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Prelude to a Tetralogy

Notes on Joseph and His Brothers, I

“Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”

With these words Thomas Mann begins his magisterial tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers.  The opening “Prelude”, “Descent into Hell”, is an exploration of the mythology of time.  Much as Augustine asks, “What, then, is time?” in hisConfessions (Chapter 14 of Book 11), Mann’s narrator asks us if the past is not inscrutable in the sense that it “offers us only illusory stations and goals, behind which, once we reach them, we discover new stretches of the past opening up–“.  This meditation on the past in the Prelude is not unlike a prelude by Wagner for one of his operas where the motifs and themes for the whole opera are explored.  We experience this as Mann’s narrator moves on to Jacob and Joseph and a vision of the godhead in the abstract–in effect imagining the idea of a god in the Platonic philosophic sense.  

It is into this abstract vision of the world on the edge of time that the story is presented as a mythos that explores the relationships of specific Biblical personages, like Joseph and his father Jacob, with their traditions and history.  They become the focal point for a personal monotheistic god in a culture that is surrounded by Mesopotamian gods on the east and Egyptian gods on the west and, at least referentially Greek gods to the north or in the mythological mysts of time.  These mysts are as deep and distant as can be measured by the extravagant lengths of an imagined “temporal plumb line”.
As the prelude wanes the myth of the past and the traditions of Jacob suggest a god who looks to the future–plans that are far reaching for a culture that shared an unease and desire for a god of problems and movement and mystery.

The novel proper begins with the stories of Jacob the father of Joseph.  Here we see a beautiful young Joseph and an anxious father who is proud of his precocious son, even as his voice is “charged with emotion” as he states in a questioning way, “My child is sitting beside the depths of the well?” 
While Joseph, the bookish child of beauty and brains, asks for a story from his father to entertain him, his father begins a reverie, “pondering” in his own serious way; so much so that he is eventually described as “brooding” over his past life of stolen name and stolen wife and more; yet, through all his pondering in the section called “Names” he ultimately receives from “an extraordinary voice” the name of “Yizrael ” . . . “God goes to war”.  Thus the first novel of the four that comprise the totality of Joseph and His Brothers begins with mythos, an account, a narrative, yes a story of a man of god and his sons.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman’s Library, 2005 (1933-43)

Live Evolves

Why Evolution Is True


Why Evolution Is True 

“Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species – perhaps a self-replicating molecule – that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection. (3.)

Jerry Coyne summarizes the facts supporting Darwinian evolution. He divides them into six components: the fact of evolution, in the sense of genetic change over time; the idea of gradualism, of changes taking place over many generations (although sometimes they come about relatively quickly, depending on the evolutionary pressures operating); the phenomenon of speciation, whereby new species split off from existing lineages; the common ancestry of different species, since new species, which can be thought of as twigs on the developing branches of life, can be traced back to a common branch, and ultimately to an original ancestor; the mechanism of natural selection, whereby different combinations of genes are reproduced more successfully than others as a result of the different abilities of individual organisms to survive and reproduce in a shared environment; and, finally, the presence of some processes, in addition to natural selection, that contribute to evolutionary change (the most important being what is known as “genetic drift”). The updating of the fossil record, filling in gaps in the story and providing explanations for difficult aspects of the theory all combine to make this book a gem.  For readers interested in exploring some of these ideas on-line there is a beautiful blog at Why Evolution is True .


Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne. Viking Press, New York. 2009.