Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER VI. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities) 
Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 5: W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities.
Part of: Goethe’s Works, 5 vols.
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After a long and thorough rest, of which the travellers might well stand in need, Felix jumped actively out of his bed, and made haste to dress himself; and, as his father thought he noticed, with more care than hitherto. Nothing fitted him neatly or smartly enough: he would have liked everything to be newer and less worn. He sprang into the garden, and only tasted on the way a little of the first meal, which the servant had brought for the guests, since the ladies would not appear in the garden for another hour.
The servant was accustomed to entertain strangers, and to show many of the things in the house; so he conducted our friends also into a gallery, in which only portraits were hung up and exhibited—all of persons who had worked in the eighteenth century—a large and glorious company; pictures and busts as well, when possible, by excellent masters.
“You will not find,” said the keeper, “in the whole castle, a single picture that points even distantly to religion, tradition, mythology, legend or fable: our master wishes that the imaginative power shall only be required to make present to itself the True. We deal enough in fiction, he is wont to say, without needing to exalt still higher this dangerous quality of our intellect by external stimulants.”
Wilhelm’s question, when they might expect him down, he answered with the information that his master, according to his habit, had ridden out quite early. He was accustomed to say: “Observation is life!” “You will see this and other maxims, in which he reflects himself, written in the fields above the gates—as for instance we forthwith light upon: ‘From the Useful, through the True, to the Beautiful.’ ”
The women had already prepared the breakfast under the lime-trees; Felix frolicked about them, trying by all sorts of follies and extravagances to bring himself forward so as to get a warning or a reproof from Hersilia. The sisters now tried by frankness and communicativeness to gain the confidence of their taciturn guest, who pleased them; they told him about a favorite cousin, who had been three years absent, and was presently expected home; about a worthy aunt, who lived in her castle at no great distance, and was to be regarded as the tutelary genius of the family. In a state of bodily decay, she was described as being in blooming health of spirit, just as if the voice of a primeval sibyl no longer visible were to utter, quite simply, pure divine words on human things.
The new guest now turned his conversation and questions to the present. He wished to know the noble uncle more closely in a purely distinctive activity: he thought of the road which he had pointed out, “From the Useful, through the True, to the Beautiful,” and sought to interpret the words after his own fashion—in which, moreover, he succeeded quite well, and had the good fortune to gain Julietta’s approval.
Hersilia, who up to this time had remained silently smiling, replied on the other hand: “We women are in a peculiar position. We hear the maxims of men continually repeated, nay, we have to behold them in gilt letters above our heads, and yet we girls might be able in private to say the very reverse, which would also pass current, as is precisely the case in the present instance. The Beautiful maiden finds admirers, also suitors, and probably at last a husband; then she arrives at the True, which may not prove to be the pleasantest possible, and if she is wise she will devote herself to the Useful, attend to house and children, and in this abide. At least I have often found it so. We girls have time to observe, and then we generally find what we did not look for.”
A messenger from the uncle arrived with the news that the whole party was invited to dinner at a neighboring hunting-box; they could either ride or drive thither.
Hersilia chose to ride. Felix also begged urgently that they would give him a horse. It was agreed that Julietta should drive with Wilhelm, and that Felix as a page should be indebted for his first ride to the lady of his young heart.
In the meantime Julietta drove with her new friend through a series of plantations that all pointed to utility and enjoyment; nay, the innumerable fruit-trees made it doubtful whether the fruit could ever all be consumed.
