I decided to include a few more Thomas Mann excerpts from Joseph and His Brothers under Abrahamic themes. The first relevant phrases I read about Abraham were ironically about his grandson Jacob, regarding the mind-numbing grief he felt about the death of his beloved Rachel. Now, for those who know I wrote a book in which Jacob and Rachel were characters (The Bible According to Eve) are portrayed more ironically, even ridiculed. Yet perhaps that feminine reworking of Jacob and his wives’ stories does not by itself deserve to replace either the original or Mann’s version. Perhaps it is only one of a great web of stories, searching eagerly in the darkness for the light of truth. So here is Mann’s truth about Jacob’s love for the late Rachel,
Yet it is the glory of the human soul that in this silence it does not stray from God, but is able to grasp the majesty of what is incomprehensible and to grow from it… [N]ever before this hour had Jacob so clearly understood… why Abram had set out from Ur. His view into monstrous vastness filled him with terror, but the looking itself was not without power; and on this dreadful night his laboring to understand the divine, which always left its careworn traces on his face, achieved an advancement that bore a certain kinship to Rachel’s own agony. And it was very much in accord with her love that her husband Jacob would gain some spiritual advantage from her dying.
This portion describes those terrible moments in life when life and death seem suspended, and certainty is absent. I remember a time of such fractures due to the fact I have Bipolar. Though I cannot say anything except being grateful for the fact I can live without my highs and lows, I know that in the mouth of despair I have confronted Death. Some times I have even wished to die. I don’t know if this is an unmixed curse. It is possible that by tasting the feeling of looking into the abyss, I am given something in return that few ordinary people have–but which Thomas Mann describes as Jacob’s grief for the loss of his beloved Rachel–the deepest loss, save one, of his life.
The abyss–Nietzsche described it inadequately–of not knowing where you are from or where you will go in the end. Nietzsche is the one sadist who can pretend that this emptiness is not a place of grief and loss, rather than given to the individual in happily realized expressions of “the gay science.” He believed that faced with this abyss all there is that remains is power and cruelty, to be embraced as a mother embraces her children. It is little wonder that this, combined with his anti-Semitism, gives many people the belief that his thinking was part of what led the Germans to Auschwitz. His own sister was friends with Hitler after he died. Yet what most people who like his work–regardless of their politics–forget is the inner desolation that comes from the belief that there is no trascendence.
I recall in my Sophomore Year of College, having lost faith in a religion, I sleep walked through life for my fall semester. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra was one of the first books I picked up. Then Spinoza’s Ethics. I finished Spinoza’s Ethics, and picked up Nietzsche years later. Yet I have a love-hate relationship with Nietzsche. It is as though the philosopher who committed suicide understood, at least in the end, why my life was haunted at so many times when I lived.
It is because I feel this desolation–I know, I overuse the word–that I always found God necessary. God is my Father, the True Father who understands me as no worldly father could. God is my friend, as he is once referred to as “Abraham’s friend” in the Jewish scriptures, because he is the comforter of my soul. The Orthodox prayer books says, “God the soul you have given me is pure,” and I believe it. Then God is transcendent. God is, was and always shall be. I believe this last was unutterable to Thomas Mann. I don’t blame him; yet in my heart if there was nothing out there worth living or dying for, I would probably end it all for the worse… I know that in Modern Society this is forbidden to say. I know that in Modern Society, nobody speaks of “Dark Nights of the Soul,” as the Medieval Catholic Church called the depths of despair of some of their very clergy.
The point is that the feeling of life’s transitory nature– Mann describes it magnificently. Average people feel grief like that when faced with the Night of Life: Death.