The publication of J. W. Goethe’s short epistolary tale of teenage angst and suicide The Sorrows of Young Werther caused shockwaves upon its publication in 1774. Shortly after its release so-called "Werther Fever" broke out over Europe. In addition to the emergence of a range of Werther merchandise — prints, porcelain, and even perfume — young men began to imitate Werther, their new hero of youthful disaffection and nihilistic abandon. They'd dress in his garb of yellow trousers and blue jacket, wander through forests in melancholic fashion, and even sadly go so far as to, like Werther, end their own lives. Within the first few weeks of publication, numerous incidents of suicide were recorded, some of the departed found reportedly clutching copies of the book. A moral panic ensued and the book took on a pathological quality: some seeing Goethe's tale not just as a well-crafted expression of Weltschmerz (an almost untranslatable pain or weariness with the world; what Søren Kierkegaard called “sickness until death”) but also its cause. Subsequently the term Werther-Effekt has emerged to refer more generally to the phenomenon of copycat suicides.
The book also inspired an industry in publishing, with a vast corpus of poems, operas, novels and commentaries from Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Neue (glücklichere) Werther (1811) to Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar (1939). Even the English novelist William Thackeray wrote a poem in parody, in which Werther “sighed and pined and ogled, | And his passion boiled and bubbled, | Till he blew his silly brains out, | And no more was by it troubled.” Charlotte, his unrequited love, having seen his body, goes on doing nothing but preparing dinner: bread and butter.
Emblematic of this Werther obsession in the literary world was The Joys of Young Werther, published only a year after Goethe’s novel, by the German bookseller Friedrich Nicolai. The book imagines a conversation between two figures: Hans, who represents the youth seduced by Werther, and Martin, who encapsulates the sensible adult, weary of the fashion for Werther’s Weltschmerz. Hans describes the power of Goethe’s novel in the very opening lines of the text: “The devil take the book The Sorrows of Young Werther.... It pierces you to your very marrow, making all your veins swell and your brain flash.” Martin seeks to convince Hans to relinquish this particular pact with the devil, through the promise of hope. At this point, the dialogue breaks off and Nicolai’s parodic re-writing of the novel starts up.
Nicolai has Werther’s pistol loaded not with a bullet but with “a bladder filled with blood, blood from a chicken that I was supposed to eat for dinner with Lotte this evening”. When the "bullet" lands on Werther’s head, the chicken’s bladder bursts, to indicate his dramatic demise. Werther survives, able to live another day. As per a Hollywood ending, Lotte and Werther go on to marry and they buy a house. Despite adversity (including their wealthy neighbour building a theme park next to their house), they integrate back into society, prosper, and live happily ever after. Nicolai’s tale jumps between parody and moralism, where his faith in a pastoral bliss holds totally redemptive power:
After about sixteen years, their hard work and thriftiness had made them prosperous. Werther was now able to give up his onerous work, and so he purchased a little smallholding that lay on the side of a hill, dotted with high elms and ancient oaks. It had only a tiny house, but there were fertile fields and a garden surrounding the house in which, beneath tall trees, there was a well, cut twenty steps deep into the rock, just as Werther loved it. Here he sat himself down and once again relished the simple harmless delight of a man who serves at table a head of cabbage that he himself has grown, and in that same moment enjoys not only the cabbage itself, but also all the good days, the fine morning on which he planted it, the beautiful evenings on which he watered it and took pleasure in its continued growth, all at once. For in the cabbage fields Lotte grew vegetables and roots that filled their respectable country table. The orchard was Werther’s responsibility, and the children planted flowerbeds full of tulips and fair anemones.
This literary affair does not end here though. In 1775, the same year as Nicolai’s takedown, Goethe composed a small poem in an attempt to ridicule his parodist. In the poem, Nicolai stands next to Werther’s grave and defecates on it: “He sat down, as it wouldn’t keep | On the grave, and left his little heap | Benignly his muck he contemplated | Went his ways much alleviated | And musing to himself did say: | “Poor fellow! A life spent amiss! | I’m sorry he had passed away. | If only he’d learned to shit like this | He’d be alive today!” Goethe’s friend, Schiller, also hits back. In 1797 he published a poem that depicts Nicolai as a stork, unable to eat the food offered to him, unable to comprehend abstract thought. The rift lasted a long time. Goethe penned other attacks, including even giving Nicolai a small cameo in Faust as a "Proktophantasmist" — a neologism by Goethe which combines the Greek word for anus (proktus) with phantom (Nicolai began to be plagued by ghostly apparitions, and cured himself by applying leeches on his backside). Goethe’s responses perhaps proves that he was the master not just of tragedy, nor of comedy, but the amalgamation of the two. In line with Charlie Chaplin’s dictum so many years later: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”.
May 7, 2019