Archive for January 30th, 2020

30/01/2020

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (Part 1)


 
    I have been going round for days and cannot make up my mind to take up my pen; there are so many different things to be said; by word of mouth one thing would fit in with another, and one would perhaps develop out of another; therefore let me, as I am afar off, just begin with what is most general, it will after all eventually lead me on to the strange matter that I have to communicate.
    You have heard of the youth who found a thole-pin while walking by the seaside; the interest it aroused in him moved him to procure an oar, as necessarily belonging to it. But this likewise was of no use; he seriously longed for a boat and obtained one; however, boat, oar and thole-pin were not particularly beneficial; he acquired masts and sails and in this way gradually obtained what was needful for quick and comfortable sailing. With purposeful effort he acquired greater accomplishment and skill, luck favoured him, he finally became master and owner of a sizeable vessel; and in this way he became more successful, he gained prosperity, respect and a name among seafaring people.
    In causing you to read this moral tale again, I have to confess that it only belongs here in the remotest sense, but it paves the way for me to give expression to what I have to tell. Meanwhile there is some further and rather strange matter that I must deal with…

 

 

Given my track record, I don’t suppose there was ever any real chance of my not tackling Johann Goethe’s sequel to his 1796 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; but apart from the inner glow that always comes with completism, I can’t say that this time it was worth the effort.

In terms of why I was doing this in the first place, we must remember that the version of Goethe’s novels (called, simply, Wilhelm Meister) that was so influential in England thanks to the translation by Thomas Carlyle, appeared in 1824—and was therefore based upon the first editions of the two novels. As far as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship goes, this was not a problem (though, as we discussed, Carlyle cut his translation of Apprenticeship short, at the end of Book 7 rather than of Book 8); but after initially publishing his sequel in 1821, Goethe significantly revised it in an edition first published in 1829, and this is now considered the standard text.

Wilhem Meisters Wanderjahre, oder Die Entsagenden (strictly, Wilhelm Meister’s Wandering Years, or The Renunciants; usually given as either Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, Wilhelm Meister’s Years Of Travel or Wilhelm Meister’s Travels; for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with the latter) is a strange and frustrating book—although not in the same way that its predecessor is strange and frustrating. As difficult a novel as Apprenticeship is, there is never any sense that it does not have a long-term goal, however winding the road and however opaque the writing (or perhaps the translation). Travels, however, seems to lack a real purpose; or at least, any such direct philosophical purpose; and while to an extent it expands upon the arguments of the earlier work, by the end it does not feel as if much has been gained.

The writing itself also remains problematic, particularly Goethe’s tendency to overuse pronouns within lengthy passages, so that you can lose track of who is speaking, and to use descriptors rather than names. To give an example of this—at one point Wilhelm and his friend meet up with “the two ladies”…and it is four full pages before we get confirmation of which two ladies it is. (Turns out I’d guessed wrong.)

Most frustrating of all, however, is the lack of solid connection between Apprenticeship and Travels. Reading this novel is unnervingly like reading a trilogy in which the second book is missing. A few of the dots are eventually joined, but for far too long I was left feeling as if I had accidentally begun reading this book at the wrong point.

The most notable thing about Wilhelm Meister’s Travels is its structure, or the lack thereof. Much of this novel consists of interpolated narratives, quite a few of which have little if anything to do with the central plot and the main characters, around which Wilhelm’s narrative and that of Lenardo, a new character, are woven, and which are in turn periodically interrupted by poems, songs, letters between the characters, excerpts from a diary, and literally pages of aphorisms. All sorts of subplots are set up, only to peter out into irrelevance.

Furthermore, my understanding is that the first edition of the novel was nearly all interpolated narrative and very little Wilhelm: it was the passages in between which Goethe expanded upon.

In fact, the whole thing is so wilful in its refusal to be a novel that, had it not been published early in the 19th century, you’d be tempted to call it post-modern

…a reflection which suddenly caused me to wonder whether Goethe had been reading Tristram Shandy, that other great pre-post-modern novel; and much was my glee when he started quoting Sterne and expressing his admiration of him. (And while I don’t consider this on par with my deduction that Jane Austen enjoyed the novels of Catherine Cuthbertson, I still felt pretty full of myself.)

