Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER IX. - 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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If we now seek out our friend again—for some time left to his own resources, we shall find him as he comes hither from the side of the level country into the Pedagogic province. He comes across pastures and meadows, skirts on the dry down many a small lake, looks on bushy rather than wooded hills; on all sides a free prospect over a land but little tilled. On such tracks it did not long remain doubtful that he was in the horse-breeding district, and he noticed here and there smaller and larger herds of these noble beasts of different sex and age. But all at once the horizon is covered with a fearful dust-cloud, which rapidly looming nearer and nearer, completely conceals the whole breadth of the space, but at last parted by a keen side-wind is forced to disclose the tumult inside it.
A large body of the said noble beasts rushes forward in full gallop; they are guided and kept together by keepers on horseback. The tremendous hurly-burly rushes past the traveller; a fine boy, amongst the keepers in charge, looks at him in astonishment, pulls up, jumps off, and embraces his father.
Now questioning and explanation ensue. The son relates that he had had to put up with a good deal during the first probation time; dispensing with his horse, and going about on foot over ploughed lands and meadows, and, as he had declared beforehand, had not shown himself to advantage in the quiet toilsome country life. The harvest-feast had pleased him well enough; but the tillage afterwards, the ploughing, digging, and waiting, not at all. He had certainly occupied himself with the necessary and useful domestic animals, but always lazily and discontentedly until he was at last promoted to the more lively business of riding. The occupation of looking after the mares and foals was tedious enough; meanwhile, if one sees before one a lively little beast, that in three or four years’ time will perhaps carry one about, it is quite a different sort of thing from troubling one’s self about calves and sucking pigs, of which the end and aim is to be well fed and fattened, and then sold.
With the growth of his boy, who was now really reaching youth’s estate, with his healthy condition, and a certain merry freedom, not to say cleverness, in his talk, his father had good reason to be content. The two now proceeded to follow quickly on horseback the speeding convoy, past remote-lying and extensive farms to the village or country town where the great market was held. There incredible confusion was in full career, and it was impossible to distinguish whether the wares or the merchants raised the more dust. From all countries would-be purchasers here meet together in order to acquire animals of fine breed and careful rearing; and one might think that one heard all the tongues of the earth. In the midst of it all, too, sounds the lively music of the most powerful wind instruments, and everything indicates movement, vigor, and life.
Our traveller now again meets the overseer already known to him of old, and falls in company with other clever men, who manage quietly and no less unnoticeably to maintain discipline and order. Wilhelm believing that here again he sees an instance of exclusive occupation, and in spite of its seeming breadth, of a narrow course of life, is anxious to ascertain by what other means they are accustomed to train the pupils, in order to prevent the youth—in such a wild, and in some degree savage, occupation of rearing and training beasts—from becoming a wild beast himself. And thus it was very gratifying to him to learn that with this same violent and rough-seeming vocation was united the most delicate in the world, the practice and the learning of languages.
At this moment the father missed his son from his side; he saw him through the interstices of the crowd eagerly bargaining and arguing with a young pedlar over some trifles. In a short time he altogether lost him. On the overseer’s inquiring the reason of a certain embarrassment and abstraction, and hearing in reply that it was on his son’s account, “Never mind that,” he said, to reassure the father, “he is not lost. But to show you how we keep our charges together—” and thereupon he blew shrilly on a whistle that hung at his breast. In a moment it was answered by dozens from all sides. The man went on: “I will let this serve for the present, it is only a signal that the overseer is in the neighborhood, and happens to want to know how many hear him. On a second signal they keep quiet, but make themselves ready; on the third they answer and come rushing up. Moreover, these signals are multiplied in very many ways and for special uses.” A more open space had suddenly cleared itself round about them; they were able to speak more freely whilst walking towards the adjoining heights.
“We were led to this practice of languages,” proceeded the overseer, “by the fact that we find here youths from all parts of the world. Now it was to prevent the people of one country from clanning together, as usually happens abroad, and forming parties asunder from the other nations, that we try, by free communion of speech, to bring them nearer to one another. But a universal knowledge of language is most necessary, inasmuch as at this fair every foreigner is glad to find a sufficient means of intercourse in his own sounds and expressions, and at the same time all possible convenience in bargaining and dealing. Yet in order that no Babylonish confusion, no corruption of speech shall ensue, one language only is spoken in common, month by month throughout the year, in accordance with the principle that one should learn nothing that has to be made compulsory except the rudiments.
