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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(March 15, 2009)

Goethe And The Indestructible Word
by Ming Zhen Shakya

"A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day."

-- Emily Dickinson

Call me Ishkabibble. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no opinion of my own, (ok ok I'll quit with the white whale), I accepted as true what my now-forgotten English teacher said about Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther - that it was a seriously sad tale about a brilliant, sensitive young man who commits suicide upon being dumped by the woman he loved. Sleepreading my way through it, I was not inclined to disagree.

Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, in four weeks, when he was twenty-four years old. With the exception of an omniscient narrator's comments at the story's end, he used the epistolatory format. Werther, presumably in some kind of distress, has repaired to a town near his birthplace; and through his letters to a friend, we learn of his experiences: he meets a girl named Charlotte who happens to be engaged; he falls in love with her; she rejects his advances; he becomes despondent and too distracted to function in his professional life and kills himself.

The novel succeeded beyond extravagant hope. It is no exaggeration to say that overnight the unknown Goethe became a literary giant. Immediately the work was translated into many languages, and an epidemic of "Werther Fever" gripped all Europe. Napoleon carried a copy with him wherever he went. Young men dressed in the fashions described in the book. Pilgrimages were made to the places named in the novel - the town in which Werther fell in love; the house in which he killed himself; and so on. (The town of Garbenheim, near Wetzlar, had been poorly disguised as "Wahlheim" in the novel.) We know the phenomenon: we have only to think of the increase in tourism that followed publication of The DaVinci Code; or Don Johnson's rolled up jacket sleeves and pastel T shirts in TV's Miami Vice, or the worldwide impact of John Travolta's white suit in Saturday Night Fever and the disco rage that followed the film. Life imitates art.

But Werther's story had more egregious effects: its readers so identified with Werther that his solution to despair became their solution even to imagined despair. No sooner was the novel launched, but a wake of copycat reader-suicides trailed to a vanishing point on the horizon. But it was the story, itself, and his telling of it, that caused Goethe the most distress. A dozen years later, in the midst of his celebrity and the book's unparalleled popularity, Goethe revised the text, giving us both a warning against making the error he knew that he had made and also a means to remedy it, and, incidentally, showing us all why Johann Wolfgang Goethe is deservingly considered Germany's greatest man of letters, its Man for all Seasons.

He had become aware of an error to which many people today remain stubbornly oblivious: it is very dangerous to transmit personal information and send it out into an unpredictable world. Rather like a boomerang's flight, the information may circle back in harmful ways that cannot be anticipated.

Goethe based his fictional character "Werther" on the real life experiences of two different people: himself and his friend, Karl Jerusalem.

The personal experience that Goethe contributed to the story occurred in 1772 when he was twenty-two years old. While employed as a law clerk, he became friends with Jerusalem, a co-worker. On June 9th, while the two young men were attending a ball, Goethe met a pretty nineteen year old girl, Charlotte Buff, with whom he instantly became infatuated. Charlotte (Lotte) was already engaged to another man, Johann Kestner; and though she was cordial towards Goethe, she was decisive in her rejection of his advances. Three months' later, in September, Goethe left town without having made any special effort to say goodbye to her. A few weeks later he received news that his friend Jerusalem had committed suicide - he had shot himself in a tragic aftermath of being hopelessly in love with a married woman. Goethe, moved by this tragedy, tried to learn more about the event from Charlotte and Kestner - whom she had married; and between this research and the considerable power of his imagination, he composed Werther's descent into self-destruction. Naively, Goethe decided to glue together his own harmless summertime infatuation with Jerusalem's fatal affair.

To facilitate the adhesion, Goethe created a sympathetic character, an intelligent man who had an esthetic appreciation of the beauty of nature, and an unpretentious fondness for people. How, then, could he account for an honorable man's pursuit of another man's wife? Goethe intuits the dopamine factor, i.e., fear's ability to produce an erotic response. When Werther meets Charlotte for the first time at a ball, Charlotte is alone - her fiance is away on business. Goethe writes that during that fateful dance, while the two people were in close physical contact, an unusually violent thunderstorm occurs. Everyone is terrified until the storm passes. And then, Goethe continues to keep her fiance away for weeks during the critical initial phase of romance. Charlotte's mother has died and the responsibility for raising her younger brother and sisters, falls to her. (This unusual fact is also true in real life.) Werther is able to visit Charlotte every day and to lessen her duties by entertaining the children. She welcomes his presence in her home; and by the time her fiance returns from his business trip, Werther, now totally in love with Charlotte, has been integrated into the household.

