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Friday, November 14, 2008

August 12, 1771

... But before I can go further, I need to go back to the very important conversation between Werther and Albert on August 12 – a day that changes the entire tone of the novel.

On August 12, Werther records an important conversation with Albert. Albert is Charlotte’s betrothed. In fact, Werther has been making Albert his doppelganger. They both love Charlotte, and – while Werther has said nothing about this to Albert – one can guess that Albert has guessed. I won’t dwell on how much this situation reminds me of certain adulterous passages from my own past – because that would be tedious and embarrassing. Suffice it to say that I found Werther’s behavior here almost unbearably familiar.

So, on August 12th, Albert and Werther have a conversation. The starting point is Albert’s pocket pistols, which Werther wants to borrow. This leads to a discussion of the etiquette of pistols – once, Albert’s servant was cleaning the pistols and showing off to tease another servant, a likely girl, and accidentally shot her. Since then, Albert has made sure that the pistols aren’t loaded.

Werther’s immediate commentary on this story is not only gorgeous, but gives us in a very brief space the aesthetic credo of modernism.

“ My dear, what after all is foresight? Nothing can ever really teach us about danger. Really – “ Now you know [you being Werther’s silent friend, to whom he is writing this letter] that I have the warmest feelings for the man, up to his ‘really’. Because isn’t it self-evident, that every general rule suffers some exceptions? But the man will insist so much on being in the right! That when he believes to have said something hurried, general, half true - - so he begins to limit, to modify, to hem and haw endlessly, until there is nothing left of the thing at all. And on this occasion he plunged deeper into the text – I finally stopped listening to him, fell to moping, and with an irritable gesture I pressed the mouth of the pistol over my right eye, on the forehead. What are you doing!? as he grabbed the pistol away from me. It isn’t loaded, I said. Even so, he said impatiently. I can’t imagine how a man could be so foolish as to shoot himself. The simple thought goes against my grain.

You people, I cried out, in order to speak about a thing, have to say the same thing: that is foolish, that is clever, that is good, that it is bad! And what does all that amount to? Have you thereby plumbed the inner relationships of an action? Do you know with certainty how the causes develop, why they happen, why they have to happen? If you only had, then you wouldn’t be so quick with your judgments.

You will have to concede, said Albert, that certain actions remain vicious, whatever the grounds from which they spring.

I shrugged my shoulders and conceded it…”


Stop here for a second. It is August 12, 1771. And in this passage, a revolution has happened. You can look around the 18th century where you will, but nothing like this conversation, this attitude, that shrug, that outcry – not even in Rousseau. Nobody had written this kind of thing before. That is, since Shakespeare and Montaigne. Sure, you will find bawdy in the 18th century, you will find glimpses of Rabelais, and there was always Cyrano, and there was the conversations in Gullivers Travels in the fourth book – but all of that remained under the stamp of classical forms. This, this is new, this is Satanic – to use the word as Michelet used it, talking about how the saying of the Lord’s prayer backwards was a decisive blow against the totality and the total oppression of the Church. August 12, 1771. That bold idea – to profane the sacred not by denial, but by reversal, by inversion – that forms a domain of revolt that emerges in this conversation as clearly as the fact that Albert’s gun isn’t loaded – that is, it is fraught with obsession. It all comes together here – the pistol, Werther’s moment of bitter absent mindedness, the irritable gesture, Albert’s irrefutable reasonableness – out of this comes Kleist’s end, and the fever dreams of Stepan Verkhovensky and the girl that Stavrogin might have raped, and who certainly hung herself, Munch painted this, Godard filmed this, the Sex Pistols sung this – and a million exegetes have tried to sweep it into one ideology or another, God help us. It is central to, and hidden by, the turn in happiness culture – that moment in which, after the liberation from the old feudal structure of the passions, from the old superstitions, from the old fears of pleasure, from the old primitive cosmos of pain and pleasure doled out by a mastertroping deity, the imagination turns to look at its creation and is struck … with the horror of it all. For it all ends up in Albert’s voice, in his reasonableness, in his being just the kind of man who will make Charlotte the best of husbands.

And I too will take the energy of this, and I will flatten it out, I will seek the larger view, the gross generalization, I will put this in some machine or other. See if I don’t.

To be continued next post…

3 comments:

Jeff Rubard said...

It might be interesting to compare this with another scene of gunplay in early Goethe, the robbery in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Book IV, Chapter 5). A pastoral scene where the players frolic and mock-duel is overtaken by armed bandits, who shoot Wilhelm.

I think the message is rather patent, but you still haven't quite sold me on Goethe's "modernism", especially against the orthographic reportage of a more likely subject, Büchner:

WOYZECK: Was denn, Herr Doktor?

DOKTOR: Ich hab's gesehn, Woyzeck; er hat auf die Straß gepißt, an die Wand gepißt, wie ein Hund. - Und doch drei Groschen täglich und die Kost! Woyzeck, das ist schlecht; die Welt wird schlecht, sehr schlecht!

WOYZECK: Aber, Herr Doktor, wenn einem die Natur kommt.

DOKTOR: Die Natur kommt, die Natur kommt! Die Natur! Hab' ich nicht nachgewiesen, daß der Musculus constrictor vesicae dem Willen unterworfen ist? Die Natur! Woyzeck, der Mensch ist frei, in dem Menschen verklärt sich die Individualität zur Freiheit. - Den Harn nicht halten können! - [Schüttelt den Kopf, legt die Hände auf den Rücken und geht auf und ab.] - Hat Er schon seine Erbsen gegessen, Woyzeck? Nichts als Erbsen, cruciferae, merk Er sich's! Es gibt eine Revolution in der Wissenschaft, ich sprenge sie in die Luft. Harnstoff 0,10, salzsaures Ammonium, Hyperoxydul - Woyzeck, muß Er nicht wieder pissen? Geh Er einmal hinein und probier Er's!

roger said...

Jeff, I love that scene in Woyzek!
It takes nothing away from Buchner, however, to note that he was writing after Goethe, Lenz, Grabbe, Kleist, Hoffmann, et. al. And, unfortunately, I believe the reception of his plays was delayed until the expressionist generation of the 1890s, when he finally started getting recognition. I may be wrong about that, but it is a data point that floats in the mush of my mind.

Werther and his sorrows, on the other hand, went through an astonishing six editions even in Federalist America of the 1780s. Morris Peckham, I think rightly, pointed out that Werther encoded what Peckham calls the collapse of the orientation of the Enlightenment. Peckham points out that the art of letter writing was, itself, a sign that one had achieved a certain level of enlightenment - that one was a gentleman - and that the way in which Werther's letters degenerate in the novel works on the formal level to strip down everything that is implied by 'good' writing.

It is an amazing text, I think.

Jeff Rubard said...

Yes, but I think what you are claiming is honestly too contrarian to just simply have Goethe, the picture of classicism, take over the name "modernist": Woyzeck's anticipation of the taboo-breaking dialect in, for example, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the sort of thing that traditionally has gone under that name.

The revolutionary impact of Sturm und Drang and the writers that came after it has of course not gone without notice, though: in his marvelous book Between Kant and Hegel Dieter Heinrich mentions the "Jena Program", a German initiative to study the culture of Jena during the time of Hegel, Schelling, Schiller et al.'s residence there. Goethe was of course the ducal minder of the Jena university, and the impact of that ferment on the semantics of personhood in Europe generally is definitely worth considering.