I have been thinking a lot about Goethe's supposed modernity, and especially about why some people (I include myself here) find it so hard to read Wilhelm Meister. On the subject of modernity, I noticed in a recent issue of the TLS that even Dante has been drafted. The great Romance scholar E.R. Curtius declared the Commedia to be "the world drama of the Latin Middle Ages ... played out for the last time." According to reviewer David Robey, however, "few classics speak to the modern world as much as the Comedy." Among other books on Dante, Robey mentions A.N. Wilson's Dante in Love, which devotes a chapter to the English Victorian reception and of Dante's continuing relevance: the Comedy, according to Wilson, deals with "one of the central dilemmas of our times -- how we, having lost our common culture, can relate our inward preoccupations to the world of experience beyond us." Got that? (See also this link for Wilson on Dante.)
A contrasting view is offered by my recent subway reading, Arnold Hauser's wonderful volume Naturalism, Impressionism, and the Film Age. Even though Hauser is an art historian, literature is center stage in his accounts of the transformations of art history through the ages. He opens by contending that we moderns are cut off from the past, an "incision ... probably nowhere so deep as in literature, where the frontier between the older works which are merely of historical interest to us and those that arise from now onward ... represents the most remarkable breach in the whole history of art." He goes on to describe our separation from older works of literature as constituting an "unbridgeable gulf." Their interpretation requires "a special approach and a special effort on our part." Finally: "We read the works of older literature differently from those of our own age.
Hauser recognizes Goethe's achievement: Wilhelm Meister is the "first Bildungsroman in the strict sense of the word." He also writes that it is "the first important criticism of romanticism as a way of life." Its message is the "absolute sterility of the romantic turning away from reality: he [Goethe] emphasizes that one can only do the world justice if one is spiritually bound up with it, and that one can only reform it from inside."
Goethe lacked, however, the recognition that there is no peaceful reconciliation of the individual and a given social situation. Thus, we do not find in Wilhelm Meister what we have come to expect in novels since the 19th century, namely, the portrayal of a character within a "realistic" social milieu. While there are realistic elements in Wilhelm's milieu, he is not in conflict with it. He experiences some stumbles on his path, but in the end he sloughs off his immaturity and unrealistic expectations and follows the counsels of his betters in worldly knowledge. The novel does not give expression to what Hauser calls "the cultural problem of the age -- the antithesis between individualism and society." It was, says Hauser, Balzac and Stendhal who "saw the prevailing tensions much more acutely and judged the situation with a greater sense of reality than Goethe."
Even Goethe's most interesting novel (in my view), Elective Affinities, is psychological rather than sociological. I recall when I first read it many years ago that I was expecting a German version of Jane Austen in whose novels, according to Hauser, "social reality was the soil in which the characters were rooted," though society was not a problem that Austen "made any attempt to solve or interpret." Having grown up on the canonical 19th-century English novels, I recognized that Elective Affinities represented a different beast.
Hauser dates the creation of the realistic novel to 1830, which, in his estimation, is when the 19th century began. In the 1820s, when Goethe was still active (and exploring the concept of world literature), Balzac was writing plays and librettos for comic operas. It was only in 1832, the year of Goethe's death, that he embarked on the series of novels that would paint of portrait of "all aspects of society." Stendhal's The Red and the Black appeared in 1830. Though Goethe may have been familiar with it -- he kept up with current literary matters in France -- he was not likely to have been inspired by it at this late date.
Goethe was in any case opposed to "naturalism" in the arts, and I wonder if this opposition arose from a sense that society was beginning to make claims on the arts. Goethe was not writing for "society," for the middle class, for the newly emerging reading public, which wished to see its interests reflected in the arts. (That would be Dickens' bailiwick.) In this respect, The Sorrows of Young Werther makes a great exception in Goethe's career. After Weimar, his reading public was restricted to a small segment of the cultured class.
Picture credits: The Guardian; WyrdLight; Bing Crosby Media Archive