From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thomas Mann: Joseph's story strikes a chord

(Thomas Mann in 1937)

According to biographer Herman Kurzke, Thomas Mann had a longstanding ambivalence towards his religious roots.  Although his mother was Roman Catholic, Mann had been baptized into his father’s Lutheran tradition (just as, years later, Mann’s secular-Jewish wife was baptized into her husband’s Lutheran tradition).  Mann’s baptism occurred on June 11, 1875 (five days after his birth) at St. Mary’s Church in Lubeck, Germany.

Venerable old St. Mary’s had become at the time a symbol of middle-class Germany.  As Mann himself grew older, middle-class Germany became more and more supportive of National Socialist politics.  This support culminated in the rise of the Nazi regime, which Mann repeatedly warned his fellow Germans about.  Mann was so much against this regime that he was forced to leave the country in order to survive.  In 1942, when St. Mary’s was practically destroyed by Allied bombing, Mann bitterly responded:  I think of Coventry and have nothing against the idea that everything must be paid for.  (Coventry is a city in England that had been severely damaged in 1940 by Nazi warfare.)  On the other hand, Mann showed some reverential feelings towards St. Mary’s when later raising funds for its restoration.

This ambivalence towards his roots was reflected (and perhaps somewhat processed) during the 16 years that he spent writing Joseph and His Brothers.  This more than 1400-page book, which Mann considered to be his greatest work, retells the famous biblical stories about Joseph and family, but with Mann’s own unique twist (although other interpretations, such as Freud’s, were somewhat similar).  Mann sets the story within the Amarna period of ancient Egypt, and equates the monotheism of Judaism with the monotheism of

In identifying so strongly with this story above all others, Mann was perhaps reliving some of his own exilic saga.  Like Joseph, he ended up believing that there are important benefits to be gained, even from intense suffering of this kind.


Copyright June 6, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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