When I closed this novel, I was exhilarated and overwhelmed. This is a great novel, strict and philosophical, as well as sensuous and wild. Wieland is an extraordinary reader and thinker as well as a great poet and novelist. There are good writers, and then there are great writers and then there are writers who were not of their time: writers whose work has been misread, misunderstood and largely misappreciated in their time, the most famous among which is probably Herman Melville. Another great example of an influential yet seriously underappreciated writer is Christoph Martin Wieland; his major work is the Geschichte des Agathon (History of Agathon). The Geschichte des Agathon influenced the German novel like few other books, and even today it baffles and fascinates; it’s both an excursus on theology, philosophy, morals and the limits and possibilities of the novel. Christoph Martin Wieland was born in 1733 and died in 1813, and in between he produced an inimitable body of work the depths of which have still not been plumbed. He published the Geschichte des Agathon in 1766, and three revisions during the next 34 years, the last of which appeared in 1800. I have read only the first version of it; it’s is the most influential, and from what I know about the other versions, most interesting, of the four.
To call Agathon a typical Bildungsroman is misleading because it is one of the very first -if not the first- specimen of the genre. Nevertheless, it is typical in many ways, in the sense that it tells of a young man’s coming of age, learning about himself and the world through hardships and patient teachers. Agathon is a character from Plato’s Symposion, and the novel is set in Plato’s time with key characters such as Plato, Dionysos of Syracuse and Hippias of Elis making appearances, some more important than others. Agathon is highly aware of the fact that its readers know about the references, in letters Wieland’s even quite dismissive of potential readers who are not educated enough. The awareness in Agathon means that it is endlessly self-referential, incessantly discussing its own nature as a text and its links to other texts. Sometimes it’s doing the latter playfully, as in its use of historical persons and replacements and shifts of their, well-known and publicized histories, sometimes it opts for heavy swathes of philosophical discussion that poses as a classic discussion between Platonists and Epicureans (a pose that is supported by, for instance, the fact that Hippias and Plato and Agathon are all characters from actual dialogues by Plato), but contains worlds of other thought, most prominently Meister Eckhart.
The most significant way that Agathon is self-referential, however, is achieved by making it a text within a text and making doubts about legitimacy and authenticity and recurrent topic within the story of the novel as well as in the framework’s narrator’s address of the audience. Although, it is misleading to call him the framework’s narrator. The narrator relates the whole story to us, we are always hearing his voice yet at the same time he is assuring us we are getting the truth. It’s not just about telling us that the facts are true, although he keeps reassuring us about that, as well. Actually, he insists on being merely the editor of the text, but he is not just a very intrusive editor, as I said, it is also his voice re-telling the story, he injects unmarked editor’s comments now and then, as he addresses the reader’s incredulity, there’s even a chapter called: “which will make some people suspect that this story is made-up”. As with two of the most significant predecessors of the novel, Fielding and Sterne, narrative is a constant concern.
Wieland, like them, also offers an engaging, complex story, told in a nonlinear fashion. It’s about a young man who grows up a strikingly beautiful boy in the temple at Delphy, apparently an orphan. He is taught proper Platonian philosophy there; falls platonically in love with a girl called Psyche. Shortly before he comes of age, an older priestess hits on him repeatedly. This confuses and disgusts him so much that he leaves the temple head over heels and heads towards Athens. On the way he meets an old man who turns out to be his father and a rich man, as well. Suddenly endowed with a large fortune, he moves to Athens and enters politics. As he runs into difficulties with the corrupt and selfish political establishment, he is banished from Athens and is on the road again. This is where the novel sets in, in one of the most striking and strange scenes I have read in a while: as he perambulates, he comes upon a group of female Dionysian cultists who engage in a sexual and sensual frenzy. As a male spectator, he knows he is in constant danger, yet the spectacle, so at odds with his thinking and beliefs, is so alluring he stays hidden and watches.
