Monday, May 18, 2009

The breaking of boys and men: part three.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

At certain historical moments even a story can challenge the prevailing civic order. Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe was twenty-four when he published his tragic novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Today it is largely forgotten and unread, but when it appeared in Germany in 1774 it created a sensation that would resonate powerfully for more than a century. Within a few years of its publication Werther was translated into every European language. It made an especially strong impact in England and France, where it inspired operas, plays, songs and a profusion of poems. The book was read by all literate classes, including royalty. Bowers and benches and rustic expanses in which the story was set became commercial shrines. The book generated profitable trade in Werther-related paintings, porcelain, jewelry, and scent. Werther’s suicide at the story’s conclusion was widely believed either to have caused or contributed to the suicides of countless lovesick and otherwise troubled European youth, some of whom were found with copies of the book in hand or close by as they perished. There is some scholarly debate as to the actual extent of Werther-inspired suicides, or Liebestod, in the decades following the publication of the novel, but no such disagreement about the depth of the story’s impact. The Sorrows of Young Werther has been called the first modern tragic novel, and it created the kind of fervor J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye would evoke in the Cold War era.

Werther is the tale of an educated and rarefied young man who, in the course of a rustic idyll as he is about to embark on a career in statecraft, meets and falls deeply in love with a young woman, Charlotte (Lotte), with whom he shares a carriage ride to a ball. Lotte is both girl and finished woman, daughter and mother. When Werther meets her, her own mother has recently died, and she has risen resolutely to assume the care of her eight younger siblings. Lotte’s girlish beauty and grace combined with her warm nurturance enchant Werther and preoccupy him for the rest of his foreshortened life.

Immediately on making her acquaintance, Werther is informed that she is “as good as engaged” to an upstanding young man. Her intended, Albert, is indeed a man of parts and, more than a little strangely, Werther feels no resentment of his privileged and secure place in Lotte’s life. To the contrary he is admiring and fond of Albert, and he is equally fond of Lotte’s younger siblings, with whom he enjoys playing and telling stories. At first Werther’s love seems, except in its intensity, unlike the star-crossed passion of Tristan or Romeo, in that he recognizes no ominous obstacle. He seems too ethereal and genteel—and possibly too immature—to desire Lotte sexually. It takes him weeks to realize that Lotte’s and Albert’s impending marriage will mean the end of his almost limitless access to her company and of the emotional release he feels when he is with her. When it does dawn on him that he cannot continue to be her constant and adoring companion, he becomes agitated and volatile, to the point that he makes Lotte uncomfortable.

Abruptly Werther departs the village where Lotte lives, leaving only a letter explaining his tortured reasons for going. As he tentatively enters the social and diplomatic circles necessary to advance his adult career, Werther is unable to free himself from his obsessive attachment to Lotte. Unhappy in his work and reacting intensely to a class-based personal snub, he takes leave of his duties and drifts back to the beloved places of his happy childhood, only to find them painfully altered, “developed” in the name of a progress he reflexively disdains. Helplessly, he returns to lodgings near Albert and Lotte, now married, and resumes the acquaintance. More obsessed and despairing than ever, he presses his declarations of love, his tears, and, finally, even his kisses upon his distressed beloved until she forcibly absents herself from him, telling him that they must never meet again.

Having entertained mounting thoughts of suicide for some months, Werther borrows a brace of Albert’s pistols on a pretense, shuts himself up in his bedroom on a rainy night, composes a final note to Lotte, and then, just past midnight, fires the pistol into his forehead above his right eye. Werther does not die instantly, but lingers incoherently until noon the next day, during which time a number of people keep vigil and pay him last respects, including Lotte’s younger brothers, one of whom repeatedly kisses Werther on the mouth as he expires. He is carried off and buried that very night. “No priest attended him,” Goethe wrote in a chilling final sentence.

The world into which Goethe grew up and in which Werther is faithfully set is an altogether different world from that of the heroic lovers of the medieval era. Chivalric training and estate management are no longer the highest callings for men. There has been a renaissance of classical sensibilities throughout Europe. There has been an Enlightenment, a culturally endorsed celebration of scientific and rational understanding, understanding unaided by religious faith or any kind of submission to irrational or trans-rational forces. Wars continue to be waged, but in more calculated ways, in ways that might advance the interest of emerging nations, as opposed to the divinely sanctioned prerogatives of kings. In the enlightened eighteenth century a fortunate man’s highest aspiration might be to become a statesman, a scientist, an artist. In the eighteenth century the way had been cleared for generations of landless peasants and artisans to enter and then rise up into the now burgeoning complex of manufacture and trade. The new wealth produced by the emerging commercial class had created for increasing numbers of people the leisure with which to consider abstract and purely esthetic dimensions of experience.

