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“From Haunting Visions to Revealing (Self-) Reflections: The Goethean Hero between Subject and Object”

Hellmut Ammerlahn, “From Haunting Visions to Revealing (Self-) Reflections: The Goethean Hero between Subject and Object,” in: Goethe’s Ghosts. Reading and the Persistence of Literature. Eds. Simon Richter and Richard Block. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013, 97-108.

The essay juxtaposes four character conflicts taken from Goethe’s dramas – Faust I, Iphigenie auf Tauris, Torquato Tasso, and Die natürliche Tochter – and briefly demonstrates how in each case excessive initial subjectivity leading to misjudgments and traumas is conquered by an object-oriented maturation process. Nowhere except in his autobiographies has Goethe provided a more penetrating and comprehensive exploration of the various stages of human and artistic development from subjectivism to the approximation of objective truth than in his Bildungsroman of the poet’s creative imagination, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.

In conjunction with his concept of “antwortende Gegenbilder” (responding counter-images), the author uses a favorite and central device to depict the various stages of regression or progress during the hero’s journey, namely, the figure of the “Doppelgänger” (double). The essay analyzes three major categories in the novel: the hero’s a) self-created doubles (e.g. Mignon), b) doubles for identification and opposition (e.g. Hamlet, Laertes), and c) complementary doubles (e.g. the members of the Tower Society and Natalie). As the structure of the novel reveals, Natalie plays a very active role, not only as the goal of Wilhelm’s cognitive quest, but as the personification of an aesthetic and social ideal of archetypal nature, the ultimate guide toward the hero’s ability to master his creative imagination.

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