Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (Part 2)


 
But if now after this detailed narrative I have to confess that I have still not arrived at the conclusion of my purpose, and that I may only hope to arrive there by means of a detour, what am I to say, how can I excuse myself? In any event, I should like to make the following point: if the humorist is permitted to throw his account into confusion, if he boldly leaves it to the reader finally to discover in its half significance what can possibly be got from it, ought it not to be appropriate for the man of sense and reason to aim in an apparently strange way at many points round about, so that they can be recognised and understood as finally taking place and being comprised in one focal point, just as the most varied influences surrounding the individual impel him to a decision which he would not have been able to take in any other way, neither from inner impulse nor from outer occasion?

 

 

 

 

We catch up with Wilhelm upon his return to the Pedagogic Province to collect Felix. Here we learn more about the peculiar form of education and training to which he and his fellows have been subjected: a description which feels like it’s parodying something, some contemporary theories of education, perhaps, yet is at the same time played straight.

Art and music play a vital role in the province’s educational approach, and there is much discussion and practical demonstration of both. All the arts are praised here—except drama, which is dismissed as not an art at all, but a leech upon all the real art-forms, using bits of all of them but creating nothing itself. Drama is excluded from the province:

Sighing deeply, Wilhelm cast his eyes down, for all at once everything that he enjoyed and suffered on the stage came before him; he blessed the pious men who had known how to spare their pupils such grief…

But of course it isn’t just Wilhelm who is touched on the raw by this condemnation. As mentioned during our consideration of Apprenticeship, Goethe was artistic director of the court theatre at Weimar for over twenty years; so we are not surprised to find him butting in again:

Indeed the editor of these papers may himself confess at this point that it is with some reluctance that he lets this strange passage go through. Has he not also in many ways directed more life and energy to the theatre than is reasonable? And could he indeed be convinced that this has been an unpardonable error, a fruitless effort?

Wilhelm then attends a music festival up in the mountains, where he encounters Montan / Jarno again. Their surroundings provoke a wide-ranging debate among the attendees about the broader implications of geology, and Jarno disappoints Wilhelm by refusing to say what he thinks; or rather, he agrees with each theory in turn:

“You blame me for lending a helpful hand to everybody in their opinions, as indeed there is always a further argument to be found for everything; I added to the confusion by so doing, it’s true, but really I can no longer take the present generation seriously…”

Ah, yes, yes, yes… These young people today, with their thin muslin gowns, and their indecent waltzing…and their novel-reading.

Jeez, Johann. Old and cranky much?

Mind you—if that still sounds familiar today, Jarno’s rider to this also remains depressingly relevant:

“Everyone knows for himself what he knows, and he must keep it secret; as soon as he speaks about it, conflict stirs, and as soon as he becomes involved in controversy he loses his sense of balance, and what is best about him is, if not destroyed, at least disturbed.”

We then get a lengthy interlude involving Wilhelm’s letters to Natalie—one of which contains some of this novel’s most powerful writing, as Wilhelm recounts a story of his boyhood, of a trip into the countryside with his family, and of a passionate friendship made and lost in a single day:

     It was already becoming dusk when we once more approached the woodland corner where my young friend had promised to wait for me. I peered around to the best of my ability to ascertain whether he was there; when I failed to see him, I ran impatiently ahead of the slowly moving company, dashing back and forth through the bushes. I called out, I became afraid; he was not to be seen and did not answer; for the first time I felt a passionate grief, doubled and redoubled.
     The immoderate requirement of intimate attachment was already developing within me, and already there was an irresistible need for me to free my mind of the image of that blonde-haired girl through conversation, and to release my heart from the feelings which she had aroused in me. It was full, and already my mouth whispered in preparation for flowing over; I loudly reproached the good boy on account of neglecting a friendship and a promise.
     But soon I was to face great trials. Women rushed shrieking out of the first houses of the village, howling children followed, nobody would give an explanation. From the one side we saw a sad procession move around the house at the corner; it went quietly down the long street; it seemed like a funeral procession, but a multiple one; there was no end of bearers and borne. The screaming continued, it increased, a crowd came together. “They are drowned, all of them, drowned! That one! Who? Which?” The mothers, who saw their own children round about, seemed to be consoled. But an earnest man stepped up and spoke to the clergyman’s wife: “Unfortunately I stayed out too long, Adolph is drowned, and five altogether, he wanted to keep his promise and mine.” It was the man, the fisherman himself, and he went further on with the procession; we stood terrified and benumbed. Then a little boy stepped forward and handed over a sack: “Here are the crabs, lady”…

All of this, and great deal more of reminiscence and rumination (including upon the critical moment when, as he lay wounded in the forest, he first saw the woman he came to think of as “his Amazon”), leads up to Wilhelm’s declaration of his decision to become a surgeon.

The second volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels breaks off here, at least in narrative terms: it actually concludes with a single poem, called Testament, and twenty pages’ worth of aphorisms (which we are later led to believe are Makarie’s): some dealing with matters already touched upon, some serious, some less so:

What is false has the advantage that it can always be chattered about, whereas what is true has to be made use of straight away, or else it is not there.

