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Sorrows of Young Werther:An Appreciation
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
Pynchons Gravitys 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 Faulkners
As I Lay Dying, Nathanael Wests Miss Lonelyhearts,
and two pieces by Charlie Parker. Who should say that they dont
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 Blakes
Songs of Innocence and Experience, the whole of Prousts
In Search of Lost Time, Bachs Mass in B Minor, and Brian
Wilsons Pet Sounds.
However if there is one work that must be named as having captured my
personal Sublime (defined by Websters as "superior or perfect";
"lofty in thought"), as having described my own life experience
up till now, it would have to be Goethes groundbreaking novel The
Sorrows of Young Werther. I dont 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 Byrons
Childe Herolds Pilgrimage over three decades later) and cementing
Goethes 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
each erupted with his own exaggerated demands, unsatisfied passions and
Young peoples 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 Goethes 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 books
title character. To be brief, the story, loosely based on Goethes
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 mothers earlier death. Lotte
however is engaged to Albert who in the beginning is away on business.
Upon Alberts return, and despite his good will towards Werther,
the situations 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), its 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 doesnt 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 ones 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
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