Posts tagged ‘education’

07/06/2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Part 3)

    How this man had come to be here and who he might be was a complete mystery to Wilhelm.— “If so many people have taken an interest in me, why did they not guide me more strictly and earnestly? Why did they favour my playing, instead of leading me away from it?”
    “Don’t remonstrate with us!” a voice called; “you have been saved, and are on your way to the goal. You will not regret any of your follies nor wish for any of them back; no happier fate can befall anyone.” The curtain separated, and the old King of Denmark in full armour was standing in the opening. “I am your father’s ghost,” the figure said, “and I go away comforted since my wishes for you have been fulfilled more completely than I conceived them even. Steep places can only be climbed by means of detours, in the plains straight paths lead from one place to another. Farewell and remember me when you are enjoying what I have prepared for you!”
    Wilhelm was extremely taken aback, he believed he was hearing his father’s voice, and yet again it was not his voice; he found himself in the most confused situation because of his present position and his memories.
    He did not have long to reflect before the Abbé appeared and placed himself behind the green table. “Come along here,” he called to his surprised friend. On the table-cloth was a little scroll. “Here is your certificate of apprenticeship,” the Abbé said, “consider it well, its contents are important…”

 

 
Book Six, Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, closes the second volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The third volume, though it does deal with the final phase of Wilhelm’s “education”, and explains at least some of what has puzzled him and us along the way, is oddly structured: what we might tend to consider the novel’s climax occurs quite early on; it is followed by a lengthy stretch of narrative occupied not only with the breaking of old relationships and the forging of new ones, but with various passages that argue with, and in some ways undermine, what we have been led to believe is “the point” of the novel.

(And if you think that sounds like another a priori apology, give yourself a gold star.)

Overall, however, this section of the novel clearly represents Wilhelm “putting away childish things”, albeit not all at once; and that the theatre is one of those childish things is interesting in light of the fact that Goethe himself never made such a separation: even as he was writing about Wilhelm’s severance from his childhood / childish ambition, Goethe became the artistic director of the court theatre at Weimar, a position he held until 1817. (He produced Hamlet in 1792.)

Presumably, therefore, we are to take Wilhelm’s turning away from the theatre in a symbolic rather than literal spirit: it has rescued him from the soul-starving mercantile life for which his birth intended him, but it is not his ultimate life-goal.

That severance takes some time, however, and happens in fits and starts throughout Volume II. One critical event occurs when the troupe hesitates over undertaking a particular journey, having heard that bandits are roaming the district in question. Wilhelm persuades them to go on, resulting in the troupe being attacked, plundered, and scattered; Wilhelm himself, who does his best to defend his companions, is seriously injured. His life is saved when he is discovered by a beautiful woman on horseback, who brings a doctor to him. In his confused state, Wilhelm takes the woman to be some quasi-supernatural being:

…the vivid impression of her presence had such a strange effect upon his already strained senses that all at once it appeared to him as if her head were encircled by rays and as if a gleaming light were gradually suffusing her whole person…

Furthermore, Wilhelm sees in her, or thinks he sees, a strong resemblance to the young Countess; but this woman’s more forceful personality leads him to think of her as “the Amazon”. Though uncertain of how accurate his memories are of this interlude, the woman continues to haunt his dreams…

Wilhelm’s connection with the theatre also develops an almost-relationship between himself and Aurelia, the actress-sister of the troupe’s professional manager. She has never gotten over a broken love affair, and her thwarted passions have undermined her health. As it fails, she is attended by a clergyman and his doctor-friend, the same who are caring for the old harpist; and it is the doctor who, in trying to address Aurelia’s stormy discontent, lends to her the manuscript written by a friend of his, which came into his hands after her death.

Wilhelm’s reading of this manuscript to Aurelia occupies the entirety of Book Six and divides completely the narrative of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. As with so much of this novel, this interlude is not always easy to interpret—either in itself, or with respect to its specific references.

The most important of the latter (because it also impinges the story of the Count and Countess) is to the Moravian Brotherhood, a Protestant sect which originated in what is now the Czech Republic. Among its beliefs are that Christ cannot be fully comprehended by any human mind, that the Scriptures do not contain any doctrinal system, and that the formation of congregations is not necessary to worship. In the early 18th century, a colony of Moravians, who had suffered persecution in Bohemia, were invited by the Count von Zinzendorf to settle upon his estate in Saxony. They remained something of a “secret society”, however, separate from and disapproved by the mainstream church.

