy. She is a consecrated nun, a Nun of the Moon in the cult of the conservative-fascist god Amun. This cult relives in a highly moralized and purified version the wild immorality of the primitive religion of Egypt. The moon cult is a woman’s club stylized as a harem of the god, its nuns are the god’s concubines—of course, ceremonial and titular only. But Mut has a special status as the most beautiful and most chaste of them, a status guaranteed by her inauthentic, incomplete marriage. The beauty of her body is a showpiece of the cult, its glory; it outdoes all the women of her class and is put on display through ceremonial garments “woven from air” that only soften the focus and sweeten the physical exquisiteness of the woman, but also heighten her symbolic function: she is the embodied symbol of the primal begetter, the goose that laid the moon-egg of all origins, a glorious virgin, who “in its truly moist depths was the goose of love in the form of a virgin; and nuzzled in her loins was a noble specimen of a swan, flapping its wide-spread wings, a tender, powerful snow-feathered god, performing upon her, to her virtuous amazement, a fluttering work of its love, that she might bear the egg” from which all life is hatched. That’s all cult myth and ritual scenario, but it eases for Mut the turn into the real experience of the erotic, gives her a language to understand the effect that Joseph’s presence has on her and to understand her passion as a religious experience.
Her duties as a woman of high society were considerable. They demanded an exquisite, pedantic cultivation of external things, like cosmetics. A minor slip in matters of dress and make-up “would have resulted in a whirl of gossip in high society, a malicious scandal at court.”
By the time Mut recognizes her attraction to Joseph, he is the head of the domestic staff of Potiphar’s court. He serves at table and is present with her daily. She may never have paid much attention to him, except that the malicious dwarf Dudu comes to her to explain why a Hebrew foundling and social-rising slave is an offense to the household. She goes to her husband and insists that Joseph be removed from the household and sent to the fields or stone-quarries. Potiphar half recognizes the deeper cause of her resistance, but is himself half in love with Joseph, and refuses (The conversation between the two is one of a number of great, virtuoso scenes.)
The depth of her arousal becomes evident to her for the first time in a dream. In her dream, the family is assembled for dinner, grandparents, Potiphar, Mut. Deep quiet in the room. She is wearing a dazzlingly white dress. She begins to cut open a pomegranate with a sharp knife, but is distracted by the presence of Joseph, and cuts deep into her hand in just the space between thumb and forefinger. The wound bleeds and drips blood onto her white dress. She feels deep shame, but no one pays any attention. Or rather they pretend not to notice. Mut is outraged at their indifference—“Can’t anyone see what’s happening to me and help me?!” The blood continues to ooze, and she watches it “with indescribable regret. How sorry, how very sorry she felt, deeply, unutterably sorry.” But then she becomes aware of Joseph (Egyptian Name, Osarsiph = reed child, with allusion forward in time to Moses). He comes towards her, “ever nearer, and was now so near that she could feel his nearness.” He took the wounded hand and put it to his mouth so that “the wound rested against his lips. And in her rapture, the flow of blood stopped and was stanched, and she was healed. The “rapture” is the discrete marker of the sexual character of this “healing.” The dream transmutes cunni- into manulingus: “She reemerged from her dream, cold with horror, but turning hot again at once in the rapture of healing—and was now aware that she had been struck with the rod of life.”
Her cultured, civilized, chaste life as a nun of the moon slowly unravels. It takes three years, and Mann tells the story in exquisite detail. Here his summing up of her struggle, set in the frame of much greater cultural dynamics pitting an established “civilized life” against opposing forces:
[The fate of Mut is comprehended in] the idea of visitation by drunken, ruinous and destructive powers invading a life of composure… It is a tale of achieved and seemingly secure peace and of life laughing as it sweeps away that artificial edifice, a tale of mastery and of being overwhelmed, of the arrival of the strange god…. As for Mut-em-enet, Potiphar’s wife… she, too, was visited and overwhelmed, was a maenadic sacrifice to a strange god, and the artificial edifice of her life was quite nicely overthrown by those powers of the lower world that in her ignorance she believed she could mock—whereas it was they who mocked all her fortifications.
Mut’s close tie to Gustav Aschenbach is evident, Mann’s other story of passionate love overwhelming a carefully organized and protected civilized life.
