Friday, July 8, 2016

The Begining and End of Romanticism

There’s a danger in travel accounts. Somewhere, perhaps in Little Dorrit, Dickens criticizes people who travel the world in order to live the experiences they’ve already read about in travelogues and read the travelogues in order to know how to relive other people's feelings when they get to their destinations. I agree. But without travel accounts, one might not know where to go at all and might miss out on an authentic experience for want of background information.

Reading books has a lot in common with traveling, and commentaries and critical essays serve as the travelogues of literature. I try to read enough about a book or author to get a sense of context but not so much that it tells me what to think or ruins the fun of my finding out for myself what surprise waits around the corner. But I couldn't find much about Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I know that many nineteenth-century artists, writers, and musicians considered it a favorite, but other than its providing a great poem (in the mouth of the character Mignon) set several times by Schubert and others, I didn’t know why it was so influential. Without the words of experts to tell me what to think about it, I may hit wide of the mark. But it appears to me that Goethe’s 1796 novel simultaneously ushers in and critiques the Romantic movement.

I associate Romanticism with the early-nineteenth-century interest in and respect for emotions, nature (especially its awesome, sublime power), death, the mysterious, the individual, the arts as guides to life, and the genius. And Goethe’s light certainly gleams off all of these facets in this book. Wilhelm wanders aimlessly through the woods of Germany, trying to figure out life and love, unsure whether chance, fate, or God is behind the seemingly significant chaos of life, but sure that his feelings bring him as close to the meaning of the universe as anything does. He falls in with a troupe of actors and expatiates often on the abilities of drama and song to teach people how to feel, the resultant feelings, in turn, revealing the meaning of the universe to the audience. Eerie things happen to him, but it doesn’t matter much to Wilhelm whether his friends are putting on show or he is encountering actual ghosts: the experiences reveal the mysteries of life one way or another. It all seems about as Romantic as it gets.

At the same time, though, this Romanticism doesn’t work for Wilhelm and his associates, and alternate worldviews are suggested. Wilhelm doesn’t seem to notice that every woman he meets merits some special place in his heart; every woman enjoys supremacy just as long as he’s near her or thinks of her. When he actually gets around to acting on these intense attachments, the women almost invariably disappoint him. So much for feelings revealing truth. One character, following his esteemed feelings, mates with his sister. Goethe’s narration seems definitely not to approve of this result of an extreme Romantic view. Wilhelm also struggles with audiences who don’t appreciate the divine favors he bestows on them through his art. In fact, he can’t even always find fellow actors who understand the meaning of the stageworks he puts on. If the lonely genius is completely alone, then what good is it being a genius?

So what other options does an intelligent, sensitive person of the time have? Wilhelm’s father and one of Wilhelm’s acquaintances represent a material, epicurean manner of life, which Goethe associates with cold reason. Goethe and his protagonist seem to agree that Romanticism outshines such a selfishly calculating life. A couple of characters present Christianity as something of an alternative, although it is a Romantic Christianity, based on the notion that the Christian religion, like others presumably, can raise the emotions necessary to guide one to the good life.

I read Faust during my first ten-year reading plan, and I have to say it was all very confusing with its digressions and constant shifting of poetic meters. I feel like I understand Goethe much better having read this novel and understand why nineteenth-century artists, writers, and composers revered him so highly. One such composer, Ambroise Thomas, wrote an opera about Mignon, one of the most interesting characters in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. I’ve only heard one aria (a beautiful one!) from that opera. I think I’ll listen to some more of it today.

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