(Pardon an interruption to this interruption: I had a, Hey, wait a minute -! moment while writing this; and yes, we have encountered the Moravian Brotherhood before. The Moravians were the first Protestants to begin missionary work; and in this guise we met them in our reading of The Holy Lover, where there is an important shipboard encounter between the young John Wesley and a representative of Moravians while they are both on their way to America. [Although I see now that I incorrectly used the word ‘congregation’ in this context.])

Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul recounts the anonymous author’s life, in particular describing her passionate religious faith and her exposure to the Moravians; but also the inner convictions that lead her, in effect, to separate herself from the tenets of society, the church and even the Moravians, in order to pursue her own way. In fact—she comes to believe that the early religious teaching which she received was mistaken, and interfered with development of true faith: another instance within the novel of faulty childhood education setting someone on the wrong path.

Throughout this intensely personal account of one woman’s inner life, there are also external references to her family situation and connections. Most importantly in the first instance, there is a wealthy, unattached uncle, who uses his position to influence (if not indeed dictate) family affairs. The uncle arranges an advantageous marriage to “a young man of rank and wealth” for one of the author’s sisters; the associated festivities take place at his estate, a castle in the countryside, where the author is exposed for the first time to the power of art. There are familiar arguments here, although meant more literally than hitherto:

He directed my attention to the various pictures which were on the wall; my eye was caught by those whose aspect was attractive or whose subject was significant; he let this happen for a time, and then he said: “Do now pay some attention also to the skilful spirit that brought forth these works. Good minds like so much to see the hand of God in nature; why should be not also give some consideration to the hand of His imitator?” He then drew my attention to pictures that were not of an arresting quality, and tried to explain to me that in fact only the history of art could give us understanding of the value and dignity of a work of art, and that in the first place we must know about the difficult stages of mechanism and craft, by means of which gifted men have been working themselves upwards over the centuries…

This visit is likewise the author’s first experience of the full capabilities of music and song:

I now heard music which had originated from the deepest imagination of the finest characters and which by means of particular and practised voices in harmonic unity again spoke to man’s most profound and outstanding faculty and caused him really to feel vividly at this moment his likeness to God…

The author suffers bereavements: one of her sisters, her father, her brother-in-law, and then her other sister, after having given birth to her fourth child. The author is by this time an invalid herself, at the outset of her slow slide to death, and she does not feel able to take upon herself the full care of her nieces and nephews. Instead the uncle takes them in and raises them.

We hear about the oldest boy, apparently made to be a soldier, though, “Anything but rough in his actions and his whole character, in fact rather gentle and cautious.”

The eldest girl is her aunt’s favourite: “It would not be easy to find a nobler figure nor a calmer disposition… From childhood onwards her behaviour towards those who were suffering and in need of help was matchless…” This paragon even has a name! – Natalie.

The younger girl is, “Very dainty and attractive…she is much concerned with her outward appearance…”

The youngest boy, at this time, is only a baby.

We then hear about the unusual way in which the children are being educated:

    The supervision of all the children, who are educated at different places and are lodged now here, now there, is in the hands of a strange man who is taken to be a French clergyman, but without there being any real information about his origins.
    At first I could see no plan in this education, until my doctor finally revealed to me that the Uncle had let himself be convinced by the Abbé that if one wished to do something about a person’s education, one would need to see in which directions his inclinations and wishes would move. Then one would have to put him in a position where he could satisfy his inclinations and fulfil his wishes as soon as possible, so that if he should have made a mistake, he should be aware of his error in good time, and if he had found what suited him, he should hold to it all the more keenly and continue his training it all the more industriously…

We do not learn how this “strange experiment” turns out, as the author died shortly afterwards.