There’s one significant difference, however: though Tristram Shandy never actually gets anywhere, the reader has no trouble following where it isn’t going, if I can put it like that, while the non-journey is ultimately its own reward; whereas too often, Wilhelm Meister’s Travels just feels like experimentation for its own sake, an annoyance rather than an enrichment of the text, or perhaps a smokescreen for its limitations. In addition, Goethe entirely lacks Sterne’s sense of humour and lightness of touch.

So this is likely to be a rather lengthy “this happens, then that happens” sort of summary, rather than any kind of analysis. I apologise for that, but at the very least it should convey the issues. I really wanted to be done with this in a single post, but I decided in the end – for the sake of your sanity, mine having already taken flight – to divide it into two.

Now—I’m tempted to add, IYCCYMBTF, but it really hasn’t been that long, has it?—Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship closes with Wilhelm, newly engaged to Natalie and having accepted his new role of Felix’s father, nevertheless being sent away by the mysterious “society”, to act as a translator for an Italian nobleman on his travels.

So you may imagine my surprise when Wilhelm Meister’s Travels opens with Wilhelm and Felix on their own and no sign of the Marchese (to whom there is eventually a passing reference). We learn presently that Wilhelm is under orders from the “society”, none of which we heard a word about in the previous book. Wilhelm writes of his situation to Natalie:

I am not to remain more than three days under one roof. I am not to leave any lodging-place without going at least four miles away from it. These instructions are truly appropriate to making my years into years of travel and to preventing my being beset by the slightest temptation to settle down in one place. Up to now I have submitted myself entirely to this condition, indeed, I have not even made use of the permission granted to me. In fact this is the first time that I am stationary, the first time that I am spending the same night in the same bed. I am sending you from here much that I have heard, observed and saved up until now, and then tomorrow the journey goes on down the other side, first to a strange family, a holy family, as I should like to put it, about whom you will find more in my diary. Goodbye now, and put this paper down with the feeling that it has one thing to say and that it would only like to say and to keep on repeating one thing, but is unwilling to say and repeat it  until I can be happy enough to be lying at your feet and weeping into your hands because of all the renunciation…

Yes, well. Wilhelm shouldn’t hold his breath, and neither should Natalie. The two remain separated for the entire course of the novel, and this is the only time either of them expresses any particular regret about it. In fact this book is studded with separated couples who don’t much seem to care that they are. We get the feeling that while Goethe appreciated the dramatic possibilities of romantic pursuit, or romantic thwarting, he thought successful love was a complete bore.

But the critical point here is that final word of Wilhelm’s, “renunciation”.

I mentioned in my previous posts that while a number of translators of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship refer to the strange society into which he is accepted as “the Society of the Tower”, H. W. Waidson, the translator of my version, uses no particular term at all.

Yet here in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, we suddenly find the expression “the Renunciants” being used—given something like pride of place in its German-language subtitle, and with references to the society under that name throughout the text.

That quoted letter from Wilhelm would seem to be setting up “renunciation” as a major theme of the novel; but this never really eventuates. Yes, Wilhelm’s conditions of travel both separate him from Natalie and force him to part from the people and places he encounters along the way; while some of the interpolated narratives also deal with characters having to give up something (occasionally as the third point of a romantic triangle); but it just doesn’t amount to anything substantial.

I’ll put it this way: if “renunciation” wasn’t pointed out as a theme, I’m not sure that’s what you would take away from a reading.

In fact, resignation seems to be of more significance, particularly in terms of the characters giving themselves over to one rather narrow way of living; often to one form of art, or craft, to which they bind themselves in perpetuity. I suppose in this respect they are “renouncing” a broader ambition, but then some of them never had one.

(In any event, Wilhelm eventually gets fed up and asks to be released from the conditions of his travels. Permission is granted. So much for that.)

