Wilhelm Meister (J W Goethe) meets Wilhelm Adler (Saul Bellow) and others
Standing a little apart, Wilhelm began to cry. He cried at first softly and from sentiment, but soon from deeper feeling. He sobbed loudly and his face grew distorted and hot, and the tears stung his skin. A man—another human creature, was what first went through his thoughts, but other and different things were torn from him. What’ll I do? I’m stripped and kicked out . . . Oh, Father? What do I ask of you? What’ll I do about the kids—Tommy, Paul? My children. And Olive? My dear. Why, why, why—you must protect me against that devil who wants my life. (…)
The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s blind, wet eyes; the heavy sea-like music came up to his ears. It poured into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day, 1956
You’ll get right away why the following story caught our attention and why we ran with it. After all, it’s a tale of two Bills, Wils or Wilhelms. Both of them dream of being famous. Both of them want to make in the art world. And both of them eventually leave the arts behind after having failed therein or having found it seriously wanting. We are talking here about Saul Bellow’s Wilhelm Adler, aka Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day (1956) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96). Obviously, there are serious differences between the two of them. Mr. Meister has a credible enthusiasm and interest in theater from Day 1 while Tommy gets into acting only after a fraudulent talent scout talks him into pursuing a screen actor’s career in Hollywood. And while Tommy fails in his Hollywood stint quite miserably, Mr. Meister does in fact have some noticeable success therein.
The bottom line however is that both protagonists enter the art world without having adequately reflected on themselves and without having had a serious immersion into the real world of labor before pursuing their artistic calling. In this they differ somewhat noticeably from Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800 /1802) which was crafted at the time to be a stellar counter-piece to Wilhelm Meister. Novalis felt that Goethe had put the validity and legitimacy of the poetic profession in such serious doubt through the publication of the Wilhelm Meister story that it bordered on destroying it altogether. Hence, Novalis’ attempt to rescue the dignity and indispensability of the poetic calling by offering an alternative pro-poetry piece to the Wilhelm Meister pitch. And there are in effect significant differences in the route that Mr. von Ofterdingen takes into the arts. He doesn’t jump into poetry right away. Instead he goes on a journey first which leads him to spend (albeit not enough) time in studying the military and commercial job reality before finally settling on becoming a writer. There is consequently a bit of a chance that Mr. von Ofterdingen will be exercising the poetic profession with a balanced mind and not fall victim therein of his own lofty and narcissistic needs. The latter is however exactly what happens to both Tommy Wilhelm and Wilhelm Meister. They are both driven by some shiny and woolly ideas of fame and beauty. And they both realize eventually that neither of the two can be had by way of an escapist pursuit.
In fact, Bellow is very convincing when pointing out in his novel that an earth-shaking Jesus Christ-all-is-lost moment (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27.46) is pretty much indispensable for any artist, and perhaps for any human being, to reach the sort of personal that is indeed necessary to provide a meaningful original contribution. “A true soul”, he (Bellow) has the otherwise quite ambivalent Dr. Tamkin say, “is the one who must pay. It suffers and consumes itself, and realizes that a false soul cannot be loved. Because it is an imposture. A true soul likes the truth. And when a true soul is in that state it wants to kill the false soul. Love has turned into hatred. It is then when we become dangerous. We are capable of killing. We have to kill who cheats us.” (p.128) And a few pages later Tamkin continues: “In reality, you have a deep personality and have great creative abilities, but you also have emotional disorders.” (p.130) (These quotes are our translation from a Spanish language edition of “Seize the Day”. See footnote *) In other words, Tommy, just like Mr. Meister, will first have to weed out and kill his “emotional disorders”, i.e. his narcissism in an “all-is-lost”-crisis before he can hope with some legitimacy that fate, reason and balance will ultimately be on his side. Continue reading