August 12, 1771 (2)

After the conversation between Albert and Werther takes a turn towards considering whether suicide could be excusable or not, Werther takes a recent case of a girl – a Mädchen – who had recently drowned herself in the nearby river. Remembering that Werther’s falling in love was ritualized in three circles, it is surprising and interesting that Werther describes the girl’s falling in love in terms of circles, too.

“ I reminded him of a girl who, some time before, had been discovered dead in the water, and repeated to him her history: a good young creature, who had grown up in the narrow circle of domestic affairs and definite weekly tasks; and in addition, who knew no prospect of satisfaction than, for instance, on Sundays, to stroll around in the city dressed up in her piecework finery with similar girls, perhaps stopping to dance once at all the festivals…”

The first circle – which should remind us of the first circle in which Werther saw Charlotte for the first time, surrounded by her brothers and sisters.

But then things change. She gets bored until a “man arrives to whom an unknown feeling irresistibly draws her, on whom she now throws all her hopes and forgets about the world around her (rings um sich), hears nothing, sees nothing, feels nothing but him.” The second circle of love – unlike Werther’s love for Charlotte, a love that the girl can more easily enact – is a rather frightening circle. Already, it discloses the structure of suicide, in that the world around her is forgotten. The circle, that form in which distribution and substitution are the elements, takes on a form in which the substituted elements disappear, and the distribution of affection has no resource to draw from except that of the girl’s naked self.

Here is how the story ends: with the girl “sticking her arms out to embrace all her wishes – and her lover abandons her. Petrified, without sense, she stands before an abyss. Everything is darkness around her, no prospect, comfort, sensation: he has left her, in whom alone she feels her existence. She doesn’t see the broad world, which lies at her feet, nor the many, who could supply her loss [den Verlust ersetzen koennten], she feels alone, abandoned by all the world.”

… and blindly pressed upon by the narrowness of the horrible pain in her heart, she throws herself in, in order to drown all her pain in an all encompassing [rings umfangenden] death.” [70, 71]

Death is the fourth circle, so to speak, after the world, in which the many exist who could supply her loss – the many who emerge, with infinite lightness, in Cosi fan tutte to show that substitution is freedom – and who here exist as a sort of mockery, the abandoned who abandon her.

Why a circle and not, for instance, a line? Because a line would negate the game with its infinity. In the line, there would be no vantage point outside it to tell who stayed and who left. The circle has both closure and infinity – and, most importantly, from within the circle, one can survey the work of substitution.