“We look upon our scholars,” said the overseer, “as so many swimmers, who in the element that threatens to swallow them feel themselves with wonder to be lighter, and are borne up and carried forward by it—and so it is with everything that man undertakes. Yet if one of our pupils shows a special inclination for this or that language, provision is made even in the midst of this tumultuous-seeming life, which affords withal very many quiet, idle, and lonely, nay, tedious hours for true and thorough instruction. You would have some difficulty in picking out our equestrian grammarians, amongst whom there are verily a few pedants, from amidst these bearded and beardless centaurs. Your Felix has set himself to Italian, and since melodious singing, as you know already, pervades everything in our institutions, you might hear him, in the monotony of a herdsman’s life, bring out many a ditty with taste and feeling. Activity and practical ability are far more reconcilable with efficient instruction than one thinks.”
As every district has its own peculiar festival, the guest was led to the domain of instrumental music. Bordering on the plains, it at once exhibited pleasantly and gracefully diversified valleys, little narrow copses, gentle brooks by the banks of which a moss-grown rock slyly peeped out here and there amidst the turf. Scattered habitations, surrounded by bushes, were to be seen upon the hills; in gentle dales the houses clustered nearer to each other. These cottages, set gracefully apart, were so far from each other, that no musical sound either true or false could be heard from one to the other.
They now approached a wide space, built and covered round about, where men standing shoulder to shoulder seemed on the tiptoe of attention and expectation. Just as the guest entered, a powerful symphony on all the instruments commenced, the full-toned strength and tenderness of which he could not but admire.
By the side of this roomily-constructed orchestra stood a smaller one, which attracted special attention; upon it were younger and older scholars. Each held his instrument in readiness, without playing on it. These were they who as yet were not able or did not venture to join in with the whole. One noticed with interest how they were standing as it were at the spring, and heard it declared that such a festival seldom passed by without a genius in some one or other being suddenly developed.
When vocal music also was brought forward in the intervals of the instrumental, there was no longer room to doubt that this too was in favor. Upon his inquiry, moreover, as to what further sort of education was joined in friendly union with this, the traveller learned that it was the art of poetry, and withal of the lyric sort. Their whole aim in this was that the two arts, each for and from itself, but at the same time in contrast to and in conjunction with each other should be developed. The pupils learn to know one as well as the other in their special limitations: then they are taught how they mutually limit, and again mutually emancipate one another.
To the rhythm of poetry the tone-artist opposes the division and movement of time. But here the sway of music over poetry soon manifests itself—for if the latter, as is proper and necessary, always keeps its quantities as clearly as possible in view, yet for the musician few syllables are definitely long or short; he destroys at pleasure the most conscientious proceedings of the dealer in rhythm—nay, actually converts prose into song; whence ensue the most wonderful possibilities, and the poet would very soon feel himself annihilated, were he not able, on his own part, to inspire the musician with reverence by means of lyric tenderness and boldness, and to call forth new feelings, at one time in the most delicate gradation, at another by the most abrupt transitions.
The singers one finds here are for the most part themselves poets. Dancing, too, is taught in its rudiments; so that all these accomplishments may diffuse themselves methodically throughout the whole of these regions.
When the guest was conducted across the next boundary he suddenly beheld quite a different style of building. The houses were no longer scattered, and no more of the cottage-sort; they rather appeared to be set together with regularity—solid and handsome from without, roomy, convenient, and elegant within. Here one perceived an unconfined and well-built town, adapted to its situation. Here plastic art and its kindred crafts are at home, and a stillness quite peculiar prevails in these places.
The plastic artist, it is true, always considers himself in relation to whatever lives and moves amidst mankind; but his occupation is a solitary one, and, by the strangest contradiction, no other, perhaps, so decidedly calls for a living environment. Here, then, does each one create in silence what is soon to occupy the eyes of men forever. A Sabbath stillness reigns over the whole place, and if one did not notice here and there the chipping of the stone-mason, or the measured blows of carpenters, just now busily employed in finishing a splendid building, not a sound would disturb the air.
Our traveller was struck with the seriousness, the wonderful strictness, with which beginners, as well as the more advanced, were treated; it seemed as if no one essayed anything by his own strength and power, but as if a hidden spirit animated all throughout, guiding them to one single great end. Neither draft nor sketch was anywhere to be seen; every stroke was drawn with care. And when the traveller asked the guide for an explanation of the whole process, the latter remarked, “The imagination is of itself a vague inconstant faculty, whilst the whole merit of the plastic artist consists in this, namely, in learning ever more and more to define and grasp it firmly, nay, even at last to elevate it to the level of the present.”
