Goethe – The Sufferings of the Young Werther We come now to the seventh of our lectures exploring the life lessons that we learn from the great books and in our first six we went from the Roman Seneca to the humanist Albert Sweitzer exploring the question of unconquerable human spirit that rises above all adversity and now in our second section; we ask the question simply, how do we live our lives? How do we go from youth to old age, what issues confront us, and what lessons do we derive at each stage of our life from a great book? One of the qualities of a great book is that you can read it at different periods and each time your life experience will allow you to draw something new from it. So we begin looking at youth, and one of the greatest of novels ever to celebrate youth, the follies of youth, the search for wisdom by youth and the irrevocable decisions that we make as young people as we determine the whole rest of our lives. – It’s a theme I always pursue with my students; they are twenty-one, twenty-two years of age and I tell them; you are making decisions right now; about a job, about going to graduate school, about going to medical school, about whom to marry and these cannot be changed, they will always be there with you. Those grades upon the transcripts, the wife or husband you divorce will still be there in your memory and you must look at life very seriously; and no one took life more seriously than the young Werther and we talk about the novel written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe celebrating the sufferings of the young Werther or the sorrow of the young Werther and I don’t strain the German language too much to say that it could be called the passion of the Werther both of his love and his self-sacrifice in the name of love. But the author was the most famous literary figure of his day. Goethe lived from 1749 until 1832; he saw the American revolution which he applauded, the French revolution and the great Napoleon which he admired, and lived on to see Europe shaken one more time by the revolutions of 1830. He was born in Frankfurt, his father was a successful business man and saw to it that Goethe had the best possible education, first private tutors learning Greek and Latin also learning French and English quite well and becoming familiar with the literature of these great languages but his father wanted him to be a success in life. Goethe was of an artistic bent, he wanted to be an artist but his father said no, go to law school. Fathers still tell their children that as do mothers so Goethe went to law school dutifully but he didn’t like it, he was fairly good at it; he got his law degree but came back home and said “dad I really want to draw and I want to write poetry.” His father said; “I have read some of your poetry and it is quite admirable and you are already getting good critical reviews but you can always write poetry, make money. Go be an attorney. So at the age of 24, again very dutiful, Johaan Wolfgang Goethe found himself in the little town of Wetzlar in the valley of the beautiful river Lahnau. A glorious area of German in the western part and it was still part, of course, of that archaic system, the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. One time, there was said to be 365 political units under the rule of the holy roman emperor sitting in Vienna ranging all the way from great kingdoms like Bavaria down to a single knight with just his castle and a horse. Each of these was of independent unity and each of these there had to be a system justice and Wetzler a beautiful old town with half-timbered houses was one of the places where courts were held for the Holy Roman Empire. Goethe went out there and began to practice law, fairly successfully but while he was there he fell absolutely in love with the young Charlotte –Laute she is called in German- a beautiful blue eyed girl and Goethe was absolutely in love with her. It turned out however she was engaged to another man; older than she, very respectable, and Goethe simply continued to pursue her until she finally broke off the relationship; said leave me alone, this is beginning to be a public scandal and go away from town; and so he did; but at the cost of tremendous emotional suffering. – I ask my students again, has any of you been in a situation in which you would throw away everything just for love?- and Goethe was so much in love with the beautiful Laute; that he seriously contemplated suicide. He was of a deeply melancholy disposition and he took out a dagger time and time again and would poke himself with it to see how far he could drive it in; but then he decided no; instead of killing myself; I am going to make a creative act, I am going to do something, and I am going to write about all this suffering and in four weeks he polished off the sufferings of the young Werther. Pouring his whole story, all of his pain, into the novel of another young man. It became an immediate success, Goethe was an overnight sensation, because of this novel, the sufferings of the young Werther. It is in the format of an epistolary novel, that is to say, letters being written. Werther writing to his correspondent Wilhelm; Wilhem is then the editor and begins with a short preface that he thinks that the sufferings of the young Werther should be made known to the world so that this tragic story might prevent others following in the footsteps of Werther, to take their own life. So you know at the beginning what is going to happen to Werther. But the first letter is in May of the year and filled with sunshine and spring it’s the age of renewal, the time of year when the buds come forth and the fog comes about, and young Werther has moved to a little town where he breathes deeply of nature and celebrates a liberation of his soul from all the restrictions of society and his mind, of all the restrictions of classical learning and of an age which