Goethe had succeeded too well in creating a sympathetic character. Perhaps because it was impossible to foreshadow Werther's vulnerability to such a solution as suicide by revealing those "nature and nurture" facts that would satisfy the histories of two such different men as Goethe and Jerusalem, Goethe omits all background information. In this omission, he blundered seriously. By not considering the effects of what is not said and is therefore left to the reader's imagination, he set in motion events that, like a sorcerer's apprentice, he could start but could not stop.

In the character of Werther, therefore, Goethe had created a psychological tabula raza, one that was so appealingly framed that every reader was virtually invited to imprint his own forlorn experience into it. Goethe, a very young literary Pathfinder, did not expect that his readers would fill in the blanks he had left empty. He also underestimated the emotional impact of his own eloquence.

He further blundered by using Charlotte's real name. Nobody had any trouble in discovering her and her husband's identity. The couple was harassed to a degree that we can easily estimate. Charllotte's husband was particularly aggrieved. The strategy of drama requires the suspension of credulity. People often become so involved in the plot that they are unable to differentiate fiction and fact, between the actor and the character that is being portrayed. Surely, the fictional Charlotte and her husband, knowing how depressed and "unhinged" Werther was, should not have lent him the gun he used to kill himself. We can imagine how people responded to the real couple. All we have to do is listen to the experiences of film stars. According to the role they have played, people will write to them, proposing marriage or threatening assassination. Soap opera stars have been slapped in public because their actions in the drama were considered reprehensible by viewers. And we who now wince at every fictional character's telephone number that begins with the phony 555 exchange have to be reminded that silly people will call any on-screen phone number that is valid somewhere on the planet.

The Jerusalem family had not only suffered the loss of a young and promising family member, but were then subjected to a considerable invasion of privacy. Pilgrimages were made to Karl's grave and even today the house in which he committed suicide is a historical landmark.

goethe3.jpeg The house in Wetzlar, Germany, in which Karl Jerusalem shot himself.
Photo credit: http://www.dreamstime.com

What was Goethe thinking!? Until his death, he regretted having failed to conceal the identities of his fictional characters.

With masterful subtlety, he changed the character of Werther as he appeared in Goethe's half of the story from a likable, sincere, and heartbroken young man to an insufferable, egotistical drama queen. On the other hand, when he rewrote Jerusalem's half, his sentences are more controlled, articulate, and sympathetically presented.

When we compare the two texts, we can spot the changes. For example, in Werther #I, in the May 4, 1771 letter, Werther/Goethe writes, "The town itself is not very agreeable." But in Werther #2, he writes, "The town itself is disagreeable." On May 17th Werther #1 writes, "I have made all sorts of acquaintances but have not yet got into any circle." Werther #2 writes, "I have made all sorts of acquaintances but have as yet found no one I really like." On June 16th Werther #1 writes, "Why don't I write to you? You ask me that though you are also numbered among the scholars!" Werther #2 writes, "Why do I not write to you? You, who pretend to know so much, ask such a question!"

On the other hand, when Werther is living Jerusalem's part of the story, Werther #1 writes on November 3rd of the following year, "But, Oh! I feel that God does not send rain and sunshine at our imperious bidding, and those times, the memory of which torments me, why were they so happy if not because I patiently awaited His spirit and received with a grateful fervent heart the rapture which He caused to descend upon me!" But Werther #2 writes the more graceful, "But I feel that God does not grant sunshine or rain to our furious prayers. Those bygone days, whose memory now torments me - why were they so happy? Because I waited with patience for the blessings of His spirit and received his gifts with the grateful feelings of a thankful heart." On November 30th, a month before his death, Werther #1 writes, "I cannot, I cannot regain command of myself! Wherever I go I encounter an apparition which totally deranges me. To-day! Oh Fate! Oh Humanity!" But Werther #2 writes, ""Never, it seems, shall I be at rest. Wherever I go, something occurs to upset me. Today - alas, for our destiny! Alas, for human nature!"