“You have passed through such a wonderful ante-chamber into our society, and have found so much that is really uncommon and strange, that I may suppose that you wish to know the connection of all this. All depends on the spirit and sense of my excellent uncle. The vigorous years of this noble person’s manhood fell in the time of Beccaria* and Filangieri;† the maxims of a universal humanitarianism prevailed at that time on all sides. But his striving spirit and severe character transformed this general ideal into ideas which occupied themselves with the practical. He did not conceal from us, how according to his own fashion he had transformed that liberal motto: ‘The Best for the largest number,’ and destined ‘For the Many, the Desirable.’ The most cannot find or know what is the best, still less procure it. But many are always around us: what they wish, we learn to know; what they ought to wish, we reflect on; and thus something of importance can always be effected and created. With this view,” she continued, “everything that you see here has been planted, constructed and arranged; and simply for a quite close, easily-attainable purpose; all this has come to pass from love to the great neighboring mountain range.
“The excellent man, endowed with both strength and the means, said to himself: No child up yonder shall want a cherry or an apple, for which with good reason they are so greedy; the housewife shall not lack cabbage or turnips or any other vegetable for her saucepan, so that to some degree the unwholesome consumption of potatoes may be counterbalanced. To this end and in this manner he tries to achieve what his possessions give him an opportunity of doing; and thus for many years carriers, men and women, have been organized, who take the fruit for sale into the deepest clefts of the mountain rocks.”
“I have enjoyed it myself like any child,” replied Wilhelm; “there, where I never hoped to meet with anything of the sort, among pines and rocks, I was less surprised at finding pure simplicity of mind than new refreshing fruit! The gifts of the spirit are at home everywhere, but the gifts of nature are only sparely distributed over the earth’s surface.”
“Moreover, our worthy man has brought many things from distant places nearer to the mountain; in the buildings below here you will find salt laid up, and stores of spices. For tobacco and brandy he lets others provide; these are not necessaries, he says, but lusts, and consequently they have providers enough already.”
Arrived at the appointed place, a roomy huntsman’s house in the forest, the party found themselves assembled, and a small table ready laid out.
“Let us sit down,” said Hersilia. “Here, to be sure, stands our uncle’s chair, but as usual he is sure not to come. In a certain manner it gives me satisfaction, that our new guest, as I hear, is not going to stay long with us; for he might be wearied when he became acquainted with our company. The composition of it is what is everlastingly repeated in novels and plays: a wonderful uncle, one gentle and one lively niece, a sensible aunt, domestics of the well-known sort; and if our cousin were now to return, he would learn to recognize a fantastic traveller, who perhaps would bring with him a still more eccentric companion, and then the trite theatrical piece would be composed, and transformed into reality.”
“The peculiarities of our uncle we must needs revere,” replied Julietta; “they are not a burden to any one, but rather a convenience to everybody. He detests, as he always will, a fixed dinner-hour, but he rarely interferes with it, for indeed he maintains that one of the finest inventions of modern times is dinner à la carte.”
Amidst much other conversation they also discussed the worthy man’s taste to affect inscriptions everywhere.
“My sister,” said Hersilia, “knows how to interpret them all, and she vies with the keeper in making them out; but I find they can all be reversed, and that then they are just as true, and perhaps more so.”
“I do not deny,” replied Wilhelm, “that there are mottoes among them which seem to neutralize themselves. Thus, for instance, I saw written up very strikingly, ‘Ownership and Common-property.’ Do not these two ideas exclude one another?”
Hersilia interrupted him: “Such inscriptions, it seems, our uncle has borrowed from the Orientals, who on all their walls do honor to, rather than understand, the maxims of the Koran.”
Julietta, not to be put off, replied to the preceding question: “If you paraphrase the few words, their sense will at once become clear.”
After some discussion, Julietta continued to explain how it was meant: “Every one should try to dignify, to keep, and to increase the possession which has been granted to him by fate or by nature; with all his faculties he should grasp as far around him as he can reach, but should at the same time always think how he shall let others have a share in it; for people of means are only valued in so far as others enjoy through them.”
When they now began to seek for instances, our friend found himself in his proper element: they vied with each other, they strained their wits, in the endeavor to prove the truth of those laconic words.
