Joseph Campbell on the Joseph Story

Joseph Campbell

The beautiful way he [Thomas Mann in Joseph and His Brothers] starts with Joseph seated at the well, the well that goes back to the depths of the soul. The well that reflects the moon, and he’s in a mild, youthful, poetic mood there, making eyes at the moon, you know?

His father, Joseph, says, “Put your shirt on.” This is the play of the two principles that are going to run all through the book. The mood of rapture and giving and letting go. And lest he fall into the well, the father says, “Put your shirt on,” keep in terms of the historical moment that we’re in now. Don’t lose yourself in the abyss.

Very briefly, it’s the story of the favorite son who takes it to himself–the problem that we were talking about. The one who sees himself as it and lacks humility. And Joseph had to be divested of his pride. That’s what it was.

Yes, he was the beautiful one. Then he had the nerve to tell his brothers of the dreams he was dreaming which were of them bowing to him, you know.

And they just said, “Look, we can’t take this any longer.” And they threw him in a well.

The coat of many colors is his mother’s wedding gown. And what is the wedding gown? it depicts the heavens. It’s all the stars of the heavens. She is also in the mythological role, you know. of Virgo, the virgin, the one clothed in the glory of the heavens.

So Joseph takes this to himself. This is his coat of many colors. This is his virginal pride you might say.

And his father just dotes on him. Well, that’s wrong on his father’s part, too. His father has to be cleared of that.

So Joseph being thrown in the well is a discipline to both of them, and his story is rendered in such a way that you feel that and you get the ambiguity.

There wouldn’t have been any story if Joseph didn’t have his pride. So, there’s something good about that, too, you see. Mann is really doing it all the way. It’s a grand job.

And it’s a very simple story of the beginning of the descent into the well, the beginning of the descent into the abyss, and this is the well–not exactly the same well–but mythologically the same well that he was sitting at in the beginning of the story, when his father said, “Put your shirt on and don’t fall into the well.” Well, he took his shirt off and fell into the well.

He put on his mother’s wedding garment and he was making eyes at the moon. Moon logic, identification with the savior, and in the way of the savior–or the one to be saved, rather–goes down into the well.

The Hebrews go into Egypt. What came out? What went in were the patriarchs. What came out were the people. And the gem, the jewel, the found good in the Old Testament is the knowledge and being of the people.

And Moses is their servant, really. They are the ones who get to the Promised Land, not Moses.

It’s wonderful how Joseph goes into Egypt. He’s sold to a camel herder, a camel merchant. And the wonderful ambiguity there is Joseph is the important thing that’s being brought into Egypt, but as Mann says, he goes in, the guards don’t even look at him. He’s like a flea on the flank of the camel, you might say. You don’t worry about that. He goes in as the boy that’s going in and yet the most important thing being brought in to Egypt is Joseph.

He asks the man to whom he’s been sold, “Where are we going?” He says, “We’re not going anywhere. We’re going and we’re not going for you either.” Joseph has to just ride as a flea on a camel and is brought in.

I think that whole section of Joseph going into Egypt and becoming such a charming friend to the camel merchant and setting him at ease with his flattering stores… And here, plastic irony becomes intentional duplicity. This is what happens with Joseph.

He knows how to use the irony to his own advantage, to make people fall in love with him, that he’s the most previous thing.

And, of course, this is what gets him in trouble with Potiphar’s wife. He’s very intentional in bringing about his own shipwreck.

Well, he’s sold to Potiphar, the Potiphar’s wife is a priestess. Joseph, you know, tried to achieve the effect. He achieves it alright.

And this poor woman, he learns one day–that wonderful theme where Joseph is a servant, holding a candle or something like this, on his knees in the way of an Egyptian servant.

And he hears the father and mother of Potiphar discussing what they had done to Potiphar when he was a little boy. What they represent is traditional religion that has not changed with the time.

They are brother and sister, married. And they dedicated their son to the god by castrating him. So, this is one step further than circumcision, by the way.

The wife, then is married to a castrato and is absolutely just dedicated to the god. She is a priestess of Amun, and she is the bride of god.

But here is this beautiful young Hebrew in the house. He’s foreign, so interesting, beautiful, with just a slight disproportion of his shoulders a little bit. And very, very interesting.

And he does everything to let her know that he is interesting. And there are a number of Muslim stores about Joseph and Leila and this is the source of some of Thomas Mann’s writing about their affair. He’s taking Muhammedan material and incorporating it.

Well, that marvelous party where she invites all the ladies to a kind of tea, and they have fruit and knives to cut the fruit, and Joseph comes in to pour the wine, and they all begin cutting their fingers instead of the fruit.

This dazzling youth. And she is just taken in totally. And then proposes herself to him.

Now, this is the Potiphar’s wife motif exactly. Her name is Mut-em-enet.

Then comes the great moment. Joseph is willing, And when he comes to her, his father’s face is in front of him or cuts him off so that he’s utterly impotent.

And it isn’t that he refused her. It is that he was rendered impotent. And that is the ethical father cutting him off on this thing.

And then she says to her husband that he tried to rape her. And so Joseph is thrown in jail.

That’s the second well. He’s got to get over trying to be the one that knocks people down without any thought about them, thinking only of his own pride and all. So he’s divested a second time and thrown in the well again.

That’s the sense of that one.

The story is Joseph is now the story of two descents. The first, one level of pride–his adolescent egotism–everybody loves me more than himself. And then his later, post-adolescent attempt to just knock that woman down and make her just go crazy for him, without any respect for her and her life. And he knew, because he had overheard the story of her husband’s castration, what the situation was.

This is a cruel guy at this time. So he’s in jail again.

Now Mann does a very interesting thing in the third volume. He brings him out of jail as a servant of the Pharaoh, and the Pharaoh now is Akhenaten.

So, Joseph is now flattering Pharaoh. He’s able to read Pharaoh’s dreams. He has a gift of inward intuitions, of the dream world, the world of the moon logic and so on.

And so, again, just as he ingratiated himself to he camel merchant and then to Mut-em-emet, now he’s doing the job on the Pharaoh, and he gets a good job out of that.

He becomes the superintendent of supplies and so on so that when, in Mesopotamia, the seven lean years come along, and his family that has been without him and thinking him dead is starving. They come, the whole family, into Egypt for welfare, like the Puerto Ricans coming to New York, and the dispenser of the boons is Joseph, and he plays a very amusing game in introducing himself to his family and that they should realize that it’s their brother who was dead and is now alive.

–from Joseph Campbell: Mythos III

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