With self-effacing generosity, Goethe so irritatingly colors the character of his own contribution to the drama that by the time readers are through with the Werther/Goethe part, they don't mind at all that he is going to bump himself off. And certainly, no one is going to follow him into a copycat immolation. And he also graciously enhances the character of Werther/Jerusalem. In short, Goethe shows us that when we err it is not enough to say, "I'm sorry." While an apology is necessary, it is not necessarily sufficient. To the extent that was possible, Goethe corrected his error.

To show precisely how he accomplished this revision of the reader's perception, Werher #2 begins his letters by demonstrating annoying strategies that he will frequently use: he makes an assertion that has two sides; one side apparently benevolent and the other side cleverly malevolent. It is the stuff of "left handed compliments" and what we used to call, "the velvet harpoon." Also, he accuses someone of an infraction of some kind - which he will quickly contradict; and then, he will accuse himself of being equally guilty and apologize. But then he will find a reason to excuse himself and to shift the blame onto someone or something else, leaving himself as a kind of innocent victim. In Werther'Goethe's world he is Numero Uno. There is no Numero Dos. The novel's opening paragraph begins:

"How glad I am to have got away! My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of man! To leave you, from whom I was inseparable, whom I love so much, and yet be happy! I know you will forgive me. Were not all my other attachments especially designed by fate to torment a heart like mine? Poor Leonore! And yet I was not to blame. Was it my fault, that, while the capricious charms of her sister afforded me agreeable entertainment, a passion for me developed in her poor heart? And yet - am I wholly blameless? Did I not encourage her emotions? Did I not find pleasure in those genuine expressions of Nature, which, though but little amusing in reality, so often made us laugh? Did I not - but oh! what is man, that he dares so to accuse himself?"

In other words, at home he had been in the constant company of his best friend... and, boy, is he glad to have gotten away. It is likely that his friend will take this as a bit of an insult and be offended. Werther acknowledges this all-too-human fault and takes for granted that his friend will forgive him. But who is really the guilty party? Fate. Fate just has a nasty habit of putting Werther together with the kind of person who would torment him. That being settled, he moves on. He had led a girl named Leonore to believe that he was romantically interested in her; and then, while mocking her returned expressions of affection, he turned his attentions to her sister. He does not say what it was that Leonore did to herself that he now pities, but whatever it was he insists he was not responsible. But on the other hand.... An, well, it is the nature of man to accuse himself... Once again he is absolved.

In subsequent letters Werther regrets that other interests have prevented him from drawing the landscape he has praised, "I feel that I was never a greater painter than I am now." He devotes one letter to affirming his class superiority. "The poor people hereabouts know me already, and love me, particularly the children" He bestows upon himself a Christ-like demeanor which allows him to disregard social conventions. He is the essence of magnanimity, explaining to Wilhelm, "People of rank keep themselves coldly aloof from the common people... while shallow minds and bad jokers affect to descend to their level, only to make the poor people feel their impertinence all the more keenly." And then he relates how he helped a servant girl pick up a pitcher - stating it as though it were a grand act of noblesse oblige.

He follows this letter with another that proclaims his superiority. "I do not know what attraction I possess for people, so many of them like me, and attach themselves to me.." He confesses that he sometimes "forgets" himself and interacts with the locals, walking or eating with them, and admits that he enjoys this; "only I must forget that there lie dormant within me so many other qualities which wither unused, and which I must carefully conceal. Ah! All this affects my spirits. And yet to be misunderstood is the fate of a man like me."

His correspondent has evidently tried to corral some of this conceit, for Werther concludes this letter, "I have also come across a few other curious fellows who are in every respect annoying and most intolerable in their demonstrations of friendship. Good-by. This letter will please you; it is quite factual." Werther #2 throws hissy-fits with great regularity.

And then he meets Charlotte. To show how off-balance he is, Goethe lets him write, after knowing her for only an hour or so: "Then Charlotte sat down and ate some oranges that I had secured - the only ones left; but at every slice which she politely offered to a greedy lady sitting next to her, I felt as though a dagger went through my heart."

He persists in his imagined Christ persona, going to Charlotte's home, ostensibly to play with the children. "Nothing on this earth is closer to my heart than children." He gushes, "Great God! ... Thou beholdest great children and little children, and no others; and Thy Son has long since declared which afford Thee greater pleasure!" And in his next letter he recounts a visit that he and Charlotte paid to a old man who had a child whom Charlotte kissed - "a dirty, ugly little thing."

