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Flight from the Given World and Return to the New: The Dialectic of Creation and Escape in

Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther


Author(s): Stuart Walker Strickland
Source: The German Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2, Focus: 16th to 18th Centuries (Spring, 1991),
pp. 190-206
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German
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STUART WALKER STRICKLAND
Harvard
University
Flight
from the Given World and Return to the New:
The Dialectic of Creation and
Escape
in Goethe's
Die Leiden des
jungen
Werther
Jedes Bediirfnis,
dessen wirkliche Befriedi-
gung versagt ist, n6tigt
zum Glauben.
Die
Wahlverwandtschaften'
Formidable obstacles threaten to frustrate
any
effort to
develop
a
compelling allegori-
cal
reading
of a novel. As Fredric
Jameson's
term "master narrative"
reveals,
the
project
of
looking beyond
the
story ostensibly
told
by
a novel and
seeking
out
other,
more
deeply
embedded stories involves two
potentially
contradictory assumptions.2
An
allegorical
in-
terpretation
at least
gives
the
impression
of
telling
the whole
story,
of
discovering
a master
code,
of
giving
the most fundamental account
of what is
really
at stake in a novel. The
density
and
complexity
of even a
relatively
short novel
such as Goethe's Werther
puts
a tremendous
burden on
attempts
to construct
anything
even
approaching
such a
complete reading.
Undermining
the closure of a definitive in-
terpretation
is our awareness that the
allegory
itself must be cast in the form of a narra-
tive, potentially
as
complex
as the text it
claims to
explain. Although
the critic's task
may
well remain one of
making explicit
a
story
that is
only implicit
in the
novel,
the
resulting
criticsm remains
opaque
in its resistance to
efforts to state it in the form of a
proposition.
It has become itself a
story
whose sense is
in its
telling
and
subject
to
multiple interpreta-
tions. The
allegorical reading may
seek to
avoid the violence of
reducing
a text to formal
or thematic
analyses
of isolated
moments,
but
the narrative it
produces invariably implies
a closure
that, ironically,
excludes the text
itself. 3
The tension between a
complete
and a
narrative
reading
cannot be resolved
easily.
Nevertheless,
it
may
be rendered easier to
bear
by making
the
allegorical interpretation
both more modest and more
explicit. Although
this must be understood as a tentative and
preliminary formulation,
it seems worth
trying
to state the
allegory
in the form of a thesis.
Werther's
story appears
to recreate the
prob-
lem of the
possibility
of
art,
or
perhaps
more
narrowly
of fictional
creation,
in an
emergent
bourgeois society
whose
primary--perhaps
exclusive--interest
lies in the factual world
and whose constituents are valued for their
usefulness. Werther's
resistance,
his aloof
posture,
his
negotiations,
and his ultimate de-
struction reflect the dilemmas of the artwork
in a
society
that values it
only
for its
marginal
function of
escape
from the
pain
of
socially
necessary deprivation.
Can art maintain an
autonomous and critical
perspective
on a soci-
ety
that
recognizes
it
only
as a form of
escape?
My reading
of Werther is haunted
by
this
ques-
tion and
by
the
expectation
that Werther's
suicide
may yield
a
positive
answer. On one
level Werther is
certainly
a cathartic
expres-
sion of Goethe's frustration in love. But Wer-
ther also dies so that Goethe's vision of art
may
survive.
And,
on this
reading,
Werther's
characterization of himself as a sacrificial
fig-
ure
may
be more than mere delusion.
The
totalizing
claims
implicit
in the
allegor-
ical
approach
must be
tempered by
the
recog-
The German
Quarterly
64.2
(1991) 190
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 191
nition that one
reading
does not exclude other
possible interpretations.
In
particular,
I will
have occasion to draw on the
insights
of critics
who have
adopted psychoanalytic, existential,
social, historical,
and formal
approaches
to
Werther. Some of these
readings
will undoubt-
edly
seem more or less
compatible
with and
convincing
from the
perspective developed
here. But the
only
view I
explicitly
exclude
is that which would succumb to the ethical
temptation
to see Werther as a human
being
rather than a
literary
character and to
attempt
to use him as a
positive
or
negative
role model.
I am interested neither in
diagnosing
Wer-
ther's
allegedly pathological
condition nor in
seeing
him as the
spokesperson
for
any
sort
of
explicit
cultural or social
critique.
The case
for such
readings
has often been
argued,
but
this
approach
sheds little
light
on the
dynamics
of Werther's
development,
his
position
within
a
complex
textual
environment,
or the dialec-
tical relation of art and
society
of which
Werther is an
expression.4
This
paper
carries the twin
responsibilities
of both
telling
the
story
of an
allegorical
read-
ing
and
presenting arguments
in its favor. In
lieu of a total
reading
of the text or a marshal-
ling
of all the
arguments
that
might
be made
to
support
this
reading,
I have chosen to look
closely
at a
single
moment in the text that I
believe illuminates fundamental elements of
the
underlying allegorical
structure of the
novel. I had
hoped
to follow the course of the
allegory throughout
the rest of the text
by
considering
the
dynamic
of Werther's relation-
ship
with other characters and the forces
they
represent.
Such a
task, however, appears
to
be too
great
for an article of this
length.
Even
with the benefit of this initial
self-restraint,
my reading
would risk
becoming
diffuse if it
were not focused
by
the additional lens of a
central thematic concern. The
triangular
ten-
sion of
flight, restriction,
and return is essen-
tial to
my understanding
of the novel. If under-
stood both as an
escape
from restriction and
as a
necessary preparation
for a return, for
an
acceptance
of restriction, Werther's
flight
runs
parallel
to the ambivalent
relationship
between the artwork and society.
I
Werther frames himself within a
language
of
escape.
From his first declaration of free-
dom
("Wie
froh bin
ich,
daB ich
weg
bin!" 4
May
1771
[7])
to his final farewell
("Lotte,
lebe wohl! lebe wohl!" [123]),
Werther's
rhetoric is that of
flight, departure,
and es-
cape.
These are not idle words. Werther flees
the
company
of Wilhelm in the wake of an
unhappy
love
affair,
the
bourgeois society
of
Albert and
Lotte,
the aristocratic
society
of
the
Count;
he flees from ennui and
inactivity,
and from the
busy
work of the
legation.
Ulti-
mately
he flees from life itself. The
prevalence
of this
theme,
both in Werther's words and
in his
actions,
would seem to
justify
the critical
characterization of Werther as a novel of es-
capism.
Hans Reiss advocates such an inter-
pretation
in his
analysis
of Werther's
flight
as
a
solipsistic
withdrawal into the self: "Werther
refuses to
accept
the external world and loses
himself in the
apparent
fullness of his inner
life."" Critics such as
James Wilson,
whose
work
suggests
less of a stake in the demands
of the external world and a
greater affinity
for
art,
see Werther's
flight
as an
escape
from
the constraints of a
finite, corporeal,
mortal
world into an
infinite, ideal,
immortal world
of artistic
expression.6
While the former
ap-
praisal stigmatizes escape
as a withdrawal into
a
pre-existing self,
the latter
significantly
un-
derscores the fact that whatever Werther
flees
from,
his destination must be
actively
created. Whether or not we
accept
Wilson's
radical
dichotomy
between the immortal world
of art and the mortal world of life
(and
the
abstract rather than determinate relation that
it
implies
is a
point
with which we will have
to
contend),
the association between Wer-
ther's
flight
and artistic creation will remain
an
important
one.
If we
step
back to
emphasize
the
origin
of
Werther's
flight
rather than its
goal,
we
may
find
ourselves
in
partial agreement
with
Peter
Salm's claim that Werther's suicide is "a rebel-
lion
against
his
Einschriinkung,
his incarcera-
tion behind thick walls of illusion which he is
vainly struggling to break
down."'
There are
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192 THE GERMAN
QUARTERLY Spring 1991
certainly
moments in Werther that
support
the
sharp opposition
between
flight
and restric-
tion. In book
II,
for
instance,
after Frdiulein
von B. shares with Werther her
interpretation
of his dismissal from the Count's
party,
Wer-
ther's reaction seems to confirm Salm's
argu-
ment:
Ach,
ich hab' hundertmal ein Messer er-
griffen, um
diesem
gedraingten
Herzen
Luft zu machen. Man erzahlt von einer
edlen Art
Pferde, die,
wenn sie schreck-
lich erhitzt und
aufgejagt sind,
sich selbst
aus Instinkt eine Ader
aufbeil3en, um sich
zum Atem zu helfen. So ist mir's
oft,
ich
m6chte
mir eine Ader
6ffnen,
die mir die
ewige
Freiheit schaffte.
(16
March 1772
[70 f.])
As
striking
as such moments
are, they
should not lead us to overlook a fundamental
ambivalence in Werther's
expression
of con-
straint and
flight. Particularly
in book
I,
and
more
specifically
in Werther's
patriarchal
fan-
tasies,
restriction
(Einschrdnkung)
is
given
many positive
connotations. It
is,
for
example,
associated with a kind of shelter:
Du kennst von alters her meine Art,
mich
anzubauen,
mir
irgend
an
einem vertrau-
lichen
Orte ein
Hiittchen aufzuschlagen
und da mit aller
Einschrinkung
zu herber-
gen.
