Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER II. - 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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Led by the hand of the eldest, our friend now entered through a handsome portal into a room, or rather, eight-sided hall, which was so richly adorned with pictures, that it caused astonishment to the visitor. He easily understood that all that he saw must have an important meaning, though he himself was not at once able to guess it. He was just on the point of asking his conductor about it, when the latter invited him to enter a side gallery, which, open on one side, surrounded a spacious, richly planted flower-garden. The wall, however, attracted the eye more than this brilliant adornment of nature, for it was painted throughout its whole length, and the visitor could not walk far along it without remarking that the sacred books of the Israelites had furnished the subjects of these pictures.
“It is here,” said the eldest, “that we teach that religion, which for the sake of brevity, I have called the ethnical. Its internal substance is found in the history of the world, as its external envelope in the events themselves. In the re-occurrence of the destinies of entire nations it is, properly speaking, grasped.”
“You have, I see,” said Wilhelm, “conferred the honor on the Israelitish people, and made its history the foundation of this exposition, or rather you have made it the principal subject of the same.”
“Just as you see,” rejoined the old man; “for you will observe that in the plinths and friezes are represented not so much synchronistic as symphronistic* actions and events, whilst among all nations there occur traditions of similar and equal import. Thus, while in the principal field, Abraham is visited by his gods in the form of handsome youths, you see up there in the frieze, Apollo among the shepherds of Admetus; from which we may learn that when the gods appear to men, they mostly go about unrecognized among them.”
The two observers went farther. Wilhelm found for the most part well-known subjects, yet represented in a more lively and significant manner than he had been accustomed to see them before. In reference to a few matters he asked for some explanation, in doing which he could not refrain from inquiring again, why they had selected the Israelitish history before all others?
Hereupon the eldest answered: “Among all heathen religions (for such is the Israelitish also) this one has great advantages, of which I shall mention only a few. Before the ethnic tribunal, before the tribunal of the God of nations, it is not the question, whether it is the best or the most excellent nation, but only whether it still exists, whether it has maintained itself. The Israelitish nation has never been worth much, as its leaders, judges, rulers and prophets have a thousand times thrown in its teeth; it possesses few virtues, and most of the faults of other nations; but in independence, endurance, courage, and if all that were no longer of account, in toughness, it cannot find its equal. It is the most tenacious people on the face of the earth! It is, it has been, and will be to glorify the name of Jehovah through all time. We have, therefore, set it up as a pattern, as a masterpiece, to which the others only serve as a frame.”
“It is not becoming in me to argue with you,” replied Wilhelm, “since you are in a position to teach me. Proceed, therefore, to explain to me the other advantages of this nation, or rather of its history, of its religion.”
“One principal advantage,” answered the other, “consists in the excellent collection of its sacred books. They are combined so happily, that from the most heterogeneous elements there results a deceptive unity. They are complete enough to satisfy, fragmentary enough to stimulate interest; sufficiently barbaric to excite challenge, sufficiently tender to soothe; and how many other opposing qualities might we extol in these books, in this Book!”
The series of the principal pictures, as well as the connection of the smaller ones which accompanied them above and below, gave the guest so much to think of, that he scarcely listened to the explanatory remarks by which his companion seemed rather to divert his attention from, than to fix it on the subjects.
In the meanwhile the other took occasion to say: “I must here mention one advantage of the Israelitish religion: that it does not embody its God in any given form, and therefore leaves us at liberty to give him a worthy human figure; also, on the other hand, to depict base idolatry by the forms of beasts and monsters.”
Our friend, moreover, in a short stroll through these halls, had again called to mind the history of the world: there was something new to him in regard to the circumstance. Thus, through the juxtaposition of the pictures, through the reflections of his companion, fresh ideas had dawned upon his mind; and he was glad that Felix by means of a visible representation of such merit should appropriate to himself for his whole life long, as vividly as if they had actually happened in his own time, those grand, significant, and inimitable events. He looked at these pictures at last only with the eyes of the child, and in this aspect he felt perfectly satisfied with them. And so strolling on they reached those sad, confused periods, and finally the destruction of the City and the Temple, the murder, banishment and slavery of whole multitudes of this obstinate nation. Its subsequent destinies were represented by discreet allegory, since a historic and real representation of them lies beyond the limits of the noble art.
Here the gallery, through which they had walked, terminated abruptly, and Wilhelm wondered at finding himself already at the end.
“I find,” he said to his guide, “an omission in this historical walk. You have destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem, and scattered the nation, without introducing the Divine Man, who shortly before that very time taught in it, and to whom, too, shortly before they would give no hearing.”
