Mundt, Hannelore. Understanding Thomas Mann.

Carolina del Sur: University of South
Carolina Press, 2004. (Understanding modern European and Latin American literature).
pp. 168-171.

The Tables of the Law

The request to write a contribution for an American collection of stories critical of Nazi
Germany provided Mann with yet another diversion from completing the Joseph
tetralogy. First published in English in 1943 under the title “Thou Shalt Have No Other
Gods Before Me,” Das Gesetz (The Tables of the Law) is based on the story of Moses
who teaches the Hebrews about the invisible god Jahwe and leads them out of their
Egyptian serfdom to nearby Mount Sinai where he receives God’s Ten Commandments.
Outraged that the people adore a golden calf during his absence, he destroys their idol
with the stone tablets, then returns to Mount Sinai to rewrite the commandments.
Like the Joseph tetralogy, The Tables of the Law is an amusing, witty revision of
a biblical tale, a showcase of Mann’s mastery of playing with words and fables. With
humor, Mann undermines the authority of the Bible when he suggests that Jawhe is
nothing more than a convenient figment of Moses’s imagination, and that the Egyptians’
punishment for enslaving the Hebrews is not the result of divine interference but of
natural causes. When Moses is concerned about the beauty of the letters on the tablets
rather than about the content of the commandments, Mann pokes fun at aestheticism.
Nonetheless, behind this entertaining story about mankind’s past lurks a critical
assessment of contemporary issues. Since the loss of the First World War, and the
subsequent Treaty of Versailles, the Germans saw themselves as a humiliated people.
Hitler’s success was largely due to his promise to lead Germany out of its humiliation.
The Hebrews endured similar humiliation under Egyptian rule; Moses becomes their
leader because he promises liberation. Like Hitler, he shakes his fists when addressing
his audience and withholds the truth about his true intentions to gain their support.
Analogous to Hitler, he sees himself as a messiah figure who brings his chosen people a
new religion and uses aesthetic means to manipulate his followers. He relies on
propaganda and demagoguery; one of his loyal supporters, his half-sister Miriam,
composes a song praising God and his glorious destruction of their enemies. The
narrative voice, implicitly inviting the reader to compare this with Nazi marches and
drum beating, comments laconically: “It must be imagined sung to the timbrel” (Tables
22). Violence and terror are part and parcel of Moses’s rule to achieve his agenda. He
does not shy away from ordering killings, and displays racism and intolerance. 1
In his essay “Brother Hitler” Mann established affinities between the bourgeois

1

Jacques   Darmaun,   “Das Gesetz—Hebräische   Saga   und   deutsche   Wirklichkeit,” in Thomas Mann:
Romane und Erzählungen, ed. Volkmar Hansen (Stuttgart: Reclam 1993), 282.