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels plunges us immediately into weirdness, via Wilhelm and Felix’s encounter with the people he calls “the holy family”:

A sturdy, efficient-looking and not very tall young man whose robe was tucked up and who had a dark skin and black hair was stepping firmly and cautiously down the mountain path leading a donkey whose well nourished and well groomed head first came into view and then the beautiful burden it was carrying. A gentle and charming woman was seated on a large, well appointed saddle; in a blue robe which was wrapped round her she was holding a new-born child that she was pressing to her breast and regarding with inexpressible sweetness…

After this introduction, it is inevitable that their names should be “Joseph” and “Mary”. It turns out this isn’t – or isn’t only – coincidence, but (so to speak) a lifestyle choice, as we learn via the first interpolated narrative—which begins eight pages into the novel, under the general title of “The Flight To Egypt”, with the travellers gathering with a ruined church which the family calls home. However, there is no question of the baby’s secular origins, nor that of its older brother and half-brother: Mary was a young war-widow taken in by Joseph’s mother, patiently courted by Joseph through the period of her mourning.

Joseph is (of course) a carpenter; and here we get the novel’s first lengthy rumination upon the choosing of an art or craft, how it can shape a life, and the difference between innate talent and the real artistry that comes with formal training.

Wilhelm and Felix are forced to move on, and the next phase of their journey is dictated by the boy’s burgeoning interest in geology. He finds a box of specimens in Joseph’s possession, left behind by someone called “Montan”. Wilhelm is excited by this name, and he and Felix set out to find their “old friend”—who, some 191 pages of being referred to as Montan later, is revealed to be Jarno, who played a significant part in bringing Wilhelm into the society.

Geology plays quite a prominent role in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, reflecting the important studies which emerged during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and which began to challenge the Old Testament view of the age of the Earth. (Although Travels was published before Charles Lyall’s Principles Of Geology, which was perhaps the critical work in that respect.) Goethe, however, appears to have had no difficulty in reconciling the implications of this research with his religious beliefs. He has Montan / Jarno dismiss these larger aspects, which are “beyond our understanding”, and concentrate only upon what is useful to man in this emerging body of knowledge.

Jarno also first introduces the theme that will dominate much of what follows, the idea that to be most of service to the world, a man should strive to be really good at one thing. It is the correct choosing of that thing that is difficult:

“The present is the time for specialisation; happy is he who understands this and is active in this sense on his own behalf and for others… Make yourself into an agency, and see what sort of place in life generally people will concede to you…I say that it is everywhere necessary to serve, from the bottom upwards. The best thing is to limit oneself to one craft. For the most limited person it will always remain a craft, for someone better it will be an art, and when the best man does one thing, he does everything, or, to be less paradoxical, in the one thing he does expertly he sees the symbol for everything that is done expertly.”

In the course of a lengthy conversation between Wilhelm and Jarno (is there any other kind?), we also get this—which again makes me wonder if my issues around renunciation / resignation is a translation artefact:

    “In every new circle we have to start again as children, develop a passionate interest in the subject and in the first place take pleasure in the shell until we are fortunate enough to reach the kernel.”
    “Well, tell me then how you came to acquire this knowledge and these insights,” Wilhelm replied, “For it isn’t such a long time since we parted company!”
    “My friend,” Montan rejoined, “we have had to be in a state of resignation, if not forever, at least for a good time. The first thing that occurs to an able man in such circumstances is to start a new life. New things are not sufficient for him, they are only valid as a distraction; he demands a new totality and immediately puts himself in the middle of it…”

After the friends have separated, Felix makes a discovery in the ruined church of St Joseph:

At last the bold lad came quickly up from the crevice and brought with him a casket which was no bigger than a small octavo volume and of magnificent and ancient appearance; it seemed to be of gold and decorated with enamel…

This casket will pass from hand to hand over the course of the novel, although no-one in possession of it will succeed in opening it. This is another of those touches where it is easier to see that symbolism is intended than to pin down the meaning. (Personally I’m inclined to take the casket as representative of my struggles to make head or tail of this narrative.)

Wilhelm and Felix head off under the guidance of a another boy, Fitz, with whom Felix has made friends, but who Wilhelm does not trust—and with good reason, it seems, when, after promising to show them into the grounds of an extensive estate, leads them instead into a literal trap. From there they are transferred into a room which, luxurious as it is, is yet another prison, its walls decorated with inscriptions such as: Liberty and recompense to the innocent, pity for those who have been led astray, requiting justice to the guilty.

