Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 2)


 
    “…perhaps the man to whom genius is ascribed is in a worse way than someone who possesses only ordinary capabilities; for the former can more easily be badly educated and more abruptly urged along false paths than the latter.”
    “But will not genius save itself,” replied Wilhelm, “and itself heal the wounds that it has inflicted on itself?”
    “Not at all,” the other answered, “or at least only in a makeshift manner; for nobody should believe that they can get over first childhood impressions. If someone has grown up in commendable freedom, surrounded by beautiful and noble objects, in the company of good people, if his masters have taught him the things he had to learn first, in order that the rest might be understood the more easily, if what he has learnt he never needs to unlearn, if his first actions were so directed that he can in future do good more easily and more conveniently, without his having to break himself of anything, this person will lead a purer, more perfect and happier life than someone who has misplaced the first energies of his youth in opposition and error. There is so much said and written about education, and I see only a few people who can grasp the simple but great idea that includes all else in itself…”

 

 

Put simply – far too simply – Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the story of a young man’s rejection of his bourgeois upbringing and his attempt to find meaning in his life through art. Wilhelm is the son of a hard-headed, unimaginative merchant, who expects him to carry on the family business. Wilhelm, however, has been fascinated from an early age with art, and in particular the theatre; and he finds an opportunity to break away and pursue his dream—which, indeed, turns out in many ways to be no more than a dream, forcing him to reassess his choices.

The novel opens in a manner both confounding to those accustomed to the English habit of beginning such a novel with the protagonist’s childhood, if not his birth, and shocking to those accustomed to novels of this period built upon English morality (and/or hypocrisy): when we meet Wilhelm, he is an adult – physically if not emotionally mature – and he is in the throes not merely of his first love affair, but his first sexual affair. His mistress is an actress, Marianne; and Wilhelm’s passion for her and his pre-existing passion for the theatre have become so entwined, each intensifies the other; but to the reader there is a clear note of warning in the descriptions of Wilhelm’s dazzled state:

How often he stood behind the scenes in the theatre, having been given the manager’s permission as a privilege! It was true that the magic of perspective was then lost, but the much more potent enchantment of love could now start to have its effect. He could stand for hours by the dirty light-carrier, breathing in the fumes of the tallow lamps, looking out for his beloved, and when she appeared again and looked at him in a friendly way, be lost in rapture and, when close to the structure of joists and boards, feel as if transported into a paradisaic state. The stuffed lambs, the taffeta waterfalls, the pasteboard rose bushes and the one-sided straw huts evoked in him fond poetic visions of an ancient pastoral world…

The first five books of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship put the theatre, and Wilhelm’s devotion to it, to a variety of uses that are complicated and increasingly difficult to pick apart. The earliest stages of the novel alone can be read in a straightforward manner. Here we discover that Wilhelm’s passion is not for the theatre merely as a form of entertainment, as his parents suppose, but reflective of an early fascination with art and the act of creation. This, in his adulthood, will become intermixed with his belief in the capabilities of art, including the theatre, for moral instruction and inspiration.

Increasingly, however, Goethe also uses the theatre as a framework within which to examine the state of the German drama (with which he himself was heavily involved) per se; to compare German, French and English drama; and to analyse German drama as a reflection of the German character. Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s belief in art-as-morality is both examined seriously as a philosophy of life, and treated with irony, as his lofty ideals come to grief on the rocks of the prosaic, hand-to-mouth existence of most of those actually in the theatre. These multiple intentions create a complicated scenario in which the theatre is simultaneously reality, artifice, and metaphor.

(And you may take this as my explanation / apology for not getting too deeply into this novel’s meanings!)

Having surprised us at the outset with Wilhelm’s affair with Marianne, Goethe then gives us what is, in context, an almost more shocking piece of evidence that we are far from the world of English literature.

An early conversation between Wilhelm and his mother reveals that she blames herself for his obsession, having, some twelve years before, arranged as a Christmas gift for her son the performance of a puppet-theatre. Wilhelm fires up at once in defence of his beloved puppers, revealing a startlingly clear memory of the occasion; we learn, too, that subsequently the entire theatre and its puppets were bought for Wilhelm: a decision which proved the pivotal moment of his childhood.