He was reminded of the necessity in other arts of more certain principles. “Would the musician allow a pupil to strike wildly at the strings, or to invent intervals according to his own caprice and pleasure? Here it is remarkable that nothing is to be left to the learner’s discretion. The element in which he is to work is given definitely, the tool that he has to handle is placed in his hand, the very style and method by which he is to avail himself of them (I mean the fingering) he finds prescribed, by which one member gets out of the way of another, and gets the proper road ready for its successor, by which orderly co-operation alone the impossible becomes possible at last. But what mostly justifies us in strict demands and definite laws, is that it is precisely genius, the inborn talent, that grasps them first, and yields them the most willing obedience. Only mediocrity would fain substitute its limited specialty for the unlimited whole, and glorify its false ideas under the pretence of an incontrollable originality and independence. This, however, we do not let pass, but we protect our pupils against all false steps, whereby a great part of life, nay, often the whole life, is confused and broken up. With the genius we love best to deal, for he is specially inspired with the good spirit of recognizing quickly what is useful to him. He sees that Art is called Art, precisely because it is not Nature; he accommodates himself to the proper respect even for that which might be called conventional, for what else is this but that the best men have agreed to regard the necessary, the inevitable, as the best? And is it not successful in every case? To the great assistance of the teachers, the three reverences and their symbols are introduced and inculcated here too, as everywhere with us, with some variation in conformity with the nature of the business that prevails.”
As the traveller was led further around, he was constrained to wonder at the fact, that the city seemed to extend itself forever, streets growing out of streets, and affording numberless fine views. The exterior of the buildings expressed their object unambiguously: they were substantial and imposing, less showy than beautiful. After the nobler and more solemn one in the middle of the town, came those of more cheerful aspect, until at last charming suburbs, of a graceful character, spread away towards the open country, dwindling away finally in the shape of country villas.
The traveller could not avoid remarking here that the habitations of the musicians in the preceding region were, in respect to beauty and size, in no way to be compared with the present ones in which painters, sculptors and architects dwelt. The answer given to him was that this lay in the nature of things. The musician must always be absorbed within himself, to shape out his inmost thought and to bring it forth. He has not to flatter the sense of sight; the eye very easily supplants the ear, and tempts outward the spirit from within. The plastic artist, on the contrary, must live in the outer world, and make his inner nature manifest, as it were unconsciously, on and in the external world. Plastic artists must live like kings and gods; how otherwise would they build and adorn for kings and gods? They must at last raise themselves above the ordinary so far that the whole community may feel honored in and by their works.
Our friend then desired the explanation of another paradox—why is it that just on these festivals, which in other regions are such lively and tumultuously excited days, here the greatest quiet prevails, and work is not even exhibited.
“A plastic artist,” he said, “requires no festival; to him the whole year is a festival. When he has accomplished anything excellent, it stands afterwards, as it did before, in his sight and in the sight of the whole world. In this no repetition is needed, no new effort, no fresh success, such as the musician is forever tormented by: who for that reason is not to be grudged the most splendid festival amidst the most numerous audience.”
“But yet,” replied Wilhelm, “on days like this one would be glad to see an exhibition in which the three years’ progress of the best pupils might be examined and criticised with pleasure.”
“In other places,” he was told, “an exhibition may be necessary; with us it is not; our whole end and aim is exhibition. Look here at the buildings of every sort, all carried out by pupils; after plans, discussed and revised, it is true, a hundred times; for one who builds must not potter about and make experiments. What has to remain standing, must stand well, and suffice, if not for eternity, at any rate for a considerable time. We may commit ever so many faults, but we must not build any. With sculptors we deal a little more leniently, most leniently of all with painters; they may experiment, here and there, each in his own style. It is open to them to choose in the inside or outside spaces of buildings, in the open squares, a spot which they will decorate. They make their ideas public, and, if one is in any degree worthy of approbation, the execution is agreed to; but in one of two ways—either with the privilege of taking the work away, sooner or later, should it cease to please the artist himself, or with the condition of leaving the work, when once set up, irremovably in its place. The most choose the former, and reserve the privilege for themselves, in which they are always well advised. The second case seldom occurs; and it is observable that the artists then rely less upon themselves, hold long conferences with their comrades and critics, and by that means manage to produce works really worthy of being valued and made permanent.”