Wilhelm’s training takes place off-screen, as it were, and we rejoin him as he is riding into a town whose population has mysteriously swelled, and people spend a great deal of time singing; Wilhelm even recognises a song of his own composing. He takes a room at an inn, where over the door is inscribed, ‘Ubi homines sunt modi sunt’:

“Where people come together in society, the manner in which they wish to be and remain together immediately develops.”

Lenardo turns up unexpectedly, in company with Natalie’s younger brother, Friedrich; the former is now a member of the Society.

We are then given correspondence between Wilhelm and Hersile concerning the mysterious casket and the fallout from their possession of it. Hersile also scolds Wilhelm for his unsatisfactory letter-writing:

“Corresponding with you is completely like a monologue; for your replies are like an echo, taking syllables up only in a superficial way in order to let the sounds die away. Have you even once written something in reply to which an answer could again have been given? Your letters stop short and are rejections!”

Wilhelm decides he isn’t that interested in the contents of the casket. Instead we hear about his medical training, which took an odd turn. There is much general discussion here of the German situation with regard to the provision of cadavers for students, and we gather that a similar pattern events unfolded there as in Britain (Scotland, at least), with body-snatching and other crimes developing in response to ever-stricter regulations. Less because of this than his deep ambivalence, Wilhelm throws in his lot with an artist who specialises in minutely detailed anatomical models that, in his opinion, eliminate much of the need for bodies:

“You are to learn in brief that construction is more instructive than destruction, binding more than separating, bringing what is dead to life more than further killing what has already been killed…”

The next section of the novel gives us excerpts from Lenardo’s diary, recounting his observations among a mountain community of spinners and weavers—activities that we hear about to inordinate length. However, this is also the only section of either novel which, for all their dwelling upon arts and crafts and the choosing of careers, acknowledges the value of women’s work.

We know in passing that Wilhelm found the girl Nachodine and wrote to Lenardo about her. We now learn of his oblique report that she was safe in, “A domestic situation, based on piety, enlivened and sustained by industry and order… A succession of those working with their hands in the purest, basic sense surrounds her…” Lenardo now wonders if she is established in such a community; might even be hidden in this one…

Lenardo’s other thoughts concern a new acquaintance who earns his living travelling amongst the scattered mountain-dwellers and mending and maintaining their equipment; although he has other skills too:

“He is a master in his trade and can account completely for anything to do with spinning and weaving, he can work things out, preserve them and repair them, as they are needed and to suit everyone’s requirements.”

Lenardo ponders:

Ought not this man who handled tools and weaving equipment in such a masterly fashion to be able to become a most useful member of the Society? He thought all this over and considered how the merits of this skilful worker had already made a great impression on him. He therefore steered the conversation to that subject and asked the man the question, as if in jest, but all the more directly, whether he would not like to join a society of some significance and consider planning to emigrate overseas.

That last phrase finally brings Wilhelm Meister’s Travels into focus. At the end of Apprenticeship, we heard of the Society’s plans to establish a branch in America, and here it is finally revealed that the leaders are gathering skilled men for that purpose. This is the explanation for the influx of people to the town where Wilhelm is staying at the inn, however we do not get to the point for some further time yet.

Of course we don’t. First, we have to have two more interpolated narratives. The first of these is “The New Mesuline”, about a selfish young man who discovers that his new wife is actually the daughter of a dwarf king and capable of changing herself from her tiny natural form to become human-sized. She promises him all the wealth and luxury he could desire, but upon certain strict conditions…

Based upon European folklore (in which Mesuline was, rather, a mermaid-like figure), Goethe’s fairy-tale has been much analysed since its publication in this, its final form.

A second story, “The Dangerous Bet”, follows almost immediately (that is, there is an intervening letter from Hersile about that damned casket). This is a tale about a barber’s wager that he can pull a nobleman’s nose and get away with it, a joke which has far-reaching consequences.

And at this point, a touch under halfway through the third volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, we get this:

The all-important day had arrived; it was the day when the first measures were to be initiated  in connection with the group emigration; it was the day when it would be decided who really wanted to go afar off into new lands or who would prefer to tarry and seek his fortune over here, on the cohesive soil of the old world.