“Why,” they maintained, “do people honor the prince—but because he can put in activity, can advance and bestow favors on every one, and make them, as it were, shareholders of his absolute power? Why does everybody look up to the rich? Because he himself, the most needy, on all sides wants participators in his abundance. Why do all men envy the poet? Because his nature makes communication necessary—nay, is communication itself. The musician is happier than the painter; he expends welcome gifts in person, immediately, whilst the latter only gives when the gift has been sundered from himself.”
Then they further asserted generally: Man ought to retain firmly every sort of possession; he ought to make himself a central point, from which the common good can issue; he must be an egoist, in order not to become an egoist; must keep together, in order to be able to expend. What does it mean—to give possession and goods to the poor? It is more praiseworthy to behave as a steward for them. This is the sense of the words “Ownership and Common-property:” the capital no one ought to attack; the interest will none the less belong in due course to every one.
In this manner the ladies conversed about many things with their new friend, and, as their mutual confidence increased more and more, they also spoke about a cousin who was shortly expected. “We believe that his strange behavior has been arranged with our uncle. For some years he has let us hear nothing from him. He will send charming presents, figuratively intimating his place of residence, then all of a sudden he writes from somewhere quite close by, but will not come before we have given him some information about our own condition. This behavior is not natural; what lurks behind it we must discover before his return. To-night we will give you a packet of letters, from which the rest may be seen.”
Hersilia added: “Yesterday I made you acquainted with a foolish wandering woman; to-day you shall hear about a crazy traveller.”
“But confess,” added Julietta, “that this communication is not without purpose.”
Hersilia was just asking, somewhat impatiently, what had become of the dessert, when the announcement was made that the uncle expected the company to enjoy dessert with him in the large summer-house. On the way back they observed a camp-kitchen staff very busily engaged in packing up, with much clatter, their brightly-burnished saucepans, plates, and dishes. They found the old gentleman in a spacious arbor, before a large, round, freshly-spread table, upon which, as they took their seats, the finest fruits, delicious pastry, and all the best sweets, were abundantly served. On the uncle’s asking what had they met with to amuse them, Hersilia replied quickly, “Our good guest would probably have run astray over your laconic inscriptions if Julietta had not come to his assistance with a running commentary.”
“You always bring in Julietta,” replied the uncle; “she is a good girl, who can learn and understand something too.”
“I should like to forget much of what I know; and what I do understand is not worth much either,” replied Hersilia in joke.
Hereupon Wilhelm joined in, and said thoughtfully, “Pithy mottoes of every kind I know how to honor, especially if they incite me to reflect on and bring into accord what contravenes them.”
“Precisely so,” replied the uncle; “indeed, rational man throughout his whole life has never yet had any other occupation.”
They had, as appeared in the course of the conversation, made the objection to the uncle, that his property did not bring him in what it ought. He replied thereto, “The deficiency of income I look on as an outlay, which gives me pleasure, inasmuch as I thereby render life more easy to others. I have not even the trouble of making this disbursement myself, and thus everything is made fair again.”
In the meantime the table had gradually filled all round, so that at last there was scarcely a place left.
The two stewards had arrived, huntsmen, horse-breakers, gardeners, foresters, and others whose occupation one could not tell at once. Each had something of the most recent occurrence to say and to report, which the old gentleman heard good-naturedly, or perhaps even elicited by sympathizing inquiries; but at last he rose, and saluting the company, whom he would not have move, went away with the two bailiffs. All had indeed enjoyed the fruit—and the young people the pastry—although they may have looked a little unconventional. One after another rose, saluted those that stayed, and went away.
The ladies, who noticed that the guest observed what passed with some wonder, expressed themselves as follows: “You see here again the effect of the peculiarities of our excellent uncle; he affirms, that no invention of the age deserves more admiration, than that you should be able to dine at inns at small separate tables ‘à la carte;’ as soon as he became aware of this, he also tried to introduce it into his family for himself and others. When he is in his best humor, he likes to paint vividly the horrors of a family table, where every member sits down occupied with extraneous thoughts, listens unwillingly, speaks absently, remains sullenly silent, and if ill-luck introduces little children, calls forth, with a sudden recourse to pedagogism, the most unreasonable bad humor.
