Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Wilhelm Meister, Schelling, and Lukács

Lukács's Theory of the Novel might be one of the more unrewarding books that I have recently read, for two reasons. First, it is written before his turn to Marxism from the sociological school around Weber, which might not be so bad if not for 2) his penchant for renunciation. Lukács, as is well-known, had a persistent tendency to renounce previous works for not being (party-line) Marxist enough, which is often easy enough to ignore. But with the Theory of the Novel, which he is quite correct in describing as relying on a sometimes uncritical typology of novels, one is confronted with a tradition that is not as interesting as that of Marxism. The flaws of The Theory of the Novel, and its often romantic tone, outweigh his general insight that "the problems of the novel form are here the mirror-image of a world gone out of joint."

Why? Because Schelling anticipated this conclusion, and several others,* by a century in his lectures later published as the Philosophy of Art (1802-1804); and Schelling's absolute idealism from this period of his thought is much more theoretically interesting than Lukács's post-Kantian sociology (sometime I might discuss Lukács's polemic against Schelling in the Destruction of Reason, but it's beyond our concerns here).

Nevertheless, I discovered that my own opinion of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, which I've also recently read, falls somewhere between the estimations of the young Lukács and Schelling's Philosophy of Art.

For Schelling, a novel's protagonist is only a fragment, and thus imperfection and irony become especially powerful devices. So, the limited perspective of the characters presents in an ironic and unconscious manner the objective situation of the novel. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is Schelling’s exemplar:
The protagonist promises much and many things; he appears destined to be an artist, but he loses this false conception, since through the four volumes he appears or is treated continually not as a master, as his name implies, but as a pupil. He remains a likeable, gregarious character who makes contacts easily and is always attractive. To that extent he is a fortunate center for the whole and constitutes an enticing foreground. The background reveals itself toward the end and displays an infinite perspective on all the wisdom of life behind a kind of illusory game, for the secret society is actually nothing other than this, and it dissolves itself at just the moment it becomes visible. Only the mystery of the apprenticeship itself articulates this wisdom: namely, only he who has recognized his own destiny is a master (Philosophy of Art, 235-236/5: 681).
However, despite the play of irony Goethe cannot but elevate the nobility to the level of substantiality. Wilhelm's failure to become and artist, and his eventual break from the social marginalization of the theatre troupe, prevents him from renouncing his class; instead he is elevated from his initial bourgeois position to the nobility:
Within this class, although confined to a small circle of its members, a universal and all-embracing cultural flowering is supposed to occur, capable of absorbing the most varied individual destinies. In other words, the world ths confined within a single class–the nobility–and based upon it, partakes of the problem-free radiance of the epic (Theory of the Novel, 141).
The elevation of the nobility may have been less jarring had it not occurred through the element of the secret society. The first five books have a remarkable clarity and unity, which might only be able to move forward by the introduction of fantastic elements (including the foregrounding work done by the Confessions of a Beautiful Soul...). In introducing the Tower, Goethe utilized Romantic "methods in order to give sensuous significance and gravity to the ending of the novel, although he tried to rob them of their epic quality by using them lightly and ironically." And yet "he could not prevent it from introducing a disrupting dissonance into the total unity of the whole" (Theory of the Novel, 141-142).

Notwithstanding these criticisms, Goethe's Wilhelm Meister is probably the Bildungsroman because it mirrors the open questions that haunted the German world of letters at the end of the 18th century (when the Ghost could still be Hamlet's, and not the spectre of communism?). Most of the thinkers we now identify with a kind of romantic idealism were influenced by Goethe, and their own philosophical 'apprenticesphips,' working through the thought of Kant, Fichte and Spinoza, are reflected in a much more playful manner in Wilhelm Meister's.

*So, for instance, Lukács's argument that Dante's Divine Comedy is the "historico-philosophical transition from the pure epic to the novel" is anticipated by Schelling's argument that the Divine Comedy "is prophetic and prototypical for the entirety of modern poesy" (1989: 247/V, 163).

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