After all this, Wilhelm did not neglect to inquire what other instruction was given besides, and he was informed that this consisted of poetry, and in fact of epic poetry.
Yet it must needs appear strange to our friend when they added that the pupils are not allowed to read or to recite the completed poems of ancient and modern poets. “Merely a series of myths, traditions and legends is briefly imparted to them. Thus we soon recognize by pictorial or poetic expression, the special productive power of the genius devoted to one or the other art. Poets and artists both occupy themselves at the same well-spring, and each one tries to guide the stream towards his own side for his own advantage, so as to attain his end according to his requirements; at which he succeeds much better than if he set about making over again what has been made already.”
The traveller had an opportunity of seeing the process himself. Several painters were busy in one room; a lively young companion was telling a quite simple story very circumstantially, so that he employed almost as many words as they did pencil-strokes to complete his exposition in the most rounded style possible.
They assured Wilhelm that in their joint work the friends entertained themselves very pleasantly, and that in this way improvisators were often developed who were able to arouse great enthusiasm in the twofold representation.
Our friend now turned his inquiries again to plastic art. “You have,” he said, “no exhibition, and, consequently, I suppose, no award of prizes.”
“We have not in point of fact,” replied the other; “but quite close by here, we can let you see what we regard as more useful.”
They turned into a large hall, lighted with good effect from above. A large circle of busy artists was first seen, from the midst of whom a colossal group, favorably placed, reared itself. Vigorous male and female forms, in powerful poses, reminded one of that splendid fight between youthful heroes and Amazons, in which hate and animosity at last resolve themselves into mutual and faithful alliance. This remarkably involved piece of art-work was seen to equal advantage from any point around it. Artists were sitting and standing in a large circle, each occupied after his own fashion: the painter at his easel, the draughtsman at his drawing-board, some modelling in the round, some in bas-relief; architects were even making drawings for the pedestal, upon which a similar work of art was afterwards to be placed. Every one taking part in it adopted his own method in copying. Painters and draughtsmen developed the group in the flat, carefully, indeed, so as not to spoil it, but to give as much as possible. The work in bas-relief was treated in precisely the same manner. Only one had reproduced the whole group on a smaller scale, and, in certain movements and arrangement of members, he really seemed to have surpassed the model.
It now appeared that this was the designer of the model, who, before its execution in marble, was now submitting it not to a critical but to a practical test; and who, by taking accurate note of everything that each of his fellow-workers, according to his own method and way of thinking, saw, preserved, or altered in it, was enabled to turn it to his own advantage; with this object, that ultimately, when the perfect work should come forth chiselled in marble, though undertaken, designed, and executed by only one, yet still it might seem to belong to all.
In this room, too, the greatest silence reigned; but the director raised his voice and cried, “Who is there here, who, in the presence of this motionless work, can so move the imagination with the excellence of his words that all that we can see transfixed here, shall again become resolved without losing its character, so that we may convince ourselves that what the artist has here laid hold of is indeed the worthiest.”
Expressly called on by them all, a beautiful youth left his work, and began by delivering a quiet discourse, in which he seemed merely to describe the present work, but soon he threw himself into the peculiar region of poetry, plunged into the midst of the action, and controlled this element to a marvel. Little by little his rendering was elevated by brilliant declamation, to such a height that the rigid group seemed to turn upon its axis, and the number of the figures seemed thereby doubled and trebled. Wilhelm stood enraptured, and at last cried, “Who can longer refrain from passing on into actual song and rhythmic verse?”
“This I would beg to refuse,” replied the overseer; “for if our excellent sculptor will speak sincerely, he will confess that our poet hardly pleases him, and simply because the two artists stand as far as possible from one another: on the other hand, I would wager that here and there a painter has appropriated from him certain living traits. Yet there is a gentle kindly song that I might allow our friend to hear, one that you deliver with such sweet seriousness: it relates to art as a whole, and does me good myself whenever I hear it.”
