[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, Amrine suggests that, despite appearances to the contrary, Goethe actively worked to endow the Wilhelm Meister’s Travels with an ideal “Romance form” that could capture “unity-in-diversity.” The novellas, asides, and aphorisms that fill the work are likened variously to counterpoint and polyphony in music and to interlaced motifs in the visual arts.]
In a letter to Göttling of January 1829, Goethe compared the novel he was straining to complete to a “sisyphischer Stein” that he hoped soon to push over the summit and roll toward the public.1 Predictably, Goethe’s readers have for the most part merely scurried out of the way. Interpreters of the Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre], attempting to roll this great boulder of a novel back uphill to see whence it came, have all too often abandoned the Sisyphean task in utter frustration.
Numerous critics have turned to the Wanderjahre seeking a coherent formal or structural principle only to come away convinced that there is none to be found. In his history of the novel of the Goethezeit, H. H. Borcherdt has given the novel a chapter apart, as an anomaly;2 Hermann Broch and Ehrhard Bahr have seen the Wanderjahre as an “experimental novel” anticipating modernism’s total break with traditional genre forms.3 The long-prevailing view of the Wanderjahre is presented succinctly by Emil Staiger, who suggests that the unity of the work lies somehow “jenseits des Romans” and is to be supplied by the reader, but also, less charitably, that the work’s disunity represents “ein Zeichen des Verlusts an Kraft … den das hohe Alter bringt. Die Energie reicht nicht mehr aus, ein weitgedehntes Ganzes bestimmt und folgerichtig durchzubilden.”4 He goes on to conclude that one can find grounds for reading any interpretation into the novel: all interpretations, and none, are justified in what Staiger sees as a situation of utter formal ambiguity and ambivalence.5 Certain of Goethe’s own pronouncements upon the two versions of the Wanderjahre (some of which Staiger quotes) might well seem at first glance to support such a contention.6
I would like to argue, however, that such statements on Goethe’s part must not be taken as apologies for formlessness, but rather as descriptions of a kind of formal unity different from that which Goethe’s contemporaries had come to expect in a novel: warnings that the form of the Wanderjahre was of a different order altogether, and that the novel thus had to be read in a different way. Contemporary readers also failed to find any unifying principle in the Wanderjahre, but Goethe himself saw it differently: he wrote of a “romantischer Faden” running through the work, weaving it together into a “wunderlich anziehendes Ganze.”7 To one correspondent who had criticized the “disunity” of the first version, Goethe replied rather defensively:Daß Sie ihre Ungeduld bei’m Wiederlesen der Wanderjahre gezügelt haben, freut mich sehr. Zusammenhang, Ziel und Zweck liegt innerhalb des Büchleins selbst; ist es nicht aus einem Stück, so...