“ ‘One has to bear with so many ills,’ he says, ‘but from this I have found out how to emancipate myself.’ He seldom appears at our table, and occupies the chair that stands empty for him only for a few moments. He carries his camp-kitchen about with him, and generally dines alone; others must take care of themselves. But if once in a way he offers breakfast, dessert, or other refreshment, then all his scattered dependants have to assemble together, and partake of what is offered, as you have seen. That gives him pleasure; but no one dares come who does not bring an appetite with him. Every one who has satisfied himself has to rise, and only thus he is certain of always being surrounded by people who enjoy themselves. ‘If you want to give people a treat,’ I heard him say, ‘you must try to procure for them what they are seldom or never in a condition to obtain.’ ”
On the return journey an unexpected mishap caused some excitement among the party. Hersilia said to Felix, who was riding by her side, “Look there, what flowers are those? they cover the whole sunny side of the hill; I have never seen them before.” Felix at once urged on his horse, galloped towards the place, and in returning with a whole bunch of blooming flowers, which he waved in the air at a distance, all of a sudden disappeared with the horse. He had fallen into a ditch. Immediately two horsemen detached themselves from the party and galloped towards the spot.
Wilhelm wanted to get out of the carriage, but Julietta forbade it. “He has already got help, and our law in such cases is, that only one who is giving help may stir from the spot.”
Hersilia stopped her horse. “Yes, indeed,” she said, “doctors one wants but seldom, but surgeons every moment.”
Felix was already cantering up again, with a bandaged head, clutching the blooming booty, and holding it aloft. With complacency he reached the nosegay to his mistress. Hersilia in return gave him a light, bright-colored neckerchief.
“The white bandage does not suit you,” she said; “this will look much prettier.” And thus they reached home, reassured indeed, but in a sympathetic mood.
It had grown late: they separated in the friendly hope of meeting again on the morrow, but the following correspondence kept our friend awake and thoughtful for some hours.
LENARDO TO HIS AUNT.
“At last, dear aunt, you receive, after three years, my first letter, according to our arrangement, which indeed was strange enough. I wanted to see the world, and abandon myself to it, and for this period. I wished to forget my home, from which I came and to which I hoped to return again. I wanted to retain the whole impression, and that single details should not lead me, when at a distance, into misconception. In the meantime the necessary tokens of existence have been interchanged between us from time to time. I have received money, and little gifts for my nearest friends have meanwhile been handed over to you for distribution. From the sort of things sent, you could see where and how I was. In the wines my uncle has surely tasted out my place of residence every time; then the lace, the quodlibets, the steel-ware, have marked my way for the ladies through Brabant to Paris and on to London; thus, on your writing, sewing, and tea-tables, your morning robes and evening dresses, I shall find many a mark on which I can hang my tales of travel. You have accompanied me, without hearing from me, and perhaps are by no means curious to know anything further. To me, on the contrary, it is in the highest degree necessary to learn, through your goodness, how the circle which I am on the point of re-entering goes on. I should like to enter actually from foreign parts like a stranger who, to be agreeable, first informs himself about what they wish or like in the house, and does not imagine to himself that they must receive him exactly according to his own liking, just for the sake of his fine hair or eyes. Write to me, therefore, about the good uncle, the dear nieces, about yourself, about our relations near and remote, and also about old and new servants.
“Enough; let your practised pen, which you have not for so long inked for your nephew, hold sway on the paper for his benefit. Your instructive letter shall be my credentials, with which I shall present myself as soon as I have received it. Thus it depends upon you to see me in your arms. One changes far less than one thinks, and circumstances remain for the most part much the same. Not what has changed, but what has remained, what has gradually increased and decreased, I wish to recognize all at once, and to look again upon myself as in a familiar mirror. Greet all our friends heartily, and believe in the strange fashion of my absence and return more warmth is contained than is often found in uninterrupted sympathy and cordial correspondence. A thousand greetings to each and all.