The puppet-theatre will be frequently referenced throughout the narrative. Now, we find that Wilhelm has already told Marianne about it; he carries to her some of the puppets, and recounts to her the story of his own artistic awakening; how he began to write and plan “productions” for his little theatre, how he found himself “directing” his siblings and friends, how even he found himself more and more concerned with accuracy of detail and (in effect) the artistic integrity of his “performances”; the successes and failures of his various little “performances”, his own not-infrequent embarrassments as something overlooked made itself felt. (Later, we will see most of these passages recapitulating themselves as a frustrated Wilhelm wrestles with controlling a professional troupe and the artistic compromises necessary to please a paying audience.)

This is a lengthy section of the novel, occupying five chapters as Wilhelm recounts in vivid detail these critical, character-forming childhood passages. Of course, we are accustomed to this sort of thing in protagonist-focused novels; and accustomed, too, the protagonist’s listeners hanging on his every word and, indeed, assuring him that he cannot go into too much detail. But that isn’t what happens here. Instead, as an oblivious Wilhelm loses himself in his story, Marianne falls asleep. Granted, she is tired after her evening’s performance; but she is also very bored…

(It is to be wished that our hero may find in future more attentive listeners to his favourite stories, observes Goethe wryly.)

It is this sort of touch that makes Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship so disconcerting, and so difficult to interpret. There is constantly a sort of split-vision around Wilhelm: at various other points he will burst into impassioned speech, only to have his listeners laugh at him, change the subject, or just leave; yet there are also scenes in which his opinions are treated with grave consideration, albeit the conclusion is generally that his opinions are misguided.

Aside from Wilhelm’s puppet-theatre reminiscences, the other critical detail of his childhood is revealed when he falls into conversation with a random stranger. Having introduced himself, Wilhelm is asked whether he is not the grandson of a man who once owned a beautiful and valuable collection of art? – a collection, we learn, that Wilhelm’s father sold to set himself up in business, leaving his young son scarred by the loss of these familiar and beautiful objects. Here, too, Wilhelm’s memories are vivid and his emotions fully engaged. He also learns to his surprise that he and the stranger are old acquaintances: he, the stranger, was sent by the collection’s eventual purchaser to inspect it and give his advice; he and the young Wilhelm had a number of conversations about the objets d’arte:

    “If I remember aright, you had a favourite picture among the paintings, and you did not want to let me get away from it.”
    “Quite right! It portrayed the story of how the sick prince consumes himself in love for his father’s bride-to-be.”
    “It wasn’t in fact the best of paintings, not well composed, of no particular colouring, and the execution was completely mannered.”
    “I didn’t understand that, and still don’t understand it; it is the subject-matter that attracts me about a painting, not the art…”

The “sick prince” with whom Wilhelm obviously identifies is Antiochus, son of Seleucus, the king of Syria, who fell in love with his young step-mother, Stratonice. The reason for his illness was discovered by his physician, Erasistratus, and, fearing that he would otherwise literally die of love, Seleuchus surrendered his young bride to his son, thus saving his life.

So the story goes, anyway—a story that seems to have fascinated a wide variety of artists, who produced a whole clutch of paintings showing the sufferings of Antiochus. It isn’t clear whether Goethe is referring here to a specific painting (given his strictures, possibly not), but it is clear he expected his readers to get the allusion.

The actual painting that Wilhelm remembers from his childhood will reappear towards the end of the novel; but there will be other references to it, and to Wilhelm’s fascination with it, along the way. This I have found one of the hardest parts of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to interpret: one of several instances where it is easier to grasp that something is intended to be significant, than what the significance actually is.
 

 
Two of the numerous paintings depicting the story of Antiochus and Stratonice: on the left is Theodoor van Thulden’s Antiochus und Stratonike, from the 1660s; on the right is Jean-Louis David’s Erasistratus Discovering the Cause of Antiochus’ Disease, from 1774.

