Thursday, April 25, 2019

Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: The Wisdom of the Quotidian

You might not think a 220-year-old novel wherein seemingly "nothing remarkable happens" could be relevant to a modern college-aged readership. You'd be wrong.  ♦ 
Have you ever awoken from a deep sleep, as though you were coming into existence from a state of non-being? You do not know where you are—maybe in your childhood home or in a cabin at camp—perhaps you do not even know who you are for the moment.

This state of affairs—the perplexity of being confronted with existence itself while being equipped only with bewilderment—corresponds to a great degree with the confusion that many young people, especially students in college or young adults, encounter with respect to their futures. Many of us stare into the abyss of questions: what am I doing, where am I going, and why?

And yet this abyss of questions, daunting though it may be, contains within it the potential for an interpretation of reality: the potential for meaning. Just as an author weaves an overarching narrative from seemingly disconnected events, developments, and characters, so too can we realize a narrative in our own lives, which at times may be blissfully light, catatonically onerous, or maybe just plain boring. This task of realizing the significance of each passing moment is fraught with difficulty: it requires also registering each moment in relation to the whole of everything else that has been experienced.

In the bildungsroman, we see reflected this endeavor to understand and to interpret what we experience in its most quintessential form. We observe the development of a youthful protagonist into maturity, during which he ascribes certain meanings to his experience and seeks to understand his place in the world. It is an essentially universal quest, a process in which we all participate, and the stronghold from which we sally forward to ascribe meaning to other phenomena.

No doubt, this process continues throughout the course of life, even after young adulthood. But it’s in that transition between childhood and maturity that the burden of this seeking carries the most gravitas. The bildungsroman therefore takes the weighty task of representing this hesitating, hopeful leap into experience and maturity.

Despite grappling with the evidently important subjects of individual maturation and development, the start of the genre of the bildungsroman, Goethe’s masterpiece, might not fit so well with contemporary notions of what is important or entertaining.

In fact, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship might appear, after a perfunctory reading, not obviously engaged with salient existential questions, but instead, rambling, bumbling, and—worst of all—trivial. However, a more thorough, assiduous reading might contrarily confer a sense of wonder at its seemingly boundless wisdom and relevance.

Wilhelm, the protagonist, is bombarded with an endless succession of quotidian experiences; he converses, traverses, rehearses, splurges, curses, utters poetic verses, and, as is characteristic of youth, his friend group disperses. Just as we encounter countless banal experiences in day-to-day life, so does Wilhelm. Throughout hundreds of pages, the reader of Goethe’s masterpiece is asked to settle for occurrences that are deceptively commonplace and seemingly meaningless; one moment Wilhelm is dithering about in an idyll town by a serenely flowing river, splurging away his wealth capriciously and getting drunk in high-spirits, the next he is traveling with a troupe engaging in petty banter, and later he makes the acquaintanceship of nobility, regaling his noble and idealistic ideas in high-flown discourse.

Wilhelm is the prototype of the youth who enters the wide-world naïve and idealistic, meeting the vicissitudes of reality with a grandiosity of vision. He is met with disappointment and disillusionment, but he journeys doggedly and courageously forward through chaos.

Much as is the case in our lives, Wilhelm must balance his passions and inclinations with the pressures of his family. For Wilhelm, his desire to be an actor is countervailed by the influence of a highly practical father who wants him to become a businessman. The supposedly pointless experiences Wilhelm undergoes along with his desires and inner constitution conspire fatefully. While the end may not be in view to Wilhelm, it is certainly there—its realization however requires Wilhelm’s conscientious, active, and faithful participation.

Perhaps the best parts of Goethe’s work are the jewels of wisdom scattered about the quotidian rough. Consider Goethe’s reflection on the interaction between poetic, idealistic Wilhelm and his close friend, the ever-pragmatic Werner: “ . . . one could have said that their desire to discover each other through their conversations was only increased by the impossibility of making themselves mutually understood . . . [They were] never able to understand why the one could not reduce the other to his way of thinking.”

Or consider Goethe’s poetic rendering of Wilhelm’s sorry state after his being reminded of his alienation from the comforts of women: “He could not perceive clearly that there was an irresistible yearning which nature had imposed on him as a law of his being, and that this was being stimulated, but only half satisfied, and ultimately frustrated by circumstance.”

Or—my personal favorite—consider Wilhelm’s reflection after a night of carousing (something that many college-aged people can relate to) and reading literature (perhaps not so relatable): “Next morning he opened his eyes and gloomily surveyed the mess and destruction of the previous evening, he felt thoroughly depressed at the sad results which a stimulating, spirited, and well-intentioned work of literature had produced.”

The very act of reading Wilhelm’s development, and his continuous struggle to resolve the meaning of the concatenation of experiences he undergoes, is edifying: it is a call for reflection on the course of one’s own development. This reflection may be tiresome and laborious to the modern reader, but the end result is realization as profound as that of waking up from seeming nothingness. An attentive reading of Goethe’s magnum opus is rewarding in the same way that the conscientious engagement with life that it conveys is, but one must keep in mind that both are only rewarding by virtue of their arduousness.

And especially for readers that are on the verge of an unknown future, particularly young adults, Goethe will reward with the wisdom of the poet: he will show, through the particular story of one youth first published in 1795, a universal experience that is relevant to all those who are developing as individuals and seek to understand their purpose. Nevertheless, the reader is left with the task that only he or she can do sufficiently: namely, the task of reflecting on and interpreting his or her own story.

As Goethe says, “The rude man is content if he sees but something going on; the man of more refinement must be made to feel; the man entirely refined, desires to reflect.”

  • About the Author
    Elijah Donohue is a junior with majors in Philosophy and Professional Writing at Miami University. During his free time, he likes to read literature and philosophy. He particularly enjoys reading German Idealism, especially Schopenhauer, as well as Eastern philosophy. He’s a befuddled and sometimes melancholy figure who can be found bedraggled and brooding or blathering aimlessly.

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