He begins a rapid oscillation between the poles of euphoria and depression. In his manic phase he is garrulous, sometimes speaking so incessantly that Charlotte must nudge him, prompting him to shut up. He becomes argumentative, taking always an affected high moral ground. In conversation, he is ludicrously emotional. Describing the death bed scene of an acquaintance, he suddenly imagines Charlotte standing beside her dying mother's bed, and he begins to weep uncontrollably. "I put my handkerchief to my face, and left the room; I was recalled to my senses only by Charlotte's voice, reminding me that it was time to go home." Charlotte is finding his presence increasingly objectionable, and the reader can hardly blame her. But Werther does not see that people are trying to avoid him, that they are oppressed by his irrational outbursts and irritated by his polemics. Her husband cannot tolerate being in the same room with him. Having worn out his welcome at Charlotte's house, Werther accepts a clerking position in another town.

Unfortunately, he can't get along with people there, either; and he is summarily "released" from his position. His slide into depression then receives a catalytic push when he injects himself into a private party an acquaintance is giving for some aristocratic friends. He ignores the obvious embarrassment of a woman to whom he persistently speaks; and he disregards reactions by other guests that indicate that his presence is disturbing. Finally, after receiving complaints, the host asks Werther to leave. Deeply chagrined, his self esteem destroyed, he is now beyond help. His psychological problems prevent him from working or painting or doing anything constructive with his life. He has been spurned by the woman he loves and ostracized by society.

Goethe poignantly records his desperation and, by rewriting his lines with lucid simplicity, succeeds in repairing Jerusalem's reputation. Even in the last month of his life Werther/Jerusalem can philosophically regard his situation: he encounters a deranged man who is joyfully trying to pick summer flowers in the snow. The man's mother explains that he had been a happy child but then as he grew older he succumbed to a violent mental illness. After a stay in an asylum, he ceased being violent, though he was still deranged. Werther writes, "God in heaven! Is this the destiny of man? To be happy only before he has acquired his reason and again after he has lost it?" But he insightfully notes, even in trying to pick non-existent fflowers, the insane man at least had a purpose. "I wander forth without hope, without purpose; and I return as I came." He concludes with an admonition to anyone who laughs at an invalid who, seeking a cure, travels a hard road to a distant "healthful" spring - "which may only increase his sickness and hasten his painful death" or at "the despairing mind of a sinner who, to obtain peace of conscience and relief from misery, makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre." A penitent's physical pain, he writes, can be "balm for his troubled soul, and the journey of many a weary day brings nightly relief to his anguished heart." Werther would undergo any hardship if he could ease his agony. "I am reduced to the state of mind of those unfortunate creatures who believe they are pursued by an evil spirit. Sometimes I am oppressed, not by apprehension or fear, but by an inexpressible inner fury which seems to tear up my heart and choke me." We know and respect Werther/Jerusalem more after Goethe has polished his lines.

In modern "real" life, such relief is seldom available. If people who contribute photographs and comments to internet forums and social websites - all those words and pictures that once seen are carved in stone - could hire Johann Wolfgang Goethe as their public relations' flack, there would be little to worry about. Unfortunately, Goethe is dead. We have only The Sorrows of Young Werther, the unexpected effects it had on its innocent victims, and Goethe's remedial model to remind us to be circumspect when publicly disseminating personal information.

Vigilance is necessary. Even if they don't foolishly do this to themselves, adults will buy a child computer equipment, and while they struggle to understand the remote control of their high-def TV, the child is making a cinema verite home movie and uploading it to social networks. Films, photos, and an assortment of unexpurgated comments will begin an odyssey that takes them beyond their targeted recipients and into the homes and files of people and places never imagined. Information storage groups will hold the data in suspended animation until College Admissions' officers, Registrars, Tax Investigators, Home Owners Associations, Personnel Managers, Clubs, Banks, Employment Agencies, Insurance Companies. Divorce and Domestic Affairs Consultants, and Opposition Candidates pay to have it retrieved. Naturally, tax, military, and other "vital statistics" records are all there for the taking by clever hands; but all that other private information is out there hibernating as it waits through the stasis of an anonymous winter to burst into a humiliating spring.

Humming Bird