The 200 some pages Mann devotes to the episode of “the woman smitten” narrate in excruciating detail the erosion of Mut’s precariously structured life. The demise stretches over three years: in the first she resists; in the second, she courts openly, and in the third she resorts to more drastic measures.
I’ll just point to two highpoints.
By the end of the first year, Mut is losing control, her unspoken desire unsteadies her usual dignified comportment. After a long talk with Joseph about indifferent matters, she stirs through all the stupid things she said, realizes how impossible it is to keep in place the mask of the dignified woman in full control of her life, and holds this remarkable monologue. Actresses are always on the lookout for good women’s monologues for auditions, often supplied by Portia, Rosalind, Blanche Du Bois etc. Here is a seldom noted woman’s monologue to add to the classics:
“Lost, lost, betrayed, betrayed, I am lost, I have betrayed myself to him, he saw it all—the lie in my eyes, my fidgeting feet, my shivers—he saw it all, he despises me, it is over, and I must die. [She reminds herself of the stupid tips she gave him for cultivating corn]. Babble that betrayed me, he laughed at me, how horrible, I will have to kill myself. Was I at least beautiful? If I was beautiful there in the light, it may all be only half so bad, and I won’t have to kill myself. The golden bronze of his shoulders… Oh, Amun in your shrine! ‘Mistress of my head and heart, of my hands and feet’… Oh, Osarsiph! Do not speak to me like that with your lips, making fun of me in your heart, of my stammering and my trembling knees, I hope, I hope…even if all is lost and I must die after this misfortune, yet do I hope and do not despair, for not all is unpromising, there is promise as well, indeed, much promise, for I am your mistress, boy, and you must speak to me as sweetly as when you said ‘Mistress of my head and heart,’ even if it is only hollow courtesy. But words are strong, words are not spoken with impunity, they leave traces in the heart, even if spoken without feeling they speak to the feelings of him who speaks them, though you may lie with them, their magic shapes you according to their meaning, so that what you have said is no longer entirely a lie. That is very favorable and laden with hope, for the words that you must speak to me, your mistress, cultivate your emotions, my little slave, and make them rich and fine soil for the seed of my beauty, If I am lucky enough to appear beautiful to you in the light, and together my beauty and the servility of your words will become salvation and bliss from you to me, and they are the germ of an adoration that awaits only encouragement to become desire, for it is a certainty, my little boy, that adoration encouraged becomes desire… Oh what a depraved woman I am! Shame on me for my serpent’s thoughts! Shame on my head and heart! Osarsiph, forgive me, my young master and savior, morning and evening star of my life! Why did things have to go so wrong today because of my fidgeting feet, so that all seems lost now? But I will not kill myself just yet or send for a poisonous asp to set on my breast, for there is much hope and promise left still. Tomorrow, tomorrow, and each day thereafter. He will remain with us, remain over the house. Potiphar refused my request to have him sold, I shall have to see him, always, and each day will dawn with hope. ‘We shall have to continue this at another time, steward. I will consider the matter and you have my permission to offer your petition again soon.’ That was good, that was taking care of next time. Ah yes, you were at least prudent enough, Eni, despite all your madness, to provide for a sequel. He will have to come again, and if he tarries out of shyness, I shall send Dudu the dwarf to him, to admonish him. And then how I shall improve on everything that went wrong today, and I shall greet him with a calm grace, with feet in total repose, allowing, if I so please, only a little mild encouragement of his adoration to show through. And soon, perhaps this very next time, he may appear less beautiful to me, so that my heart will be cooled toward him and I can smile and jest with a free spirit and enflame his heart for me, while I suffer not at all… No, aah no, Osarsiph, that is not how it will be, those are serpent’s thoughts, and I will gladly suffer for you, my master and my salvation, for your glory is like that of a firstborn bull…”
When Mut recalls her previous life, rigid and sterile, “unblessed by passion,” she feels loathing at the thought of returning to it.
In the second year, Mut begins to talk openly of her love, to servants, to ladies of her social class, to Joseph, indirectly, but her secret becomes public knowledge. But it doesn’t matter. The women in her class have secret lovers and orgies, including her sister Nuns of the Moon, and so her secret is a welcome topic of gossip, but not unheard of. No one is aware of the delicate moral sensibility that Mut has to overcome inwardly to admit her passion. The lasciviousness and hypocrisy of her fellow nuns may even give some encouragement to Joseph to give in to her seduction.