Such was Goethe’s world and that of his sorrowful young Werther. The story of Werther is divided into two roughly equal parts. The first recounts his life in a lovely rural village, his meeting with and subsequent infatuation with Lotte, and the mounting unhappiness he feels in being unable to have her for his own. The second part is an account of his suffering and suicidal despair after he departs Lotte and her fiancĂ©. Goethe based the first half of Werther’s story very closely on events in his own life, the second half somewhat on the life of a young acquaintance, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem who, like Goethe, was well off, well educated, entering public service, and miserably unhappy in love. Goethe incorporated the precise details of Jerusalem’s actual suicide in his account of Werther’s. In overlaying Jerusalem’s grim end onto his own passage through early love and love lost, Goethe is able to convey the heroic passion of romantic love—Tristan’s love, Romeo’s love—to its inevitable psychological conclusion without perishing himself.

Goethe made no effort to disguise the similarity of his personal feelings and circumstances to those of young Werther. The actual young woman who captured Goethe’s heart was Charlotte Buff, whom he would come to address familiarly as Lotte. She met and became fond of Goethe in the course of a ball they attended together. Lotte was oldest sister and virtual mother of eight younger siblings who delighted and often played with Goethe in the course of many visits and outings. Lotte’s fiancĂ©, Christian Kestner, became an admired and beloved confidante to Goethe, as the fictional Lotte’s Albert became to Werther. Thus the “autobiographical” half of the novel proceeds very much as Goethe lived the summer of his twenty-third year.

As Werther begins his story, he is ecstatically happy. His formal schooling and legal studies have been successfully completed. He is free, at least for a time, to lose himself in his favorite books, especially Homer and Pindar and the astonishing Ossian. It is May, and he has arrived in a new, handsomely settled place. Everything is in bloom, and Werther has time on his hands to explore the countryside and observe the locals in all walks of life. “A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul,” he writes to his closest friend. (Hulse, 26) But it is not a static serenity; Werther confesses that the amplitude and beauty of his meadow walks, the falling of dusk, the complexity and elegance and hum of so many natural unfurlings threaten to overwhelm him. He longs to be able to render his experiences of Nature in drawing or some kind of art, but the force and beauty of everything before him seem almost to paralyze him. Transported in the grip of so much feeling, he reports, not yet with any regret, that “it will be the end of me” (27).

Werther has read deeply in the literature and lore of the west. He senses where he has spiritually found himself, and it is in the heart of Pan’s arcady.

…You go down a little slope and come to a vault of some twenty
steps to where the clearest of water pours forth from the marble rock.
The low wall about the spring above, the tall trees that shade the place,
The coolness of the spot, all of this has something both attractive and
awesome. Not a day goes by but I spend an hour sitting there. And the
girls come out from the town to fetch water…and I sense the
benevolent spirits that watch over springs and wells…(27)

Werther reports a sublime self-sufficiency in this state of being. It is a return, a return to something rich and satisfying from his childhood. He claims to want nothing more. He writes his friend that he is beyond the lure of books—“for God’s sake, keep the things from me!” (28) He knows that to fall back willingly into childhood happiness is to lose his civic place, but Werther surrenders: “I am treating my heart like an ailing child; every whim is granted. Tell no one of this; there are people who would take it amiss.” (28) Werther’s opening up to the childhood condition includes a renewed affinity for actual children: “the common people of the town already know and love me, the children in particular.” (28)

As soon as young Werther becomes aware of the superior, irresistible claims of the child-state, he is overcome with revulsion for the post-child impostures and mindless busy-ness of his fellow men.

That the life of Man is but a dream has been sensed by many a one,
and I too am never free of the feeling. When I consider the restrictions
that are placed on the active, inquiring energies of Man; when I see that
all our efforts have no other result than to satisfy needs which in turn
serve no purpose but to prolong our wretched existence…all of this
leaves me silent. (28,29)

.Werther discourses on the adult order’s smug condescension in attributing to children mere impulsivity in the face of life’s practical business, and he further faults adults for failing to recognize their own impulsivity and blindness in following safe and culturally sanctioned protocols. Of the two conditions—that of the spirited child and that of the prudent adult—Werther chooses the child.