The men who have gathered are artists and artisans, each highly skilled at a particular form of endeavour. It is, strangely enough, Lenardo who first addresses the assembled crowd. He is tasked with presenting the advantages of emigration, which he couches in terms of building communities from the ground up—morally as well as physically:

     “It has been said, and said repeatedly: Where things are well with me, there is my native country! Yet this comforting adage would be even better expressed if it said: Where I am of use, there is my native country!… If I now say: May everyone aim to be of use everywhere to himself and to others, this is not in fact teaching or advice, but the utterance of life itself…
     “It is in this sense that we may now see ourselves as participators in a world federation. The concept is simple and great, its execution, given intelligence and vigour, is easy. Unity is all-powerful, and so there is to be no division or conflict among us. As far as we have principles, they are common to us all… A man who devotes himself to what is most essential will always be the one to fulfil his aims most surely; on the other hand, others who may be seeking what is higher or more delicate need be more cautious in the path they choose. But whatever a man may take up, the individual on his own is insufficient; social relations are the prime need of a stout-hearted man. All useful people should be connected with one another, just as the organiser of a building operation is on the look-out for an architect, and the architect is concerned for masons and carpenters.
     “And hence everyone knows how our League came into being and what its conditions are; each one of us could at any moment use his special skill to good purpose and could be assured that wherever he might be led by chance, inclination and even passion, he would always be well recommended, received and assisted…
     “After that we have undertaken two duties in the strictest fashion: to respect all forms of worship, for they are all contained more or less in the Creed; furthermore, to be likewise tolerant of all forms of government… Finally, we consider ourselves obliged to practise and encourage morality without pedantry and severity…”

(Alas— We shouldn’t get carried away by the seeming liberality of all this. By “all forms of worship”, evidently all forms of Christian worship was intended: the Jews are explicitly excluded: How should we permit him a share in the highest cultural phenomenon since he rejects its origin and tradition?)

It did occur to me, rather too late, that a better way of addressing Wilhelm Meister’s Travels might to have been to ignore everything but this section of the novel, which crystalises the aims and purposes of the Society, as well as Goethe’s own ideas about the proper functioning of society (small ‘s’).

I have also discovered, on the way through this piece, that many people have done the reverse—that is, excerpted the interpolated narratives and analysed them as standalone works, ignoring the framework altogether. (Though it occurs to me that they may be considering the original, 1821 edition, rather than its revised successor.)

But neither of these approaches captures the peculiarly frustrating nature of this novel as a whole.

And we’re not done with the frustrations just yet. As did Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Travels does not conclude at what appears to be its natural climax. Instead – of course it does – it offers another interpolated narrative, “Not Too Far”, about a wife led astray by her passion for society (the other kind of small-s society) and admiration.

The unhappy husband of the story, Odoard, turns out to be another Society member; and he is tasked in turn with spelling out the advantages of staying in the Old World; arguing that, properly recognised and seized, there are numerous opportunities to reclaim neglected and mismanaged land and to exercise all the gathered skills. He also expands upon the philosophy of the training insisted upon by the Society, and executed in the Pedagogic Province:

“The stages of apprentice, journeyman and master must be observed most strictly; in these too there can be many gradations, but examinations cannot be conducted too carefully. Whoever comes forward is to know that he is giving himself to a demanding art and that he may not expect that the requirements of this art will be casual; a single link that breaks in a great chain destroys the whole.”

From here we jump to the conclusion of Lenardo’s diary entries, which we were not given before (via Wilhelm’s reading) because he had sent those pages to Makarie for her judgement. We hear of the rest of his stay in the weavers’ community, his confirmation that Wilhelm had been there before him, and his discovery of the long-missing Nachodine.

We also learn that the artisans’ community is under threat from the coming of machinery, and that there too the great question of whether to stay or to emigrate is under debate.

And it is here, some twenty (!) pages from the conclusion of its narrative, if not the novel per se, that Wilhelm Meister’s Travels ties itself back into the events of Apprenticeship—and fittingly enough, in a most aggravating manner:

We must therefore report in the first place that Lothario with his wife Theresa and Natalie, who did not wish to be separated from her brother, have already gone to sea in fact, accompanied by the Abbé…

(“Did not wish to be separated from her brother”…but evidently doesn’t give a toss about being separated from Wilhelm. But then, what’s a few more months…?)

But we, in our narrative and descriptive function, should not permit these dear people, who at an earlier stage gained so much of our affection, to undertake such a long journey without our having provided more news about their intentions and actions up to this point, especially as it has been so long since we heard anything in detail about them. None the less we shall omit doing this since their activities hitherto were directed only in a preparatory manner towards the great venture to which we see them heading.

I’m learning to hate you, Johann.

Though in fact, we do get a typical end-of-novel wrap-up concerning various other characters, and who is staying and who is going; as well as another weird interlude concerning Makarie and her internal solar system; another letter from Hersile about that damned casket; plus a reference to a desperate young man on horseback who, in attempting to catch up with a boat travelling down a river, suffers a bad fall and lands in the water. He is dragged up onto the boat in critical condition, but his life is saved by a surgeon on board.

The two are then revealed as Felix and Wilhelm. The end.

No, really.

Actually…not really. After this we get another poem (untitled here, but usually referred to as “Upon Viewing Schiller’s Skull”), and nineteen more pages of Makarie’s aphorisms—including no less than sixteen of them upon a single topic, nothing less than Laurence Sterne himself. I will quote only one:

However much we are diverted by the sight of a free spirit of this type, we are equally reminded, particularly in this case, that although we find all this entrancing, it is not right for us to absorb anything of it, or at least not much.

And you didn’t, Johann. You really, really didn’t…

 

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

  1. When the society sets out, I’m thinking “Who is John Goelt?”

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