Prior to all this, Aurelia told her story of her ill treatment by her lover to Wilhelm, exacting from him a promise that he would travel to the estate of the unfaithful Lothario (and yes, that really is his name!), inform him of her death, and deliver a letter full of angry reproaches. Now, softened by the author’s story, Aurelia instead sends to Lothario a message of forgiveness. Wilhelm promises to deliver it, albeit he still intends to give Lothario a piece of his own mind. He even – old habits die hard – composes and rehearses a speech…

Wilhelm’s departure for Lothario’s estate does in effect mark his break from the theatre, although not from all his acquaintances there. His journey and its immediate aftermath comprise one disconcerting event after another. First he falls in again with the apparent clergyman (he still looks like one, although, as Wilhelm comments, now a like Catholic rather than a Lutheran, as he did before); then, Lothario greets him with such hospitality and politeness, it throws him off his stride. The next thing, Lothario goes off to fight a duel and is wounded, and Wilhelm finds himself helping to ease his convalescence—in company with Lothario’s friend and “second”, and his old acquaintance, Jarno—who like most people Wilhelm meets seems to know as much or more about his doings as he does himself…

It is Jarno who begins to put some of the pieces together:

    “For heaven’s sake,” cried Wilhelm, when they were alone in the room, “what’s this about the Count? Which Count is it who is taking up with the Moravian community?”
    “Someone you know very well,” Jarno replied. “You are the ghost that is chasing him into the arms of piety, you are the villain who is putting his nice wife into a position where she finds it tolerable to follow her husband.”
    “And she is Lothario’s sister?” cried Wilhelm.
    “No other.”
    “And Lothario knows—?”
    “Everything.”
    “Oh, let me disappear!” Wilhelm exclaimed, “how can I appear before him? What can he say?”
    “That nobody should pick up a stone to cast at another, and that nobody should prepare long speeches in order to put other people to shame, unless he wants to deliver the speeches in front of a mirror.”
    “You know that too?”
    “Like many other things,” Jarno replied with a smile…

During his stay with Lothario, Wilhelm becomes aware that certain sections of his castle – including an ancient tower – are blocked off; that there are many locked doors, and hints of secret passages; and notices how many conversations between Lothario and Jarno break off upon his entrance.

Finally, Wilhelm is initiated into the associated secrets. One day, before dawn, Jarno leads him through the previously inaccessible section of the castle, into the tower, and into one particular room:

    The room where he now was appeared to have previously been a chapel; instead of an altar there was a large table covered with a green cloth at the top of some steps, and above this it seemed that a closed curtain was concealing a picture; at the sides there were beautifully fashioned bookcases which were sealed off by fine wire grating, as normally seen in libraries, only instead of books he saw many scrolls stacked up. There was nobody in the room; the rising sun shone through the stained glass windows just in Wilhelm’s direction and gave him a friendly greeting.
    “Do sit down!” a voice called which seemed to be sounding from the altar. Wilhelm sat in a small arm-chair which was placed against the entrance; there was no other seat in the whole room, and he had to be resigned to this one although the morning sunlight dazzled him; the seat was fixed, all he could do was to shade his eyes with his hand.
    In the meantime the curtain above the altar opened with a slight noise and revealed a dark, empty aperture within a frame…

Various people whom Wilhelm met during his journey – the stranger who spoke to him of his grandfather’s art collection; the apparent clergyman; a soldier whom he met with Jarno; the ghost of Hamlet’s father – step one after the other into the frame, making of themselves a picture for Wilhelm’s benefit, and speak to him of fate and self-determination and education…

At the conclusion of this ceremony, Wilhelm is given his “Certificate of Apprenticeship”:

“Art is long, life short, judgement difficult, opportunity fleeting. Acting is easy, thinking difficult, acting according to one’s thoughts uncomfortable. Every beginning is cheerful, the threshold is the place of expectation. The boy is astonished, impressions form him, he learns in play, he is surprised by seriousness. What is excellent is seldom found, more rarely esteemed. It is the height that stimulates us, not the steps; we gladly walk in the plain with our eyes on the peak. Only a part of art can be taught, the artist needs it complete. Whoever half-knows art is always in error and talks a lot; whoever possesses it fully likes only to act and talks rarely or at most late. The former have no secrets and no strength, their teaching is tasty like bread that has been baked, and is satiating for one day; but flour cannot be sown, and seed-corn should not be ground. Words are good, but they are not what is best. The best is not made clear through words. The spirit in which we act is the highest. Action is only understood and reproduced by the spirit…”

And so on.

