The Sorrows of Young Werther. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

(von) Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. The Sorrows of Young Werther. (Original) Weygand’sche Buchhandlung, Leipzig, 1774 (revised 1787). Read as Oxford World’s Classics, translation from German by David Constantine, electronic version downloaded for Kindle. F; 2/16.

Reading this early romantic novel, I had to confess to myself that a lot of the pleasure I get from modern fiction is the fun of contemporary style. I wasn’t able to generate the cultural historic change of venue I managed with Mrs. Dalloway. Goethe of course was the Shakespeare of the German language, writing toward the end of the 18th century and therefore near the beginning of what’s considered the romantic period in the arts. He was a sort of harbinger of the human-sentiment-oriented reaction to a hundred years’ worth of the rational enlightenment courtesy of Isaac Newton, James Watt, industry, and science.

Shelley, Chopin, Turner, and Rousseau filled their writing, music, canvases and ideology with emotion and celebration of the individual and nature. Sturm und Drang. Laughing, crying, and casting the heart and mind adrift on nature’s magnificent ocean of experience. Etcetera.

To most of us these days the drippingly sentimental sorrows of young Werther sound suspiciously narcissistic and self-absorbed. But Goethe in dashing off this quite directly autobiographical tale of thwarted love was taking a daring swipe at a zeitgeist of heartless and humourless mechanistic materialism that was the current sophisticated intellectual norm in the late 18th century.

Werther writes impassioned letters to his friend describing his feelings for gorgeous generous Lotte, who is engaged to be married to reasonable rational older Albert. The threesome gets on fine and Werther is allowed by Albert to spend plenty of time alone with Lotte (as well as going on long walks through the countryside and appreciating the beauty of nature). But eventually the betrothed couple marries and Werther, desperate with frustration at his impossible predicament, shoots himself.

Along the way he expresses his contempt for what we take to be the ordinary rationalist:

My friends, I ask you why does the river of genius so seldom burst its banks, so seldom surge high and roar upon you and shake and astonish your souls? Friends, on both banks are the dwelling-places of placid gentlemen whose summer-houses, tulip beds, and vegetable plots would be destroyed and who therefore in good time ward off the future danger by damming and diverting.

The suicide could be Shakespearean (Goethe idolized the Bard), although for some reason everybody dying off at the end of one of the great dramatic Elizabethan tragedies strikes us as a forgiveably archaic but necessary device like a Greek chorus. This boy blowing his brains out made me wonder why he didn’t take any number of acceptable alternate paths. Kill Albert. Propose marriage – or an affair – to Lotte. Sign himself onto a merchant ship headed for South America. Or just suck it up and go find another girl.

I’m reminded of Nadas’s Book of Memories, where again we see exaggerated focus on emotional internal goings-on, but the plot is so much more complicated than Werther that we get diverted from the logic of how we ourselves might feel, and have felt, in what amounts to feeling lovelorn.

I blundered into this story after reading an article in the New Yorker about the author and telling myself that I should know more about this uniquely celebrated German writer. I guess I have to tell it like I see it: not much of a story, not a lot of literary charm, and science sceptic though I am I couldn’t quite get myself to accept this tale as an effective and worthwhile antidote to mean old materialism. Maybe in Faust or another literary work Goethe came into his own and I missed the boat. 6.2/6.5.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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