This proves to be a mistake, however, as suddenly, pirates alight, try to capture as many women as possible and catch Agathon as well, who finds himself suddenly a slave on his way to the slave market. To cut a long story short, he is finally sold to Hippias, who sees the young man as a fit and entrancing candidate to succeed him as the leading mind of the Epicureans. Agathon, however, is an intractable idealist, scornfully rejecting Hippias’ arguments, who is trying to sway Agathon both with reason and hot women. After a couple of defeats, he tricks Agathon into falling for Daphne, the most beautiful and intelligent woman in his community. Daphne is a seasoned seducer and after the young idealist falls for her, she chips away at his ideals, turning his love into a full, worldly love instead of a mere intellectual infatuation. As Hippias triumphs over him, pointing out the change, Agathon is both ashamed of himself and furious at Hippias and Daphne for deceiving him. Daphne, meanwhile, has fallen for Agathon, and been, to an extent, converted by his philosophy, as he has been by hers.
Once again, he leaves, this time moving to Sicily, to the court of Dionysos the tyrant, and embarks on yet another political endeavor, this time trying to turn Dionysos into the enlightenment’s ideal of an enlightened ruler. Here, as in the discussion about love and sexuality, self and the world, in the confrontations with Hippias, the novel blends contemporary and ancient philosophy. Again, the corrupt mob effects a banishment, although he was singularly successful; as his political hopes are once again dashed, he leaves one last time, going to Tarentum where he is invited by the local potentate, who is Agathon’s ideal of a ruler. In the end, all the threads seem to be coming together rather quickly. He meets Psyche again, who turns out to be his sister, and Daphne. Surprisingly, he finds he’s still in love with Daphne but she won’t take him back just now, since she has turned into an ascetic. There is no resolution to the novel, which closes with an open end of sorts. By telling you the ending, I have not spoiled your surprise, because the story, although fun and engaging, does not in the least rely upon conventional suspense. The revelations at the end are deus ex machina devices.
The end is unusual in that it doesn’t allow for a neat conclusion, a clear moral message. Agathon is both Epicurean and Platonian, he is politically disillusioned yet lands in a political paradise that is a made bed, however, not helping him to understand anything. Most contemporary reviewers such as Gerstenberg, the great playwright, were unable to see this ambiguity, even though it is at the heart of the novel. It was just too unusual for the Germans of his time, and so they claimed to have read a moral ending to the story, proclaiming a defeat of the decadent Epicureism. The critical applause for the novel was thunderous, and well-deservedly so, but for the wrong reasons. Although the long stretches of philosophy might be a bit much for today’s readers, the rest of the book is still remarkably powerful.
And it holds up well even today. There is the way, for instance, that Daphne’s experience cancels out both of the men’s philosophy; and the way that even Agathon the slave is still more privileged than the women. Daphne asserts herself by appropriating the signs and philosophy of the society that oppresses her. This is just a facet of the enormous topic of female sexuality, desire and bodies and how it fits the world where a few men talk and scheme and decide all the issues amongst themselves. Unspoken the question hangs in the air: what does it matter to others? Women are everywhere and it is through them that the episodes gain significance and importance, by waking the men up and mobilizing them, yet at the same time it doesn’t only use women as means: their characters are among the strongest, and their drive and the resulting decisions are often bold and inexplicable to the men. There is the puzzling priestess in the beginning, continued by Psyche, who hunts for Agathon when he leaves, becoming a slave voluntarily to find him (the whole slavery issue alone is worth a whole book’s discussion) and finally slipping away from him; the last in this row is Danae, whose significance I’ve just outlined, additionally there are a number of other women in-between with interesting and fascinating functions that I can’t mention here due to restraints of space.
The narrator knows his limits. He’s a hands-on narrator, providing a constant stream of judgment and comment, addressing our doubts as to the veracity of the story, chuckling about Agathon and lusting for Danae. The latter is quite an important point, although the narrator seems to comment on everybody and everything, he only grazes the women, since he apparently well knows that his scope cannot manage these characters. This is one of the best things about this book. Wieland packed it shock-full with ideas and issues, without a care for being able to manage it all in a cerebral manner. In the way that he sometimes just juxtaposes images and characters, without including them in the ongoing theoretical discourse of the novel, his instincts shine. Die Geschichte des Agathon is a long book, full of digressions, but nothing appears superfluous in the novel, not even the writing which strikes a happy balance between a somewhat sentimental, and, for its time anyway, remarkably reduced use of words. It may be daunting, but it is a riveting read that will overwhelm you as it did me.