“To do this, as you demand, would have been a mistake. The life of that Divine Man, to whom you allude, stands in no connection with the world-history of his time. His was a private life, his doctrine a doctrine for individuals. What publicly concerns the masses of the people and its members belongs to the history of the world, to the religion of the world, which we regard as the first. What inwardly concerns the individual belongs to the second religion, to the religion of the wise; such was the one that Christ taught and practised as long as he went about on earth. Wherefore the external ends here, and I now open to you the internal.”
A door opened, and they entered a similar gallery, where Wilhelm at once recognized the pictures of the second holy writings. They seemed to be by a different hand from the first: everything was gentler; forms, movements, surroundings, light and coloring.
“You see here,” said his companion, after they had walked past a part of the pictures, “neither deeds nor events, but miracles and parables. Here is a new world; a new exterior, different from the former, and an interior, which in that is entirely lacking. By miracles and parables a new world is opened. The former make the common extraordinary, the latter make the extraordinary common.”
“Have the kindness,” replied Wilhelm, “to explain me these few words more circumstantially, for I do not feel equal to doing it myself.”
“You possess a natural mind,” replied the other, “although a deep one. Examples will open it most readily. Nothing is more common or ordinary than eating and drinking; on the other hand, it is extraordinary to ennoble a beverage, or to multiply a meal, so that it may suffice for a countless number. Nothing is commoner than illness and bodily infirmity; but to cure, to alleviate these by spiritual or spiritual-seeming means, is extraordinary: and just in this consists the marvel of the miracle—that the common and extraordinary, the possible and the impossible, become one. In the similitude, in the parable, the reverse is the case: here you have mind, insight, the idea of the sublime, the extraordinary, the unattainable. When this is embodied in a common, ordinary, intelligible image, so that it confronts us as living, present and real, so that we can appropriate, seize, retain, and converse with it as with one of our own like: that indeed becomes a second species of miracle, which is fairly associated with the first kind, nay, perhaps, is to be preferred to it. Here the living doctrine itself is pronounced, the doctrine that arouses no dispute. It is no opinion as to what is right or wrong; it is indisputably right or wrong itself.”
This part of the gallery was shorter, or rather it was only the fourth part of the enclosure of the inner courtyard. But while one cared only to pass along the first, here one was glad to linger, here one liked to walk to and fro. The subjects were not so striking nor so manifold, but so much the more did they invite inquiry into their deep and quiet meaning; moreover the two wanderers turned at the end of the corridor, whilst Wilhelm expressed a fear that in fact only the last supper, the last parting of the Master from his disciples, was reached. He asked for the remaining part of the story.
“In all teaching,” replied the elder one, “in all tradition, we are very willing to set apart only what it is possible to set apart, for only thereby can the notion of what is significant be developed in youth. Life otherwise mingles and mixes everything together; and thus we have here the life of that excellent Man completely separated from its end. During life he appears as a true philosopher—do not be scandalized at this expression—as a sage, in the highest sense. He stands firmly to his point; he pursues his own path unflinchingly, and whilst he draws up to himself what is inferior, whilst he allows the ignorant, the poor, the sick, a share in his wisdom, wealth, and power, and thereby seems to step down to their level; still, on the other hand, he does not deny his divine origin; he dares to make himself equal to God, nay, to declare himself God. In this manner, from his youth up, he astonishes those who surround him, gains one part of them over to himself, arouses the other against himself, and shows all those to whom it is a question of a certain sublimity in doctrine and life what they will have to expect from the world. And thus his life’s journey for the noble part of humanity is more instructive and fruitful than his death; for to the one test every one is called, but to the other only a few. And in order that we may pass over all that follows from this, only look at the touching scene of the last supper! Here the sage, as always happens, leaves his followers behind, quite orphaned, so to say, and whilst he is taking thought for the good ones, he is at the same time feeding with them a traitor, who will bring him and the better ones to destruction.”
With these words the elder opened a door, and Wilhelm was astonished to find himself again in the first hall of entrance. In the meantime, they had made, as he could easily see, the entire circuit of the courtyard.
“I was hoping,” said Wilhelm, “that you would conduct me to the end, whilst you are taking me back to the beginning.” “This time I can show you nothing more,” said the elder; “we do not let our pupils see more, we do not explain to them more than what you have so far passed through: the external and generally mundane may be imparted to each from his youth up; the internal and specially spiritual and mental, only to those who are growing up to a certain degree of thoughtfulness; and the rest, which can be disclosed only once a year, only to those of whom we are taking leave. That last form of religion, which arises from respect for what is below us, that reverence for what is repugnant, hateful, and apt to be shunned, we impart to each only by way of outfit for the world, in order that he may know where he can find the like, if need of such should stir within him. I invite you to return after the lapse of a year to attend our general festival, and to see how far your son has progressed; at which time too you shall be initiated into the holy estate of sorrow.”