Wilhelm’s main guide through all this is Lothario’s resident clergyman, the Abbé…who may or may not be the “apparent clergyman”…among other people:

    “And so you have seen me on the stage?”
    “Oh, certainly!”
    “And who took the part of the Ghost?”
    “I don’t know, either the Abbé or his twin-brother, but I think it was the latter, he’s just a little bit taller…”

In any event, it is definitely the Abbé who directs Wilhelm’s initiation, and grants him his Certificate; though he interrupts his reading of it:

    “Enough!” the Abbé cried, “the rest in due course. Now take a look at those cases.”
    Wilhelm went over and read the inscriptions on the scrolls. He was surprised to find Lothario’s, Jarno’s and his own ‘years of apprenticeship’ set up there, among many others whose names were unknown to him.
    “May I hope to be able to cast an eye upon the scrolls?”
    “Nothing in this room is now under lock and key as far as you are concerned…”

Though nothing supernatural occurs throughout this novel, including during these passages, there is often a deep sense of strangeness about its unfolding of events – unheimlich is, I suppose, the word I’m looking for – so that it is not hard to understand how it influenced later writers who did deal in the unnatural, including Franz Kafka.

However—

It is, I think, significant that when Thomas Carlyle published his two-volume translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (as he called it), he chose to end his first volume here, at the end of Book Seven, which concludes with the Abbé exclaiming:

“May you be blessed, young man! Your years of apprenticeship are over; nature has absolved you.”

A natural break-point, indeed, we might think; but it isn’t Goethe’s. Of all the strange things that happen here, among the strangest is that having set up this situation, the author devotes a fair chunk of Book Eight to—if not outright undermining it, at least presenting counter-arguments to this complicated plan of “education” for promising young men.

In fact, in conversation with Jarno, Wilhelm learns that this enterprise is now only a remnant of its former self. Wilhelm has by this point suffered some personal difficulties (to which we will return) and is, in effect, resentful that the Society of the Tower (as it is usually called; although H. M. Waidson does not use that exact phrase in his translation) has not smoothed his path in life for him, but seems, rather, to be just jerking him around:

    “…perhaps you will be more inclined to this if I tell you rightaway that everything you saw in the Tower consists in fact only of relics of a youthful venture which at first was a matter of great seriousness for most of the initiated and which now they all only smile at from time to time.”
    “So it’s only a game as far as these noble signs and words are concerned,” Wilhelm cried out, “we are led with solemnity to a place which induces reverence in us, we are shown the strangest phenomena, we are given scrolls of magnificent, secret words of wisdom, most of which, it is true, we don’t understand, it is revealed to us that up to now we have been apprentices, we are absolved, and we are no wiser than before…”

We learn – eventually – that this “Society” was a venture between Lothario’s uncle (who has just died, which seems to have triggered Wilhelm’s initiation) and the Abbé; and that even at the time of the founding of their venture, there was disagreement over the best way of conducting “education”, a disagreement which has carried to the next generation: whether it is more useful to allow errors to play out to their natural conclusion, so that their full force is felt (as was done with Wilhelm and the theatre), or whether time should be saved by turning those in error away from their mistakes and onto their true path, with the risk of the error retaining its attractiveness through not, perhaps, being seen to be an error.

There is much quoting from the scrolls and the certificates, through much of which we may well be as confused as Wilhelm; although Jarno persists in quoting those passages he believes most thoroughly reflect the personality and thinking of the Abbé, and of translating the text into terms that Wilhelm (and we) may better understand:

“You will hear the Abbé speaking about this text often enough still, so let us just see and grasp in a truly clear way what there is about ourselves and what we can develop concerning ourselves; let us be fair to others, for we only deserve respect inasmuch as we know how to esteem others… Man is not happy until his unrestricted striving determines for itself its own limits. Don’t hold onto me, but to the Abbé; don’t think of yourself, but of what is around you. For example, learn to appreciate Lothario’s excellence, how his general view and his activity are indissolubly linked together, how he is always moving onwards, and how he extends and expands, and carries everyone along with him. Wherever he may be, he takes a world along too, his presence is invigorating and inspiring. On the other hand consider the good medicus; his temperament seems to be exactly the opposite. If the former is effective only with regard to the whole and to what is distant, the latter directs his clear glance only to what is nearest, he produces the means to activity rather than bringing forth and giving life to activity itself; his behaviour fully resembles good housekeeping, his is a quiet effectiveness, as he assists everyone in his vicinity…”

(“The good medicus” is the doctor in possession of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul, and who has partial care of the old harpist.)