 
In addition to their mutual reminiscences about the art collection, Wilhelm and the stranger have the first of what will be many conversations in this novel about fate and self-determination. Wilhelm is, at this time, a great believer in predetermined destiny; the stranger, conversely, argues that men are what they make of themselves, and that to believe in fate is to allow random chance to dictate the course of one’s life, possibly to wasteful and destructive ends:

    “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.”
    “Did it never happen to you that a small circumstance caused you to follow a certain path, on which an agreeable opportunity soon offered itself, and a series of unexpected events finally brought you to a goal which you yourself had as yet scarcely envisaged? Should not this instil resignation to fate and confidence in such guidance?”
    “With those opinions no maiden could keep her virtue, and nobody could keep his money in his purse; for their are inducements enough to get rid of both. I can only be happy about the man who knows what is useful to him and to others and labours to limit the element of caprice in his life. Everyone has his fortune in his hands, just as the artist has the raw material which he wishes to re-shape into a figure. But with this art it is with the same as with all; only the capacity for it is innate, the art has to be learnt and carefully practised…”

This last paragraph is as close as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship goes to stating clearly its manifesto. Wilhelm, who understands the “subject-matter”but not “the art”, who allows “small circumstances” and “a series of unexpected events” to dictate the course of his life, must learn to take charge and shape his own fortune.

The first real crisis in Wilhelm’s life occurs when he has reason to believe that Marianne has been unfaithful. He responds to this shock as any character in a late-18th century novel would, collapsing and nearly dying of his grief. His recovery is slow, and when he is better, he does something truly horrifying:

    Up to now he had carefully preserved everything that he had written, from the earliest period of his mind’s development onward. His writings still lay in bundles at the bottom of the trunk where he had packed them at the time when he was hoping to take them with him on his flight. In how different a mood did he open them now from the time he had tied them together!
    If we open at some time later a letter, which we wrote and sealed up in particular circumstances, but which does not reach the friend to whom it was directed and is returned to us, a strange emotion overcomes us when we break open our own seal and converse with our changed self as with a third person. A similar feeling seized hold of our friend with intensity when he opened the first package and threw on the fire the copy-books after they had been split up…

Wilhelm is interrupted in the middle of this literary auto-da-fé by Werner, the son of Meister Sr’s business partner, who has embraced the merchant life with enthusiasm and whose friendship with Wilhelm consists mostly of arguments of their relative positions. He was also one of those involved in the childhood puppet-productions; and though he now has little sympathy with, or understanding of, Wilhelm’s artistic passions, he is truly shocked by this destruction of his early effusions, and tries unavailingly to stop him.

Wilhelm then bursts into a lengthy and passionate speech in which his shattered faith in Marianne and his loss of faith in his own “genius” are bundled up together; and although there is no question of Wilhelm’s sincerity, Goethe again undermines him—observing that, Werner stood by in the greatest embarrassment…

The upshot of all this is that Wilhelm resigns himself to to his father’s wishes: as a first taste of business he is sent out on a lengthy journey, visiting numerous people with whom his father is in business, checking on their enterprises and/or receiving loan repayments. He proves quite successful at the tasks assigned him; though it is travelling and meeting new people that does him the most good.

One of these people is described rather ambiguously – from his clothing and his venerable appearance he might well have been taken for a clergyman – and he is afterwards referred to as “the clergyman” in spite of the implied doubt. Wilhelm has many interesting conversations with him, which somehow again veer around to the question of fate, self-determination and education, and the necessary conditions for the emergence of genius, which Wilhelm, along with his belief in “fate”, tends to believe must necessarily “just happen”. He is startled by the terms in which his new friend states his counter-argument, that genius must have the opportunity to grow and be nurtured under certain conditions, and that from childhood, or it will likely come to nothing:

    “Do not many undertakings show great significance in the first place, and do not most of them peter out in something trivial?… And isn’t it the same in the case of what happens to individual persons?” the other continued. “Supposing that fate had destined someone to be a good actor (and why should not fate also provide us with good actors?), but unfortunately chance led the young man to a puppet-theatre, where in his youth he could not restrain himself from participating in something tasteless, from finding something silly tolerable, even interesting, and thus receiving in a wrong way those youthful impressions which never disappear and from which we can never remove a certain attachment.”
    “What makes you mention the puppet-theatre?” Wilhelm interpolated with some consternation.
    “It was only an arbitrary example; if you don’t like it, we will take another…”

The next violent lurch in Wilhelm’s life comes when he enters a certain country town to find in residence a troupe of acrobats; he has already fallen in with several out-of-work actors, who are travelling around in the hope of finding employment. Long story short—Wilhelm is completely diverted from his business (to the extent of simply keeping the money he has collected for his father!), and succumbs again to the first passion of his life.