After a pause, in which they beckoned to each other, and made arrangements by signs, the following fine heart and spirit-stirring song resounded from all sides:—
Wilhelm might well have let all this pass, although it must have seemed to him very paradoxical, and, had he not seen it with his eyes, actually impossible. But when they proceeded, in beautiful sequence, to declare and make it all clear to him openly and frankly, he hardly needed to ask a single question for further information; yet he did not forbear, at last, to address his conductor as follows:
“I see that here everything desirable in life has been provided for very wisely, but tell me, besides, which region can manifest a similar solicitude for dramatic poetry, and where might I gain information on that subject. I have looked round amongst all your edifices, and find none that could be destined for such an object.”
“In reply to this question we cannot deny that there is nothing of the sort to be met with in the whole of our province, for the theatre presupposes an idle crowd, perhaps even a rabble, the like of which is not to be found amongst us; for such people, if they do not go away disgusted, of their own accord, are conveyed across the frontier. Be assured, however, that in our universally active institution so important a point as this has been well considered; but no region could be found for it; some weighty objection occurred in every case. Who is there amongst our pupils who would have easily made up his mind to awaken in this mass, with feigned merriment or hypocritical sorrow, an unreal emotion inconsistent with the time, and thereby produce in alterations an ever-dubious pleasure? Such foolishness we considered altogether dangerous, and could not connect it with our serious aim.”
“And yet it is said,” replied Wilhelm, “that this widely-encompassing art requires all the others together.”
“Not at all,” was the reply; “she makes use of the others, but spoils them. I do not blame the actor when he associates himself with the painter, but still the painter, in such a partnership, is lost. The actor, without any conscience, will, for his own momentary ends, and with no small profit, use up all that art and life offer him; the painter, on the other hand, who would reap some advantage again from the theatre, will always find himself at a disadvantage, and the musician will be in the same case. The arts seem to me like so many sisters, of whom the greater number have been disposed to economy, but one of trivial disposition has had a mind to appropriate the possessions and property of the whole family. The theatre is in this situation: it has an ambiguous origin, which, whether as art or handicraft or dilettanteism, it can never wholly disguise.”
Wilhelm looked down with a deep sigh, for all the enjoyment and the sorrow that he had had from and on the stage, was suddenly present to him. He blessed the good men who were wise enough to spare their pupils such pain, who, from conviction and principle, banished these perils from their circle.
His conductor, however, did not leave him long to these meditations, but proceeded: “As it is our highest and holiest principle to misdirect no disposition or talent, we cannot hide from ourselves the fact, that amongst so great a number a natural mimetic gift may very likely be decisively displayed. This, however, shows itself in an irrepressible desire to ape the characters, figures, motion and speech of others. This we do not encourage, it is true, but we observe the pupil carefully, and if he remains throughout true to his nature, we have put ourselves in connection with the large theatres of all nations, and thither we send anyone of tried capacity, in order that, like the duck upon the pond, he may with all speed be guided on the stage to the future waddling and quacking of his life.”
Wilhelm listened to this with patience, yet only with partial conviction, and perhaps with some annoyance; for so wonderfully is man minded, that whilst he is really persuaded of the worthlessness of some favorite subject or other, and will turn away from, and even execrate himself, yet still he will not bear to have it treated in the same way by anyone else, and probably the spirit of contradiction which dwells in all mankind is never more vigorously and effectively excited than in such a case.
The editor of these papers may even confess that he allows this wonderful passage to pass with some reluctance. Has he not, too, in many senses devoted more than a due share of life and strength to the theatre? and would it be easy to convince him that this has been an inexcusable error, a fruitless exertion?
However, we have not time to apply ourselves ill-humoredly to such recollections and underlying feelings, for our friend finds himself agreeably surprised on seeing before him, once more, one of the Three, and one especially sympathetic. A communicative gentleness, telling of the purest peace of soul, imparted itself most revivingly: the Wanderer could approach him trustfully, and feel that his trust was returned.
He now learned that the Superior was at present in the sanctuary, and was there instructing, teaching and blessing, whilst the Three arranged severally to visit all the regions, and in every place—after obtaining the most minute information, and arranging with the subordinate overseers to carry forward what had been begun—to establish what had been newly determined, and thus faithfully fulfil their high duty.
This excellent man it was, who gave him a more general view of their internal economy, and external connections, as well as a knowledge of the reciprocal effect of all the different regions; nor did he fail to make clear how a pupil could be transferred from one to the other after a longer or shorter period. Enough, everything fully harmonized with what he already knew. At the same time, the account given of his son was a source of great satisfaction, and the plan on which they intended to proceed with him must needs obtain his entire approbation.