“Do not neglect, dearest aunt, to say a word about our men of business, how our agents and tenants are getting on. What has become of Valerina, the daughter of the tenant whom uncle shortly before my departure had ejected—rightly indeed, but still, as it seems to me, rather severely? You see that I still remember much; I still know pretty well all. You must examine me about the past, after you have communicated the present to me.”
THE AUNT TO JULIETTA.
“At last, dear children, there is a letter from the Three-years-mute. How these wonderful people are wonderful indeed! He thinks that all his articles and tokens are as good as one single good word that one friend can say or write to another. He really imagines that the balance is in his favor, and wants us on our part to do what on his own he so harshly and unkindly denied us. What ought we to do? I, for my part, would at once meet his wishes with a long letter, if my headache did not announce itself, and scarcely allow me to finish the present letter. We all wish to see him. Take the matter, my dear ones, in hand. If I have recovered before you have finished, then I shall contribute my own quota. Choose the persons and circumstances as you like best; describe them. Divide them between you. You will do it all better than I. I suppose the messenger will bring me back a line from you?”
JULIETTA TO HER AUNT.
“We have already read, reflected, and tell you through the messenger our opinion, each for herself, though we have first satisfied ourselves together, that we are not so good-naturedly disposed as our dear aunt towards her always spoiled nephew. He having for three years kept his cards hidden from us, and still keeping them hidden, we are to throw up ours, and play an open game against his concealed one. That is by no means fair, but still it may pass; for even the most subtle often deceives himself just because he makes too sure. Only as to the style and manner we are not agreed; as to what shall be sent to him, and how. To write about what you think of your own people, that is, to us at least, a strange task. As a rule one only thinks about them in this or that case, when they cause one exceptional pleasure or vexation. Otherwise every one leaves others alone. You only could do it, dear aunt, for you have penetration and impartiality at the same time. Hersilia, who, as you know, is easily excited, has hurriedly given me a funny review of the whole family upon the spur of the moment; I wish it stood on paper, so as to win a smile from you amidst your suffering; but not that it should be sent to him. My proposal, however, is to send him our correspondence of these last three years; this he may peruse himself, if he has the courage, or may come to see what he does not care to read. Your letters to me, dear aunt, are in the best order, and are at your disposal at once.
“Hersilia is not of the same opinion; she excuses herself with the confusion of her papers, etc., as she will tell you herself.”
HERSILIA TO HER AUNT.
“I must and will be very short, dear aunt, for the messenger shows himself disagreeably impatient. I consider it superfluous kindness and quite out of place to communicate our letters to Lenardo. What business has he to know what good we have said of him, what business has he to know what evil we have said of him, in order to find out from the latter still more than from the former, that we are well-disposed to him. Keep a tight hand on him, I beg you. There is something so cool and presumptuous in this demand, in this behavior, such as these gentlemen generally show when they come from foreign lands. They always consider those who stay at home as not complete. Excuse yourself with your headache. He will come fast enough; and if he does not come we will wait a little longer. Perhaps in that case it will occur to him to introduce himself amongst us in some queer secret fashion, and learn to know us unrecognized, and I don’t know what all might not enter into the plans of such a clever man. That would be pretty and wonderful indeed! It might produce all kinds of complications, which could not possibly develop themselves under the diplomatic entry into the family which he now has in mind.
“The messenger! the messenger! Instruct your old people better, or send young ones. This one is not to be bribed either by flattery or wine. A thousand times farewell!
“POSTSCRIPT FOR POSTSCRIPT.