believed that nature was controllable and that all laws could be known by reason and rejoices just in the sense of his own spirit and his uncontrollable irrational love of nature. The only book he says he needs is Homer, reading about the Odyssey and the wild story of the War with Troy, the beautiful descriptions of nature that Homer already understood. Like the romantic poet Keats, he believes that he has looked into a whole new world when he first studies Homer. With homer in his hand; and walking about the fields, he has put his law career far behind him and he draws, he sketches, pretty good at it he thinks and reads his Homer and sketches and drinks a little wine and gets to know the local people. In them, the ordinary peasant; there is such a joy for life and he immediately feels a kinship with them. He just sits down one day in a farm yard with a lady and her two little boys and asks; may I draw your two little boys and she says; yes please go ahead. Here take a little money he says, and run off and buy some rolls and milk and they treat him like a member of the family. Then he sees another young man walking along and he says sketch you, and he says yes, and the young man says I am so happy, I am in love. I am in love with the lady I work for; she is a widow and I just love her so much and the very joy of his love made me feel good Werther said. So in this midst of this love, he is walking along, and he has heard about bailiff, a local man who owns a good deal of land and manages other land. He wants to go visit him, he likes calling upon the local people and introduce himself and he goes, and the bailiff is not there but the daughter is there. Laute is her name. She is taking care of her little brothers and sisters, he mother died some years before and Laute really runs the house and from the first time he sees her, Werther is absolutely taken. He has been stuck by the thunderbolt. She is the most beautiful person that he has ever seen and she is so good; you can just see the goodness coming out of her and she tells him there is a dance tonight, would you like to go with me? Oh yes, I would love to go with you he says. They go off in the carriage, and they find they have so much in common. She is not a highly educated person, but they like the same literature, do you like the Vicar of Wakefield? Oh I love the Vicar of Wakefield! Oh do you like the poetry of Klopstock? Oh I love the poetry of Klopstock! Werther begins to recite to her Klopstock’s magnificent poem on nature and May and beautiful May rain and it starts raining right then and they arrive at the dance. Oh, how she can dance! I am sometimes a little clumsy Werther writes to Wilhelm but that night it was as though I had wings on my feet, and we danced and we danced and we were the center of attention as we danced and danced and a lady turned to me and said as I was getting a cup of punch; you are such a beautiful couple, she is a lovely young woman, she has runs such a wonderful house for her father, she will make albert a lovely wife. WHAT?!? Albert?? Who is Albert?? Albert, Albert a very respectable business man who was about eight years her elder and they are engaged, you didn’t know that? She didn’t tell you? Oh yeah, yeah, oh of course she told me. – How could this be?- But he is already totally in love with her, and now he begins to pursue her and Albert conveniently is away and she doesn’t tell him no. Their relationship we might assume is platonic, noting serious happening but he is infatuated with her, and she knows it. He comes and sees her every day, they read Homer together, they take picnics together, he supervises the little children, let the little children come on to me, they are nothing but a source of joy and so he is so happy as we move into high summer and then onto late summer as the days begin to grow shorter and Albert comes home. But at first it doesn’t seem all that bad, he is much taken with Albert, Werther is; and they strike up a friendship a manly sort of friendship and they take long walks together and he is a regular visitor. Albert, Laute and Werther they go everywhere together. Albert can see a little bit that Werther is much taken with Laute but it is sort of a testimony to his own good taste. It all seems harmless enough and Werther keeps writing of this, of his deepening passion and he must have Laute. He is writing again and again to his friend Wilhelm who is a very sane person, a lawyer. He writes back and says this is a crazy situation. You need to leave there, go somewhere, and start up a career. These drawings you send me, they are nice enough, but you’re not an artist, you’re not writing any poetry. You need to go somewhere and have a real career. You are going to come to a bad end there. Laute too encourages him to go away. It can’t go any further between them, she says. Even Albert is becoming a little distant. So Werther leaves and he takes an administrative post with Count C (Everybody just has an initial in this book.) and if there is anything that he is not suited for; it is to be a bureaucrat, he is a creative spirit and his always surprised when the Count and particularly the Count’s second in command criticizes him for sloppy work and not getting work on time and they simply don’t understand his creative abilities. Well he strikes up a new female relationship there, but with a very aristocratic young woman, in other words; as Laute is unavailable, in fact, inaccessible, unobtainable and he knows that when he starts that with Laute; so this aristocratic young woman, will never marry him, he is not of the right social group. He starts a deep relationship with her. One day he goes to dinner with the Count, but stays too long and the Aristocratic circle that comes every day on that week; arrives. They go home and they see this commoner, Werther is there. He pursues the young lady and asks; why did you leave? She says you are an embarrassment