Books Two to Five of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship deal with Wilhelm’s involvement with a company of actors, during which he progresses from fan-boy to hanger-on to writer to actor to manager. Much, though not all, of this material can be taken straight, as Goethe’s examination of the state of the theatre generally, and the German theatre in particular; and of the inevitable and perhaps irreconcilable tension between theatre-as-art, theatre-as-a-job, and theatre-as-a-money-making-venture.

The most accessible and striking aspect of this section of the novel (also the most amusing) is Wilhelm’s attempt to stage a production of Hamlet. To modern eyes, the book’s gosh-wow-Shakespeare! attitude may be a bit bemusing, but it must be understood that Shakespeare really did not reach Germany until the mid-18th century – the insularity of German drama is one of the dissected topics here – and that the translation of Shakespeare’s plays that so dazzles Wilhelm is the same one by which Goethe himself was introduced to the playwright.

This is often compelling stuff; although (as with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead) it will work best for those with a thoroughly detailed knowledge of Hamlet. In particular, much against his will, Wilhelm is forced to cut the play, in order to make it more appealing to the audience (plus ça change); and his struggle to find a way to trim it without compromising it is oddly gripping. The overall analysis he offers of Hamlet, as he tries to convince the others of its greatness, is also fascinating (whether you agree with his conclusions or not).

The crowning joke here is that Wilhelm himself ends up playing Hamlet. Of course he does: his identification with the procrastinating prince of the play is even greater than his identification with the lovesick prince of his grandfather’s painting. There is also a very strange bit of business surrounding the ghost of Hamlet’s father: Wilhelm is persuaded to leave the role uncast, promised by anonymous letter that an actor will show up to fill it on opening night. A mysterious figure in armour does turn up – exactly on his cue and not before – plays the role brilliantly, and vanishes…

(Not literally.)

Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s falling in with the troupe of performers also marks the point at which Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship opens up, introducing a plethora of new characters, and adding a second focus in Wilhelm’s relationship with several women. The troupe is hired to live and perform for a time at the castle home of a Count and Countess, who are entertaining a Prince; arrangements are made by another inmate of the castle, the Baron. There is much theatre-business here, as the Baron’s enthusiasm for actors, the Count’s mistaken ideas about the staging of plays and the demand that the troupe pay tribute in their play to the Prince must all be diplomatically managed. Many long debates about the relative merits of German, French and English drama, take place; and Wilhelm is introduced to William by the Count’s Master of Horse, a former soldier named Jarno:

    Wilhelm had scarcely read some plays by Shakespeare when their effect on him was so great that he was not able to continue further. His whole spirit came into a turmoil. He sought an opportunity to talk to Jarno, and could not thank him enough for the happiness procured him.
    “I indeed foresaw,” said Jarno, “that you would not remain unreceptive to the excellences of the most extraordinary and amazing of all writers.”
    “Yes, indeed,” Wilhelm cried, “I don’t remember that a book, a person or any happening in life produced such great effects upon me as the wonderful plays which I have got to know as a result of your kindness… They are not literary works! You believe that you are standing before the huge, open books of fate in which the high wind of life at its most agitated storms, turning the pages back and forth rapidly and with violence. I am so astonished and disconcerted by the strength and delicacy, the violence and calm… In Shakespeare’s plays I find the fulfillment and development of all premonitory feelings that I have ever had about mankind and its destiny…”

By which we may conclude that, at this point (towards the end of Book Three), Wilhelm has not yet relinquished his belief in “fate”, despite all the lectures to the contrary.

(Christoph Martin Wieland’s translation of twenty-two of Shakespeare’s plays was published across 1762 – 1766. His 1767 autobiographical novel, Geschichte des Agathon [The History Of Agathon], is considered by some to be the first Blidungsroman, rather than Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.)

