Bildungsspiele: Vicissitudes of socialization in Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship

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This essay scrutinizes the narrative logic of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796), widely regarded as the most paradigmatic instance of the European Bildungsroman. Of particular concern is whether the formal and psychological self-organization of Goethe's narrative and its protagonist can still be articulated as an entelechy, that is, as a manifestation of a teleological framework whose (ontological) authority is absolute and independent of its fulfilment by a specific narrative. Focusing on the ubiquity of "play" (Spiel) throughout the novel, this essay concludes that, appearances notwithstanding, the Aristotelian/Thomist framework is no longer operative in Goethe's novel. Rather, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship - herein differing from Goethe's botanical writings of the same period - presents us with an emergentist rather than teleological model of narrative rationality, that is, a progression that is neither predictable nor susceptible of repetition. © 2010 Taylor & Francis.






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Pfau, T (2010). Bildungsspiele: Vicissitudes of socialization in Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship. European Romantic Review, 21(5). pp. 567–587. 10.1080/10509585.2010.499006 Retrieved from

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Thomas Pfau

Alice Mary Baldwin Distinguished Professor of English

"THOMAS PFAU (PhD 1989, SUNY Buffalo) is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English, with a secondary appointment in the Divinity School at Duke University. He has published some fifty essays on literary, philosophical, and theological subjects ranging from the 18ththrough the early 20th century. In addition to two translations, of Hölderlin and Schelling (SUNY Press, 1987 and 1994), he has also edited seven essay collections and special journal issues and is the author of four monographs: Wordsworth’s Profession (Stanford UP 1997), Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, Melancholy, 1790-1840 (Johns Hopkins UP 2005) Minding the Modern: Intellectual Traditions, Human Agency, and Responsible Knowledge (Notre Dame UP, 2013), and Incomprehensible Certainty: Metaphysics and Hermeneutics of the Image (Notre Dame UP, 2022). He in the early stages of a new book project focused on the relationship between poetry and theology from 1800 to the present.

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