I gladly confess that…they are the happiest who, like children,
live for the present moment, drag their dolls around and dress them
and undress them and watchfully steal by the drawer where Mama has
locked away the cake and when at last, when they get their hands on what
they want, devour it and with their cheeks crammed full, cry, “More!”

While celebrating the child—including childish excess—Werther is not impervious to the adult virtues of prudence and self-denial. He acknowledges that discerning, prudent adults will never do poor work, and that law-abiding citizens will never be bad neighbors. He feels certain, however, that such adults will never do the most inspired kind of work, and that they will never be people it would be really satisfying and exhilarating to know.
The child’s condition, if considered honestly, is preferable, because it is natural, uncorrected, and because it is susceptible to inspiration. Even compromised adults, Werther claims, are inwardly aware of this. Some of them are able to wall off private spheres within their compromised lives in which they can attempt to “make an Eden” of their own allotted gardens. Even those unable to do this, those who might not be fortunate enough to have a private garden to cultivate, can maintain the child’s link to vitality by holding fast to the “sweet sensation of freedom,” however fleeting, along with the knowledge that they can “quit this prison” whenever they wish. (31)

Held powerfully in his own sweet sensation of freedom, Werther, seemingly by chance, meets his beloved. It is now mid-June, and Werther, a passenger in a carriage on the way to a summer dance, is informed that they must stop to pick up another guest along the way, Charlotte: Lotte. Like Romeo first beholding Juliet at the Capulet ball, Werther is transformed forever. It falls to him to enter the house and escort Charlotte down to the carriage. His first and indelible impression is of a mother-girl.

I…beheld the most charming scene I have ever laid eyes on. In the hallway,
six children aged between eleven and two were milling about a girl with
a wonderful figure and of medium height, wearing a simple white dress
with pink ribbons at the sleeves and breast. She was holding a loaf of
rye bread and cutting a piece for each of the little ones about her, according
to their age and appetite. (37)

Werther is entranced, not merely with Lotte’s figure and presence, but with the children, the littlest of whom he kisses warmly before heading down to the carriage. Even as they proceed to the ball, Werther is made aware that Lotte is promised to another man, and he is undaunted. He learns in their first, rapt conversation that she too is “beyond” the lure of books, due to her domestic responsibilities and her joyful immersion in life as it unfolds moment to moment. But while unstintingly maternal, she is also sheer girl and confesses to Werther that “Even if it is wrong to have a passion for it, there is nothing I like better than dancing.” (39) No admission could be more pleasing to Werther, more consonant with his own views about the relative merits of acceptable attitudes and joyful behavior. “Never in my life,” Werther reports, “have I danced so well. I was no longer a mere mortal.” (41)

In this spirit Werther enters the most fulfilling, and last, summer of his life. The teeming meadows and mountain prospects continue to stir him, but the communion with Lotte in this Arcadian setting completes the picture. Like Juliet after she has met and exchanged loving vows with Romeo, Werther finds himself ecstatically “longing for the thing I have.” At no time is Werther happier in Lotte’s company than when her younger siblings are present and underfoot. Werther gets down on the floor and plays with them: “some of them climbing on top of me, some of them poking me, and me tickling them, and all of us yelling our heads off.”(45) This maturational reprieve, this opportunity to lose himself in uninhibited play elevates Werther. His pleasure is not in tending to or nurturing the children, but in joining them in their abandon and thus, like them, being Lotte’s in this privileged way. “Nothing on earth,” he writes to his friend, “is closer to my heart than children.” (45)

No sooner is Werther able to give voice to his happiness than he becomes aware, in a way familiar to desperate lovers, of the agonizing prospect of losing it. It occurs to him in the course of an afternoon outing with Lotte and the children and other friends that he has fallen into a terrible dependency on Lotte’s adoring attention. “What a child one is!” he realizes when he is briefly unable to catch Lotte’s eye. “How can one be so hungry for a look!” (51) But in Werther’s state the hunger can only mount. He craves Lotte’s undivided attention and approval, but her care-giving responsibilities make that impossible, as does the periodic presence of Albert, Lotte’s intended. And so to Werther’s—but perhaps nobody else’s—surprise, Albert becomes a “rival.” Moreover, maddeningly, he is a worthy and thoroughly appropriate rival. Werther retains enough social sense to know that he, not Albert, is the oddity in the picture, but this awareness is no consolation. He feels himself nearing combustion, growing increasingly ridiculous:

I cannot bear it any more, I behave like a complete fool, and
clown about and talk gibberish.—“For God’s sake,” Lotte said to me
today, “please spare us scenes like last night’s! When you’re
so merry you are terrifying.” (57)