to me don’t you understand that? It is well enough for us to talk in private, but I can’t be seen with someone like you in public. You’re a commoner! She flared her aristocratic nostrils at him. At this time the County suggests to him that it would be better if he finds other employment. So he is out of a job. He has failed as an artist, he has failed with Laute and now he has failed in his job and he now learns that Albert and Laute have now married. They send him a little notice of their wedding. Its spring again; but there is no job this spring as there had been the year before. He goes back to his old home, but nothing is the same there. He is drawn irrepressible back to Wilheim. Knowing that it is destruction to go back to Wilhelm. But as high summer begins again, the time when he met Laute, he goes back. She tells him right off, it cannot be the same. She is married. He seems adjusted to this, he strikes up his old friendship with Albert and again they spend a great deal of time together. Frequently Albert travels on business. Laute entertains Werther there at home, and is as free and open with him as they had always been and they have delightful little moments that he writes to Wilhelm about. Oh she had this little Canary on her fingers, and the little bird kissed her and it flew over to me and kissed me. Oh I am in absolute heaven. One day I couldn’t keep the engagement and I sent a messenger over and he came back and gave me her return note and the very clothes he wore became sacred in my eyes because she had laid her eyes upon them and the note I kissed it again and again because she had touched it and the suit I had worn on the first day I had met Laute, the pale blue suit with the yellow vest, it began to wear out, so I had another one made, just like it. But I keep the other one and kiss it every day, because it is the one she first laid her hands upon. - You might snicker at this, but it is true love, and I would question that if some of you had not been so devoted to a loved one just that way, that every moment away from her or him is pain. That every day brings only one though that you will see that beloved person, this is not unique in human history and this must have stuck a very persuasive note in many who read the sufferings of the young Werther, the passion that had brought him such job yet such suffering and they were intermingled. His relationship with Albert now becomes a little more strained, Albert would ask him from time to time, why are you always hanging around here? I am fine to be convivial and entertain you, but really people are beginning to talk in this small town about you being over here all the time, particularly when I am away. Now Homer even no longer brings joy to Werther. He has been replaced in his mind – in his heart- by the poems of Ossian. I wonder how many of you have heard of Ossian, it came out with a great splash in the year 1765 Gaelic tales from the highlands collected, translated from the original Gaelic from James McPherson. These were wild highland tales. The Gaelic equivalent the Scottish equivalent of the poems of Homer but even deeper and more morose. Violent thunderstorms that shake the Earth, blood feuds that go on generation after generation and Europe was taken by them, Goethe was much taken by them. From the beginning there were those that questioned them, the great scholar and wit Doctor Samuel Johnson said from the start these were frauds! This McPherson has written this poetry. It is very bad poetry, and it is totally fraudulent, he is trying to pass it off as new Homeric tales. Someone asked him, do you think any man could write such beautiful poetry? Dr. Johnson said yes, many men, many women, and many children. But Goethe believed they were real and Werther loved them. So he begins to carry his Ossian around with him and he tries to ready it and he gets to see Laude again and again. It is getting now into the fall, as the days grow shorter and shorter, reaching up to Christmas time, he becomes ever more morose and ever more demanding in the time that he wanted to spend with Laute and she becomes ever more reserved with him. She sees that his passion and love for her is turning into an obsession and she doesn’t know how to handle it, she has been rather careless with him. Now it is turning into an almost demonic possession with him. Finally he comes to her home and she says Albert is going to be away the next three days, it is coming up towards Christmas. Do not see me again. I beg of you. Come and spend Christmas day with us. – In Germany that is a very special day, just for the family- But please, don’t see me before that time and don’t see me before Albert comes back. I beg of you. He is utterly distraught and goes home in complete misery and cannot stand it, he goes back to the house the next night, Albert is away and she doesn’t want to let him in; but he is determined to come in and he forces his way in and she says, This cannot go on. You must, I pity you but you must leave me alone.” Then for the first time he tries to take her. He grabs her and kisses her roughly and she pushes him away and says, “Leave me alone.” – A terrible storm is blaring out in the night shaking the house and he says, “Let me stay just for a few minutes.” She said, “Alight stay read something to me.” I will read to you my translations of Ossian. Yes, read me your translations of Ossian. He begins page after page about the storm the great blood feuds and all the gales are dead, the last of the Gaelic warriors lays himself to rest on his own sword. He will not outlive the people of his land. –Gloomy thing for a gloomy night- She locks the door and says, “go away!.” He goes back home; and there, in the depths of his despair he makes his decision. Suddenly all is clear with him. He writes one more last long letter to Wilhelm. It is all clear now, I see exactly what I must do; and now I am so happy. The next day he sends a little note over to Albert, saying; “May I borrow your hunting pistols?” – Albert has come home from a business trip that has not gone particularly well and is in a grumpy mood and this messenger comes in and Albert is talking with his wife Laute. Was Werther again over here last night? I have told you not to do that, I do not suspect darling but this is very bad. What? A note from Werther? Will he never leave us alone? He wants to borrow hunting pistols, he is going on a trip. Well get them for his Laute and send him a note wishing him a happy trip and don’t come back…not just leave that part out. Just wish him a happy trip. –She gives the two pistols to the messenger and he take them over and gives them to Werther.