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  • Figure And Ground In Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
  • Christopher S. Wood

Many passages in J. W. Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, especially in its first two books, set forth little theories of art, representation, or mimesis. My topic here is a proposition about the right relation between a figure and a ground, formulated by the normally unreflective actress Philine. In book 2, chapter 4, Philine asserts that we are inclined to respond to a moving body directly, as an instance of movement as such, before grasping the body in its formal relation to non-movement—before seeing it as a figure against a ground, in other words. Philine is speaking about a dancer, but her doctrine also has implications for literary fiction and especially for the genre, still undertheorized at the time, which hosts her character: the novel. For her thesis can be translated into a thesis about the relation of a literary character to its narrative context.

Philine, like her more mysterious colleague Mignon, also an adept dancer, enters the novel in book 2, chapter 4. Philine promises Wilhelm Meister and his new friend, the actor Laertes, an outing and a midday meal at a hunter's lodge in the forest. When the men arrive to fetch her at her quarters, they learn that she has already departed in a coach with two strangers. Wilhelm, although his acquaintance with Philine is only a day old, is not happy to have been stood up.

In her unreliability Philine bursts like an arabesque upon a flat and fixed surface of pragmatism, matter-of-factness, probity, and expectations that effects will follow causes: the background assumptions of the novel's world. Reliability was the first principle of Wilhelm's parents' world, the youthful Goethe's world. Philine the actress-adventuress is recognizable as a figure against the homogeneous ground of bourgeois and mercantile society, as if such figures were only recognizable against a ground, defined negatively. Philine herself, with her theory of the figure, will protest against this imputation of negativity.

Philine is one who punctuates her own ongoing performative life with songs and dances, performances within performances. Philine's capers and lyric outbursts, her garland-weaving and coquetries, are topoi copied from the unreal, pre-bourgeois textual worlds of pastoral [End Page 399] and romance. She functions within the novel as a figure—a signature or shorthand—of a textual archive located behind the novel. She is a readymade figure for the devices of surprise that once impelled the plots of romance. Philine recalls those devices by dancing, singing, flirting, and showing up late. For all the force of the character's enactment of animated arbitrariness, Philine is not arbitrary at all. Within the fiction, in Wilhelm's eyes, she is an original; seen from outside the fiction, by an experienced reader, she is conventional, a visitant from archaic textual spheres. The literary pedigree of the character Philine is in conflict with the forms of life that her character embodies inside the fiction: spontaneity, ludic inventiveness, discontinuity, but also authenticity, the condition of being non-derived and non-conventional.1

When the youths catch up with Philine, she is sitting at a stone table in a grove of ancient trees, near a spring. She greets them operatically, with a lustiges Liedchen, a "merry little song."2 Philine offers an amusing explanation and the antic atmosphere, not unlike that of certain sequences of François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962), is quickly restored. Philine with her turns and songbursts is profiled against the omniscient narrator's mostly nonfigural, rhetorically plain diegetic language. Figurality in the rhetorical sense is reduced in Goethe's novel. But if the figure as verbal pattern disappears, one might say that it reappears in Goethe's novel as an elusive, turning body, or more precisely as the textual picture of such a body. Philine's lithe image bursts onto the scene of writing. By displacing figurality from the diegetic plane of his text onto one of the characters summoned by that diegesis, Goethe recharges the metaphor of the rhetorical figure.3

If Philine enacts one theory of art, she expounds another:

A young man from the...


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