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Imagination and Truth. Goethe’s Bildungsroman of the Artist, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: Structures, Symbolism, Poetology

Hellmut Ammerlahn. Imagination und Wahrheit. Goethes Künstler-Bildungsroman "Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre": Struktur, Symbolik, Poetologie  (trl.: Imagination and Truth. Goethe's Bildungsroman and Artist Novel “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre”: Structure, Symbolism, Poetology). Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2003, hardcover, 448 pp.

The monograph presents a multi-faceted, cohesive, and comprehensive interpretation of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre in the context of Goethe’s works. The author’s nuanced concept of wholeness, as expressed in his aesthetic, epistemological and scientific writings, must be recognized as forming the basis of this, his classical masterpiece of fiction. All individual elements of the novel, including enigmatic characters such as Mignon and Harpist and their extraordinary Italian prehistory, reveal themselves as fully integrated into the thematic context and the structure of the whole. By employing hermeneutic principles of Gadamer and Heidegger to methodologically justify this approach to the novel, and by focusing on its interrelated symbolic networks, the monograph provides answers to questions that have hitherto been unresolved, such as:

  • Why does the elite, aristocratic Tower Society select as its protégé Wilhelm Meister, the seemingly passive son of a bourgeois merchant, and ultimately initiate him as a vital and essential member into their secret organization?
  • Why do Mignon and the Harpist, the lyrical voices in Wilhelm’s life, find their ultimate transformation or demise in the realms of Natalie’s castle and the Tower?
  • Why does Goethe integrate an entirely new motif sequence pertaining to the fine arts, such as the art collection of Wilhelm’s grandfather and the picture of the Sick Prince, into the final form of the novel? Why are these essential elements missing from his Theatrical Mission, the first version of Wilhelm’s endeavors, in the view of traditional scholarship the author’s “only artist novel”? Does this not indicate that Goethe’s Bildungsroman, which has been classified inconclusively for over 200 years, is concerned with much more than the vague notion of a general education?

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