Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

werther“Werther identifies himself with the madman, with the footman. As a reader, I can identify myself with Werther. Historically, thousands of subjects have done so, suffering, killing themselves, dressing, perfuming themselves, writing as if they were Werther (songs, poems, candy boxes, belt buckles, colognes à la Werther). A long chain of equivalences links all the lovers in the world.”   Roland Barthes

In May, before I moved back to the United States from Germany, I made a four-day sojourn to Goethe’s hometown of Weimar, about 3 and a half hours east of Berlin. Weimar, of course, was the capital of Germany’s failed interwar democratic federation, chosen for its cultural history: Goethe lived and wrote there, as did Schiller; the Bauhaus movement was also founded there, and there’s a beautiful museum dedicated to it on Theaterplatz. Weimar is a delightful town with a fascinating history, though its beauty is tempered by the fact that one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald, was built just outside the city (the Soviets also used the camp for prisoners of war after the fall of the Third Reich.) I spent a few hours in Goethe’s house, ascending his grand staircase and wandering through his gardens, and finished The Sorrows of Young Werther several hours later at my guest house.  

You’d have to be made of stone to not be affected by Werther’s unrequited, impossible love for Charlotte (Lotte), whom he meets and falls for despite warnings that she’s engaged to marry somebody else. Any lover has been in Werther’s shoes; we’ve all seen the world through his eyes, been debilitated by pain so intense that the reprieve offered by death appears tantalizingly, horrifyingly inviting. And yet most of us don’t kill ourselves—no need for a spoiler alert here, since Werther’s suicide is inevitable; the epistolary novel begins with the exclamation, to Werther’s close friend Wilhelm: “How happy I am that I am gone!” (The preface invites us to peruse Wilhelm’s collection of letters from his cherished friend, and to “draw comfort from his sorrows; and let this little book be thy friend, if, owing to fortune or through thine own fault, thou canst not find a dearer companion.”) Werther is intoxicated by the romance, as Barthes says, of grief, of wanting what he can’t have, and of death. God knows we’ve all been there. And so we find ourselves back to Hamlet’s (or Camus’s) great conundrum: why not just end it all? What holds us back?

Suicide remains one of the most self-indulgent act one can commit; it represents a failure to contextualize one’s grief, a reduction of the entire expanse of human capacity to one’s individual experience. Or maybe it’s the ultimate nihilistic rebelliontelling the Camuses of the world that the crazy ones aren’t those who opt out of pushing that boulder interminably up a hill, but the ones that go along with it because they’re terrified of the alternative. And if fear is weakness, then suicide is the ultimate assertion of strength.

I lean toward a rejection of the suicidal impulse—a fact that will no doubt relieve my parents immensely :-). And speaking of my parents, one of the reasons my intransigent, it’s-not-a-phase! six-year-old militant-vegetarian self made their lives difficult revolves around my belief that every creature is propelled by the biological imperative to sustain its own life, even when said creature possesses no awareness of why it should desire to prolong its consciousness. And I’m also firmly in Camus’s and Hamlet’s camp, aware that death (the opposite of life) is nebulous and therefore cannot be considered a legitimate alternative to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” You can’t reason yourself into suicide, for if reason is defined by human consciousness, it is simply an inadequate tool for assessing a plane apart from the human mind. It’s like pondering life in a fourth spacial dimension—twist your mind into knots contemplating it all you like, but the current iteration of human awareness simply cannot comprehend a world in which you would be able to see a person’s face and the back of his head simultaneously. As a teenager, I used to write long, dreary poems about how we all ascend into some advanced dimensionality after death, Flatland-style. Despite how embarrassing sifting through my old journals may prove today, when it comes to death, my guesses then were probably just as good as they are now.

All that said, Werther doesn’t approach suicide intellectually, studiously weighing the pros and cons; his misery sweeps him right into death’s path and he’s powerless to resist it. Reason could have ended up saving his life. Goethe wrote Werther in his twenties, while trapped in a myopic obsession with a woman named Charlotte Buff. He later renounced the book with the kind of discomfiture one reserves for talking about the old days, back when I was so immature, I didn’t know anything, and thank God I never did anything stupid, right? How many solipsistic Millennials haven’t deconstructed their early twenties, those days when everything felt so immediate, in a similar fashion? So maybe, in the end, to bathe in that most obvious of clichés, it isn’t Lotte that Werther is deeply, unhealthily in love with; it’s himself. The tragedy remains that he just never gave himself time to grow up.

* Below are a few pictures of Goethe’s house, Weimar and Buchenwald concentration camp. *

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