“Allow me one question,” replied Wilhelm; “have you then, besides representing the life of this Divine Man as a pattern of teaching and imitation, also exalted his sufferings, his death, as a model of sublime endurance?”
“By all means,” said the elder. “We make no secret of this; but we draw a veil over these sufferings, just because we honor them so highly. We hold it for criminal audacity to expose that scaffold of agony, and the Saint suffering thereupon, to the gaze of the sun, that hid its face when a reckless world obtruded this sight upon it; to play, to trifle with these deep mysteries, in which the divine depth of suffering lies hidden; to decorate them, and not to rest until the most holy seems commonplace and vulgar. Thus much may suffice for this time to set you at rest respecting your boy, and convince you thoroughly that you will find him again, in one way or other, more or less developed, yet in a desirable manner, and at all events not confused, wavering or unsteady.”
Wilhelm lingered, looking over the pictures in the vestibule, wishing to have their meaning explained.
“This too,” said the elder, “we shall continue to owe you until the year is over. We do not admit any strangers to the instruction which we impart to the children during the interval; but in due time come and listen to what our best speakers think fit to say publicly on these subjects.”
Soon after this conversation a knock was heard at the small door. The inspector of yesterday presented himself; he had led up Wilhelm’s horse. And thus our friend took leave of the Three, who at parting recommended him to the inspector in the following terms: “He is now numbered among the confidants, and what you have to answer to his questions is known to you: for he surely still wishes to be enlightened about many things that he has seen and heard with us; the measure and purport are not unknown to you.” Wilhelm had still in fact a few questions on his mind, which also he expressed forthwith. Wherever they rode by, the children ranged themselves as on the day before, but to-day he saw, although rarely, a boy here and there who did not salute the inspector as he rode past, did not look up from his work, and allowed him to pass by without notice. Wilhelm now inquired the cause of this, and what this exception meant.
The other replied thereto: “It is in fact exceedingly significant, for it is the severest punishment that we inflict upon our pupils; they are declared unworthy of showing reverence, and compelled to seem rude and uncultured; but they do all that is possible to rescue themselves from this position, and apply themselves as quickly as possible to every duty. Should, however, any hardened youngster show no readiness to recant, then he is sent back to his parents with a short but conclusive report. He who does not learn to adapt himself to the laws, must leave the region where they prevail.”
Another sight excited to-day as yesterday the curiosity of the traveller; it was the variety of color and shape in the clothes of the pupils. In this there seemed to prevail no graduated arrangement, for some who saluted differently were dressed in uniform style, whilst those who had the same way of greeting were clad differently. Wilhelm asked for the cause of this seeming contradiction.
“It is explained thus,” replied the other; “namely, that it is a means of finding out the peculiar disposition of each boy. With strictness and method in other things, in this respect we allow a certain degree of freedom to prevail. Within the scope of our stores of cloths and trimmings, the pupils are allowed to choose any favorite color, and also within moderate limits to select both shape and cut; this we scrupulously observe, for by the color you may find out people’s bent of mind, and by the cut, the style of life. Yet there is one special peculiarity of human nature which makes a more accurate judgment to some extent difficult; this is the spirit of imitation—the tendency to associate. It is very seldom that a pupil lights on anything that has not occurred before: for the most part they choose something familiar, what they see just before them. Still, this consideration does not remain unprofitable to us; by means of such external signs, they ally themselves to this or that party, join in here or there, and thus more general dispositions distinguish themselves; we learn to where each inclines, and to what example he assimilates himself. Now, cases have been seen, in which the dispositions inclined towards the general, in which one fashion would extend itself to all, and every peculiarity tend towards losing itself in the totality. In a gentle way we try to put a stop to a tendency of this kind, we allow our stores to run short; one or other kind of stuff or ornament is no more to be had. We substitute something new, something attractive; through light colors, and short close cut, we attract the cheerful ones; by sombre shades and comfortable, ample suits, the thoughtful ones, and thus gradually establish a balance. For we are altogether opposed to uniform; it hides the character, and, more than any other disguise, conceals the peculiarities of the children from the sight of their superiors.”
With such and other conversation, Wilhelm arrived at the frontier of the district, and precisely at the point where the traveller, according to his old friend’s direction, ought to leave it, in order to pursue his own private ends.
On parting, the inspector first of all observed, that Wilhelm might now wait until the grand festival for all their sympathizers in various ways was announced. To this all the parents would be invited, and able pupils be dismissed to the chances of free life. After that, he was informed, he might at his leisure enter the other districts, where in accordance with peculiar principles, special instruction amidst the most perfect surroundings, was imparted and practised.
[* ]i.e., of similar signification.