Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Marc Redfield has written an ambitious, challenging and closely argued book with a scope extending even beyond what its title may suggest. While focusing in the German tradition of the Bildungsroman, or novel of education, it engages the whole significance of aesthetics in Western culture since the Enlightenment and, through this in turn, the nature of the modem literary academy and the recent function of literary theory within it. The argument draws deftly on a formidable knowledge of relevant debates and contexts.
The term Bildungsroman has suffered a peculiar bifurcation. Outside specialist Germanist circles it has become to mean, as for example in Franco Moretti's The Way of the World, any novel involving the moral and emotional development of a main character. This makes it almost uselessly general. At the same time, the small familiar list of German novels to which it otherwise refers has itself been repeatedly adduced to question whether they truly constitute a substantial genre, or a common project, at all. Marc Redfield argues from this the 'Phantom' nature of the genre and, through that in turn, of the formative project of Bildung on which the acceptance of the genre normally relies. Indeed, he sees the German Bildungsroman, classically instantiated in Goethe's Wilhem Meister novels, as revealing the ideological loading and internal difficulties of the whole ideal of aesthetic education which has effectively underwritten institutional literary study in Europe and America ever since. The nub of the matter is the aspiration to disinterested aesthetic judgement and appreciation which was given its most eloquent expression in Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters (1796). In the British tradition this ideal of disinterestedness had its most influential purveyor in Matthew Arnold.