While all this is going on, Wilhelm finds himself much drawn to the beautiful young Countess, whose conscious behaviour reveals that she is also attracted to the handsome young man. The two get as far as farewell kisses but these occur after Wilhelm is, more or less accidentally, involved in a practical joke that involves him masquerading as the Count—who comes away convinced that he has seen his Doppelgänger (an incident with significant consequences for the Count and those connected with him, although we do not learn this for some time). Forced to part, there is a painful scene which yet points forward, as Wilhelm is given a signet-ring with Countess’ arms on it as a parting gift, and sees what at first he takes to be his own initials engraved into the Countess’s bracelet—although she insists, “It is the cipher of a woman friend of mine…”

The opening up of the narrative of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship when Wilhelm embarks upon his travels also brings about the introduction of two supporting characters who were, at the time of the book’s first appearance, of most passionate interest to the reading public and considered its greatest success; and who also indirectly ensured this book a lasting fame that its literary merits have perhaps not secured on their own.

When Wilhelm arrives at the market town where he encounters the acrobats, his attention is caught and riveted by one of them:

…a young creature who drew his attention leapt towards him. A short silk waistcoat with slit Spanish-style sleeves and long close-fitting trousers with puffs looked very well on the child. Long black hair had been set in curls and plaits and wound round the head. He looked at the figure in astonishment and could not make up his mind whether he should declare it to be a boy or a girl…

A girl it is, though she will insist upon retaining her boys’ clothes for most of the book. Androgynous and enigmatic, Mignon weaves herself through the narrative, becoming – like the theatre itself – simultaneously real and symbolic. She is quick and intelligent, though Wilhelm’s efforts to educate her fail completely; she speaks vaguely of a childhood in Italy and longs to return there, but has no memory of how she came to be with the street-performers; she is a prey to her own sensitivity, her health fluctuating with her spirits; she rarely speaks, but expresses herself through song and dance.

Finding the child being mistreated, Wilhelm rescues her and promises to care for her always; and she responds with passionate loyalty and devotion.

But Mignon is not the only strange figure to make a call upon Wilhelm’s compassion. Not long after his adoption of Mignon, Wilhelm’s attention is likewise drawn to an elderly, wandering harpist, whose skill with his instrument is remarkable and who, like the child, prefers to communicate through his music. This second adoption of Wilhelm’s is more contentious, as the harpist is mentally unbalanced, and given to outbreaks of literally insane rage that include violence against children and arson. Wilhelm is fortunate to find a refuge for him in the care of a clergyman, who has undertaken a number of such cases and eventually gets to the root of the old man’s mental state.

Both Mignon and the harpist proved to have a strange appeal, and to an audience beyond the readers of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: they became the focus of most of the various illustrated editions of the book, particularly Mignon, most of whose appearances in the narrative involve a set-piece performance—most notably one where she is dressed as an angel. Separately and together they became the subjects of paintings; while in 1866, an opera written by Ambroise Thomas, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, premiered in Paris: it was called simply, Mignon. (It eventually ran for over 1500 performances!)

Above all, though, the songs which Goethe provides for Mignon and the harpist within his text were repeatedly set to music by some of Europe’s most famous composers.

This is not – to put it mildly – my area of expertise, but fortunately there are those who know what they are talking about and are willing to share.

The music blog Liederabend did a series of posts on the songs in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as well as providing online recordings of them; while two years ago the Australian arts magazine, Limelight, offered an essay on the history of Mignon and music.

Please note: Both of these sources offer explicit spoilers for the rest of the novel, so you may or may not want to put off any visit until after I’ve finished blogging it. (Because spoiling books is my prerogative, dammit!)
 

   
An illustration by W. Friedrich from the 1885 edition of Goethe’s works, showing Wilhelm, the harpist and Mignon; Paul Léveré’s Mignon and the Harper from 1923; a poster for the premiere of the opera, Mignon, from 1866.

 
[To be continued…]
 

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4 Comments to “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 2)”

  1. The topic of Goethe has always seemed so forbiddingly monolithic that I’ve pretty much ended up learning nothing about his work. Thanks for managing to break off one manageable piece of it.

    • Agreed! I have read Werther, which is probably his most accessible work (but also his least representative), but he isn’t an author I would have pursued if this accidental connection hadn’t emerged.

      I’m still debating whether I’m also obliged to tackle Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years…so you may get another chunk if you hang around…

  2. It’s ironic that his first love is called Marianne, since he seems to be the perfect match for Jane Austen’s Marianne. Based on the time line, of the respective novels, neither name appears to be a deliberate choice.

    • Goethe’s Marianne is a lot more pragmatic; conversely, I don’t think Wilhelm would be dashing enough for Austen’s. 🙂

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