Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Can you be
impressed and confused about a book at the same time? I hope so, because this
is exactly how I feel having just read Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s
In this we
follow a young man called Wilhelm Meister of middle-class origin. Wilhelm
Meister is in love with theater. Watching it, the production, the plays, the
characters and not least the actors and especially the actresses. He is
chaffing at the expectations that he will pursue a career in the family
business and easy to distract with anything theater.
business trip he gets seriously sidetracked and involved with actors and
actresses and as they see him as a source of funding, he is soon involved in a
theater project. Wilhelm’s ideal about theater and the reality of the business
are quite different sizes and while he is not exactly being abused, he is being
led on and for awhile I saw some comparison to “Der Blaue Engel”. But Wilhelm
Mester is a lot more reflective than Professor Rath, taking a lot of
responsibility on his shoulders and genuinely care for his, mostly ungrateful,
Wilhelm is powerless to actually take charge of his life. Whenever he tries, it
becomes false starts and instead he just drifts along from a conviction that
fate is taking him to the right place. The result is that other agents are
constantly pushing him around and he is lord of nothing.
There is a
break in the story and when it returns, the tone is different. It turns out
that practically everybody in Wilhelm’s surroundings is connected, that he is
being manipulated in a way to discover for himself his true self by something
called the Tower Society. Exactly why they take this interest in him and what
their target is, is entirely unclear to me. The result, however, leaves Wilhelm
as powerless as ever to control his own life.
Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the first part in the 1770’ies, then only resumed the
manuscript 20 years later and that shows. Where the first five chapters feel
like a burlesque on the emerging theater scene in Germany with Wilhelm as the
blundering fool but also as our keen observer, the last part is entirely
different. Suddenly all the strings are being tied up. Apparently insignificant
characters get a purpose and there is a mysticism and presentation of ideas
entirely absent in the earlier part. Clearly Goethe has something on his mind
and got some ideas about education, religion and purpose in life. But who makes
that purpose? Are we born with it? Guided to it by “helpful” people or are we
free to set a course on our own? Is Wilhelm Meister better off drifting along,
making decisions on the spur of the moment? Or does he get to a better place if
he is guided? And who reserve the right to guide us?
I sense a
far more reflective Goethe in this latter section, one who is influenced by the
enlightenment and the revolutionary thoughts in France. This is an age where
fixed patterns are breaking up and people are allowed to reconsider their place
in the world, especially the bourgeois. But what is to replace that earlier
Goethe himself had a love affair with the theater and was deeply involved with
the theater at Weimar (where he wrote his most famous work “Faust”), so I
definitely sense an autobiographical streak here as well. Is Goethe ironizing
over his own life?
I am not certain what exactly Goethe is aiming toward with this novel, and I
wonder if he was himself certain. Maybe he was just bouncing ideas and Wilhelm
Meister was the unwilling victim of those ideas.
recommended. Among the best books on the list so far.