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The International Writers Magazine: Reviews

The Sorrows of Young Werther:An Appreciation
ISBN-10: 0141023449
ISBN-13: 978-0141023441
Joseph Grosso


Writing the introduction for an anthology of critical essays he edited about the work of Thomas Pynchon some years ago, Harold Bloom opened with the following statement in regard to the "Byron the Bulb" episode in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:
We all carry about with us our personal catalog of the experiences that matter most - our own
versions of what they used to call the Sublime
.
In addition to the Byron the Bulb story Bloom lists among other American works Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and two pieces by Charlie Parker. Who should say that they don’t have a personal list of their own? My own Pynchon moment came with the amazing Mason and Dixon; I would also put on a short list Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, the whole of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds.

However if there is one work that must be named as having captured my personal Sublime (defined by Webster’s as "superior or perfect"; "lofty in thought"), as having described my own life experience up till now, it would have to be Goethe’s groundbreaking novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. I don’t write the previous sentence as an overly sad and jaded individual, though such sentiment cannot be completely discarded, for there is much more to the story of Werther than a young man who commits suicide over his passion for a married woman.

A brief venture into German literary history is necessary to bring out all the themes Goethe explored in the novel. Published in the late 1774 to sweeping success throughout Europe (not seen again until Lord Byron’s Childe Herold’s Pilgrimage over three decades later) and cementing Goethe’s place at the top of German literature at the age of twenty-five, the impact was such that convincing legend has it inspiring a rash of suicides among young people, their bodies being discovered, among other places, at the bottom of lakes in procession of the manuscript. By the end of 1775 at least eleven editions had appeared in German alone. What struck such a cord with the reading public?
Goethe writing in his autobiography Poetry and Truth forty years later gave his own answer to the question:
The effect of this little book was great, indeed immense, and principally because it hit exactly the right moment.
For just as little priming is needed to detonate a powerful bomb, so the explosion which ensured among the public was
so violent because the young people had already undermined themselves…because each erupted with his own exaggerated demands, unsatisfied passions and imagined sufferings.


Young people’s exaggerated demands, unsatisfied passions, and imagined sufferings? As is always the case with great literature, it captures both a moment in time as well as a timeless moment. The historical fact that shadowed Goethe’s writing career was the bewildering array of princes, free cities, and Imperial powers that ruled over the vast German territories, hardly united in any form until the Treaty of Vienna in 1864, about thirty years after his death. In addition to fragmentation was the great destruction of the 30 years war (settled with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) and the economic depressions that followed with led to the "irreversible decline the great trading, banking, and manufacturing cities of the fifteenth and sixteenth century bourgeoisie".

This led, along with the military campaigns of Louis XIV that also devastated the region, to the collapse of the German bourgeoisie (just as it was rising in France and England), and the rise of bureaucratic absolutism in the form of the Prince and his court. While the French and American revolutions would bring the bourgeoisie to power, with the German upheaval came the bureaucratic court and the necessity of artistic conformity with state power (anyone who has studied the work of Hegel and Leibniz can find traces of sly homage to stately patrons). A historical irony to all this was the explosion of universities that came with political fragmentation as local powers used them as a symbols of regional prestige; such was the sorry state of the educated German in the 18th century: well schooled, but largely oppressed. It was in that context that The Sorrows of Young Werther arose from the pen of Goethe to explosive acclaim.

It is not difficult to see the national crisis played out in the book’s title character. To be brief, the story, loosely based on Goethe’s own love for a married woman named Charlotte Buff as well as an acquaintance Karl Jerusalem who did commit suicide over his own unrequited love for a married woman, is told until the final section entirely by Werther in a series of letters to a friend. It begins with Werther traveling to a south German town to settle a family affair and escape some kind of unhappy affair at home. While enjoying the solitude and beauty of nature, and savoring a volume of Homer, he soon crosses paths with Lotte on the way to a local ball. He immediately falls in love with her and attaches himself to her household where, as the eldest sister she plays the role of mother to her younger siblings due to their mother’s earlier death. Lotte however is engaged to Albert who in the beginning is away on business. Upon Albert’s return, and despite his good will towards Werther, the situation’s intensity prompts Werther to leave the town and take a job working for an ambassador.

Werther soon falls out of aristocratic favor, at least somewhat due to his hypersensitivity, and returns to the original town where Lotte and Albert are now married. Werther confronts Lotte with a kiss to which she reacted harshly, after seeming to feel quite tempted. The distress of his emotional state worsens and the story ends with Werther shooting himself with a pistol he borrowed from Albert earlier in the day.

The thread that flows throughout the novel is the theme of sentiment. Werther perfectly represents a man of emotion; an anti-Enlightenment (i.e. anti-rational) mindset dominates every aspect of his existence. He continuously speaks favorable of servants and peasants whom he regards as living lives of beautiful, uneducated simplicity. Here he is early on: "when I sense the teeming of the little world among the stalks, the countless indescribable forms of the grubs and flies, closer to my heart, and feel the presence of the Almighty who created us in His image." Towards the end this interpretation reverses itself in one of his typical emotional mood swings: "the most innocent of walks costs thousands of wretched grubs their lives, one step wrecks what the ant laboriously built and threads a little world into an ignominious grave underfoot."

I was first drawn to Werther, I suspect the way many have been, by a love gone bad. The words "I am astounded to see how I went ahead in all this, step by step, in full awareness of what I was doing! How clearly I saw my position, and yet how childishly I behaved", still rattle my head. Perhaps more than any other character in literature Werther embodies the absurdity of obsessive love and where it can lead if unchecked. Yet further readings reveal that Werther also personifies the state of the German middle class at the time of the books publication, and this is, probably, what accounts for the sensational response of its public. It also contains lessons we can learn from in the present day.
When Werther takes his exodus from Lotte in the middle of the book he takes a post under an ambassador - a government post which was the main option for educated people (rather than some kind of individual initiative). Shortly after starting the position he causes a stir by not leaving the side of a noble acquaintance at a meeting of local nobility. He emphatically quits the job, the subject a shocked chatter, and becomes depressed about both his personal and professional prospects. Isolated from the noble elite and in love with the unattainable, he goes into his emotional tailspin.

While nobilities are largely a memory, life expectancies are always improving, and the emancipation of women has changed Western culture (and one should hope the Islamic and African worlds soon), it’s easy to find parallels to our own age of corporate dominance. As Werther contemplated his relationship to and meaning of nature, we are forced to contemplate our relationship to advertising, commodities, and multi-nationals and their permanent altering of nature. Like Werther, we too seem to long for simplicity and retreat. Note the resurgent romanticizing of indigenous cultures and the sprouting of all sorts of "new age" resorts and "eco-tourism"; yet the dilemma is that participation most often consists of contributing to the very forces that are meant to be escaped. Doubters should visit Costa Rica sometime. In that case eco-tourism and is the final empire of capital, we churn on with the system with no real possibility for escape.
Werther doesn’t seem to propose a solution to any of this (probably another reason for the reaction of its initial public), but it does provide a warning. Despite some impressions it is important to point out that Werther by the end of the book does not appear in sympathetic light, his letters by the end are bratty and, in a word, pathetic. The closing lines of the book tell us that Lotte is on suicide watch.

Perhaps the best lesson of Werther for one’s personal life is that passion, for all its seductive ways, can be just as oppressive as reason, and that a healthy balance between the two is the key to personal strength. As I leave my beautiful, crazy twenties behind and enter a new and better decade, that is surely the lesson of a lifetime. Just as surely The Sorrows of Young Werther will always be at my side as a reminder.
© Joseph Grosso November 2007
Brooklyn, NY
ax4130at aol.com

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