Monthly Archives: March 2013

Joseph and His Good Brothers (re-visited)

Kenneth Burke, American philosopher, literary critic, and rhetorician

Kenneth Burke, American philosopher, literary critic, and rhetorician

As it is my intention in this column or blog to attend primarily to literary subjects – and, perhaps more importantly, to place that literature in a context to demonstrate rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s assertion that “literature is equipment for living” – I will soon be turning to a years-old essay of mine whose idea is inspired by the reading of the German writer Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers cycle. But first a couple of related extracts from the news and from documentary film; in particular, Roane Carey’s review of (principally) The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras in the March 11, 2013 issue of The Nation magazine.

While The Gatekeepers is by an Israeli filmmaker and 5 Broken Cameras by a Palestinian (with an Israeli partner), together they reveal common concerns about the inevitable precariousness of Israeli political / military policy toward the occupied territories. I have written previously about this issue and so will not go back over all those preliminary considerations. The stark fact is the remarkable coincidence in these two films’ revelation of the degree that the Israeli government’s position has become monstrous. The case is given exceptional strength by the source of the criticism in the Israeli film: “… its leading enforcers, six former heads of the General Security Service, or Shin Bet.”

“A key theme of The Gatekeepers,” Carey writes, “is the irresponsibility of Israel’s politicians, who have avoided hard decisions and have abetted the most dangerous elements in society. As [Avraham] Shalom puts it, any talk of a political solution to the occupation disappeared soon after it began, to be replaced only by a tactical focus on fighting terror. ‘No Israeli prime minister,’ he says, ‘took the Palestinians into consideration.’ [Yaakov] Peri observes that every Israeli government either accepted or came to accept the settlements. This gave extremists the feeling they were ‘becoming the masters’ and could do whatever they want.”

To continue, and this is devastating: “Near the end of the film […] Shalom registers one of the strongest criticisms of Israel, saying, ‘We’ve become cruel … to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population.’ Even more astounding, he likens the Israeli occupation to that of the Nazis (making careful exception for the Holocaust itself).” Carey also cites Yuval Diskin as reflecting that, “‘What’s unnatural is the power you have’ to ‘take their lives in an instant.’”

Sadat, Carter, Begin at Camp David

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at Camp David in August, 1978

Less is said about 5 Broken Mirrors but as Carey summarizes, it “interweaves scenes of domestic life” with scenes from a Palestinian village’s protests against the occupation wall and the army’s and ultra-orthodox settlers’ wanton destruction of their olive groves: “the fact that five of his cameras were broken by the army in the course of filming is a testament both to his seemingly continuous engagement and the army’s habitually violent response to unarmed protest.”

Of equal interest are some closing remarks about “video testimony collected for the exhibition and research project Towards a Common Archive,” in which Carey quotes a veteran of the 1948 war (the original occupation) whose witnessing of atrocities against non-combatant Palestinians caused him to say: “As a Holocaust survivor, it was traumatic for me.” His and other veterans of that conflict, Carey adds, “undermine the common liberal claim that there are ‘two narratives’ of the conflict, a Jewish one and a Palestinian one. For in stunning detail these veterans echo the story of the Nakba that Palestinians have been telling for sixty-four years. Until we acknowledge the testimony of these veterans along with that of the victims, [filmmaker Eyal] Silvan and [historian Ilan] Pappé say, reconciliation will not be possible.”


Pharoah Akhenaten and family in act of worship

Pharoah Akhenaten and family in act of worship

Now what follows shortly, my readers will likely say, is wondrously naive. A friend once called it “brilliant and naive” (I appreciated his friendly hyperbole on the first count). Without commenting on that point, The New Yorker senior editor Willing Davidson (to whom my essay somehow rose from the slush pile through editor David Remnick; as documented in Davidson’s October 1, 2002 letter to me) “read it with pleasure, and found it quite interesting,” though alas they were unable to publish it. Eventually it became my entry piece to the online journal New Works Review, where I would later serve briefly as managing editor, and where again no one commented on the issue of its naivité.

My response, in any case, to the inevitable charge, is that I was as aware as anyone that what I proposed was considerably less-than-just-unlikely to occur on any grand scale. But how much less naive is the popular notion that the way to peace is through war? How has that project worked out over the past millenia? How much safer (or more dangerous) is the world we live in than when we entered the present and apparently unending fray?

Let me turn in partial response to two more of Carey’s witnesses: “You can’t make peace using military means” (Avi Dichter); and: “The tragedy of Israel’s public security debate is that we don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.” I wonder if the latter is not true of our own ongoing war against terror.

But my clearest response to that old charge, which I offer here with even less certainty than before that we will concertedly try it, is that diplomacy and honest dialogue are a more likely road to peace should we ever really get serious about reaching it. In that spirit of aspiration – and with something of Kenneth Burke’s “wan hope” (in his “Definition of Man”) that “in the sheer muddle of current international relations” there might be “enough elements of self-cancellation to keep things from coming to a perfect fulfillment in a perfect Apocalyptic holocaust” – I offer once more the following literary plea to our better nature:


Joseph and His Good Brothers

Thomas Mann, German writer

Thomas Mann, German writer

At the time of the 9/11/01 tragedy, I had been reading Thomas Mann’s four-part “mythological novel” Joseph and His Brothers. I was in the last book, in the midst of a discussion (between an experienced Joseph and his young Pharoah) that jumped out at me then as if from the present terror’s headlines; that seemed only more pertinent more than a year later in the shadow of the escalating crisis with Iraq.

