Academic journal article German Quarterly

Beyond the Wandering Jew: Anti-Semitism and Narrative Supersession in Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Beyond the Wandering Jew: Anti-Semitism and Narrative Supersession in Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre

Article excerpt

Interpreters of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre have long been at odds over how to approach several anti-Semitic passages, especially in light of the pervasive irony and narrative perspectivism of the novel. This article identifies a paradoxical logic linking those anti-Semitic passages to the novel's ideal of wandering as an ironic, anti-essentialist, existential outlook. In articulating his own stance toward semiotics, ethics, and temporality, Goethe finds himself in competition with important philosophical conceptions associated with Judaism. Thus the novel engages in a variation on the Christian narrative of supersession: Wilhelm's modern brand of wandering supersedes a Jewish wandering cast as empty and disoriented. In constructing this narrative, Goethe systematically suppresses his kinship with certain profoundly modern aspects of Judaism recognized by his contemporaries.

One of the persistent interpretive challenges for readers of Goethe's late novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre1 is to make sense of its several anti-Semitic passages. These passages range in their vehemence from studied indifference to a stance of complete separatism toward the Jews. One of the strongest pronouncements, for example, comes up in a plan developed by the league of emigrants heading to America: the new society is to remain culturally bound to the figure of Christ, and therefore "wir dulden keine Juden unter uns" (FA 1.10: 687).

What is a reader of an author as complex as Goethe to do with such passages? Past criticism provides no clear answers. While Goethe's ambivalent relationship to Judaism has received substantial scholarly attention recently, studies tend to draw on a range of historical and biographical materials rather than on his works of a strictly literary nature.2 This critical reserve toward Goethe's literary representations of Judaism stems perhaps from a recognition of the profound, often systemic irony of much of his writing. And indeed, nowhere is the irony more pervasive and the interpretive dilemma more acute than in the Wanderjahre. Interpreters of this novel have long been wary of any readings that seek to cut across the contradictory contexts, disparate perspectives, and playful insertions-what Swales calls the novel's "postmodern universe of pantextuality"3-in order to arrive at a unified interpretation.

Among readers who emphasize the novel's fundamentally disparate character, Benjamin Bennett is perhaps unique in his effort to integrate these anti-Semitic passages into a view of the novel's overarching ironic strategies. Bennett understands the novel as radically subversive, in fact as "nothing but subversive with respect to anything that might be claimed as its content" (emphasis in original).4 The logical outcome of this all-pervasive irony is our ultimate identification as readers with the excluded category-the Jews. Bennett reasons that: "... only the Jews-precisely in being unequivocally (and arbitrarily) rejected-can operate as a sign for the actual reading community."5 Yet for many readers, Bennett's argument may not counter the blunt force of some of these passages. Indeed, critics such as Bahr and Dowden, who also emphasize the novel's thoroughgoing irony, still express their strong consternation towards these apparently anti-Semitic instances.6

I propose a reading of the novel that takes account of its representational sophistication but does not dissolve the anti-Semitic moments into a sea of irony. While I appreciate and will not seek to refute the evidence for a radically perspectivist approach to this work, I nevertheless read across the novel, culling my material from diverse contexts in order to describe an overarching pattern. I begin by assuming that wandering, as a complex, variegated, existential condition, functions as a meta-ideal in the novel. That is, even the novel's irony, its semiotic indeterminacy, its narrative perspectivism, anti-essentialism, and cosmopolitanism fall under the trope of the wanderer. …

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