The explanation for this is amusingly prosaic – set in place to protect the estates valuable young trees from those who, disinclined either to pay or to work for them, try to steal them instead – but the surrounding material introduces one of my real issues with this novel.

In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship we encounter a single, mysterious society that chooses and guides its future members; fair enough. Here, however, everywhere Wilhelm goes he stumbles over yet another group of people living together and thrashing out some complicated philosophy of how to live and work. It all gets a bit much—not least because each individual group gets to expound at length upon their particular theories. Furthermore, having spent an entire book upon Wilhelm’s induction into the main Society, in this one it seems like every other person gets inducted, as long as someone recommends them.

In this specific case, Wilhelm and Felix are taken in by the elderly estate owner, his two nieces, Juliette and Hersilie, and a father and son who act as agents for the property. During their stay there is much general discussion of the duties of the wealthy to the poor, of the best methods for distributing goods so as to encourage industry, and of the true meaning of “property”. This group is also devoted to literature of various origins and types; and when Wilhelm retires for the night he is given something to read.

Here we get or second interpolated narrative, in the form of Goethe’s own short story, Die pilgernde Törin / The Foolish Pilgrim, first published in 1789. (“You must say whether you have come across anything more charming than this,” says Hersile.) Briefly, a noble father and son both fall in love with a beautiful but mysterious woman, who seems perfection—but will not reveal her true name, demanding to be taken – or not – wholly on her qualities as an individual. The story includes a ballad, “Der Müllerin Reue” / “The Maid Of The Mill’s Repentance”, which like the songs from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship was set to music by others and found a separate fame.

There is what turns out to be a foreshadowing incident in this section, when Felix falls off his horse: medical help is summoned, with Hersile observing, “It’s not often that we need physicians, but we need surgeons all the time.”

However, the narrative takes a new turn via the interpolation of some correspondence between Juliette and Hersile, their aunt (who like the uncle maintains a separate establishment), and an eccentric cousin called Lenardo, who is always promising to come home, never does, instead sending letters inquiring minutely into people’s circumstances. This subplot is dragged out to unreasonable length, making a huge mystery out of a fairly straightforward if sad business: years before, a cottager and his daughter were being turned out because of inability to pay their rent; a young Lenardo promised solemnly to help, but was unable to fulfill his promise. The uncle died, and fear of the girl’s subsequent fate keeps Lenardo away. He finally returns home upon being assured that the girl is happy in a good marriage, only to discover that he had her name wrong and was asking after someone else.

The correspondence gives way without lead-in to our third interpolated narrative, given its own title of “Who Is The Betrayer?”, about a love-quadrangle working itself out.

Wilhelm then spends time with the uncle, who reveals his own history: that he was born in Germany but raised in America; finally choosing to return to Europe:

“Man needs patience above all and must needs be always consoderate, and I would rather come to terms with my king so that he will make me this or that concession, and make my peace with my neighbours so that they will relieve me of certain restrictions if I give way to them in something else, than be battling with the Iroquois in order to drive them out, or be deceiving them with contracts in order to expel them from their swamps where we are tormented to death by mosquitoes.”

This is a rare point in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels when we can grasp at something concrete: there are repeated references to this conflict between the Old World and the New; the corruption and oppression of the former, the pull of the latter with its promise of space and freedom—and the price that might have to be paid for it.

Wilhelm also meets the aunt, Makarie, and is introduced to an astronomer, who shows him some wonders through his telescope. Wilhelm appreciates this, but has some peculiar ideas on the subject of lenses generally:

    “…these aids which we use to augment our senses do not exert an ethically favourable influence on man. A man looking through glasses takes himself to be cleverer than he is, for the result is that his outer senses are thrown out of balance in relation to his inner judgement; a higher form of development is needed, and only outstanding people  are capable of this, so that their inner, true nature can be to some extent adjusted to this false element advancing upon them from outside. Whenever I look through a pair of binoculars I become another person and I am not pleased with myself; I see more than I ought to see, the more sharply focused world is not in harmony with my inner self, and I quickly put the glasses away again…
    “We shall no more banish these glasses out of the world than we shall any other piece of machinery, but it is important for the moral observer to be able to investigate and learn the origins of much that has found its way into human behaviour and of which we complain. Thus, for instance, I am convinced that the habit of wearing magnifying spectacles is the main reason for the arrogance of our young people.”

