Dumont, Louis: Birth of Bildung

[An extract from “Bildung Represented: The Years of Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister “, trans.Christophe Robert and revised by the author, published in German Ideology, Chicago 1994, Univ. of Chicago Press. Published by permission.]

Our hero of the preceding chapter can well introduce us to the hero of this one. For it so happens that the literary work most representative of Bildung is composed by Goethe at the same time that Humboldt is living close to Schiller in Jena. There has just been a rapprochement between Goethe and Schiller, and Humboldt is made to share in some manner the intellectual life of the two German geniuses at the beginning of their friendship. There is here something more than a coincidence -we can almost discern Humboldt’s silhouette in the novel- and yet we shall see that the distance between Humboldt’s Bildung and Meister’s apprenticeship is great.

Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (The Years of Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister) appeared in 1796. It seemed tο cαll for a sequel, which Goethe would much later decide to provide under the title Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1829). This later book was actually a very different work from the Apprenticeship, and posterity gave its interest to it only secondarily. We shall do the same, limiting ourselves to searching in it occasionally for the development of some fundamental themes of the earlier book, which will retain our attention as it has held the interest of posterity.

Difficulties and precautions of access

Το tell the truth, as much as the Apprenticeship recommends itself for our study by virtue of the resounding echo it aroused, so much does the task of interpretation appear hazardous. The ideal of Bildung is known to reign in educated Germany during the nineteenth century and beyond. Also, Bildung is more than αn ideal, it is αn institution that has its literature in the form of the Bildungsroman, the “novel of Bildung.” That the term was coined only in 1870 by Dilthey is not important, since the thing itself can be followed throughout the century (see The German Tradition of Self Cultivation, Bruford 1975). Νοw, the Apprenticeship has remained the prototype and the model of the Bildungsroman, so that one has the feeling of touching here the heart of culture as it is understood by the Germans. Unfortunately, the novel in itself is found rather insipid today and does not hold our interest much. True, that does not matter greatly, since our aim is first of all to reach αn understanding of the place of the work in German culture. This is nο easy task. As far as possible we shall make use of the existing commentaries οn the novel. Α special mention must be made of Μax Wundt’s solid and copious monograph, first published in 1913, whose title refers to the “development of the modern ideal of life” (Wundt 1932). We shall see that the commentaries that have accumulated, generally full of praise, enlighten us especially through their disagreement οn problematic aspects of the work. Let us give an extreme example. Α recent critic, Kurt Μay, could maintain with some plausibility that the education of the hero is not accomplished when the novel ends and that, moreover, Goethe did not intend to write the novel of such an education. The critic is of course puzzled that posterity more or less unanimously took the novel to be something that it was not (Μay 1957).

Is the criticism justified, or is it simply a sign of the times, the mark of a radical discontinuity that the nineteenth century, supplemented by the brief but debasing Nazi episode, would have hollowed out in German culture? What are our hopes, as a latecomer from another culture, of being able to penetrate these delicate questions? Το go further: what Kurt Μay’s critique, intent οn demystification, ends up showing us is that the kind of popularity or exemplariness of Wilhelm Meister does not rest οn explicit signs but rather touches upon a deep and sensitive area of the mentality, which requires of us, if not total anesthesis, at least precautions and some subtlety.

Read Previous

Drakopoulos, Pan: Hayek and Wittgenstein

Read Next

Emerson, R.W.: Goethe; or, the writer