About Immature and Mature Artists : A Tale of two Wilhelms

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.  

It is true to say that Mr. Meister’s soul-cleansing experience appears to be somewhat milder than that of Mr. Wilhelm. He never breaks down the way Tommy does. But Mr. Meister’s moment of crisis is definitely there. It is there when he sees the shortcomings of the theater (see footnote **). It is there when he experiences the death of Mignon.  And it is most certainly there when he understands that he needs to own up to his obligations as a father to his son Felix. (see footnote ***)

No, there can be no doubt that both Goethe and Bellow concur in the need for an existential shakedown in the making of a mature and sound artist and human being. Poetry alone won’t do the trick. Some hard-knuckle reality check is indispensable to get there. In this respect, Novalis gets it wrong if he should believe that Goethe’s Meister kills the poetic profession for good. He just kills the lofty segment of it.

The lingering question with respect to the two Wilhelms is therefore not whether a poetic calling is relevant or not but much rather how subject poetic calling should actually be lived in order to be a quality one. Goethe clearly suggests that for some artists it is probably better to leave the art world in order to make a decent and responsible living outside of it. He clearly isn’t saying that all artists should do that. But those who don’t know anything else but the arts probably should.

In the case of Tommy Wilhelm, we simply don’t know what’s next for him after he had his existential reckoning. Bellow doesn’t provide an answer here. There are clues in the text that have us think that Tommy will most likely try to regain his earlier job at the Rojax Corporation which he had left at the time due to hurt feelings about a promotion he was not given back then. But there is no clarity here. Bellow likely felt that such additional information wasn’t necessary since the US job market in the 50s still provided enough openings even for failed ex-artists. Obviously that is no longer the case nowadays. Permanent positions are hard to come by even for those of us who, like Wilhelm Meister’s brother in law Werner, have no higher priority in life than to generate a stable and steady income for themselves.

For most Wilhelm Meisters and Wilhelm Adlers of our time the poetic endeavor soon turns into an all or nothing scheme.  There are no tower societies anymore to protect you. And neither will you still be able to find a night watchman position, the sort of which Mr. Bonaventura aka August Klingemann fictitiously held in 1805 when writing the following lines:

“Oh, you, you [poet] who is prowling around up there, I understand you well, for I was once one of your kind! But I have given up this employment against an honest craft that feeds its man, and that for those who know how to find it is by no means without poetry. I have been send your way like a satirical jester to interrupt your dreams of immortality, which you harbor up there in the air, and to remind you down here on earth of the flow time and transience. We are both night watchmen; It is a pity only that your vigils earn you nothing in this cold prosaic time, while mine still generate at least something. When I still wrote poetry at night, as you do now, I had to go hungry, like you, and sing to deaf ears; Although I’m still doing the latter now, I am getting at least paid for it. O my poetic friend, those who want to live now, must not write! But if you are born to sing and you cannot refrain from doing so, then you should become a night watchman, like me, because this is still the only solid post where you’ll get paid, and you will not starve to death. – Good night, Brother Poet.

August Klingemann: Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura, Erste Nachtwache (Translation provided by Noah denkt™, for the original German version please see footnote ****)

So the situation is bleak my friend. But at least you may well have had your first Jesus Christ-all-is-lost-moment already. So, you will be no stranger to that.  Perhaps this will help you to get through next spasm of existential angst as well.  Because another one of these will most certainly come again ….


Footnote *: The Spanish language edition of Seize the Day that we have worked from puts it like this: “El alma verdadera es la que debe pagar.  Sufre y se consume, y se da cuenta de que el alma falsa no puede ser amada. Porque es una impostura. Al alma verdadera le gusta la verdad. Y cuando el alma verdadera se encuentra en ese estado quiere matar al alma falsa. El amor se ha convertido en odio. Entonces nos volvemos peligrosos. Somos capaces de asesinar. Hay que matar a quien nos engaña.  (…) En realidad es usted un a personalidad profunda y posee grandes capacidades creativas, pero también padece trastornos emocionales.