Ah, yes. These young people today, with their Mozart and their magnifying spectacles and their refusal to powder their hair…

Then we hear about a bizarre dream of Wilhelm’s:

“The green curtain rose, Makarie’s chair moved forward, all by itself, like a living creature; it had a golden glow, her garnets seemed priestly, her appearance was accompanied by a gentle gleam; I was on the point of prostrating myself. Clouds developed at her feet, as they rose they lifted up the holy figure as if on wings, in place of her wonderful features I finally saw in a parting in the cluds a star sparkling; it was carried continually upward and, moving through the opened vaulting of the roof, it became united with the whole firmament…”

This turns out to be an insight into the true nature of Makarie, who is mysteriously “attuned” with the heavens, capable of describing phenomena which may subsequently be confirmed by astrological observation:

“The astronomer then had an exact record made of what she saw, which now from time to time became quite clear to her, made calculations and deduced from them that she not only bore the whole solar system within herself, but that rather she moved spiritually as an integrating part in it…”

Wilhelm’s three days being up, he sets out in quest of Lenardo, finds him, and hears at length what I’ve summarised above. Lenardo tasks Wilhelm with finding the young woman, whose name is Nachodine (“the nutbrown maiden”). He agrees, but expresses concern over continuing to drag Felix all over the place, feeling that he should be placed in some good school and properly educated. Fortunately, Lenardo knows just the place, and sends Wilhelm to talk to a friend of his:

“When I last saw him, years ago, he told me quite a lot about a pedagogic association which I could only take to be a kind of Utopia; it seemed to me as if beneath the representation of reality a sequence of ideas, thoughts, proposals and intentions was meant which admittedly hung together, but in the usual course of things would hardly be likely to coincide…”

Wilhelm does end up leaving Felix in the “Pedagogic Province”, the functioning of which is conveyed through two lengthy descriptions, one when he drops him off and one when he picks him up. For the first, we hear only about the religious / historical grounding of the principles upon which the educational community is run.

The narrative is then interrupted by a rather lengthy story titled “The Man Of Fifty”, about yet another love-quadrangle working itself out, and in which the male rivals are also father and son. This is another of Goethe’s pre-existing short fictions, being originally published in 1808. This time, however, the “characters” in the story turn out to be real people known to Makarie, who helps them straighten out their confused situation.

Via letters, we then learn that Wilhelm is sending Lenardo to the Abbé, so that he can be inducted into the “society”. We also find Wilhelm requesting dispensation:

“After continuing an active self-examination I can only repeat even more earnestly the request which was brought forward some time ago through Montan; the wish to complete my years of travel with greater composure and steadiness is becoming increasingly pressing…”

Wilhelm speaks of “conditions” but we do not then learn what they are.

After the indirect reintroduction of the Abbé, we get a bizarre interlude that is one of the few successful bits of weirdness in this novel: Wilhelm meets up with a painter:

…it became evident that the fine artist, who was skilled at adorning water-colour landscapes with clever, well drawn and executed figures and accessories, was passionately captivated by Mignon’s fate, figure and nature. He had often pictured to himself and was now on a journey to copy from nature the surroundings she had known during her lifetime…

In other words—he’s been reading Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.

It is here that Wilhelm and the artist encounter “the two ladies” mentioned above, who turn out to be Hilary and the Beautiful Widow from “The Man Of Fifty”, rather than Juliette and Hersile as I assumed. A romantic interlude amongst sublime lake and mountain surroundings follows, and the artist shows himself to be a musician and a singer too, performing some of Mignon’s songs on his lute. This idyll is brought forcibly to an end by Wilhelm’s three-day arrangement. The four go their separate ways with the artist sent to Natalie, to show her where Wilhelm has been by way of his paintings.

Goethe then butts in with what he himself calls “an interpolaton”:

    At this point, however, we find ourselves in the position of announcing to the reader an interval, and what is more, an interval of some years; on this account we would have gladly brought a volume to a conclusion here, if only this could have been linked with the typographical arrangements.
    Yet surely the space between two chapters will suffice…

Or even the space between two posts, hey, Johann?

 

[To be continued…]