Wird damit die Täuschung nicht schon zur Wahrheit seiner Seele [Will the deception not become a truth of his soul] — Thomas Mann, wondering about Joseph in Egypt

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

In the third volume of Thomas Mann’s masterwork Joseph and His Brothers, we find Joseph in Egyptland, growing from boy to man. He finds success and recognition as a manager of a princely estate and its many commercial interests, while beguiling everyone (especially Mann) with his good looks and beautiful mind. His social rise holds the seed of his destruction, though, as it did before when jealousy turned his brothers against him. Now in Egypt, the destructive force is love, or rather desire. Joseph catches the eye of his owner’s wife and inflames her passion. Mann intimates that Joseph could have avoided disaster (how exactly he does not say). Many forces are at work. The mistress’s frustrated desire, which is now tinged with rage and a lust for vengeance, her servant’s secret potions and spells, and finally—and here we get to the point—Joseph’s own unsettled motivational state.

Mann describes Joseph as a splendid and vain young man who enjoys the attentions of women (and men) and who stops short of doing everything he can to steer his mistress off her dangerous path. The climactic scene comes when Joseph returns from a religious procession, knowing that his mistress is alone in the house. She has summoned him, it is true, but we are led to think that Joseph had some control over his timing. By returning early, he invites his destruction. Why?

Folk and academic psychology suggest that Joseph (though being a literary character rather than flesh and blood) fails to solve a motivational conflict. He wants the encounter, and he knows it will hasten his downfall. The call of the woman appeals to his instinctive, appetitive, and myopic self, whereas the law of the fathers (don’t offend god with sin) and rational expectations of punishment at the hands of the Egyptians represent social morality and enlightened self-interest. Many psychological theories of self-control ask how the rational self may tame the instinctual self. The distinction between instinct and reason, between desire and wisdom, reflects a well-known psychological dualism with the self divided against itself. As most readers (and many authors) tend to root for the ‘better’ self, the far-sighted and moral one, a temptation to truncate the self arises. When the rational and moral self is tasked with self-control, it becomes confusable with the self as such (Krueger, Heck, & Athenstaedt, 2017). When the rational and moral self becomes ‘The Self,’ the forces to be controlled are fenced off; they no longer belong to the self proper; they are alien, intrusive, and unintended. Perhaps inadmissible urges are stirred up by Satan, the Nubian servant’s spells and potions, or by some alter ego of the deep.   

Separating disagreeable or difficult wants and urges from the self proper has psychological benefits. One can maintain a positive self-image and identify with a noble warrior-self that fights the good fight. Siding with the noble warrior avoids the experience of being non-unitary; this self—though small—still appears to be whole. The drawback of this construction is that it can’t work as intended. Urges and wants, however difficult and socially inappropriate they may seem, present themselves within the mind’s subjective psychological theater. They are fundamentally yours. Other people may witness or infer your states—and the behaviors they produce—and judge you by them, but these states are yours to have and to experience. Attributing them to demons or seducers cannot nullify the experience of these wants and urges in your subjective world and their being part of the causal chain leading to your choices and acts. The warrior-self can’t undo this; at best it manages to censor and abort a dangerous behavior.

Mann was familiar with the psychology of his time, and Jung’s views in particular left an impression (Bishop, 1996). In Jungian terms, questions of self-control and self-construction play out in the struggle between the self and its shadow [if you prefer Freudian meta-psychology, consider the distinction between the partially self-aware ego and the instinctual forces of the id; Dawes, 1976]. But Mann goes further: He questions the very existence of a self—any self. As Joseph makes his way to the rendezvous, the princess-mistress reflects on her scheme to lure him with spells and potions, of which Joseph is unaware. She knows that Joseph finally feels an irresistible urge to visit her, but only she knows that this urge is not fully his—or is it?

Mann asks—by putting these thoughts into the princess’s mind—why humans distinguish between a sense of being driven to commit an act and wanting to act. To say, "It makes me do this," is to separate the desire from the self and to deny responsibility. But Mann objects, suggesting that there is no distinction between the ‘it’ that wills and drives and the “I” that wills and wants—if only with nobler goals. Mann asks if the phrase “I want” adds anything to the explanation of the act. Instead, perhaps, the act merely reveals the will. This position is essentially Schopenhauer’s, whose work Mann knew and admired (as he made clear in Buddenbrooks).

Mann’s words are below in the original German. I will not venture a translation, but the foregoing paragraph was an attempt to paraphrase its meaning:

“Es treibt mich”, sagt wohl der Mensch; aber was ist das für ein “es”, daß er es von sich selbst unterscheide und schiebe die Verantwortung für sein Handeln auf etwas, was nicht er selbst ist? Sehr wohl ist er es selbst! – und “es”, das ist nur er, zusammen mit seinem Verlangen. Ist es etwa zweierlei, zu sagen: “Ich will” oder zu sagen: In mir will’s”? Muß man überhaupt sagen: “Ich will”, um zu tun? Kommt das Tun aus dem Willen, oder zeigt sich nicht vielmehr erst das Wollen im Tun?

Bishop, P. (1996). “Jung-Joseph”: Thomas Mann’s reception of Jungian thought in the “Joseph tetralogy. The Modern Language Review, 91, 138-158.

Dawes, R. M. (1976). Shallow psychology. In J. Carroll & J. Payne (eds.), Cognition and social behavior (pp. 3-12). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Krueger, J. I., Heck, P. R., & Athenstaedt, U. (2017). The self. In T. Nelson (Ed.). Getting grounded in social psychology: The essential literature for beginning researchers (pp. 15-36). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mann, T. (1936). Joseph und seine Brüder: Joseph in Ägypten. Wien: Fischer. I used the 15th Edition. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer. The quotes are on p. 578.

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