Two servants become her confidantes, the one an Egyptian woman with no spiritual restraints, who cannot understand why she, queen of the household, cannot simply command this nothing of a Hebrew slave to do her will, to “put their hands and feet together and enjoy themselves.” The other, a black African woman named Tabubu, who advises her to use witchcraft, and offers her own skill and experience in the black arts. Mut rejects both with contempt, at first.
In the third year, her body changes; her breasts, hips and thighs swell, her face, arms and legs grow gaunt. She declares herself to Joseph in increasingly desperate pleas:
“Osarsiph, my beautiful god from far away, my swan and bull, for whom my love is high and eternal, now we can die together and descend into the eternal night of bliss…. Do you love me, Osarsiph, my god in servant’s form, my heavenly falcon, as I love you, have loved you for so long, so long in rapture and torment, and does your blood burn for mine as I burn for you…enthralled as I am by your god-like glance which has changed my body and made my breasts grow to be fruits of love? Sleep—with—me! Give to me, and I will give to you raptures of which you cannot dream. Let us put our heads and feet together, so that we may enjoy ourselves beyond all bounds and we may die, each in the other, for I can no longer bear that we live as two, you there, I here.”
She paints vividly the pleasure that awaits him in her body, a kind of treasure chamber for passion waiting to be put into practice:
“I have never loved, never received a man into my womb, never given up the least treasure of my love and bliss; this entire treasure has been reserved for you instead and it will make you rich beyond all bounds, beyond your every dream. Listen to my whispers: My body has changed and been transformed for you, Osarsiph, and has become a body of love, from top to toe, so that when you lie with me and give to me your youth and glory, you will not believe you are with an earthly woman, but will restore the passion of the gods with mother, spouse, and sister—for behold, I am she! I am the oil that craves your salt so that the lamp may flare up in the feast of night. I am the field that in its thirst cries out for you, O flowing flood of manhood, bull of your mother, that you may swell and burst over it, and wed yourself with me, before leaving me, my beautiful god, and forgetting your crown of lotus still lying in my moistened soil.”
Ignored, she makes a more dire suggestion: it would be easy for the two of them to murder Potiphar. Between her own private pharmacy and the charms of Tabubu, the killing would be a breeze. The death of Potiphar would be no loss at all, and what freedom it would give them! They could rule as lord and lady over the entire household in an erotic Eden.
Mut is at this point in a phase of desperate passion experienced also by her companion in that state, Gustav Aschenbach. Forging ahead in pursuit of his god, the boy Tadzio, in spite of the plague in Venice, he makes this realization: “What value did culture and morality have compared with the advantages of chaos?” Aschenbach’s own culture offers him no terms and no discourse which glorify an old man’s love for a boy; But Mut’s culture is rich with a mythology of female desire. What for Aschenbach is “chaos” is for Mut-em-enet a transfiguration.
To experience the moistening of her soil by the godlike Osarsiph is to fertilise the primal egg and recreate the universe, a cosmic-religious obligation.
In a final effort to win him over, she threatens him. She will denounce him to Potiphar for raping her. His back will be shredded with sharp forks. He will be chained to the ground near the crocodile-infested swamp etc.
Ripe now, late into year three, for Tabubu’s love charms, the two women arrange a ceremony to force Joseph to yield. The witch knows which god to call upon for this particular service, and she chooses the dirtiest, most obscene, most loathsome underworld deity. It is a dog goddess, and her name is so appalling that Tabubu doesn’t even dare to speak it. She calls her simply “the bitch.” The rites which will conjure the Bitch are intricate and take careful preparation. It takes some time to gather the necessary material for the rite: the rudder of a wrecked ship, wood from a gallows, rotting meat, various body parts from executed criminals, the corpse of a dog recently dead. Also they have to wait for a full moon. When all is ready, Mut, Tabubu and two servants mount to the roof of the women’s house. Tabubu invokes the goddess with every obscene insult in her rich vocabulary. The bitch answers only to foul language, in which Tabubu is an expert. She knows “how to encircle her nature with words.” She comes only when called by filthy insults. At the end of the ritual the serving girl has fainted with horror at the filth of the ritual, and Mut sees clearly how low she has sunk, and offers a prayer to her “purer spirits” to forgive her abasement:
“Behold how I was forced to sink beneath myself for love, how I had to forgo happiness for lust, in order to have that at least—for if I am not to know the happiness of his eyes, I would know the lust of his mouth. But how grieved and sickened I am by this loss—the daughter of a prince cannot conceal that from you, purer spirits. Leave me some hope in my abasement, good spirits, some innermost secret hope that lust and happiness may not in the end be so separated that happiness may blossom from lust, if only it is deep enough, and that amid my irresistible kisses the dead boy may yet open his eyes to grant me the gaze of his soul.”
