Archive for June 3rd, 2019

03/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 1)


    “So you don’t believe in any destiny? In any power that holds sway over us and guides everything for the best for us?
    “It is not a matter of my faith now, nor is this the place to analyse how I try to make the things which are incomprehensible to all of us appear to some extent capable of being conceived by myself; here the only question is which way of imagining is the most advantageous to us. The texture of this world is made up out of necessity and chance; man’s higher reason comes between the two and can dominate them; it can guide, lead and make use of chance factors, and only when it stands firm and unshakeable, does man deserve to be called a god of the earth. Unhappy is he who from early years becomes accustomed to trying to find something arbitrary in what is necessary, who would like to attribute to chance elements a kind of higher reason, the following of which would in fact be a matter of religion. Does that mean anything more than to renounce one’s inclinations? We delude ourselves that we are pious by sauntering along without reflection, letting ourselves be determined by pleasant chance factors, and finally giving the result of such a precarious life the name of divine guidance…”

 

 

 

Turns out that 18th century German philosophy is difficult to review; who knew?

Though it is one of the four novels written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the fourth being a belated sequel to this book), Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre – usually translated as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship or Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Apprenticeship – is anything but a straightforward work of narrative and incident. It is, rather, an extended rumination upon the factors that shape the destiny of the individual man, set within a framework of reflections upon the German character and mindset.

I’ve spent some time pondering how best to approach a post on this book—and am rather inclined to admit defeat at the outset. While I’m fully aware of the importance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in the European literary canon, as well as its specific influence upon the development of the English novel, I don’t feel qualified to tackle its themes and arguments in any depth.

What I will try to do, however, is to place this novel in its historical context; and to give an idea of how Goethe goes about making his arguments—without going too deeply into what those arguments are. Hopefully in doing this, I will also convey at least some sense of this book as a whole.

Goethe’s first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows Of Young Werther), was published in 1774, when he was twenty-five; a revised edition appeared in 1787. This semi-autobiographical epistolary novel – “semi”, obviously, since it deals with a young man dying of hopeless love – was a critical work in Germany’s Sturm und Drang movement, the country’s push-back against the tenets of the Enlightenment: a rebellion in which emotions were privileged over the intellect. (We have already examined at some length the English equivalent, expressed via the sentimental, Deist and Gothic novels of the late 18th century.)

The first version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship was written at around the same time of The Sorrows Of Young Werther, and was therefore like it the work of a young man in the first phase of his career. However, it was not until some twenty years later that, with the encouragement of his friend, the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller, Goethe resurrected, rewrote and published this novel—offering a far more maturely considered version of his themes.

(The manuscript of Goethe’s first draft, a fragment called Wilhelm Meisters theatralische SendungWilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Calling – was discovered and published about a hundred years later.)

The collaboration between Goethe and Schiller was an important one, part of the “Weimar Classicism” movement, generally considered at its outset a literary attempt to reconcile the thought / feeling dichotomy of the Enlightenment and the Sturm und Drang, and which eventually became an influential factor in 19th century German thinking about culture and politics (the latter in light of German unification, which likewise required the merging of seemingly irreconcilable elements).

Within the works of this period themselves, however, the dichotomy was approached, if not resolved, by allowing the full play of emotion associated with the Sturm und Drang—but simultaneously maintaining a detached, ironic view of both the emotion and its consequences. This split-vision approach, upon which Goethe insisted, represents one of the most significant alterations to the later version of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which finds the author looking back at his own youthful effusions, rather than participating in them.

However, in broad literary terms, the overriding significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is that it represents a philosophical shift. In its outlines, the novel is that most familiar of literary forms, the picaresque tale: like so many novels in general, and English novels in particular, written during the 17th and 18th centuries, it centres upon a young man travelling, meeting a variety of people, and having adventures, pleasant and otherwise.

What differs here is the intention; the lessons to be learned. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is generally considered the first of a new genre, the Bildungsroman. The direct translation of this phrase is “novel of formation”, though “novel of education” is sometimes given. These terms carry a stricter meaning than the frequent English rendering of “coming-of-age story”, in their implication that the protagonist’s real journey of life is internal and not external; his (and until very recently, it was always “his”) conflicts are not so much with other individuals, as with society and its tenets as a whole. Usually, after much striving and many false starts, the protagonist reaches a new level of maturity that permits him to re-evaluate his theories of the world: he either reconciles with society and finds a place for himself within it, or he creates a place for himself that reconciles his individual needs with society’s demands. Occasionally, he may create an entirely new society, along with other like-minded individuals. Exile from society is rarely considered a viable choice.

