Abraham and his discovery of God in Thomas Manns "Jakob und seine Brüder"

Essay 2004 9 Pages

Didactics - German - Discussion and Essays


Abraham, the “Urvater“ and his discovery of God

In Thomas Mann’s Die Geschichten des Jakab, the first novel in the tetralogy Joseph und seine Brűder, Jakob is presented to us in quite a bewildering way. He is in god’s chosen linage. We expect such a character to be dignified, a leader, a man of merit and virtue. But Jakob is in most points the opposite of this. He steals the birthright and his father’s blessings from his older brother Esau. On the following flight he gets completely abased by the 16-year-old Eliphas, a son of Esau. During his time with Laban, he gains great wealth through trickery and finally he again flees while Laban is away. Also, within his family Jakob appears highly selective in his preferences. But not only he but also God is morally doubtful. He liked the sacrifice of Abel better than the one of Cain; then he almost destroys all life on earth with the flood. His treatment of Sodom and Gomorra is quite extreme and finally he chose one particular lineage as his favorite one. That linage starts with Abram. It is most peculiar, though, that Abram discovered God. Only because of this event Abram’s lineage is God’s chosen one. It is the actual discovery of God that constitutes Abram as the “Urvater”, since of course Abram had ancestors himself; therefore it is not Abram as a person himself who is decisive for his status. But as we will see later on, it is doubtful that Abram was actually one historic person.

In his chapter Wie Abraham Gott entdeckte Mann delineates the discovery of God through Abram as a contemplative process: Abram starts in the very beginning, as he at first thinks that “der Mutter Erde allein gebűhre Dienst und Anbetung, denn sie bringe die Frűchte und erhalte das Leben”, but he realizes that the growth of the earth depends on other, causal factors. Here we find men’s general endeavor to explain the world and to give meaning to its phenomena. In the process Abram wanders through what can be seen as the several stations of human religious, and, therefore, at this stage cultural development to finally arrive in the mythical world that is described in the novel. This progress from simple, empirical observations to abstract concepts – in which causal conditions are no longer obvious in visible nature, as the change of day and night or the movement of the stars - also stands for the advancement of men and therefore of culture in general. We find it also reflected in the already highly developed polytheistic societies, like Babylon or Egypt, which have a dense system of canonized religious norms. In Mann’s novel these societies are pictured as completely rooted in the mythical realm; here myth works here as collective memory, an a-historical source of decent; further they deliver a system to explain the world and the role of humans in it. Gods play a dominant role in this system, as they function as symbols and explanations of superior, underlying and also outer-cultural experiences such as nature or death; they are often closely related to natural appearances. These gods, though they are often related to natural phenomena – e.g. the sun god of Charran – already represent abstract constructions of the human mind; admittedly it is only to a limited degree the gods themselves, but the cult and the appendant norms, which developed around them, as they form the religious foundation. Nevertheless, the gods are considered to have a very real existence, as we can see throughout the novel, and are even physical like Laban’s Theraphim (p.252)[1] – these are active gods and they virtually hold all the power that is ascribed to them.

This forms the cultural background of Mann’s Abram, where in the novel he first needs to arrive; but he goes further than this. He is not satisfied to accept gods in natural phenomena or gods that only have a limited realm of influence - he is unwilling to accept the common god-cults, which we can see in his departure from Charran and his following wanderings; it is also shown by his nomadic life, which is a consequence of Abram’s reluctance to settle down in a city, as cities are the places of these god-cults. This also includes Abram’s departure from the ‘old’ cultural system, as he breaks with tradition.

Abram’s discovery of God happened through a process of abstraction, too: from the visible world he attains an abstract concept, which ends with his discovery of an ultimate causal factor. He comes to the conviction that there is a “Lenker und Herr” who stands above all things. The discovery of the existence of a higher order happened out of a “Drang” (p. 426) or “Gottesnot”. It goes on:”So hatte Abraham Gott entdeckt aus Drang zum Höchsten, hatte ihn lehrend weiter ausgeformt und hervorgebracht und allen Beteiligten eine grosse Wohltat damit erwiesen“ (p.426). This sentence is a source for further speculation about the relationship between Abram and man. Consequently one can consider Abram’s God merely as a product of his mind and we are even told that “gewissermaβen war Abram Gottes Vater”. The narrator uses a word play, when he says: “Er hiess Abiram, was heissen mochte: >>Mein Vater ist erhaben<<, oder auch mit recht wohl:>>Vater des Erhabenen<< (p.428)“. Therefore the narrator gives us no clear answer on the question.

Mannesmann in her approach elaborates that God is a projection of Abram. With that, she is rejecting the argument that Abram represents a “neuzeitliches Individuum, das im Bewusstsein seiner personalen Identität von einer philosophischen Fragestellung aus zu einem völlig neuartigen Gottesbegriff gelangt“(Mannesmann 30). She claims that the concept of a “gegen die Umwelt isoliertes Ich” is non-existent for Abram; the creation of God is a “unbewusster Akt der Projektion”(Mannesmann 31) out of the necessity to find a new collective self-consciousness after the departure from Charran. Mannesmann’s approach ignores the discovery of God as such: it requires the premise that God is not existent as an autonomous being but is exclusively a product of Abram’s mind. This excludes the possibility of any development towards a self-conscious being or, as she puts it, Abram is unable “sich als Individuum (…) gegen das ”mythische Kollektiv abzugrenzen”(Mannesmann 32). Here Abram is a figure completely rooted in a a-historical and by religious “Vorstellungen” dominated reality. Abram’s creation of God through unconscious projection – that is, the exclusion of a conscious, contemplative process that ends in the discovery of God - is a consequence of his departure from the previous collective, here represented through the city of Charran, its king and its sun god. Therefore, because he can’t overcome his basic “Vorstellungen”, the old schemes which form identity, a new god is an inevitable necessity for the creation of a new collective and its self-consciousness. This entails that Abrams “Seelengroesse” is the instrument for his projection (Mannesmann 34). The passages

Gottes gewaltige eigenschaften waren zwar etwas sachlich Gegebenes ausser Abraham, zugleich aber waren sie auch in ihm und von ihm; die Macht seiner eigenen Seele war in gewissen Augenblicken kaum von ihnen zu unterscheiden (...) (p.428)


Gott war da, und Abraham wandelte vor ihm, in der Seele geheiligt durch seine Aussennähe. Sie waren zwei, ein Ich und ein Du, das ebenfalls >Ich< sagte zum anderen >Du<. Schon richtig, dass Abram die Eigenschaften Gottes mit Hilfe der eigenen Seelengroesse ausmachte – ohne diese hätte er sie nicht auszumachen und zu benenne gewusst, und sie wären im Dunkeln geblieben. Darum blieb Gott aber doch ein gewaltig Ich sagendes Du ausserhalb von Abraham und ausserhalb der Welt. (p.431)


[1] This and all further page numbers refer to the Stockholmer Gesamtausgabe


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Abraham Thomas Manns Jakob Brüder




Title: Abraham and his discovery of God in Thomas Manns "Jakob und seine Brüder"