Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther - Existential Sorrow (response and analysis)
Note on future changes:
I will revisit this article, as well as the article on Hoffmann, in order to appropriate the content to objective standards. This article is literally a copy/paste from a reading response that I had done, and so it is limited as my personal reflection. There is certainly some merit to reading this article, but be advised that I plan to clean up any subjectivity, and add further analysis, with citation, and possibly a brief summary.
Journal de Bord #1
“That the life of Man is but a dream has been sensed by many a one, and I too am never free of the feeling.”
At the start of The Sorrows of Young Werther, I wasn’t completely sure what to think of the story. I didn’t really think so highly of Goethe’s portrayal of someone who seemed to live wholly through his emotion, with little depth to him. Werther seemed to me someone who was altogether intense and emotional, with his unbearable sadness at his separating from his dear friend Wilhelm, and an overwhelming sense of wonder and splendor towards his surroundings. I couldn’t help but wonder if the story really had someplace to go from here. Was it just to be the portrayal of someone’s exaggerated mood swings? Even later in the book, I would find myself wondering if Werther was just overly sentimental, and would be driven to suicide from that alone. I thought this, until I was able to see his much darker side.
Where does Werther’s sadness come from? I don’t think that it’s as simple as the case of Goethe’s ‘story-inspiring’ acquaintance, Jerusalem, who came to an end by his hopeless pursuit of love. Goethe’s sadness lies in something deeper than the simple effect that Lotte would have on him. He hints at one’s lack of purpose in being, and our inability to escape this prison of thought.
The beginning passage from the May 22 letter to Wilhelm, who, by the way, I believe is just Goethe/Werther’s way of reflecting on his thoughts through discourse with himself, gave me chills when I read it:
“That the life of Man is but a dream has been sensed by many a one, and I too am never free of the feeling. When I consider the restrictions that are placed on the active, inquiring energies of Man; when I see that all our efforts have no other result than to satisfy needs which in turn prolong our wretched existence, and then see that all our reassurance concerning the particular questions we probe is no more than a dreamy resignation, since all we are doing is to paint our prison walls with colourful figures and bright views … I withdraw into myself, and discover a world, albeit a notional world of dark desire rather than one of actuality and vital strength. And everything swims before my senses, and I go my way in the world wearing the smile of the dreamer.”
The reason that it gave me chills is because I could immediately relate to this with ideas that I’ve had before. He must be talking about epistemology and metaphysics, and I don’t doubt that he was somewhat inspired by Descartes when he uses the living dream as a reference to his uncertainty. What exactly is this world that we surround ourselves with? What purpose does it serve to exist? At the very base, we exist only to continue to exist: we eat, sleep, and procreate, in order to ensure the continuation of a new cycle. Anything that is in the periphery of this motion is simply the ‘colouful figures and bright views’ with which we ‘paint our prison walls.’ The things we do are either part of our continuing survival, or are the figures and views that we cover this true existence up with. Troubled by this lack of existential purpose, we question whether life is some sort of dream from which we (hopefully) eventually wake. Goethe believes that he can only experience a true sense of existence and, possibly, purpose, through his living in his own mental world painted by emotions and feelings; living through his heart and mind. However, he can’t escape living in the so-called ‘real-world’, where the truth of ‘being’ is in his continued importance on and seeking-out of perpetuation of his own existence. His thoughts, and later, act, of suicide that follow might not be simply a release from pain over Lotte and society, as we suspect, but also a release from uncertainty. In this way, Goethe makes me feel as though is about more than just the pains of love and complications of class, but about one’s place and purpose in being.
It was the letter of May 22 that really pulls me to this book; gives feeling of a close connection with it.