For personal reasons Wilhelm is not in a mood to absorb any of this. He has, previously, reacted in much the same way to a reading of his own scroll, in which he finds not only much more of the Abbé’s philosophy, but a full account of his own unwitting interactions with the members of the Society, as well as numerous, rather unwelcome home-truths about himself. His circumstances must undergo a drastic change before he allows himself to be influenced by the teachings of those around him…

Book Eight of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is lengthy, blending these passages dealing with the purposes of the Society with others in which Wilhelm crosses something of a personal Rubicon: a great deal of the narrative here is concerned with severing Wilhelm from most of the connections of his “apprenticeship”, and his forging of new, more adult bonds. The severance is often as painful for us as for him—including, among other things, the revelation of the tragic personal histories of both Mignon and the harpist.

In this, we may see how Carlyle’s impulse to bring Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to a premature conclusion, while understandable, very much misrepresented Goethe’s intentions.

It is the forging of one particular bond by Wilhelm that ultimately dictates all the rest. As we may surmise from all the former, Wilhelm’s initial plan of taking Lothario to task for his treatment of Aurelia did not exactly pan out. He does, however, eventually discuss Aurelia with Lothario (gaining a less exaggerated idea of their failed relationship); and does indeed take him to task for his neglect of the young child, Felix, whom he assumed to be the result of the affair. That said, he knows that neglect is nothing new for Felix: Aurelia was a careless mother at best, with the boy being cared for chiefly by Mignon.

Wilhelm is surprised when Lothario not only denies having a child with Aurelia, but doubts whether she had a child at all: a suggestion which sets Wilhelm on the path of discovering that Felix is his own son by Marianne. His joyful astonishment is, however, offset by the misery and self-reproach of also learning that Marianne was, in fact, never unfaithful to him; that she was turned away from her acting troupe because of her condition; and that she died destitute only days after giving birth.

(Wilhelm is largely absolved here, both because of the circumstances of his initial suspicions, and because, while he was so ill, Werner ruthlessly ran interference between him and the desperate Marianne.)

Subsequently, Marianne’s old servant, Barbara, managed to impose the baby on Aurelia (and get herself hired) by telling her that he was Lothario’s child: the always-melodramatic Aurelia took Felix in as a “memento” of her own affair with Lothario.

Wilhelm is naturally suspicious of all this, and resists an impulse to take Felix to his heart. He is later given strong evidence of the truth of all this, however; while upon being invited, during his initiation into the Society, to ask any question he likes, in spite of everything only one comes to mind:

    “…and you can expect a decisive answer if it concerns a matter which is, and should be, close to your heart.”
    “Very well then! You strange, wise men whose glance penetrates into so many secrets, can you tell me whether Felix really is my son?”
    “Blessings upon you for this question!” the Abbé cried, clapping his hands for joy…

And it is Wilhelm’s acceptance of paternity, and his subsequent reordering of his life around the boy, which is considered the real end to his “apprenticeship”.

Wilhelm’s first action is to remove both Felix and Mignon from the theatre people (he was only supposed to be visiting Lothario briefly, remember!), and to place them in the care of a new acquaintance, Theresa, another friend of the Society (albeit not an approving one). Generous and honest, Theresa is a domestic goddess who trains young girls whose inclinations lie than way in housekeeping—and who, more unexpectedly, has a rare talent for estate management, in which capacity she is often consulted by her neighbours in the district.

And she was also once betrothed to Lothario, who broke their engagement for no reason Theresa understands. (The reader learns, as Theresa does not, that Lothario discovered to his horror and shame that the woman he had been dallying with in Paris, prior to meeting Theresa, was Theresa’s mother!)

Wilhelm’s first thought in his new role as father is to provide Felix with a mother. He and Theresa become friends at once: he soon hears her life history, and promises her his own (something he undertakes only after giving proper thought to the painful contents of his scroll). Though he knows that Theresa still loves Lothario, he accepts her insistence that all is at an end between them; and he decides to propose marriage to her, which he does via a lengthy letter.

However—

In the course of his conversation with Theresa, the latter makes reference to a close friend of hers who, like herself, teaches young girls—but in that case, those who show artistic inclinations. Theresa refers to her friend as “Lothario’s excellent sister”, and Wilhelm assumes she means the Countess…

…only to find, at long last, his Amazon, the woman (literally and figuratively) of his dreams; that Natalie of the manuscript, Lothario’s other sister, who takes charge of Mignon and her “artistic inclinations”, and who hails with delight Theresa’s acceptance of Wilhelm’s marriage proposal.

Oops.