The story proceeds in the direction it had to take. Mut denounces Joseph as a seducer and rapist. In a public speech in which she reverts to the fascism inherent in her religion she rouses sentiments against this Hebrew slave who never should have been entrusted with such a high office. Potiphar sees exactly what happened; he suspected all along what course Mut’s attraction would follow, but suppressed his suspicions so that he would not have to act. A wave of face-saving sweeps through the court. Joseph winds up in prison and, this time, spends several years in “the pit.”
So, Joseph in Egypt is a love story, a married woman in love with a handsome young man, the husband’s inadequacy driving the wife’s passion for another man. It is a great theme of the European novel in the 19th century. The particular destiny of Mut, wife of Potiphar, is distinguished among unhappy heroines in various ways. It is an earthly-divine comedy of passionate love, as Dante’s is an other-worldly comedy of divine, redemptive love. Mann shows how love filters through the being of a resisting woman, one who understands the danger of the attraction, from the first shallow tingling of a vague sense of disorder and danger, a feeling that from the outset has the reach of that lotus blossom, infecting the organism from its petals to its submerged veins, to its root deep in the primal mud. There may be some sense of the supernatural in her resisting lover, a hint of godlikeness, a magnetism of person, but it mixes magically with those bronze shoulders, the exquisite beauty of his face, and the promise of untellable sexual bliss that she feels radiating from him. For us as readers, Joseph is a great bore as lover. His role in the love story is to make up reasons why he cannot sleep with her.
The love that infects and takes over Mut’s life is more than a personal experience, though it’s that too. It is also an agon, with competing powers working out their conflicts in her psyche. Mut in her beauty is a creature made and prepared to desire, to love, to attract and receive a man in her body. Her initial indifference, oblivion to that role and her resistance generate an opposite and totally reaction from….? The word Mann uses is “life.” Life insists on its rights, and pushes aside the barriers of personal identity and personal sense of destiny, morality and social role. Blows them aside like a strong wind scatters paper dolls (“she had been struck with the rod of life”). Culture and society have neither strength nor force when opposed by “life.” That greater force has its own mythology in J in E: she has the moon-egg of origins in her womb and it insists on fertilization, and against this will, Joseph has no power. In fact life is thwarted only because of the other force at work in this fateful agon, the god of Israel and the line of austere patriarchs who watch over Joseph’s progress (carelessly at times), but who step in at the critical moment and drive Joseph, naked, erect and ready to do life’s bidding, out of the house, leaving his clothes in Mut’s hand.
That overlay of myth does nothing to make the action of the narrative seem false and contrived. On the contrary, it gains momentum from the mythical. Gustav Aschenbach also lived the mythologizing of his love for Tadzio. He saw himself transported into a Socratic world, where philosophical and erotic culture joined forces and fully legitimized, even sacralized, a desire of an older for a younger man.
Compare this with Emma Bovary, whose illicit loves are generated by a romantic delusion, inspired by cheap fiction.
Or Anna Karenina, driven to adultery by some vague idea that passion has its own rights and privileges, which a strong individual can assert. But the grounding of passion seems to be in Anna’s case ego and no greater psychological, mythical, …forces that might govern a love that overwhelms a woman, are not at work. At least as shallow as the roots of Emma Bovary’s passions are those of the bevy of young women in 19th century novels who, like Anna Karenina, fall in love with cavalry officers: Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy), Julie in A Woman of Thirty Years (Balzac), Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (Austen), Lady Deadlock in Bleak House (Dickens), Natasha in War and Peace (Tolstoy), Effi in Effi Briest (Fontane). Consistently in these novels the moment of falling in love happens via a shallow show of elegance, glint and polish, as in the display of swordsmanship by Sergeant Troy in which he seems both to threaten and save Bathsheba’s life; or Colonel D’Aiglemont’s glimmering gold lace and channeling of Napoleon in Woman of Thirty Years, as a result of which Julie’s “soul passed into the officer’s being.” These are women taken in by charismatic tricks. Their love stories are bourgeois cautionary tales.