Just as Lotte senses the desperation in Werther’s now inappropriate merriment, Werther is grimly aware that he has passed into perilous mental territory. News of a suicide preoccupies him, and he finds himself defending such gestures during a philosophical argument with Albert, in the course of which Albert makes good ethical sense. But Werther has passed beyond good ethical sense: “for no argument so throws me as when someone trots out a meaningless platitude when I am speaking straight from the heart.” (61)

Unable to temper, defer or, for that matter, consummate his desire for total, uninterrupted communion with Lotte, Werther declines helplessly into obsessive longing. He knows he is making a fool of himself, that the pitch of his desperation makes Lotte uncomfortable. Yet there is no consolation, feeling what he feels, knowing what he has known. “I can no longer pray,” he writes to his friend, “except to her; my imagination holds no figure but hers; and I see the things of the world about me only in relation to her.” As the summer wanes, Werther’s obsession turns to despair. He resolves to leave at once, depart the unlivable scene, although he can imagine no livable scene or breathable air apart from Lotte. Werther cannot sleep the night before his departure.

Here I sit, gasping for air, waiting for daybreak…Ah, she will
be sleeping peacefully, without a suspicion that she will never see me
again…” (69)

The evening before his departure Werther called on Lotte and Albert and engaged them in a long, tearful talk. They discuss the possibility of an afterlife and whether they are likely to recognize one another in that condition. Talk of departed souls gives rise to Lotte’s fond memories of her mother. The presence before him of his beloved girl-mother expressing vaulting appreciation and love for her own mother is too much for Werther. That mothers can be lost at all is too much for Werther.

“Lotte,” I exclaimed, falling at her feet, seizing her hand and
shedding a thousand tears on it—“Lotte! God’s blessing and
the spirit of your mother are upon you!” (71)

Werther takes leave of Lotte until, he believes, they will meet again in eternity. In the time intervening Werther must determine if there is an endurable course ahead for one who has known the sweetness of childhood regained.

Apart from Lotte and immersed in the business of adult pursuits, Werther realizes with clear-headed detachment that the culturally approved way ahead for him is hopeless, that the “model” of the finished man-of-the-world is an empty social construction.

We often feel that we lack something, and seem to see that very
quality in someone else, promptly attributing all our own
qualities to him too, and a kind of ideal contentment as well.
And so the happy mortal is a model of complete perfection—
which we ourselves have created. (73)

Realizing that so-called maturity is an empty fabrication, Werther, anticipating the kind of existential despair articulated by later writers, is repulsed by the adult order in which he is now held. “And this glittering misery, the tedium of these awful people cooped up together here! And their greed for rank, and the way they are forever watchful and alert for gain and precedence: the most wretched and abominable of passions, quite nakedly displayed.” (75)

Unable to bear it any longer, Werther resigns his position at court and embarks on a pilgrimage to the treasured places of his childhood in the hope that he can recover some sense of wholeness. “…And since the place of my birth is only six miles out of my way, I plan to visit it again and recall those long-gone days of happy dreams.” (85) He succeeds only in revisiting scenes that remind him that he was once full of hope, believing, like Odysseus, that frontiers were limitless and the seas “measureless.” He asks of what use is the knowledge, pressed upon every schoolboy, that the earth is round and its extent known? He longs for the prior condition, of a life more limited and yet more happy, a life infused with “the poetry and quality of childishness.” (86) Like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, adrift in Manhattan as he tries to reconnect to the saving sweetness of his childhood, Werther revisits his old school. When Holden entered a classroom in his former elementary school, he noted that someone had inscribed “fuck you” on a desk. Werther finds his old school has become a shop.

Werther wanders on, feeling rootless and out of sustaining relationship with everyone he has loved, especially, excruciatingly, Lotte. He struggles to find solace in a broader perspective but succeeds only in realizing his overall insignificance in the vast scheme of creation and that the only thing that had elevated him out of the relentless, transient march of empty lives was his unapologetic surrender to his untempered passions. “Do not children reach out for everything that attracts them?--Then why should not I?” (98)

