Perhaps it is the image of a grown man in the midst of sobbing on the cover of this book that would entice one to keep it safely tucked away in public. Or perhaps it simply is the title itself, discouraging one from even taking it out of the house. However, that is exactly what I did with Goethe’s cult inducing prose fiction, The Sorrows of Young Werther. This isn’t a book one would pack in day bag and carry to a crowded beach, to lie down in the sweltering sunshine amongst the sounds of laughing children and barking seagulls. Or is it..?
Several summers ago, I did just that. On the gorgeous shorelines of San Diego, I became notoriously famous amongst my friends for always bringing the most “absurdly emotional, literature soaked” book to take to such a “loud and chaotic setting,” they would tease. But perhaps that is my guilty pleasure. Staggering through the chords of human emotion on the broken strings of an old lyre, amidst a crowd of people seemingly suspended from their own inevitable woes as they splash in the salty water. There is something about reading a literary novel, heavy in conflicts and questions that linger in the nature of our humanity, in a setting where one is surrounded by people who have most certainly sweltered in the same emotional ranges that are elegantly preserved in this book.
Werther is an intelligent young artist, whose passion and longing to express his own personal depth come into conflict with the realities of societal life. His character is one that has become the stereotypical comportment of the artistic genius. One who is inescapably governed by feelings and intuition rather than logic. He pours his passionate heart into each of the letters that he writes, most of which are sent to his friend Wilhelm, who remains at the home town that Werther left in search for a more rural life. He finds this rural life in a fictional village named Wahlheim. Here, the simplistic lives of the people enchant him while the natural world seduces him. The book contains only Werther's letters, a one sided sequence of daily events and thoughts that are always placed in past tense, at the closing of the day. This leaves the reader with only small indications of the corresponding responses.
Werther observes the natural world, writing with passion that “a thousand different blades of grass become astonishing” and his heart is “teeming of the small world among the stems, the innumerable, unfathomable forms of the little worms, the tiny gnats, and [the feeling of] the hovering presence of the Almighty.” As the letters progress, the demeanor of Werther begins to devolve, until finally he becomes submerged deep in despair. Werther is in love with Lotte, with whom a close friendship forms. But Lotte is happily promised to another, Albert. The reader is immersed in obscure metaphors and paradoxes that echo moments and memories in our own lives. Where something as simple as a kiss from a long lost love will linger like blooming spring flowers in the halls of memory, to resurface from time to time throughout ones life. Where irrational longings lead one into an opaque state of mind, provoking goosebumps and fever. As Werther tries to navigate his friendships with both Lotte and Albert as well as with Lotte’s younger siblings, his bleeding heart becomes too much to bear.
This book speaks of something profound in human nature, in the untamed recesses of our biological selves that still lingers, even after the lashes of civilization conforms us. From some unknown place, echoes of our true nature whisper to us. Where we navigate through our daily lives by the pulls of impulse and desire. It echoes of the true nature of humanity before societal expectations take hold. Before marriages are arranged to amplify prestige and prominence of notable families. Before wealth, power, and societal gain influence and dictate our lives. Before all these expectations command attention from ones inward spirit to ones outward projections. It is this unrefined, bare naked essence of humanity that lurks behind the eyes of all these polished people on the beach that I find intoxicating. The sort of story that tickles the heart strings and somehow plugs some empty place, if only temporarily.
I must admit that the story is quite dreadful, but in an elegant and captivating way. It is a classic tragedy and a preliminary piece of writing that assisted in ushering the era of romanticism. I find great pleasure in such stories. Ones that remind us of our inner conflicts between self and society, full of passion and disaster. It may be a little embarrassing to read something such as this in public, a German romantic that strives to highlight a more simpler period in human culture. A time where the innate behaviors of humanity are yet unaltered by the contraption of civilized life. Where daily life is full of haunting sentimental tension and groundless projections of the supernatural. A time of creative genius where artists contemplated a whirlwind that stirs together the natural world and human emotion; where Beethoven wrote his greatest music and visual arts strived towards the sublime, such as Caspar David Friedrich and other painters from the school of Düsseldorf. But I suppose that having your nose snuggled in The Sorrows of Young Werther on a crowded beach full of contemporary humanity is probably not as embarrassing as a comic or some other book meant for a child.