Joseph and his Pharoah were discussing, among other things, matters of life and death. War and peace. The proper conduct of rulers toward an empire’s enemies. Pharoah did not want to acknowledge the realms of darkness and evil. He would have preferred to banish them from his Egyptian religion. It was by virtue of his internationalist vision, in fact, that the foreigner Joseph had risen from the depths of his imprisonment (for the matter of Potiphar’s wife) to enjoy the prestige of second-in-command to the royal Pharoah.

“Ah, how much more would things go by love and goodness if not for this belief in the lower and in the devourer with the crushing jaws! No one shall persuade Pharoah that man would not do much or consider much pleasing to do if their fate were not directed downward.”

Joseph fleeing from Potiphar's wife, Philipp Veit

Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife, Philipp Veit

But Joseph, also an enemy of “violence and abruptness,” counters with an enigma. Right can also be wrong. Truth can be error. It may exist only to point toward a greater truth.

“What can be done with robber kings that burn and plunder? You cannot give them the peace of God, they are too stupid and bad. You can only bring it to them by first smiting them hip and thigh until they know that the peace of God has strong hands. But you owe it to God that things shall go on earth at least half-way according to His will and not entirely according to the will of burners and plunderers.”

But, lest his words give too much comfort to hawkish advisors, Joseph brings to war “word of the peace of God” even as to peace word of courage’s virtues. “The sword is stupid; yet I would not call meekness wise. Wise is the mediator who counsels courage in order that meekness may not be revealed as stupid in the sight of God and man.”

It occurred to me as we were zeroing in on Afghanistan, and again as (for the second time in little more than a decade) we decimated Baghdad, that the younger Joseph, who taunted his brothers with dreams that even his pious father found presumptuous, had much in common with this United States risen up, a wounded eagle, to strike back at those who had attacked it.

Joseph the Provider, fourth part of Mann's novel

Joseph the Provider, fourth part of Mann’s novel (1st edition)

How comforting to think that, despite Joseph’s obvious folly, God is once said to have turned his personal tragedy to both his and his nation’s good. As He still might turn humanity’s multifarious sinning to its redemption.

How might this redemption touch us today in our present predicament?

I am no  political or economic or deeply spiritual thinker. From where I sit, though, let me add this additional witness for the word’s eventual efficacy over the sword’s.

What if Israel, instead of more questionable negotiations (while building its own Berlin Wall between itself and any future Palestinian state), had just taken to heart Gandhi’s prediction of eye-for-eye-and-tooth-for-tooth leading at last to hopelessly blind and toothless nations? Imagine how much wind would have been taken out of international terrorism’s sails if Israel’s leaders were to have suddenly said something like this:

“Look. We are a powerful nation. And we can continue proving it. But just now we have caught a glimpse of your people’s humanity, too. Just now we are moved to tears not just for our dead but for yours as well. As a gesture of good will – not of our weakness, for we remain powerful – accept our immediate and total withdrawal from your territories. Now let us both catch our breath. Let us both reflect on the true imperatives of our religions. Then let us sit down in peace and finally resolve this old problem of Jerusalem.”

And what if our own President were to have stopped, sometime between 9/11 and this new razing of Iraq, and reflected? Imagine how much wind would have been sucked out of those terrible sails if he were suddenly to have said something wholly unscripted, like this:

“Look. With all my soul I have believed this to be the greatest nation on earth. I have believed it within our power both to destroy the evil ones and to raise up the good in many other nations. But our brothers in other nations tell us that we are too carelessly arrogant, quick to impose a will that may not be theirs. All my instincts have told me they are wrong, but maybe I am wrong, too. We are strong. We can act without them. But instead let us continue to act with them, thereby adding their strength to ours. As a gesture of good will, let us step back on this stance on Iraq – without ceasing to keep Saddaam Hussein, as is clearly necessary, in his present cage, prevented from unleashing the harm that otherwise we fear he might – let us step back until we can agree with our good brothers on what to do next. Together with those good brothers we will still prevent Saddaam Hussein from using whatever weapons of mass destruction he may possess or hope to possess. Together with those good brothers we will continue undaunted to uproot and destroy the robber kings and burners and plunderers wherever we may find them.”

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmill

Impossible dreamer Don Quixote,
tilting at windmills

Yes, I know. This is silly, John-Lennonish dreaming. Wholly unfounded in political reality. But how much more pleasant, life-giving, than the usual voices of assured destruction! Really – despite our reluctant, or cosmetic, diplomacies – how earnestly have we ever explored the largely un-traveled roads to peace?

One must hope that it is not yet too late to make the attempt.


Postscript: Just as I have been working on this, I came upon a wonderful review of Mann’s great novel which should certainly be read by anyone interested in approaching it. You may read it at The author of the site has read it in the apparently supple John E. Woods translation, which I might have to try in my older age, while I read the original H. T. Lowe-Porter translation which is apparently much more intimidating than the original. Somehow its magic came through to me nonetheless.