Auch hier habe ich wieder ein
Plitz-
chen angetroffen,
das mich
angezogen
hat. (26 May 1771 [14])
The ambivalence in Werther's sense of restric-
tion is echoed in his
frequent repetition
of
variations on the word
"ringsherum"
and in
his
images
of comfortable
valleys
surrounded
and
protected by hills, images
that we will
have an
opportunity
to examine in
greater
detail
shortly.
Restriction
appears
to function
not
only
as an obstacle but also as a
refuge.
Werther's further identification with the lim-
ited
perspectives
of the
young girl
whose
suicide he and Albert discuss
(12 August
1771
[45 ff.]),
with the
naivete
of children
(espe-
cially
in the letter of 6
July
1771
[35 ff. ]),
and
with the delusions of Heinrich (30 November
1772 [88 ff.]) suggest
that this ambivalent view
of restriction has
deeper implications
warrant-
ing
our closer attention. As we delve deeper
into the text I will maintain that these two
views of
flight
are neither isolated nor con-
tradictory
but stand in a determinate relation.
The
oppressive
connotations of restriction are
never
wholly
absent from Werther's
positive
sense of restriction as a familiar haven in which
he would
willingly
immerse himself.
Werther's
flight
is further
complicated by
an
equally prevalent
theme of return and
homecoming.
In his
patriarchal fantasies,
Werther evokes
images
of a return to an
epic
past (especially
21
June
1771
[28
ff.]);
in his
pilgrimage
to his
birthplace,
he
attempts
to
satisfy
the
longing
for return
expressed
in his
identification with children and with childhood
innocence
(9 May
1772
[72 ff.]).
It is not dif-
ficult to see Werther's
departure
from Wahl-
heim and from Lotte at the end of book I as
a
necessary prelude
to his return in book
II.
Even his
suicide,
while it resonates with a
sense of
escape,
is also described
by
Werther
as a kind of
homecoming:
Und
wiirde ein Mensch, ein Vater
zirnen
kinnen,
dem sein unvermutet
rtickkeh-
render Sohn um den Hals fiele und riefe:
"Ich bin wieder
da, mein Vater! Zurne
nicht, daB ich die Wanderschaft abbre-
che,
die ich nach
deinem Willen
linger
aushalten sollte." (30
November 1772
[91])
Eric Blackall reads this
passage
as Werther's
hubristic
attempt
to
suggest
an identification
of his own situation with the return of the
prodigal
son.8
But,
as Blackall
correctly points
out,
the
prodigal
son neither asks for nor ex-
pects forgiveness.
This observation overlooks
a more
important
difference: Werther is not
prodigal.
He does not ask
forgiveness
for hav-
ing strayed
but for
having returned,
for
having
renounced the father's command that he
explore
the world and returned to the comfort
of his home. The Biblical model carries with
it an ethic of linear or
progressive develop-
ment before which Werther balks.
The
opposing paradigm
for the recurrent
theme of
homecoming
and for the circular
structure it
imparts
on the novel is, of course,
the Odysseus story.
If literature provides an
escape
for Werther, something to soothe his
heart, it is
significant that the
only book he
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 193
needs is Homer
(13 May
1771
[10])
and
that,
although
he owns both the Illiad and the
Odyssey,
we never find him
reading
or
quoting
from the Illiad. Werther's
flight
is thus
always
a
homecoming,
a return with
Odysseus
to
Penelope.
But how
closely
does Werther's case re-
semble that of
Odysseus?
Can the dominant
theme of return in Werther
really
be charac-
terized as a
homecoming?
Is the world to
which Werther would return the same world
from which he fled? Or is it
something
else
entirely?
Robert Ellis
Dye's interpretation
of
the
religious
issues raised in Werther fuels
such doubts: "Werther exhibits clear
signs
of
alienation, longing
without real
hope
to
regain
that which is lost."'
Dye's
observations would
lead us to
pursue
a closer look at the world
to which Werther
hopes
to return. Werther's
return exists in the
present
less as a
plan
for
his future action than as a recollection. When
its moment of realization
arrives,
when Wer-
ther visits his
birthplace
and returns to Wahl-
heim,
the
impossibility
of return is
exposed
and the illusion
disintegrates.
Werther's faith
in the
possibility
of return-a faith whose
precarious
nature is mirrored in his alternate
glorification
of childlike
naivete and derision
of childishness-breaks down in book II.10 It
is not Lotte's
marriage
that blocks the realiza-
tion of Werther's
return;
the stress of its own
internal tensions shatters Werther's world.
The home to which Werther would return
is one that he himself has created. It is
not
given
but must be
created,
as
suggested
by
its name:
"Wahlheim"
(literally,
"chosen
home")."
The active role Werther must take in
facilitating
his
homecoming
is made even more
explicit
in his
appeal
to a created
world,
a
world set off from the world as it is immediate-
ly given.
The world around him
("das
Leben
des
Menschen")
he sees as a
dream,
a world
of restriction
(again, Einschrdinkung)
in which
the search for
knowledge
results not in libera-
tion but in so
many paintings
on
prison
walls:
Das alles, Wilhelm, macht mich stumm.
Ich kehre
in mich selbst
zuriick,
undfinde
eine Welt! Wieder mehr in
Ahnung und
dunkler Begier als in
Darstellung und le-
bendiger
Kraft. Und da schwimmt alles
vor meinen
Sinnen,
und ich lachle dann
so traumend weiter in die Welt. (22 May
1771
[13; emphasis added])
Here Werther finds a world within
himself,
a
kind of
refuge
from the restriction of the
given
world,
a
prison
within a
prison.
The
apparent
passivity
of this formulation- the second
world is found rather than founded-
together
with the admission that he turns inward more
out of a sense of
foreboding
than out of
any
creative
impulse
lend
support
to the view that
Werther's
flight
is
merely solipsistic escapism.
But this turn
inward,
this
discovery
of a sec-
ond
world,
makes
possible
a transition from
silence to
expression.
The
given
world makes
Werther
mute,
but in
turning
inward he finds
the
ability
at least to smile. The
discovery
of
this second world is
perhaps
a
prerequisite
for artistic
expression.
Another
important
transition also takes
place
in this
passage.
The
given
world was first described as a
dream
world,
but
by
the end Werther charac-
terizes himself as one who is in a dream. The
major
difference seems to be that the
unreality
of the
given
world is
externally imposed,
while
the
unreality
of the second
world,
the world
that allows the transition from silence to ex-
pression,
is
voluntarily accepted.
Werther
expands
on this
image
later in this
same letter. While the second world remains
a
response
to the constriction of the
given
world,
Werther now allows himself both a
more active role in the creation of this world
and a more ominous
image
of
escape:
Wer
aber in seiner Demut erkennt, wo
das alles
hinausliuft,
wer da sieht, wie
artig jeder Biirger,
dem es wohl ist,
sein
Gdirtchen zum Paradiese zuzustutzen
weif3,
und wie unverdrossen auch der Un-
glackliche
unter der Biirde seinen
Weg
fortkeucht und alle
gleich
interessiert
sind,
das Licht dieser Sonne noch eine
Minute
linger
zu
sehn-ja,
der ist still
und bildet auch seine Welt aus sich selbst
und ist auch gliicklich, weil er ein Mensch
ist. Und dann, so eingeschrlinkt er ist,
halt er doch immer im Herzen das
stille
Geffihl
der Freiheit, und
da3
er diesen
Kerker verlassen kann, wann er will. (22
May 1771 [14; emphasis added])
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194 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Spring 1991
No
longer
does Werther
simply
find the sec-
ond world within the
self,
but he insists it
must be built out of the
self;
the self furnishes
the materials for the construction of the sec-
ond world. The word "still" raises
again
the
question
of
silence,
but it evokes an
image
of
calm,
in marked contrast with the
cynical
over-
tones of the
"dreaming resignation" ("trau-
mende
Resignation" [13])
associated earlier
with
adaptation
to the
given
world. The allu-
sion to suicide as a
possible escape
from
prison opens
the
possibility
that the created
world
may
be a
flight
from the
given world,
a
simple rejection
of it. But suicide is not the
object
of the created
world;
suicide itself does
not
provide
the sweet
feeling
of freedom.
Rather,
it is the realization that suicide is
pos-
sible
which,
Werther seems to
intimate,
al-
lows him to
cope
with the restriction of the
given
world. As
long
as Werther's
recognition
of the
unreality
of the
given
world allows him
the freedom to create a world of his
own,
however
equally unreal,
suicide itself remains
an
unnecessary escape.
The tension between
flight, restriction,
and return reflects a fundamental ambivalence
in Werther's
rejection
of
society.
Peter
Salm,
who uses the letter we have
just
examined to
support
his
comparison
of Goethe and
Camus,
writes: "For Camus the creative
activity
of the
artist is tantamount to the
making
of 'counter-
universes,'
an
archetypal, hopeless
rebellion
in the face of an absurd world."12 I would as-
sert, however,
that it is
only
Werther's ambi-
valent view of the
absurdity
of the
given
world
that
ultimately exposes
his rebellion as
hope-
less. Werther remains of two minds about the
values of the world from which he turns. Al-
though
Werther flees from
society,
he values
and seeks the
recognition
of its
representa-
tives:
Albert, Lotte,
the
Count,
and Wilhelm.
Even in his
apparently
most
solipsistic
mo-
ments,
one of which we will examine in
detail,
Werther's inward turn is
occupied by
fantasies
of a communal
life, by
a desire for
acknowledg-
ment from and
integration into the
given
world.