Saul Bellow, Carpe Diem, translated by Benito Gómez Ibañez, Galaxia Gutenberg, Mexico, 2013 pages 127 – 130

Footnote **:  Here is our own translation of what Wilhelm says about the world of theater into which  he has by now lost faith. (You’ll find the original German text here: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Siebentes Buch, Drittes Kapitel, (http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/wilhelm-meisters-lehrjahre-3669/93))

“I am punished enough! “exclaimed Wilhelm,” do not remind me where I come from and where I am going. There is a lot of talk about the theater, but those who were not there themselves cannot imagine how it really is. How completely these people do not know themselves, how they do their business without thinking, how their demands are without limits, you simply have no idea how bad it is.  Not only does everyone want to be in the limelight, but everybody wants to be the only one in there, everyone would like to exclude all the rest and does not see that he hardly achieves anything even when cooperating with the others; everyone deems himself to be miraculously original and is incapable of realizing that it’s just laziness that characterizes him; everybody is in perpetual restlessness after something new. How much violence do they exert against each other! And only the pettiest self-love and the most limited self-interest have them work with each other. Forget mutually benevolent cooperation; an eternal mistrust is prevalent animated by secret deceit and shameful speech; who does not live in a lewd manner, lives in a silly one. Everyone expects the utmost respect, everyone is sensitive to the slightest blame. Everybody knew everything better that better right from the start! And why did he/she always do the opposite then? Always needy and always without confidence, it seems as if they were afraid of nothing so much as of reason and good taste, and seeking nothing so much as the majesty of their personal caprice.

Footnote ***: Here is Wilhelm reflecting on his absence so far as a parent to his son Felix. Later the narrator shows us how Wilhelm is slowly emerging from a Tommy-Wilhelm-type of crisis. Again this is our own perhaps flawed translation from the original text. You’ll find the original German exerpt here:

JW Goethe: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Achtes Buch, Erstes Kapitel, (http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/wilhelm-meisters-lehrjahre-3669/103)

When Wilhelm considered how little he had so far done for Felix, and how little he was capable of accomplishing, he became so restless that his whole happiness was disturbed.  “Are we then so selfish by nature,” he would whisper to himself, “that we are incapable of caring for any being but ourselves? Is my conduct towards Felix different from what it was towards Mignon? I engaged the child’s affections, his presence delighted me, and afterwards I cruelly neglected him. What have I done for his education, about which I evinced such anxiety? Nothing. I left him to himself, or exposed him to all the accidents which could befall him in the coarse society of uneducated men. And now for this boy, who was so interesting to me before I knew his value, has my heart ever required me to render him the smallest service? It is now too late to waste my own time, or that of others — I must take courage and think how I should labor for myself, and for the kind creature, to whom I am so warmly attached by the ties of nature and affection.” (…)

It cannot be without a feeling of awe, that a noble mind should hear a full and candid revelation of his whole past history. Every period of transition is a crisis, and there can be no crisis without a disease. How unwillingly do we survey ourselves in the mirror, after having suffered from a long illness ! We feel that our health is restored, but we see only the effects of the past illness. Wilhelm, however, was sufficiently prepared — events had already spoken to him loudly — his friends had never spared him, and even if he now unrolled the parchment with unseemly haste, his mind became more and more tranquil the farther he perused. He saw the various scenes of his past life delineated with a few bold sharp strokes, and neither trivial events nor narrow thoughts perplexed his view, but the most generous reflections instructed him, without rendering him ashamed. He now beheld his picture for the first time —not, indeed, his second self—as in a mirror, but his other self, as in a portrait, and though such likenesses may not resemble us in every feature, we rejoice at having been so well understood and represented by genius and talent, that an image of ourselves exists, and may endure when we ourselves have passed away.

Footnote ****:  Our translation above is based on the following quote in German

“O du, der du da oben dich herumtreibst, ich verstehe dich wohl, denn ich war einst deinesgleichen! Aber ich habe diese Beschäftigung aufgegeben gegen ein ehrliches Handwerk, das seinen Mann ernährt, und das für denjenigen, der sie darin aufzufinden weiß, doch keinesweges ganz ohne Poesie ist. Ich bin dir gleichsam wie ein satirischer Stentor in den Weg gestellt und unterbreche deine Träume von Unsterblichkeit, die du da oben in der Luft träumst, hier unten auf der Erde regelmäßig durch die Erinnerung an die Zeit und Vergänglichkeit. Nachtwächter sind wir zwar beide; schade nur daß dir deine Nachtwachen in dieser kalt prosaischen Zeit nichts einbringen, indeß die meinigen doch immer ein Übriges abwerfen. Als ich noch in der Nacht poesirte, wie du, mußte ich hungern, wie du, und sang tauben Ohren; das letzte thue ich zwar noch jetzt, aber man bezahlt mich dafür. O Freund Poet, wer jezt leben will, der darf nicht dichten! Ist dir aber das Singen angebohren, und kannst du es durchaus nicht unterlassen, nun so werde Nachtwächter, wie ich, das ist noch der einzige solide Posten wo es bezahlt wird, und man dich nicht dabei verhungern läßt. – Gute Nacht, Bruder Poet.”

August Klingemann: Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura, Erste Nachtwache


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