And here at last the final pieces do fall into place: the author of Confessions Of A Beautiful Soul was aunt to Lothario, Natalie, the Countess (who never gets a name) and a fourth sibling, Friedrich, who has been weaving himself into the narrative, appearing and disappearing, attaching himself to Wilhelm’s acting troupe (and one actress in particular), and generally making a nuisance of himself. The “uncle” of the manuscript is therefore the co-founder of the Society (and strictly speaking, great-uncle to the rest), who has just died.

Moreover—it is Natalie who has inherited the uncle’s estate and all the works of art we heard about in the manuscript…including the art collection purchased from Wilhelm’s grandfather…

There is enough romantic shuffling in this section of the novel to fill a contemporary four-volume effort, but Goethe rushes through it in a minimum of pages—and I’ll try to do even better:

Realising that he is in love with Natalie, Wilhelm hopes desperately that Theresa will reject his proposal, but she does not. However, Jarno then turns up to announce that Lothario has discovered that Theresa’s mother is actually her step-mother, and that he (Lothario) wants her back, now that the perceived barrier between them has been removed. And though he doesn’t actually want to marry Theresa, Wilhelm is deeply aggrieved at being brushed aside, particularly when he has, at this time, no hope of Natalie; and even more so at losing the mother he hoped to give Felix—which together account for his pissy mood and his resistance of the Society’s tenets. He becomes even more morose, even ill, when a plan is concerted to send him away altogether, in company with an Italian nobleman, an old friend of the uncle’s, who needs a translator on his travels.

All this makes it awkward and embarrassing when something does begin to develop between Wilhelm and Natalie; and it requires the shameless interference of Friedrich, who casts himself as Deus ex machina, before they can come to an understanding—interference via reference to that painting of “the sick prince”, which is of course in Natalie’s possession, and which finds Friedrich casting Wilhelm as Antiochus, Natalie as Stratonice, and “the good medicus” as Erasistratus:

    He did not seem to believe in his friend’s illness at all. Once, when they were all together, he called out: “Doctor, what do you call the affliction which has beset our friend? Does none of the three thousand names with which you deck out your ignorance apply here? At least there has not been a lack of similar examples. An example of this type,” he continued with an enigmatic smile, “can be found in Egyptian or Babylonian history.”
    The company looked at each other and smiled.
    “What was the king’s name?” he called out and paused for a moment. “If you don’t want to help me, I shall be able to help myself.” He pulled open the doors and pointed to the big picture in the entrance-hall. “What’s the name of the goatee-bearded one with the crown over there who is pining away at the foot of the bed because of his sick son? What’s the name of the beauty who is coming in and whose roguish eyes contain both poison and antidote? What’s the name of the clumsy doctor who only sees the point at this very moment and who for the first time in his life has the opportunity to make out a sensible prescription and to hand over a medicament which provides a complete cure and which is as palatable as it is salutary?”
    He went on showing off in this style. The company controlled themselves as well as possible and concealed their embarrassment with forced smiles. Natalie’s cheeks reddened a little and betrayed the sensibility of her heart…

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship does not, however, end with wedding-bells and happy-ever-after, but finds Wilhelm agreeing to go as requested with the Marchese, on condition that he can take Felix along too.

Presumably these travels form the first part of Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years – “years” not sounding so good for Natalie – which begs the question of whether I will feel compelled to tackle the sequel to this novel or not.

In terms of the base reason for examining Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship at all, that is, its influence upon the progenitor works of the silver-fork genre, I consider myself (to use the novel’s own word) absolved. It was another twenty-five years before Goethe published his sequel to this novel; and while that first version was what Thomas Carlyle translated – and which, presumably, influenced the young Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton – in 1829 Goethe significantly revised his text; and it is this later version that is now considered the “standard” version of the book.

So while I may get around to tackling the sequel, I am not going to consider myself bound to hold off on beginning my examination of the silver-fork novel proper until I do.

(Preliminary investigation suggests that this sequel is shorter but weirder…)

And despite these three posts on the subject, rest assured that this remains a fairly superficial examination of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I could certainly have written more – a LOT more – to take only the most obvious point of omission, I could (as others have) write as much again just about Mignon and her significance as a character and a symbol – but I hope I’ve done enough to give a fair idea of the novel and what it is trying to achieve, and to let others decide whether they might want to investigate it on their own.

 

04/06/2019

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…]
 

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…]