As we turn to a closer treatment of the
text and
away from our
preliminary theoretical
concerns,
the
ambiguity
of Werther's
flight
should
provide
a
path
toward the
deeper prob-
lem of Werther's
apparently
willful
self-decep-
tion,
his
creation, through
his letters to
Wilhelm,
of a kind of
mythic
world set off
against
the demands of the actual world sur-
rounding
him but nevertheless
ultimately
re-
quiring
its
acknowledgment
and validation.
Werther's
inability
to maintain the
validity
of
his created
world, together with
his
unwilling-
ness to abandon
it, ultimately pull
him
apart.
To understand the course and
dynamic
of this
trajectory
is to
begin
to
approach
the
problem
of the
autonomy
and
marginalization
of fiction
in a world of fact.
II
First, however,
we must
give
our attention
to one final theoretical concern. I have drawn
a distinction between the
given
world and the
created world in
Werther,
a distinction that
requires
some
justification
and clarification.
As an initial intuitive
formulation,
we
may say
that the
given
world is all that Werther
per-
ceives around
him;
it is the established order
of
things.
The created world would then be
that which has its source in Werther: his fan-
tasies,
his
drawings,
his
writing.
If we assume
that there is a substantial
gap
between these
two worlds
(an
assumption many
critics have
made in their
diagnoses
of Werther's condition
as
pathological),
then an obvious
problem
con-
fronts us. The
epistolary
form of the novel
makes Werther our
only
source for the con-
tent of both the
given
and created worlds. We
can
glimpse
the
given
world
only through
the filter of Werther's
utopian
desires. Eric
Blackall has
argued--I
believe
convincingly
- that even the
third-person
narrator who
takes over in the final
pages
is not a
spokes-
person
for the
given
world but instead serves
to throw into doubt all
attempts
to
identify
an
objective perspective
on the events of the
novel.13 Even
if
one
rejects such an
interpreta-
tion, Werther remains our
only source for
many events about which the narrator is com-
pletely silent.
Benjamin Bennett takes
up
the
challenge confronting the reader who would
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 195
try
somehow to
get
behind Werther's
presen-
tation in order to
perceive
the features of an
actual world. He concludes
optimistically
that
the text furnishes sufficient evidence for the
reader to overcome
successfully
"Werther's
obvious failure to
perceive any
sort of
objec-
tive
clarity ..
." and to come to "an
objective
idea of how
things are."'4
More modestly,
we
might say
that it is
possible
to read across
the
grain
of Werther's
presentations
and to
see that the situations Werther describes are
subject to interpretations
other than those
Werther
gives
to them.
Werther himself seems to
recognize
a
gap
when he
distinguishes
between his historical
mode of
presentation-
of which Wilhelm evi-
dently approves-
and his more
lyrical expres-
sions
(17 May
1771
[11,
for
instance]). Many
critics have taken this distinction as a cue for
interpreting
the
dichotomy
as one between an
objective
and a
subjective perspective.
Ben-
nett,
for
example,
sees in Werther two
oppos-
ing points
of
view,
which he identifies alterna-
tively
as "the
ego" against
"the
necessary
progress
of the
whole,"
"our confused
percep-
tion of our own situation"
against
an
"objective
orderliness in
history,"
and an
"ego-oriented"
against
a
"causality-oriented"
perspective.15
But to draw this line between
subject
and
object
is to
suggest
a conflation of the
given
social and the
given
natural orders. It is also
to obscure the
similarity
between the created
world and the
given
social
world,
a resem-
blance that arises from the fact that
they
are
both human constructions. The
given
social
world derives a
large
measure of its
legitimacy
from its association with the natural order and
from the
perception
that it is
radically
different
from the created worlds of individuals. If
Werther is at least in
part
a
critique
of this
process
and if Werther's
attempts
to create
a second world are to be taken
seriously
as
a
challenge
to the
given
world's claims to stand
for nature and
reason,
then the critic should
attempt
to draw out this
challenge
rather than
cut it short with a
vocabulary that
tacitly sides
against Werther and with the
given world.
Some
light may
be shed on this issue
by
recalling
Lukics's
use of the term "second
nature" to describe the world of convention
and of human-made structure- what I have
here called the
"given
social world." His de-
scription
of the world of second nature
may
help
to
distinguish
it both from the natural
world and from the created world:
Sie bilden die Welt der Konvention: eine
Welt,
deren
Allgewalt
nur das Innerste
der Seele
entzogen ist; die in untiber-
sichtlicher Mannigfaltigkeit
iiberall
ge-
genwirtig
ist;
deren
strenge
Gesetzlich-
keit, sowohl im Werden wie im
Sein,
ffir
das erkennende
Subjekt notwendig
evi-
dent
wird,
die aber bei all dieser Ge-
setzmdi8igkeit
sich weder als Sinn
ffir
das
zielsuchende
Subjekt
noch in sinnlicher
Unmittelbarkeit als Stoff
ffir
das handeln-
de darbietet. "
In
Lukics's
view
lyric poetry expresses
an
opposing
force that we
may compare
with Wer-
ther's created world:
Die
Lyrik
kann das Phdinomenalwerden
der ersten Natur
ignorieren
und aus
der konstitutiven Kraft dieses
Ignorie-
rens heraus eine
proteische Mythologie
der substantiellen
Subjektivitit
schaf-
fen....7
Insofar as Werther's turn inward
reveals,
on
the one
hand,
the
conventionality
and contin-
gency and,
on the other
hand,
the static-or
rather, goalless
-nature of the
given world,
it
may
stand as a
critique
of reification. But
Lukics's
declaration of the
happy ignorance
of
lyric
hides a dilemma from which Werther
cannot
escape
so
easily. Lyric's ignorance
is
necessary
because it too is a form of second
nature.
Although
Werther's created world
pre-
sents itself in
opposition
to the
given
social
world,
it is
equally
artificial. Its disadvan-
tage lies, ironically,
in its
inwardness,
that
is,
in its self-consciousness of the fact that it is
a created rather than a natural world. The
question
Werther
raises, then,
is whether
any
ideology
honest and self-conscious
enough
to
recognize
itself as
ideology
can sustain it-
self
long enough
to
mount a
critique
of ideol-
ogy. The
ignorance Lukics attributes to
lyric
must be a cultivated
ignorance and, as such,
it is far more
precarious than Lukics will
admit.
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196 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Spring 1991
III
What does Werther find when he turns
inward to create a second world? His letter
of 21
June
1771
may provide
a basis for under-
standing
Werther's
relationship
both with the
given
world and with the world of his creation.
Ostensibly
it is a letter of
reconciliation,
a
happy
coincidence of Werther's
utopian
vi-
sions and his new life in Wahlheim. Here Wer-
ther is
"fully
established"
("v6llig
etabliert").
He
appears
to
enjoy
a
reprieve
from the tor-
ments that will
occupy
so much of his attention
in the months ahead:
Ich lebe so
gliickliche Tage,
wie sie Gott
seinen Heiligen ausspart;
und mit mir
mag
werden was
will,
so darf ich nicht
sagen,
dab
ich die
Freuden,
die reinsten
Freuden des Lebens nicht
genossen
ha-
be.
(21 June
1771
[28])
Wahlheim is near to heaven because it is near
the home of Werther's new
love,
Lotte. He
celebrates the virtues of
voluntarily ending
his travels and
settling
down in his chosen
home. And he describes his life as
resembling
scenes from the
Odyssey (29).
Wahlheim ap-
pears
to be a successful
attempt
to create a
world in which Werther can live.
But a closer
reading
reveals internal ten-
sions in this
utopian reconciliation,
tensions
that in turn
expose
issues central to our al-
legorical interpretation.
Werther describes
himself as
having
chosen between a search
for new discoveries and a world of limited
horizons in terms that
convey
a sense both
of submission and renunciation:
Lieber
Wilhelm,
ich habe allerlei nachge-
dacht, uiber
die
Begier im Menschen,
sich
auszubreiten,
neue
Entdeckungen
zu
machen, herumzuschweifen;
und dann
wieder
fiber
den inneren
Trieb, sich der
Einschrinkung willig
zu
ergeben,
in dem
Gleise der Gewohnheit so hinzufahren
und sich weder um Rechts noch um Links
zu bektimmern.
(28 f.)
Werther is not
explicit
here about his choice,
but the context indicates that he has
opted
for the latter narrow route and renounced the
former. This would
certainly be consonant
with his
description
of
Wahlheim
as the seat
of his
newly
discovered
happiness,
with a
pa-
triarchal
lifestyle
that satisfies his Homeric
nostalgia,
and with the
parable
he
gives
of the
vagabond
who returns from his
journeys
to
find
happiness only
in his fatherland:
So sehnt sich der
unruhigste Vagabund
zuletzt wieder nach seinem Vaterlande
und findet in seiner
Hiitte,
an der Brust
seiner
Gattin,
in dem Kreise seiner Kin-
der,
in den Geschiften zu ihrer
Erhaltung
die
Wonne,
die er in der weiten Welt ver-
gebens
suchte.
(29)
Werther
clearly
identifies himself with this
homecoming vagabond
when he writes: "Ich
eilte hin und kehrte zurtick und hatte nicht
gefunden,
was ich hoffte." But there is cause
for uneasiness in this
comparison.
While the
vagabond
returns to his
fatherland,
Werther
has chosen a new
home,
and thus his home-
coming
cannot
yet
be described as a return.
More
disturbing perhaps
is the realization that
when Werther turns
backward,
he does not
find the breast of his wife and a circle of chil-
dren; instead,
he continues to miss what he
had
hoped
for. There is an
unhappy symmetry
in Werther's forward and backward
glances.
It is true that the
image
of a chain of hills
surrounding
Werther's small house in a fa-
miliar
valley
resembles the
image
of the
vaga-
bond's
homecoming
and even invites
compari-
son
("Die
in einander
geketteten Hiigel
und
vertraulichen
Tiler!").
But Werther's condi-
tion is still one of
longing,
and his
descriptions
are in the
subjunctive
mode that
conveys
a
sense of near
desperation ("O
k6nnte ich mich
in ihnen
verlieren!").
If we
pursue
the com-
parison further,
we find that
although
Werther
begins by describing
his somewhat contrived
homecoming
to Wahlheim
as a
joyful
submis-
sion to
limitation,
he ends with a rather more
pessimistic
view of restriction:
Und ach! wenn wir
hinzueilen,
wenn das
Dort nun Hier
wird,
ist alles vor wie
nach,
und wir stehen in unserer
Armut,
in un-
serer
Eingeschrlinktheit,
und unserer
Seele lechzt nach
entschlipftem
Labsale.
(29)
Is this passage meant to
apply
to the
disap-
pointment
of travel to a new destination (this
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 197
seems to be its
explicit reference)
or to the
disappointment
of
homecoming?
This ambi-
guity only
exacerbates the tension associated
with the fact that Werther's
homecoming,
his
actual
return,
lies not in the
present
but in
the future.
There is also room for
uncertainty
in the
resemblance between Werther's account of
his situation and the text of the
Odyssey.18
At
one level Werther is the
Odysseus figure who,
like the
vagabond,
returns to his
wife, presum-
ably
Lotte. This
reading
leaves no room for
Albert,
unless we are to associate him with
Penelope's
suitors. But Werther also com-
pares himself
with the
suitors,
whom he de-
scribes as wanton in their
consumption
of
what
rightfully belonged
to
Odysseus ("da
ffihl'
ich so
lebhaft,
wie die
fibermfitigen
Freier
der
Penelope
Ochsen und Schweine
schlach-
ten, zerlegen
und
braten").
He does
not,
how-
ever,
seem able to
acknowledge fully
the illicit
implications
of his role in this
image,
for there
is no allusion either to an association of Albert
with
Odysseus
or of Lotte with
Penelope.
Instead,
Werther
indirectly compares
himself
with
Penelope
when he remarks that he is
fortunate to be able to weave the
patriarchal
life into his own without affectation
("Es
ist
nichts,
das mich so mit einer
stillen,
wahren
Empfindung ausfiillte
als die
Ziige patriarcha-
lischen
Lebens,
die
ich,
Gott sei
Dank,
ohne
Affektation in meine Lebensart verweben
kann"
[29]). Penelope
weaves and unweaves
her
tapestry
to
postpone
her admission that
Odysseus
will not
return, deceiving
her suit-
ors and
possibly
also
deceiving
herself. Wer-
ther likewise
exposes
his
-perhaps
uncon-
scious-
suspicions
that
although
he would
like to believe that he has
successfully
re-
turned to the world of the
epic,
his
fantasy
is
in fact total affectation.
The tension
upon
which Werther dwells
here,
that between
discovery
and
familiarity,
indicates a fundamental difference between
the Homeric world as it is evoked in Werther
and its
original context. A conflict between
familiarity and
discovery would indeed be
wholly out of
place
in the world that
originally
gave rise to the
epic. Werther's
epic is not
the
epic
of a
wide-open world, a world that
is both a comfortable home and the source of
new
discoveries,
but instead an
epic fantasy
of enclosure and isolation.
Lukaics's
observa-
tions on the historical conditions that
pro-
duced Homeric literature show a
profound in-
compatibility
between the
spirit
of the
epic
and the
spirit
of Werther:
Selig
sind die
Zeiten, fiir die der Sternen-
himmel die Landkarte der
gangbaren
und
zu
gehenden Wege
ist und deren
Wege
das Licht der Sterne erhellt. Alles ist neu
ffir sie und dennoch
vertraut,
abenteuer-
lich und dennoch Besitz. Die Welt ist weit
und doch wie das
eigene Haus,
denn das
Feuer,
das in der Seele
brennt,
ist von
derselben Wesensart wie die
Sterne; sie
scheiden sich
scharf,
die Welt und das
Ich,
das Licht und das
Feuer,
und werden
doch niemals einander fiir immer fremd;
denn Feuer
ist die Seele eines
jeden
Lichts und
in
Licht kleidet sich ein jedes
Feuer. So wird alles tun der Seele sinnvoll
und rund in dieser Zweiheit: vollendet in
dem Sinn und vollendet
ffir
die
Sinne;
rund,
weil die Seele in sich ruht
wihrend
des
Handelns; rund,
weil ihre Tat sich
von ihr
abl6st
und
selbstgeworden
einen
eigenen Mittelpunkt
findet und einen
ge-
schlossenen Umkreis um sich zieht. "Phi-
losophie
ist
eigentlich Heimweh," sagt
Novalis,
"der
Trieb,
fiberall
zu Hause zu
sein."19
What, then,
is the
significance
of the evocation
of an
epic image
in the context of a world that
can no
longer support
its
expectations
of har-
mony
between the individual and the world?
Werther's
preoccupation
with the Homeric
world and his strained
attempts
to reconstruct
such a world in Wahlheim demonstrate his
perception
of
something lacking
in the
given
world. It is the absence of
epic harmony
from
the
given
world that leads Werther to turn
away
and to
try
to create it in
Wahlheim.
Are we not
reading
too much into the inter-
nal conflicts of Werther's
epic
fantasies? Fred-
ric Jameson,
in his discussion of Allesandro
Manzoni's I Promessi
Sposi, argues
that such
conflicts are endemic to the novel's
subsump-
tion of
disparate literary forms. "The novel,"
he writes, "is then not so much an
organic
unity
as a
symbolic act that must reunite and
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198 THE GERMAN
QUARTERLY Spring 1991
harmonize
heterogeneous
narrative
para-
digms
which have their own
specific
and con-
tradictory ideological meaning.z20 The specific
historical circumstances that
produced
the
epic may
have
vanished,
and
yet
"the failure
of a
particular generic structure,
such as
epic,
to
reproduce
itself not
only encourages
a
search for those substitute textual formations
that
appear
in its
wake,
but more
particularly
alerts us to the historical
ground,
now no
longer existent,
in which the
original
structure
was
meaningful."''
The discontinuities result-
ing
from the
juxtaposition
of an
epic
solution
to a
problem
within a narrative that
prohibits
such an
easy
reconciliation
and,
in
fact,
trans-
forms it into an act of renunciation
may
reveal
the "social and
ideological
contradiction
around which the novel will
turn."22
Perhaps
more
honestly
than Werther's overt criticism
of the
given world,
his
epic
fantasies
expose
conflicts in the world from which he would
flee. The tensions that threaten to
topple
Werther's creation of a second
world-par-
ticularly
his self-consciousness that it is a sec-
ond,
created or artificial world- reveal
just
those contradictions for which his creation is
an
attempted
resolution: the lack of
unity
be-
tween the individual and the world and the
related absence of
any
basis for communica-
tion and mutual
understanding among
the in-
habitants of the
given
world.
In the Homeric world nature-or rather
a
mythic conception
of nature
-
served as a
mediator between human
beings.
It
provided
a common reference
point
for mutual under-
standing.
Goethe was not alone in
giving
voice
to the
perception
that in the wake of the En-
lightenment
such mediation had broken down.
Friedrich
Schlegel's philosophy
of
history
and
literature marked a number of
ages
in which
this had not been the case. In addition to the
mythic
cohesion of the Homeric
world, Schle-
gel
also
pointed
to the role Catholicism had
played by serving
as a focal
point
for a
period
of
literary and artistic
expression in
general.
In his "Rede fiber die
Mythologie," Schlegel
called for a new
mythology, a self-conscious
creation of an
ideology capable
of
providing
the basis for
uniting expression and communi-
cation, just
as the ancient
myths
had
provided
the
ground
for Homeric
epic.23
Werther's turn
to Homer focuses our attention on the fact
that he lives in a world that lacks such a mediat-
ing
base. The world he constructs in Wahlheim
is an
attempt
to
bridge
a
gap
between himself
and a
larger
social world.
The
depth
of Werther's concern about the
gap
that
separates
individuals in the
given
world is
apparent
from the extent of its recur-
rence as a theme. The
problem
of
genuine
communication between individuals in the
world outside the novel is
implied
in the edi-
tor's
prefatory
instructions to the reader
("Und
du
gute Seele,
die du eben den
Drang
fiihlst wie
er,
sch6pfe
Trost aus seinem Lei-
den,
und
lab
das Bfichlein deinen Freund
sein,
wenn du aus Geschick oder
eigener
Schuld
keinen nfihern finden kannst"
[7]).
Before
Werther becomes involved with
Lotte, the
search for
community
seems to be his
primary
preoccupation.
In his first letter Werther re-
ports
to Wilhelm that he has struck
up
a rela-
tionship
with a local
gardener (4
May
1771
[8]),
but this
apparently
comes to
nothing,
since Werther never mentions the
gardener
again.
A distance between Werther and his
new
neighbors
is evident in the letters that
follow.
Although
Werther claims that
they
are
fond of
him,
he describes them in a conde-
scending
tone
("Die geringen
Leute des Orts
kennen mich schon und lieben
mich,
beson-
ders die
Kinder,"
15
May
1771
[10]).
Werther
minimizes the
importance
of class
differences,
but his awareness of them is acute
("Leute
von
einigem
Stande werden sich immer in
kalter
Entfernung
vom
gemeinen
Volke hal-
ten,
als
glaubten
sie durch
Anndiherung
zu
verlieren .. ." 15
May 1771).
Even as Werther
denies his own
tendency
to distance himself
from
ordinary people,
his
language empha-
sizes the
gap
between him and the towns-
people
and indicates that he has not
yet
re-
solved to throw his own lot in with theirs
("Ich
weiB
wohl,
daB wir nicht
gleich sind, noch sein
kinnen..
."
15
May 1771 [11]). Shortly there-
after Werther admits that he has been unsuc-
cessful in his search for
companionship ("Ich
habe allerlei Bekanntschaft
gemacht, Gesell-
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 199
schaft habe ich noch keine
gefunden,"
17
May
1771
[11]). Although
he encounters
many
people,
soon their
paths
all
diverge.
In a world in which communion seems so
difficult to
establish,
nature and literature
ap-
pear
as
potential grounds
for
understanding.
Between Werther and a
gardener
nature
seems to serve as the basis for a
degree
of
understanding:
Der Garten ist
einfach,
und man
flihlt
gleich
bei dem
Eintritte,
daf3 nicht ein
wissenschaftlicher
Gdirtner,
sondern ein
flihlendes
Herz den Plan
gezeichnet,
das
seiner selbst hier
genief3en wollte. (4 May
1771
[8])
Because the
gardener-
the deceased Count
von M. -did not
rely
on scientific methods
but instead
arranged
his
garden
out of the
fullness of his
heart,
the
garden
itself
may
be
an external
ground
in which Werther
imagines
their hearts
mingling.
But this
hope
is cut off
by
a
phrase
that seems to
suggest
that outside
of science there is room
only
for
personal
indulgence.
Werther also shares a
knowledge
of Greek with a
young
man to whom he refers
only
as
"jungen V."
(17 May
1771
[12]).
But
for some reason-
perhaps because,
as Wer-
ther
hints,
the
young
man is too academic-
this
relationship
also comes to
naught.
Thus
neither nature nor literature
provide
a
ready-
made
ground
for the communion Werther
seeks.
IV
Although,
as we have
seen,
nature and lit-
erature
converge
for Werther in Homer and
in the
patriarchal
ideal he associates with the
epic,
Werther
always
reads his Homer in iso-
lation. And
although
he invokes
images
of
other
people
in his
patriarchal fantasies, they
always
remain at a distance from
him,
as
something
he describes rather than
engages
in. A return to the
life
of the
epic
would involve
a renunciation of the modern world. But even
a more modest
integration into the
quaint
so-
ciety Werther describes in the
countryside
surrounding Wahlheim
would
require
a renun-
ciation of both his class and his level of educa-
tion. He can
momentarily indulge
in fantasies
about a
simple life,
but Werther remains aware
of the values of the
given
world and these
continue to exert a
force; they pull
him back
and
prevent
his
complete
immersion.
Werther's settlement in
Wahlheim may ap-
pear
to be a
flight
from the town and a return
to nature. Hans Reiss has read it as a serene
abandonment.24 But such a
reading
should
arouse
suspicion,
for it minimizes both Wer-
ther's ambivalence toward nature and the com-
plex relationship
between
flight, restriction,
and return.
The letter of 21
June
1771
certainly
con-
tains
praise
and admiration for the natural en-
vironment around Wahlheim. And at one level
Werther does seem to
escape
from the de-
mands of
society
in favor of a
simpler
life and
a more harmonious relation with the land. As
Arnold Hirsch
points out,
this
respect
for life
on the land indicates some
similarity
between
the
position
Goethe attributes to Werther and
Rousseau's ideal of
nature, particularly
as ex-
pressed
in Emile.
Although
Hirsch
recognizes
important
differences between Goethe's and
Rousseau's
conceptions
of
nature,
he does
insist that in Werther's criticism of
society
and in his desire "to lose himself in the inex-
pressible beauty
of nature" Werther reveals
himself as a student of Rousseau.25
However,
Werther's attitude toward nature
is
by
no means as
positive
as Rousseau's. For
Werther nature is not a reliable alternative to
the evils and artifice of
society.
This is not
necessarily
because Goethe differed with
Rousseau on the need for social
change
but
instead
speaks
more to his
perception
of a
close connection between a
wholly positive
view of nature and Leibnizian
theodicy.
Robert
Ellis
Dye's suggestion
that Werther's
critique
of
theodicy
was
partially responsible
for the
shock with which the book was received in
many
circles offers one
possible explanation
for Werther's ambivalent
conception
of na-
ture:
Natural
evil
is exemplified
in the
flood
which "vom
Wahlheim
herunter all mein
liebes Thal tiberschwemmt" and re-
flected in Werther's horror at the
general
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200 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Spring 1991
transitoriness of
things
and the char-
acteristic destructiveness of
nature,
of
which such calamities as floods and earth-
quakes are only extraordinary
manifesta-
tions. (18 August 1771)26
The
images
of unreliable nature
give
even
Werther's
positive descriptions
of nature a dis-
trustful undertone. If we
acknowledge
this
ambivalence and
yet recognize that, following
Rousseau,
Werther does
compare society
un-
favorably
with
nature,
we
might
be able to
see Werther as
having adopted
Rousseau's
critical
understanding
without
being
able to
accept
his
utopian
resolution.
Werther seems aware that his
critique
of
the
given
social world cannot
rely
on an
appeal
to the
given
natural world but must create its
own
grounds.
Goethe was not alone in
having
Werther voice reservations about the
possibil-
ity
of a return to nature. Schiller
expressed
similar concerns in his elaboration of a view
of nature that retained Rousseau's critical
spirit
without
denying
the human source of
his values:
Der Charakter der Zeit
muB
sich also von
seiner tiefen
Entwiirdigung
erst aufrich-
ten,
dort der blinden Gewalt der Natur
sich
entziehen,
und hier zu ihrer
Einfalt,
Wahrheit und
Fuille zurnickkehren;
eine
Aufgabe
fur mehr als
ein Jahrhundert.17
The return to the
simplicity, truth,
and full-
ness of nature must be
accompanied by
the
realization that
nature,
no less than the second
nature described
by
Lukaics,
is directionless
and blind. Schiller's return to nature is a
forward-looking
rather than a backward-look-
ing
return. Schiller is
fundamentally
more
op-
timistic than
Werther, or-paradoxically-
myopic,
in that he does not insist on the limited
perspective,
the
blindness,
and self-delusion
that
always accompany
Werther's reflections
on his desire for return.
The idea of return is a
problematic image
within the Western tradition
generally,
con-
tradicting
the most
deeply rooted notions of
progressive
historical
change.
Werther's re-
nunciation of the demands of late
eighteenth-
century life, his disinterest in a world of new
discoveries and- perhaps
even more disturb-
ing-
his refusal to
explore
the world em-
pirically
all
go
far
deeper
than Rousseau's re-
versal of the
traditionally
Christian
represen-
tation of human nature as evil and societal
restriction as
good.
Werther's return to nature
appears
to be a reversal of
history.
The
signifi-
cance of this
particular
kind of return is the
concern of Theodor Adorno's and Max Hork-
heimer's treatment of the dialectic of
progress
and
regression:
Rein natiirliche Existenz, animalische
und
vegetative,
bildete der Zivilisation
die absolute Gefahr.
Mimetische, mythi-
sche, metaphysische
Verhaltensweisen
galten
nacheinander als
uiberwundene
Weltalter,
auf die hinabzusinken mit dem
Schrecken behaftet
war,
daf3 das Selbst
in
jene
blof3e Natur
zurijckverwandelt
werde,
der es sich mit
unsiglicher
An-
strengung
entfremdet
hatte,
und die ihm
eben darum
unsigliches
Grauen
einfl6b3-
te. Die
lebendige Erinnerung
an die Vor-
zeit,
schon an die
nomadischen, um wie
viel mehr an die
eigentlich
pripatriarcha-
lischen
Stufen,
war mit den furchtbarsten
Strafen in allen
Jahrtausenden
aus dem
BewuBtsein der Menschen
ausgebrannt
worden. 2
In Werther's formulation Rousseau's reversal
of the relation between nature and civiliza-
tion realizes an historical dimension. Adorno's
and Horkheimer's observations cast serious
doubts on the kind of return to nature we
may
attribute to
Werther.
Even
though
he
appears
-
at least
implicitly-
to renounce a
progres-
sive view of
history,
in effect to turn his back
on the
present,
Werther's renunciation is a
threat to the
present.
The resolution Werther
attempts
in
Wahlheim
lies somewhere be-
tween a
nostalgic
and a
utopian
resolution of
the contradictions of the
given
world. He can-
not
fully
embrace a
nostalgic
return. Yet his
utopian longings
are modeled on such a re-
turn.
The ambivalence of Werther's view of na-
ture
necessarily
colors his
flight
from
society
and from the modern world. His flight
itself
is ambivalent. Werther confronts a frag-
mented world. In his
flight
from this
fragmen-
tation he
paradoxically becomes ever more
isolated and must invoke an
image
of the com-
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 201
munity
from which he fled in order to reconcile
himself with his
escape. Thus, though
Wer-
ther
experiences
his
epic
fantasies
alone,
he
imagines
scenes such as the return of the
vagabond.
Not
only
is a social
vignette
invoked
within Werther's
flight
from the
given world,
but this
story
is itself one of return. It is the
image
of a man who has either traveled or
fled,
searched and been
disappointed, only
to
return to the comfort of his
family.
The
possi-
bility
of such a return is dim outside of
Werther's fantasies. In the returns he de-
scribes as
actually having
taken
place,
there
are no
happy
embraces. Consider the husband
who returns from an inheritance
journey
with
a fever and no
money only
to find that his
youngest
son has died
(4 August
1772
[76]);
Werther's
disappointing pilgrimage
to his
birthplace (9 May
1772
[72 ff.]);
and his final
return to
Wahlheim,
where
everything ap-
pears
to have
changed
for the worse
(94 ff.).
The
weight
of these frustrated returns as well
as the enormous
gap
between them and the
image
of the
returning vagabond finally
lead
Werther to abandon the
hope
of return and
to
resign
himself to
escape.
In his short letter
of 16
June 1772,
Werther admits his defeat:
"Ja wohl bin ich nur ein Wandrer,
ein Waller
auf der Erde! Seid ihr denn mehr?"
(75).
But even at this dark moment Werther's
flight
remains rooted in the
given
world
through
his
correspondence
with Wilhelm.
Looking
back at the letter of 21
June 1771,
we can see that there too Werther confirms
his
connection, understanding,
and communi-
cation with Wilhelm
by asserting
that Wilhelm
"knows his
Wahlheim" ("Du
kennst mein Wahl-
heim"
[28]).
And he even inserts Wilhelm into
the letter and thus into
Wahlheim
by
describ-
ing
the
village
from Wilhelm's
perspective
("Ach
k6nntest
du dich in seine Schatten mi-
schen!"
[29]).
One further indication of the
unsuccessful
link
Wilhelm
represents
be-
tween the created and
given
worlds is that
"Wilhelm" and "Wahlheim" are almost-but
not
quite- anagrams for one another. Wer-
ther is in
flight,
but he continues to insist
upon communication with the world from
which he flees and continues to describe the
created world in terms that
Wilhelm,
as a
representative
of the
given world,
can
ap-
preciate, understand,
or
perhaps
even
ap-
prove.
V
How
might
Werther's ambivalent attitude
toward nature be related to his sense of alie-
nation from the
given
social world? How far
can we follow Lukaics in his assertion that the
longing
for a reunion with nature
expresses
an alienation from nature? Does this alienation
result from the
perception
that the human-
made
environment,
the
given
social
world,
is
not within human
control,
that it exists not to
meet human needs but as
something
dead
or- to use the
Hegelian
term-
positive?
Die Fremdheit der
Natur,
der ersten Na-
tur
gegenfiber,
das moderne sentimenta-
lische Naturgeffihl
ist nur die
Projektion
des
Erlebnisses,
daB die
selbstgeschaffe-
ne Umwelt
ffir
den Menschen kein Vater-
haus mehr
ist,
sondern ein Kerker.29
Werther does indeed
perceive
the
given
world
as a
prison.
But the situation seems to be
still more
complicated
than
Lukics's
formula-
tion would
suggest;
for
here, again
in the let-
ter of 21
June,
Werther's
escape
itself is
characterized in terms that
imply
a
voluntary
imprisonment.
The
given
world is described
as a
prison only indirectly
and in such a
way
as to focus our attention on the fact that
Werther himself seeks out a kind of
imprison-
ment. Besides the
passages
we have
already
considered,
we
may
add Werther's
description
of Lotte's father's house as
locking up
or en-
closing
all his wishes. This
image
of confine-
ment is
placed
in
sharp
relief
by
its
juxta-
position
with Werther's
description
of his own
wide
wanderings ("Wie
oft habe ich das
Jagd-
haus,
das nun alle meine
Wuinsche einschlieJ3t,
auf meinen weiten
Wanderungen,
bald vom
Berge,
bald von der Ebne
iuber
den
FluB ge-
sehn!" [28; emphasis added]). While Wer-
ther's view from the
mountaintop indicates a
privileged perspective from outside the
prison,
it
equally suggests a
great distance
between himself and the
object of his
longings,
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202 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Spring 1991
a distance made
impassable by
the river on
whose far bank he stands.
Werther's vision is one of beautiful and
familiar
valleys
surrounded
by
chains of
pro-
tective hills. These
valleys pull
him in with a
force
portrayed alternatively
as an irresistible
attraction and as
something
to which he will-
fully
submits. The desire for restriction is an
inner drive to which Werther nevertheless
willingly
surrenders. He is drawn to the
valley
(". ..
wie es mich
rings
umher
anzog" [29])
and loses himself in it
just
as the
ships
in his
grandmother's
Mdrchen were drawn to the
magnetic
mountain
(".
. . die
Schiffe,
die zu
nahe
kamen,
wurden auf einmal alles Eisen-
werks
beraubt,
die
N~igel
flogen
dem
Berge
zu,
und die armen Elenden scheiterten zwi-
schen den
iibereinanderstfirzenden
Brettern"
26
July
1771
[41]).
The contrast between thirst
(a
need to be
fulfilled)
and
drowning (a
self-
abandonment to a more
powerful
environ-
ment)
is also
striking:
Ein gro8es
dammerndes Ganze ruht vor
unserer
Seele,
unsere
Empfindung
ver-
schwimmt darin wie unser
Auge,
und wir
sehnen
uns,
ach! unser
ganzes
Wesen
hinzugeben,
uns mit aller Wonne eines
einzigen, grof3en, herrlichen Geftihis aus-
fiillen
zu lassen.
-
Und ach! wenn wir
hinzueilen,
wenn das Dort nun Hier
wird,
ist alles vor wie
nach,
und wir stehen
in unserer
Armut,
in unserer
Einge-
schrinktheit,
und unserer Seele lechzt
nach
entschliipftem
Labsale.
(29; empha-
sis
added)
Werther allows his
lungs
to be filled with the
emotions in which he swims in order to
quench
a thirst that cannot be satisfied in the confine-
ment of the
given
world. Werther's
generaliza-
tion of his
perspective,
his substitution of the
first
person plural
for the
singular pronoun,
generalizes
his
longing.
He makes his desire
appear lawlike, beyond
his
control,
a
passive
compliance
with
generally recognized
human
conditions rather than
something
of his own
individual creation. He uses the plural voice
to insinuate an
impression
of collective fate
into a context of isolation.
But Werther cannot blot out the
knowledge
of his creative role. Just as Werther chooses
a
pot
in which to cook his beans (". . . wenn
ich in der kleinen
Kiiche mir einen
Topf
wih-
le. . ."
[29]),
his fate is here
only partially
given.
Werther's
escape
is not to a world of
nature and his return is not to a
fatherland;
rather he must create his destination for him-
self.
Perhaps
because he associates the
flight
to nature with a return to a more
primitive
state, perhaps
because he
recognizes
that
from the
perspective
of the
given
world- a
perspective
he cannot shake off-his return
appears
as a
renunciation,
Werther's return
itself takes on the characteristics of
imprison-
ment. The same
image
Werther uses to de-
nounce the
given
world becomes the
image
he uses to celebrate his created world.
A
positive image
of
imprisonment
is not
uncommon in Romantic literature.
Indeed,
the
prison metaphor
is a favorite resolution of the
dialectic of
flight
and restriction. Victor Brom-
bert maintains that the
essentially positive
image
of
imprisonment
arises from its am-
biguity,
from the
opportunity
it
provides
for
working
out a dialectical tension between
op-
pression
and freedom." We
may
extract from
his work a number of characteristics of the
romantic
prison against
which we
may
mea-
sure Werther's
self-imprisonment.
The isola-
tion of the
prison provides
both
protection
from a hostile external world and an
opportun-
ity
for self-definition. The
prison image
is
often
accompanied by
a sense of timeless-
ness. And it
conveys
an
impression
of a sen-
tence
imposed by
a more
powerful force,
beyond
the control of the
poet
but confirm-
ing
the
poet's
own self-chosen withdrawal
from
society. Finally,
the
prison image
con-
tains the
promise
of
escape
and either a re-
union with the world from which the
poet
has been
separated
or a relief from the
pain
of existence in
general.
Where and to what
extent does Werther's
image
of
imprison-
ment coincide with or
depart
from these
gen-
eral characteristics? What does this reveal
about the tensions with which Werther is
wrestling?
Our
reading
of Werther would tend to
sup-
port Brombert's claim that the romantic
prison
is as much a
promise of isolation and
refuge
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 203
from a
threatening
external world as it is an
image
of
oppressive
restriction:
The
image
of immurement is
essentially
ambivalent in the Western tradition: the
walls of the cell
punish
the
culprit
and
victimize the
innocent;
but
they
also
pro-
tect
poetic
meditation and
religious
fer-
vor. The
prisoner's
cell and the monastic
cell look
strangely
alike. There exists no
doubt a
nostalgia
for
enclosure,
as well
as a
prison wish.31
Although
the
metaphor
of the
prison
is not
explicitly
stated in the letter of 21
June,
the
sense of confinement and
many
of the
qualities
Brombert associates with the romantic
prison
are unmistakable.
Nevertheless,
there are im-
portant
differences that set Werther
apart
from the
examples
Brombert uses to
support
his thesis and that
suggest
an even
deeper
ambivalence than the one Brombert finds.
Wahlheim
does
appear
to be a kind of ref-
uge
for Werther. It is a
place
of
protection
and isolation from the
given
world. In this
respect
we
might compare
Werther's
flight
to
Wahlheim
with another
example
absent from
Brombert's
analysis
of the
prison image:
Thoreau's withdrawal to a
solitary life on Wal-
den Pond. Thoreau's
voluntary hermitage,
his
celebration of
self-sufficiency,
and his medita-
tions on Homer all seem to echo Werther's
own concerns. But there is a
decisively
differ-
ent tone in Thoreau's work. His life does not
appear
to be one of
desperate flight
but of
genuine
contentment in isolation. Whereas
Werther seems bound to the world from which
he flees- bound
by
his
correspondence
with
Wilhelm, by
his desire for
community,
and
by
his ideal of
patriarchal life- Thoreau's ideol-
ogy
of individualism seems to save him from
the sense of loss that Werther
experiences
in his
flight.
Too
sharp
a
contrast, however,
would be
misleading.
In
spite
of Thoreau's
apparent contentment,
he continues to be dri-
ven to write about his
experiences
and thus
to share his
flight
with the world he has tem-
porarily
left behind. He also
continues,
in
spite
of his
individualism, to value a sense of com-
munity,
as is evident when he dwells
upon
the
inability of the
townspeople
of Concord to un-
derstand his decisions. Werther's
espousal of
an ideal of a
happy pastoral
or
patriarchal life
is an
attempt
to resolve a contradiction in the
given
world. The
image
of a
pastoral
life
Werther
conjures up
is not one of isolated
individuals, yet
it is
incompatible
with the con-
ditions of life in the modern world of the late
eighteenth century.
In
fact,
individuals in the
given
world are even more isolated from one
another than those in the world to which Wer-
ther would withdraw. Thoreau's individualism
seems to be
just another, perhaps
more intel-
lectual, attempt
to solve this contradiction.
The isolation of the
prison
is also
supposed
to be
part
of a
process
of
self-exploration
and self-definition. In Brombert's
analysis
the
prison
is a kind of return to the self that
pro-
vides an
opportunity
for
deep
reflection in the
absence of the social
gaze
before which one
would otherwise
posture:
Essentially
unheroic
(for heroism,
or the
heroic
stance, requires
an
audience),
the
movement toward the internal cell of
meditation
corresponds
to the
quest
for
authenticity, which,
at its extreme
points,
tolerates no
histrionics,
leaves no
room for
any pose.:3
It would be
difficult,
to
say
the
least,
to recon-
cile this ideal with our
reading
of Werther.
Histrionics seem to be characteristic of
Werther's
plight.
But
perhaps
Brombert's ob-
servation does
give
us a constructive lead.
Werther never achieves this "unheroic" ideal
because he is never without an audience. Not
only
is he
constantly
aware of Wilhelm's views
on the situations he
describes,
but he seems
to have internalized his audience. His
escape
into the
epic
world is never able to relieve
him of the standards of the
given
world. For
example,
when he comforts himself
by reading
Homer
following
the incident at the Count's
party
in book
II,
he seems to have achieved
a certain
distance,
but the effect of Homer is
immediately
shattered
by
the realization that
people
are
gossiping
about him:
Da kommt der ehrliche Adelin hinein, legt
seinen Hut nieder, indem er
mich
ansieht,
tritt zu mir und sagt leise: "Du hast
Verdruf gehabt?"- "Ich?"
sagte ich.-
"Der Graf hat dich aus der Gesellschaft
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204 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Spring 1991
gewiesen."-
"Hol' sie der Teufel!"
sagt'
ich,
"mir war's
lieb,
daB ich in die freie
Luft kam."-
"Gut," sagt' er,
"daB du's
auf die leichte Achsel nimmst. Nur ver-
drie8t
mich's,
es ist schon
fiberall
her-
um."-
Da
fing
mich das
Ding
erst zu
wurmen. Alle,
die zu Tische kamen und
mich
ansahen,
dachte
ich,
die sehen dich
darum an! Das
gab
b6ses Blut.
(15
March
1772
[69])
Werther's denunciation of the
gossipers
serves
only
to exacerbate our
impression
of
his internalization of their values and
judg-
ment. Homer
may provide
some
temporary
relief but cannot save Werther from the
glances
of others.
Another characteristic feature of the
prison
metaphor
is its
"stagnant atemporality,"
for
which Brombert finds evidence in
Byron's
The
Prisoner
of
Chillon.33 This
escape
from the
constraints of time
appears strangely
twisted
in Werther's
image
of
imprisonment.
A funda-
mental
ambiguity
in Werther's
understanding
of the
past gives
rise to this twist. In the form
of
personal memories,
the
past
torments
Werther. Memories of his earlier life over-
come
him,
for
example, during
his
soliloquy
on ill humor
(1 July
1771
[34]).
But in the form
of
history,
as recorded in the
style
of a disin-
terested
chronicle,
the
past provides
the basis
for Werther's communication with Wilhelm
(17
May
1771
[13]).
In the form of
literature,
the
past
comforts and calms him
(13 May
1771
[10]).
Werther's memories cause him
pain
be-
cause
they point
to a
loss,
to
something
absent
from the
empirically present
world. Yet his
historical
accounts, though they
are almost
immediately reported,
also
represent
what is
no
longer present.
Werther's view of
epic
lit-
erature is not
only
a
nostalgia
for the life
of
a
past age
but also a
utopian
reconciliation in
which
memory
and
expectation
are united in
a kind of return. The
image
of
history pre-
sented in the letter of 21
June
is an
image
of
personal history
that can be
contained, epito-
mized, and consumed.
Although
narrated in
the third
person, Werther's
description
is ob-
viously
that of a situation to which he
aspires:
the
ability to
integrate
the richness of the
past
as a
personal memory, the
epic past
of
simplic-
ity,
and the communicable
past
of the chroni-
cle.
This
integration
is achieved
symbolically
in the
fully grown cabbage:
Wie wohl ist
mir's,
daB mein Herz die
simple harmlose
Wonne des Menschen
fiihlen kann,
der ein Krauthaupt
auf sei-
nen Tisch
bringt,
das er selbst
gezogen,
und nun nicht den Kohl
allein,
sondern
all die
guten Tage,
den
sch6nen
Morgen,
da er ihn
pflanzte,
die lieblichen Abende,
da er ihn
begoB,
und da er an dem fort-
schreitenden Wachstum seine Freude
hatte,
alle in Einem
Augenblicke
wieder
mitgenief3t. (29 f.)
Werther's desire to
bridge
the
gap
between
the
experienced past
and the communicable
past
is
certainly
what is at stake here. The
history
coiled in the head of the
cabbage,
like
the
history
coiled in the
artwork,
is a
private
history
for
public consumption.
It is a
living
yet potentially
communicable remnant of a
world that is no
longer present.
While Wer-
ther's
fantasy
is one of an
expectation
of re-
turn,
it is a return that-as he seems to be
aware at this moment-must be cultivated.
The
prison image may
also serve as an
external confirmation of Werther's self-willed
seclusion. It is a device
through
which an act
of the will is recast as fate. This move
helps
Werther to
reify
his created
world,
to set it
on the same level with the
given
world. But
it is a move that is difficult to
sustain, particu-
larly
in Werther's case where there is no actual
prison
but
only prison-like images
to confirm
his creation. Let us return to our
comparison
of Werther and Thoreau and consider Thor-
eau's statement: "The
proper place today,
the
only place
which Massachusetts has
provided
for her freer and less
desponding spirits,
is
in her
prisons,
to be
put
out and locked out
of the state
by
her own
act,
as
they
have al-
ready put
themselves out
by
their
princi-
ples.""
Thoreau is fortunate
enough
to have
the state's action
legitimize
or confirm the iso-
lation that he has
already
chosen. Werther's
dilemma is that his
imprisonment,
his desire
for a limited
perspective,
his chosen enclosure
within a
comfortably
familiar environment
must remain in his consciousness as a creation
of his own
making; it is not
imposed by
the
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STRICKLAND: Goethe's Werther 205
external world. Werther
compares
himself
often with those who are confined
by
external
circumstances: the suicidal
girl,
children in
general,
Heinrich in the double sense of one
who believes his sorrow has an external
source and who
longs
for his lost
days
of con-
finement in the
asylum.
But Albert will
always
be able to
distinguish
their situation from
Werther's,
as he does in the discussion Wer-
ther records in his letter of 12
August
1771
(45 ff.),
and Werther will never be able to
reject fully
Albert's
perspective.
In the romantic
image
of the
prison, escape
is
always
an
implicit possibility. Escape
from
the
prison, crossing
its
threshold,
is a means
of
achieving
communion with the world from
which the
prison
itself serves as an
escape.
"For in its
larger mythic dimension,"
writes
Brombert,
"the carceral
imagery implies
the
presence
of a
threshold,
the
possibility
of a
passage,
an initiation- a
passage
from the in-
side to the
beyond, from
isolation to commun-
ion,
from
punishment
and
suffering
to
redemp-
tion. . . ."" We have
already
noted Werther's
recognition
of the
possibility
of an
escape
from
the
prison
of the
given
world. His
acknowledg-
ment of the
possibility
of suicide is a
promise
of
escape
that
accompanies
his view of the
given
world as a
prison.
But the
prison
of the
letter of 21
June,
the
prison
as a chosen
refuge
also holds the
promise
of a
passage
from iso-
lation to communion.
Werther, however,
does
not
experience
the
joy
of
imprisonment
as an
expectation
of
future
communion.
Rather,
communion itself is
brought
within the walls
of the
prison
in the form of the
vagabond's
homecoming. However,
this communion re-
mains a kind of self-delusion
reflecting
the
close connection between the choice of im-
prisonment
and the unrealizable desire for
sympathetic understanding.
Brombert sees a
certain
hopelessness
in the
prison image:
What remains to be stressed is the fun-
damental
gloom
that hides behind the
conquest
of
intimacy
and
images
of self-
possession. Behind the
impregnable sol-
itude and convulsive self-centeredness
lurks the secret awareness that no rela-
tion can exist between man and man.
There are no echoes to the cries of Sade's
secret torture rooms- the cries cannot
even be heard. And the walls remain
mute."
It is in
response
to this secret awareness that
Werther turns from the world. He constructs
a second world
that, as he seems
painfully
aware, resembles the
prison
from which he
fled. His
pain
is redoubled when we realize
that, although
he turns
away
from the
given
world, he does so in the interest of
overcoming
the silence and isolation of
solipsism.
Although
the letter of 21
June is but one
moment in Werther's
history,
it
exemplifies
his
epic
ideal and the tensions embedded
within it. Here Werther
weighs
his
longing
for
a familiar world
against
the
openness
and free-
dom of
discovery.
I have tried to show how
this contradiction between constraint and dis-
covery
becomes the source of Werther's insta-
bility
as he strives to create a
second, fictional
world in which he
might live. To resolve this
dilemma Werther tries to use the
Odyssey as
the narrative form
through
which to retell his
own
story.
The contrast between
Odysseus's
struggle
to return to a
given
home and Wer-
ther's own more
problematic struggle
to cre-
ate a home to which he
might
return
signals
the
uncertainty
as well as the
importance
of
Werther's
attempt.
The second world that
Werther tries to
create,
and with it
any possi-
bility
of a
genuine homecoming, eventually
buckles under the
weight
of the values of the
given world,
values to which he himself is
ultimately
committed.
Notes
SGoethes Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, 7th ed., 14 vols.
(Hamburg: Wegner, 1968) 6: 488. All page citations in
the text refer to this edition.
Fredric
Jameson,
The Political
Unconscious, Narrative
as
a
Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981).
See esp. 28 ff. for Jameson's defense of
allegorical
interpretation against
the criticism of Louis Althusser.
The
anthropologist
Vincent
Crapanzano
testifies to
both the
danger
and the value of
allegorical readings:
"Above all-and I write with uneasiness and a certain
regret-
Tuhami both as text and as a fellow human
being enables me to raise the problematic of the life
history
and the
ethnographic encounter. Tuhami be-
comes, thereby,
a
figure
within an
imposed allegory
that in a
very
real sense
bypasses
him.
My
own obtru-
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206 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Spring 1991
sive
presence
in his
life
enables Tuhami to tell his
story;
it also
permits
me the
luxury
of
entering
that
allegory
in the name of a science that is unknown to him."
Vincent
Crapanzano, Tuhami, portait of
a Moroccan
(Chicago:
U of
Chicago P, 1980)
xi.
4
Evaluations of Werther as a
pathological figure
abound.
See,
for
example,
Hans
Reiss,
Goethe's Novels
(New
York: St.
Martin's, 1969). Werther's
explicit
social criti-
cism is treated in detail
by
Peter
MiUller,
Zeitkritik und
Utopie
in Goethes "Werther" (Berlin [DDR]: Riitten &
Loening, 1969). Erdmann Warniek
argues
that the con-
temporary reception
of Werther
signaled
a
yielding
of
moral to aesthetic criteria in the evaluation of literature.
Erdmann
Warniek,
"Werther lesen und Werther als
Leser,"
Goethe Yearbook 1
(1982):
74 ff.
Reiss 29
(see
n.
4).
6
James Wilson,
"Goethe's Werther: A Keatsian
Quest
for
Self-Annihilation,"
Mosaic 9 (1975-76):
105.
Peter
Salm,
"Werther and the
Sensibility
of
Estrange-
ment,"
German
Quarterly
46
(1973):
51 f.
'
Eric A.
Blackall,
Goethe and the Novel
(Ithaca:
Cornell
UP, 1976) 35 f.
"
Robert Ellis
Dye,
"Man and God in Goethe's
Werther,"
Symposium
29
(1975):
321.
"' Comparison
with Schiller's later and more
explicit
dis-
tinction between "childlike" and "childish" is hard to
resist. Consider also Schiller's admonishment: "Sie
[Kinder] sind,
was wir
waren;
sie
sind,
was wir wieder
werden sollen. Wir waren
Natur,
wie
sie,
und unsere
Kultur soll
uns,
auf dem
Wege
der Vernunft und der
Freiheit,
zur Natur
zurtickffihren."
"Uber naive und
sentimentalische
Dichtung,"
Sdmtliche
Werke, 5 vols.
(Munich: Winkler, 1968)
5: 434.
"
Blackall
(29)
first drew
my
attention to this rather ob-
vious
pun.
'2
Salm 52.
''
Blackall,
ch. 2 and
passim.
Reiss offers an
opposing
view
stressing
the
discrepancies
between the narra-
tor's values and those of
Werther,
but he overlooks the
tensions within the narrator's account: "The editor's
account is to be
objective.
At
first,
the reader is
merely
assured that an event has been
accurately reported.
It is not
suggested
that a view of
reality
is
being
devel-
oped.
But this
very objectivity
contains the whole es-
sence of another view of the world. To describe the
sorrows of Werther without an
expression
of sentiment
is to
suggest
that
reality
is not what is
felt,
that
feeling
has to be subordinated to
reason,
that external events
take
precedence
over the movement of the inner life"
(48 f.).
4
Benjamin Bennet,
"Goethe's Werther: Double
Perspec-
tive and the Game of
Life,"
German
Quarterly
53
(1980):
65. Other readers have
sought
an Archimedean
point
in Werther's
"misreading"
of literature.
See,
for
example,
Carol E.
W.
Tobol and Ida H.
Washington,
"Werther's Selective
Reading
of
Homer,"
Modern Lan-
guage
Notes 92 (1977): 596-601;
and Bruce
Duncan,
"'Emilia Galotti
lag
auf dem Pult
aufgeschlagen':
Wer-
ther as
(Mis-)Reader,"
Goethe Yearbook 1 (1982) 42-50.
However attractive this
project may seem,
it errs in
treating
"our"
readings
of Emilia Galotti and the
Odys-
sey
as
transparent.
For a critical
perspective,
see War-
niek 61 ff.
(see
n.
4).
'" Bennett 68 ff.
'" Georg Lukacs,
Die Theorie des Romans (Darmstadt:
Luchterhand, 1971)
53.
17
Lukics
53.
'X
I
prefer
not to mark this
uncertainty
as a
"misreading"
of Homer. For alternative
interpretations,
see Peter
Puitz,
"Werthers Leiden an der
Literatur,"
Goethe's Nar-
rative Fiction. The Irvine Goethe
Symposium,
ed. Wil-
liam
J. Lillymann (Berlin:
de
Gruyter, 1983) 55-68;
Tobol and
Washington; Duncan;
and Warniek
(see
n. 4).
'"
Lukics
21.
" Jameson
144.
"'
Jameson
146.
"
Jameson
157.
": Friedrich
Schlegel,
"Rede iiber die
Mythologie,"
Kritische
Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe,
ed. Hans Eichner
(Munich: Sch6ningh, 1967)
2: 311-28.
2"
Reiss 27
(see
n.
4).
25
Arnold Hirsch, "Die Leiden des
jungen
Werthers: Ein
biirgerliches
Schicksal im absolutischen
Staat,"
Etudes
Germaniques
13
(1958):
231.
2
Dye
317.
2
Friedrich
Schiller,
"Uber die
isthetische Erziehung
des
Menschen,"
Samtliche Werke 5: 330
(see
n.
10). I am
using
Rousseau's
position
as a familiar
touchpoint
and
am thus
presenting
here
only
a caricature of Rousseau's
ideal of nature. A more
thorough comparison
of Goe-
the's and Rousseau's views on this
subject
would re-
quire
a more subtle treatment of Rousseau.
1" Max Horkheimer and Theodor
W. Adorno,
Dialektik
derAufkldrung,
in Gesammelte
Schriften, by
Max Hork-
heimer,
ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr
(Frankfurt
a.M.:
Fischer, 1987)
5: 54.
"
Lukics
55.
1'
Victor
Brombert,
"The
Happy
Prison: A
Recurring
Romantic
Metaphor,"
Romanticism:
Vistas, Instances,
Continuities,
ed. David Thorburn and
Geoffrey
Hart-
man
(Ithaca: Cornell
UP, 1973)
62-79.
1' Brombert 63.
32
Brombert 73.
"
Brombert 68.
:1 Henry
David
Thoreau,
"On the
Duty
of Civil Disobedi-
ence," Walden and On the
Duty of
Civil Disobedience
(New
York:
Harper, 1958) 260.
1
Brombert
67; emphasis
added.
I
Brombert 77 f.
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