Posts tagged ‘music’

31/01/2020

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…

 

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…]