The true Bildungsroman, then, is a work of ideas, of reflection, rather than of action, despite the constant movement within the narrative.

To understand this shift, it may be helpful to compare Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with one of the 18th century’s most popular and successful novels, Henry Fielding’s The Adventures Of Tom Jones, A Foundling. This picaresque novel begins with Tom being turned out of the only home he has known, due to conflicts of the most immediate and personal kind. The narrative then follows him through a wide variety of incidents, and his meetings with a wide variety of people, as he “sees the world” (or at least, parts of England). When Tom’s true history is discovered and he is able to return home at the end of the novel, he is older and – perhaps – a little wiser, but he is not fundamentally changed despite all of his adventures. Rather, the book suggests that Tom was right all along, rewarding his impulsive, generous approach to life (although it also brings him to grief at times), which throughout is presented in contradistinction to the self-interest and suspicion that drive most of the other characters.

Wilhelm, meanwhile, also does things on impulse; but these moments are chiefly just to move the plot along. Once in his new circumstances, Wilhelm devotes himself to analysing his decision and its consequences, his relations to the people around him, and whether or not he has yet found his place in the world. These ruminations generally expand to a comparison of views with other parties. At each stage of the novel, Wilhelm is found measuring his life and himself against his expectations and his desires. That he does not belong where his birth seems to have placed him is the only thing he is certain of; where he does belong is the book’s great question.

Self-consciousness, then, might be considered a hallmark of the Bildungsroman; not in an egotistical sense, but in the sense of striving for understanding of the self.

The literary and cultural significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does, however, go further even than the establishment of a new genre. This novel was a major influence upon the burgeoning Romantic movement not just for its validation of its protagonist’s emotions and his demands for self-actualisation, but for its larger themes addressing the place of art and the artist within society, and the moral component of art.

In both of these respects, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship had a huge impact upon European literature, including in England. However, those there unable to read German were presented with a version of Goethe’s novel that was not quite what its author intended.

In 1824, under the simple title Wilhelm Meister, Thomas Carlyle published a translation of both Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and its sequel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, oder Die Entsagenden (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years; or, The Renunciants, usually called Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Travel).

Carlyle’s intentions were admirable: he was prompted not merely by his sincere and profound admiration of the specific work, but as a corrective to the prevailing English idea that all German literature was of the Sturm und Drang variety (a misapprehension that might have been helped along the way by Jane Austen’s inclusion of Carl Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries in her list of “Horrid Novels” in Northanger Abbey, which reached the English reading public in 1818).

However—it seems that Carlyle struggled with his translation, both in the immediate sense of conveying the nuance Goethe’s ideas, and in the more contentious sense of rendering parts of the novel “more appropriate” for an English audience.

How far Carlyle strayed from Goethe’s original text I am not in a position to say, although I do know that modern Goethe scholars tend to warn potential readers away from Carlyle…which is to say, from the translation of Wilhelm Meister that is most readily (indeed, freely) available.

Very recent years have seen the publication of a new translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Eric Blackall, released by the Princeton University Press, which is now considered the best English-language rendering of the novel. Unfortunately, this was not available here; and consequently I am working from the 1977 translation of the novel by H. M. Waidson, which is considered one of the better alternative attempts (and almost as importantly, the one most likely to be held by a library).

I may say that I did have some issues with Waidson’s text, which was on occasion frustratingly oblique—but I am not certain how far this reflects the original novel, or whether it represents translation artefacts. One difficult aspect of the novel that I am sure emanates from Goethe is his habit of giving his characters a descriptor rather than a name: a choice intended to reflect these characters’ roles as an influence upon, or an example to, Wilhelm, rather than as individuals in their own right. As you would appreciate, it is not always easy, some hundreds of pages on, to recall clearly who “the stranger” was, or what “the priest” might have said; and this aspect of the novel becomes even more difficult to deal with when it is eventually revealed that a number of these supporting characters were not, in any event, who they appeared to be at the time!

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship first appeared across 1795 – 1796, in three volumes divided into eight books. The first five books describe Wilhelm’s rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing and his attempts to follow his youthful passion for the theatre. The sixth book is that construct so beloved of the picaresque novel and its forerunner, the rogue’s biography, the interpolated narrative. Given its own title, The Confessions Of a Beautiful Soul, this interruption of the main plot is so complete, and seems at the time to have so little to do with it, that it has sometimes been considered and analysed as a standalone work. However, its significance is revealed over the seventh and eighth books, as Wilhelm embarks upon the next phase of his life.

[To be continued…]

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