The Formula of Self-Formation: Bildung and Vospitanie in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Gorky's Mother

By Klaus, Eric J. | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

The Formula of Self-Formation: Bildung and Vospitanie in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and Gorky's Mother


Klaus, Eric J., Germano-Slavica


   "Let me put it quite succinctly: even as a youth I had the
   vague desire and intention to develop myself fully, myself
   as I am."--Wilhelm Meister from Wilhelm Meister's
   Apprenticeship

   "It is another life. All of you ... are also side by side.
   Suddenly people have become kin--I understand all-the
   words I don't understand; but everything else I
   understand, everything!"--Pelagueya Nilovna
   from Mother

The quotes above taken from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796) and Gorky's Mother (1906) reflect pregnant moments in the respective processes of self-formation depicted in these works. In their statements, both Wilhelm Meister and Pelagueya Nilovna articulate an instant of awakening, an epiphany along their paths of becoming complete, harmonious individuals. It is these processes of self-cultivation that are the focus of the current investigation. At first sight, it may seem counterintuitive to pursue this comparison. Indeed, there are intrinsic differences in the social, political, and philosophical climates in which these texts were produced. These differences notwithstanding, the novels in question delineate comparable courses of development that express each respective period's desire to form new, more perfect human beings.

The process of nurturing fully-realized individuals follows similar patterns in both situations. In the German tradition, the project of self-formation is termed Bildung, while the Russian version is vospitanie. Both projects claim humanist objectives and unfold according to a symbiotic relationship between intellectual and social activity. These processes do not restrict themselves to the formation of the individual. Indeed, they involve socially-oriented goals, according to which personal fulfillment engenders social felicity and vice versa. Finally, despite these lofty intentions, both programs reveal underlying hegemony that belies the grand humanistic goals they set for themselves.

I. Bildung--Germany's neo-humanistic pedagogical project

In the last third of the 18th century, there was a rebirth of interest in and valorization of Greek antiquity among the German-speaking intelligentsia. This rebirth, or neo-humanism, revolves around the belief that each individual possesses the capacity to cultivate those noble and lofty qualifies common to all human beings via art. The blueprint for the properly-formed individual was sought in the art works of antiquity, particularly in the forms and images of Hellenic sculpture. These statues constitute the physical manifestation of intellectual and spiritual ideals: power, balance, harmony, and beauty. These notions are echoed in the texts of numerous thinkers of the age, including Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1786), Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) and Karl Philip Moritz (1756-1793). (1)

The term Bildung is notoriously difficult to render adequately in English. (2) Its root, Bild, connotes a variety of meanings, including "image", "form", and "shape". Also, adding the suffix -ung implies both a state and a process. From these terms, there are a number of possible translations of Bildung, including "physical appearance", "form", "formation", "shape", and "education" to name a few. Bildung's etymological ambiguity and its complex genesis account for an intrinsic malleability of the term. (3) The framers of Bildung delineated this theory as a means of self-betterment and social improvement concurrent with and complementary to the program of neo-humanism. David Sorkin recognizes the interdependence of Bildung's pedagogical aims and its humanistic principles in his article on Wilhelm von Humboldt. Sorkin states that:

   Bildung was created by philosophers and belletrists who
   aestheticized religious and philosophical notions under
   the aegis of the Hellenic revival. It emerged with
   neohumanism in the 1790's and became Protestant
   Germany's secular social ideal. … 

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