Werther struggles with an equation he cannot solve. He understands that he came into the world with a robust capacity for joy and loving others. Moreover, he was able to experience that joy to its ultimate extent in his communion with Lotte. But when that kind of love is tempered or unrequited, however reasonable the causes, the lover’s sense of purpose, his very vitality is negated. Werther is sufficiently educated and socialized and reasonable to see why he may not have Lotte exclusively to himself, but the knowledge does nothing to mediate his predicament. For him, unrestrained loving is the completion of his nature; unrequited love is the negation of his nature. Increasingly this sense of negation leads Werther to suicidal thoughts, which he casts as a kind of martyrdom, at times likening himself to Christ in Gethsemane pondering his imminent death. In any event, like Romeo when he is banished from Verona and Juliet, Werther can find no consolation in philosophy, nor in theology. “Dear God in Heaven, was this the Fate Thou hast ordained for Man: that he should only be happy before he has yet attained his reason, or after he has lost it again?” (103)

Werther’s progression to suicide is grimly credible and familiar. He protests that he can no longer bear the practical business of living in the world, and he concludes, with some reason, that the world has no need of him and would perhaps be better off without him. Resolved finally to die, he goes to visit Lotte for the last time. In the course of a long, trying afternoon together, during which Werther attempts to disclose his inward state to Lotte by reading long, morbid excerpts from Ossian fantasy, Lotte correctly senses Werther’s dire intentions and tries to dissuade him. She insists that Werther can continue to see her—and Albert—but on appropriate terms, the world’s terms. Then, stunningly, she tells Werther that she cannot abide his “intense spirit” and “uncontrollable passion.” “Be a man!” she implores him. “Put an end to this dismal attachment to a creature who can do nothing but pity you!” Because Werther is not a man, because he is spiritually and temperamentally a boy, Lotte’s declaration completes his negation. Her pronouncement is devastating precisely because, on the world’s terms, it is profoundly true: “I very much fear,” she adds, “that what makes the desire to possess me so attractive is its very impossibility.” From his wild and tormented boy’s perspective, Werther makes an equally acute rejoinder: “That speech,” he remarked with a cold laugh, “could be printed and commended to the use of teachers.” (115)

Confined now within the terms of his own negation, Werther composes his final letter to Lotte. He is both frank and, at points, coolly lucid, disclosing that he has “harbored furious thoughts of—killing your husband—or you—or myself” but has settled on the latter course. (117) Late in the letter he revisits the prospect of their reunion in the after life. In this vision Werther is affirmative and hopeful, but what is affirmed is something, if not altogether other than Lotte, greater than Lotte:

I am not dreaming or raving! As I approach the grave I see
things more clearly. There will be a life for us! And we will
see each other again! We shall see your mother! I shall see
her, I shall find her, and ah, I shall pour out my heart to her!
Your mother, the image of you. (128)

In their fervid response to The Sorrows of Young Werther European readers spoke and wrote of the novel as a tragic romance, a love story—but is it really? Does Werther really stand in the procession of heroic lovers that began with Tristan, Romeo, and their like? Is it conceivable that Romeo, beholding Juliet for the last time, would evoke in farewell an image of Lady Capulet? Tristan and Romeo and Heathcliffe consummated their love. Upon reaching the threshold of manhood they transferred their puer-spirit into the only outlet in which it seemed possible for it to breathe. The heroic love ideal in the west is as uncompromising and wild as the puer spirit itself, and male lovers in that mode have all been spirited boys. Werther does not consummate his passion for Lotte. He reports dreaming of kisses, but nothing more When, finally and in despair, he actually does impose some desperate kisses on Lotte, both he and Lotte become upset and part in tears. He had long acknowledged that his deepest feelings for Lotte were not carnal: “Have I ever harbored reprehensible desires in my soul?” (112)

What Werther passionately and repeatedly expresses and what readers so powerfully responded to was less the impossibility of requiting his love for Lotte than his inability to live as a spirited child. In his autobiographical writing Goethe revealed that he himself had enjoyed a remarkable happy childhood. His personal troubles would begin with attempts to school him and, like Werther, when he sought to enter the world on adults’ terms. Like the heroic lovers who preceded him, he was able to express his untamed puer-spirit in romantic communion, but in Werther’s case his relationship with Lotte merely satisfied the formal requirements of a romantic pairing. She was not in fact available to him from the outset and told him so clearly. Unlike Romeo who rushed to marry Juliet within hours of making her acquaintance, Werther’s fondest hope was to feel the radiance of Lotte’s girl-mother presence while he gave uninhibited utterance to his dreamiest fancies and tumbled about with the other children. In the end, it was not Lotte but a younger brother--a mere boy—who kissed Werther’s lips as his life slipped away. What so struck Europeans for more than a century in The Sorrows of Young Werther was not the tragic death of a young lover, but the death of a ­puer aeternus, of the invigorating promise spirited children invite the larger society to recall.

No comments: