Demo Site

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Notes on Romanticism. Part 2

Goethe, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, (1771, pub. 1774)

MAY 4, 2012

Goethe in the 1770's

The second sentence of the first paragraph of the first letter of this little book: “What is the heart of man?”

-"The Sorrows of Young Werther" is an epistolary novel (the internal dialogue of Goethe with himself, unfolded in dozens of letters which no one ever answers), and it is autobiographical. It could, according to Goethe’s modern biographer, Nicholas Boyle, have been equally well translated as ‘the passion and death of young Werther.’ It is Goethe’s symbolic “Christ-figure” as lived and experienced in his own self, but short of the final desperate act of suicide. Werther, however, frustrated in his passion for Lotte Buff, sacrifices his life for love. The little book is based on Goethe’s own experiences as a clerk at the Reichskammergericht in Wetzlar, in 1771, and is uncompromising in its detailed description of both the world of the town and surrounding countryside of his own day, as well as of the cult of Sentimentality prevalent then in Germany’s incipient bourgeois society. Boldly, Goethe articulated the psychology of the reading public, the urban middle class, of the then quite fractured German polity. In this book, he combined the social and cultural phenomenon of his time, Germany in the 1770’s, in a way such as he had done for Goetz von Berlichingen, in the homonymous play, as a social and cultural phenomenon of the early sixteenth century, with a preoccupation with sentiment and character, “a voice that said “I” of internal longing and division,” (Boyle) as he had in the person of Weislingen in the same play. Sentimentalism, an amalgam of the Leibnizian idea of the individual “window-less” Monad and the character ideal of the Pietists, was prominent in the national life of the Germans in the 1770’s, and it is in this mix that German, and indeed European, Romanticism was born.


Pietism is a movement in the Lutheran Church, most influential between the latter part of the 17th century and the middle of the 18th. It was a movement designed to awaken the Lutheran Church from its lethargy and dogmatism, and what appeared to be a growing intellectuality supplanting the precepts of the Bible and replacing the emotions with logic and philosophy. Its first great leader was Philipp Jakob Spener, (1635–1705) from Frankfurt, German theologian, founder of Pietism, began in 1670 to hold devotional meetings. His Collegia Pietatis were designed to bring Christians into helpful fellowship and increase Bible study. Spener's book, Pia desideria (1675), emphasized the need of earnest Bible study and the belief that the lay members of the church should have part in its spiritual control. Although Spener did not intend separation from the church, his repudiation of the importance of doctrine and his desire to limit church membership to those who had experienced personal regeneration tended to undermine orthodoxy, and Pietism was severely attacked. After Spener's death, his work was carried on by August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), but Pietism had already entered a period of decline. Its effect was strongest in northern and central Germany, particularly in Prussia, but reached into Switzerland, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe. A number of foreign missions were begun. Through Count Zinzendorf the Moravian Church was influenced by it. Pietism earned a lasting place in the European intellectual tradition through its influence on such figures as Kant, Schleiermacher, and Kierkegaard. Although the movement bore resemblance to aspects of Puritanism, e.g., use of distinctive dress and the renunciation of worldly pleasures, the essential aim of the true Pietist was to place the spirit of Christian living above the letter of doctrine.


Pietism has a natural affinity for state absolutism in that it is a religion which concentrates on inward psychological motivations, from which the individual can then conceive of the state of his soul. It is a religion which eschews public worship and focuses on the small intimate group and the leadership of one of its members, and which openly opposes ecclesiastical hierarchies. Most importantly, it is a religion that advocates harmony with the state and the prevailing social and political order. Thus, Francke’s famous orphanage at Halle had as one of its principal functions the recruitment of Prussian military chaplains.

Pietism served to reconcile the individual with a unified rational order, and in this sense, it complemented the prevailing philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), the Monadology, which interpreted individual life in terms of pure inwardness: the windowless Monad. A Monad, in the metaphysics of Leibniz, is a simple indestructible non-spatial element regarded as the unit of which all reality consists. Leibniz's philosophy is a consistent rationalism. In his view, the universe forms one context in which each occurrence can be seen in relation to every other. Since the universe is the result of a divine plan, Leibniz calls it “the best of all possible worlds,” even though it contains evil as a necessary ingredient. The ultimate constituents of the universe, in his view, are monads or simple non-spatial substances, closed off from their surroundings, each of which represents the universe from a different point of view. Being simple, monads are immaterial and thus cannot act. Apparent interaction is explained in terms of the principle of pre-established harmony. Magnified to the level of the political state, this is a vision of self-contained individuals, living within a harmonic and pre-established order, which was, in fact, the eighteenth century German autocratic State.

Pietism and Leibnizian Monadology are a background element in the development of Romanticism because, in both cases, they fed into a preoccupation with the self, characteristic of Sentimentalism, and its destiny.

Werther and Lotte

The Sorrows of Young Werther

The book is addressed to the anonymous bourgeois reading public of printed books. As a student in Leipzig, a city in one of the electoral kingdoms of Germany, with aristocratic pretensions and a fancy towards Parisian culture, Goethe had been influenced by his friend Behrish into favoring calligraphic manuscripts of his early poems, restricted to a select, hence ‘aristocratic,’ audience, over the printed book, considered a base conduit for the vulgar bourgeois public. This division of loyalties would re-emerge again for Goethe at the court in Weimar. The Tiefurt Journal (1781-1784), originated by the Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia, and to which he contributed for a while, was a hand-written collection of writings that was meant for the eyes of only eleven individuals at the court.

Young girls reading Werther

Wilhelm Amberg, Vorlesung aus Goethes Werther 1870

The autobiographical element in ‘Werther’ is quite transparent. Werther’s birthday is on August 28th, as is Goethe’s; Werther works at the court in Wetzlar, as did Goethe; he meets Charlotte, betrothed to the kind and understanding Albert, as Goethe met Lotte Buff, betrothed to the kind and understanding Kestner. Goethe’s own experience of infatuation and melancholy, frustration and despair, is recapitulated in the story of Werther, who, however, proceeds in the end to kill himself. This melancholy is that of Goethe’s own generation, which accounts for the instantaneous and enormous success of the novel. In a much later retrospective, Goethe said of the Werther type: “We are dealing here with those who lost the taste for life essentially for want of action, in the most peaceful state imaginable, through exaggerated demands upon themselves.” What demands were these? The demands of “genius,” of the requirement that they be ‘creators.’ The “genius” theory is part of this Sturm und Drang tradition: “Prometheus” and, particularly, “Wandrers Sturmlied” are Goethe’s poems which best illustrate this notion, a notion that also originates in the concept of the Leibnizian Monad.

Werther meets Lotte

“Werther” is not a love story, but the story of the self-destruction of a feeling heart, of a sentimental soul. The whole book is the voice of Werther alone, and this voice has its only source in Werther’s own sensibility. It is the development of Werther’s mood that holds our attention, not the development of the plot. “Feeling is All!”

Werther and Lotte

(Appropriation of everything about him – my Waldheim, my Homer – reveals the inability of his sensitivity to capture the phenomenal world. Sentiment fails to grasp its “object.” This is the opposite of ‘Ganymed’ – embracing, embraced).

No comments:

Post a Comment