- Werther is dressed in his light blue coat, his light blue pants, the vest that he wore the first time he saw Laute. He asks the messenger, “Did Herr Albert give you these? And the Messenger says, “No. No, Frau Laute gave them to me with her own hands. Her own hands! She is blessing me, he says and he kisses them fervently. – Then he takes care of some bills he has to pay. – You know frequently when people finally reach their decision about suicide, they take care of all of the small maters. Their minds are completely free. He pays his bills. Writes one last letter. Then at midnight; puts the pistols to his head. And fires them. A neighbor hears the sound; but he thinks it must be thunder, a flash of lightening perhaps. Who knows? And thinks no more of it. The servant comes in at six the next morning and finds Werther lying there on the floor. -Well, Werther can’t do anything right. He can’t fall in love properly. He can’t draw. He can’t be a bureaucrat. And he can’t kill himself. He is still alive, and he is lingering there, so he rushes to get the doctor. The doctor comes rushing brining Laute and Albert with him. Werther is there with his death rattle and dies on the bed. They take him in the dark of night; with only the servant, and no clergyman and bury him. A suicide in unconsecrated ground. And so the sufferings of the young Werther have come to an end. And this Melodramatic tale swept Europe. People came just to see and shake Goethe’s hand, he didn’t have a job and he didn’t get a lot of money from Werther because the copyright laws were such that there were all sorts of pirated editions everywhere. But one day a message came to him in the mail from the Duke of Weimar. He said; “I so admire your work; that I would like to meet you. Please come to my court.” Goethe went. The Duke was a little younger than Goethe and said, “I want you to be my most trust aide. Anybody who can write a novel like that; you have captured all the essence of life. How many times have I identifies with young Werther? I want you to be my counselor. There Goethe would spend the rest of his life. Climbing to ever greater fame. He was a very capable administrator. He ran the Dukedom very. Very well. He supervised the taxes. HE was ever trusted by the Duke. He was absolutely confidential and loyal to the Duke. But became the most celebrated intellect of Europe. He wrote his magnificent works on science there in Weimar. His Farben Lehre. His study of how color comes to us. His treatise on physics. He made studies of plants that influenced even Darwin. He wrote his plays, he made his a journey to Italy and captured the essence of the conflict between the romantic love of nature and the middle ages and the glorious love of antiquity and symmetry. The conquer Napoleon, in the height of his fame came to Weimar; just to see Goethe. Napoleon came to Goethe and said, “I have read Werther seven times! (And he wasn’t alone in this) I carry it around on all my campaigns, I had it with me in Egypt. He turns to his Generals and says, “Vola a menom.” There is a man Goethe! Now tell me more about Werther; and what deeper meaning you see it. And Goethe said, “I began to feel about Werther about the way you feel about a brother is an embarrassment. He was always around and people were always bring him up.” They would come and talk to him and he would say, “Well haven’t you read my Italian Journey?” Yeah, that’s hard going, but that Werther! When are you going to write another Werther? That was a great book! Write another one of those why don’t you? “Have you read my Farben Lehre?” No, I haven’t read about colors, I’m not very interested in science, why don’t you write another Werther? That is all people would ever ask. Why, I would go and give a lecture and they would say, “Explain Werther to us!” But it was more serious than that. Werther fever swept over Europe and it was said by the authorities that hundreds, some claim even thousands of young men had killed themselves. Yes, having read Werther and died in a blue suit with a yellow vest, a copy of Werther in their hands. Struck down by love and taking him as their model. And Goethe himself bemoaned this Werther fever. But all through his life he continued so to grapple with this question of; why do we live? He had chosen to live, not to die as Werther had. He had thought about suicide but put it away and said, “I have a creative life to live.” And he had joined the creative and the practical. But he continued to ask, “Why do we live. How do we create, and why do we create? And so, in middle age already famous. He came back to the theme in what he would regard as his best literary work. The Faust. He published the first part of it in 1808. You will recall it begins with a contemplated suicide; the learned Herr Dr. Faust is there alone in his chambers. Pondering on how he has studied philosophy, the law, even theology. (I am ashamed to say) Pondering, it all means nothing. I have learned only this: Learning only means pain, and we can never know anything. I am going to kill myself. He takes a cup of poison out.
Posted on: Sun, 17 Aug 2014 22:13:08 +0000
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