artist and Hitler. Mann was possibly familiar with the proclamation by Goebbels, Nazi
minister of propaganda, that it was Hitler’s task “to form a people out of the raw
material man.”12 Mann compares Moses’s work of changing the Hebrews’ customs and
morals to that of a sculptor who turns a raw boulder into a work of art. Despite these
parallels between Hitler and Moses, underscored by Moses’s striking willingness to kill
all enemies, even Hebrews, who disobey his orders, there are also decisive differences.
By giving Moses the facial features of the Italian artist Michelangelo, Mann places his
Moses in the tradition of Western European humanism—and his own artist figures.
Reminiscent of Tonio Kröger, Moses is of mixed origin, half Egyptian, half Hebrew—
an outsider— and, unlike Hitler, obsessed with the desire for the “spiritual, the pure, the
holy” (Tables 1).
Above all what sets Moses apart from Hitler are his intentions as leader. When
he frees the Hebrews from their Egyptian serfdom he also wants to free them from their
existence driven by desire and instinct and lead them to an intellectual, morally
disciplined, civilized life. Moses is the bringer of a life-affirming humanism, not a
destructive force. The Ten Commandments are not simply religious norms, they are
“the moral law in general, man’s civilization” (SN 16). Moses’s task is not an easy one,
in light of the fact that Mann paints a rather negative picture of humankind in the story.
They are a mob without morality, intellect, and rationality. Whenever their basic
physical needs are not met during their flight from Egypt, they turn against their leader.
In order to bring humanity and culture to the mob, Mann provides Moses with two
powerful, ruthless men, comparable to Hitler’s henchmen, to enforce his leadership, his
laws and order. The narrative suggests that use of violence and terror against the
enemies of humanity, even against one’s own people, is justified, because without brutal
force human moral progress is impossible. Terror is the only pedagogical tool for the
Hebrews to learn their lessons in civilization. Fearing Moses’s “avenging angel,” who
would drive them into the desert, that is to say, into death, if they were to neglect his
prohibitions, they obey: “All the things that Moses forbade came to seem frightful to
them. At first this was so only in connection with the punishment; but after a while the
thing itself came to be thought of as an evil” (Tables 40). Fear of punishment leads to an
acceptance of new moral standards, and a bad conscience if these standards are violated.
But fear cannot be the foundation of civilization and humanism.
Mann’s optimistic assessment that morality and rationality will guide, and even
dominate, human behavior is counterbalanced by substantial doubts that they have
become ingrained in flesh and blood. In the absence of intellectual leadership and
disciplinary power, human beings relapse into primitive rites. The Hebrew community
regresses to barbaric behavior; Dionysian rapture, incest, murder, and idolatry reign
when Moses goes to Mount Sinai to receive God’s Ten Commandments. When Moses
returns from the mountain a second time with new tablets inscribed with the
commandments, he conveys to the community God’s knowledge that “His commands
will not be obeyed, but will be rebelled against over and over again” (Tables 62). In the
end, Mann’s tale is thus overshadowed by doubts that the rational forces of life can win
over nature and Dionysian forces. In light of the political and historical developments in

the early 1940s that saw a return to barbarism, the victory of irrational and Dionysian
forces over humanism and rationality, Mann’s skepticism certainly was warranted.
In the vein of Joseph and His Brothers, The Tables of the Law, described by
Mann as a “postlude” (SN 15) to the tetralogy, despite the fact that the tetralogy had not
yet been completed, continues with the presentation of the artist-leader figure with good
intentions. At the same time, the story destabilizes the boundaries between good and
bad leaders. Moses’s inhuman actions in the name of humanism overshadow his moral
leadership and make him both a counter figure and a complementary figure to Hitler.
Furthermore, his tyrannical means are not the only questionable side to his character.
Despite his social engagement that brought an end to the Hebrews’ slavery and his love
for life, mainly expressed on the personal level by his attraction to his black concubine,
he remains distanced from life. When he destroys the first set of commandments by
smashing them on the golden calf, he not only does so out of anger and in order to
destroy the idol, but because of his high aesthetic standards. Because his letters were not
perfect, he erases not only his inferior artistic product but its moral message, the
blueprint of Western civilization. Mann rectifies this slip into aestheticism. As the
second set of stone tablets satisfies Moses’ artistic standards, he can give his moral
lecture based on their content and demonstrate his social responsibility at the end of the
narrative.
Writing during his exile provided Mann with an aesthetic refuge from an
antihumanistic, destructive warmongering world that disregarded human dignity,
compassion, and freedom. Although Mann had lost his German readership and had had
to witness the perversion of Germany’s bourgeois-humanistic culture and (self)destruction from his American exile, he continued writing, therefore keeping the
memories of this culture alive and securing the continuation of bourgeois German
culture. With humor and irony, Mann describes in Lotte in Weimar, The Transposed
Heads, and The Tables of the Law the deficit of love, the flaws of human nature, the
questionable nature of artistic authority, and the enrichment of the world through
creativity. Mann did not shy away from a self-accusatory stance with his
acknowledgment of the amoral leadership of the artist. Yet with their underlying call for
humanism, compassion, and tolerance, these narratives are also narratives of resistance.
Their existence is testimony to Mann’s belief that the artist, despite all his shortcomings,
can be a servant to humanity. This belief, infused with skepticism, will be austerely
challenged in Doctor Faustus.