Mut’s love story is myth. Her love develops in the depths of her mind, but comes to the surface in the dream of Joseph kissing the cut on her wounded hand and stanching the flow of her blood. She knows now consciously what is gestating inside her and what her duty to this erotic pregnancy is.
In each of those 19th century novels of adultery, the psychology of passionate love is condemned and abased. That is the intention of the author in every case, to show how much better off the individual and society would be if women didn’t indulge in shallow egotism and romantic foolishness. By contrast, the effect of Mann’s story is to glorify Mut’s passion and to elevate the character. While the end of J in E leaves Mut an ambiguous figure, a sexual predator accusing her victim, a face-saving liar and bigot, Mann issues a final judgment. He judges her as a woman taken by an irresistible force outside herself. That she was not able to gratify the aims of that force doesn’t lower the distinction or darken the psychological transfiguration that all by itself that role confers. The betrayal of her lover was strategy to rescue the moment. She returns to her sterile and honorary life with Potiphar; she does the dance of the moon nuns, now a model of devotion to “a narrow, rigid, patriotic piety,” at peace with herself, her life, and the man who had resisted the onslaught of seduction:
She did not curse the man she loved because of the suffering he had caused her, or that she had caused herself. The pains of love are special pains that no one has ever repented having endured. “You have made my life rich—it blossoms!” Those were the words of Eni’s prayer in the midst of her anguish. When, clad in the clinging garb of Hathor, she shook her rattle before Amun and joined the chorus of the noble concubines to dance in measured step and to lead them in singing (though from a flat chest now) with a voice beloved by all, she celebrated sacred constancy, the eternal balance of the scales, the stony stare of endurance. And yet at the bottom of her soul lay a treasure in which she secretly took greater pride than in all her spiritual and worldly honors, and which whether she admitted it or not, she would not have surrendered for anything in the world. A sunken treasure in the depths—but it still silently sent its light up into the murky days of her renunciation. And however much it represented her defeat it also lent to her spiritual and worldly pride an indispensable element of essential humanity—a pride in life. It was a memory—not so much of him, whom she had heard had now become lord over Egypt; he was merely an instrument, just as she, Mut-em-enet, had been an instrument. But rather—almost independently of him—it was a recognition of her justification, the awareness that she had blossomed and burned, had loved and suffered.
What an affirmation of suffering in love! Love happiness is trivial compared with the “blessings” of love suffering. In spite of the strong sensual/sexual element, the full experience, even, or especially, unfulfilled, gives Mut a special aura: heroism in passion. Where could this pride in life and this “essential humanity” come from? I don’t think any other modern work, any love story, from the 18th to the 21st century finds those benefits in a destructive romantic passion. Not even Tristan and Isolde (Wagner), which props up an adulterous and destructive love on the vague idea of fulfillment in eternity. Mut’s love is not eternal; it burns bright for three years, then burns itself out and sends its vessel back to ordinariness.
Mut’s love is grounded in myth, not the ordinary kind being played out in religious ceremony, but a myth of primal things and drives, primal origins, “the mothers,” or “the gods.” a myth of some blind will of life itself to take over, ravish, use, and throw away humans or throw them back into everyday uses. The essential story at work is that of the best, or greatest, or most beautiful, or the wisest of humans suffering to self-destruction. Authentic humanity is what’s left at the end of horrendous suffering. It strips you of humanity. Then the deepest suffering becomes a form of distinction.
Romantic love has its own form of tragedy. Mut is a close relative of Heloise, and a distant relative of Oedipus and King Lear. They were—or felt they were—used by higher forces as showpieces of divine power. Used and thrown away, they become sacred objects. That is Mut’s “treasure.” She has served “life” and it justifies her existence. Normal life is hollow show.