“Tell me, what does our cousin mean in his postscript about Valerina? This question has doubly occurred to me. She is the only person whom he mentions by name. We others are to him nieces, aunts, agents; no personalities, but only denominations. Valerina, the daughter of our lawyer! A fair, pretty child enough, who may have dazzled the eyes of our Herr Cousin before his departure. She is married, well and happily; that I need not tell you. But he knows as little about it as he knows in other respects about us. By no means forget to tell him, also in a postscript, that Valerina has become prettier every day, and on this very account too has made a very good match: that she is the wife of a rich landowner. The beautiful blonde is married: make that quite clear to him. But now, dear aunt, this is not yet all. How he can remember the fair beauty so well, and yet confound her with the daughter of the dissolute tenant, a wild romp of a brunette, called Nachodina, who is gone no one knows where—this is altogether incomprehensible to me, and puzzles me wonderfully, for it seems that Sir Cousin, who boasts of his good memory, mixes up names and persons in an extraordinary way. Perhaps he feels this defect, and wants to refresh again what has been forgotten by your description. Keep a tight hand on him, I beg you; but try to find out how Valerina and Nachodina are, and what Inas and Trinas and all are still preserved in his imagination, whilst the Ettas and Ilias have disappeared from it. The messenger! the confounded messenger!”
THE AUNT TO HER NIECES. (Dictated.)
“What is the good of much dissembling towards those with whom one has to spend one’s life! Lenardo with all his peculiarities deserves confidence. I am sending him both your letters; from them he will learn to know you, and I trust the rest of us will unconsciously seize an opportunity as soon as possible of presenting ourselves before him in the same way. Farewell! I am in great pain.”
HERSILIA TO HER AUNT.
“What is the good of dissembling towards those with whom we spend our lives! Lenardo is a spoiled nephew. It is abominable, that you should send him our letters. He will not learn to know us from them, and I only wish for an opportunity of presenting myself as soon as possible in another way. You make others suffer a great deal, whilst you suffer and are blind. A speedy recovery from your pain. There is no remedy for your love.”
THE AUNT TO HERSILIA.
“I should also have enclosed your last little note for Lenardo, if I had actually kept to the purpose which my incorrigible partiality, my illness, and considerations of convenience had suggested. Your letters are not gone.”
WILHELM TO NATALIA.
“Man is a sociable, communicative creature; his enjoyment is great when he exercises the faculties that have been given to him, even if nothing further were the outcome of it. How often is the complaint made in society, that one does not allow the other to have his say; and one can just as well say that one did not allow another to write, if writing were not usually a sort of business that one must discharge in solitude and alone. Of how much people write we have no idea at all. I do not wish to speak about so much of it as is printed, although it is quite enough. But of the amount in letters, news, stories, anecdotes, descriptions of the present condition of individual people, quietly circulating in letters and longer compositions—of this one may gain an idea by living for a time, as I do now, in a family of culture. In the sphere in which I find myself at present, one almost spends as much time in imparting information to relations and friends about what one is occupied with as one has for occupation itself. This observation, which has forced itself on my notice during the last few days, I make all the more gladly, since my new friends’ facility in writing gives me the opportunity of learning to know their mutual relations quickly and from all sides. They confide in me, give me a packet of letters, a few travelling journals, the confessions of a mind not yet at one with itself, and thus in a short time I am everywhere in the house. I know the neighboring society; I know the persons whose acquaintance I am going to make, and know almost more about them than they do themselves, since they are entangled in their own circumstances, whilst I flit past them, always at your hand, discussing everything with you. It is my first condition, too, before I accept a confidence, that I shall be allowed to impart everything to you. Here accordingly are a few letters, which will introduce you to the circle within which I am at present moving, without breaking or evading my vows.”
[* ] Cesare Beccaria of Bonesana, whose work ‘Dei Delitti e Delle Pene,’ first published anonymously in 1764, gave an impulse to the study of penal laws.—D.
[† ] Gaetana Filangieri, the renowned author of ‘La Scienza della Legislazione’ (8 vols. 1781-88), whose acquaintance Goethe had made in Naples.—D.