In my head, I often string together themes and topics that seem disconnected on the surface, inherently unrelated flotsam. And then I nag at them. So, lately, it has been running through my head that Ruwen Ogien’s idea about the synthetic nature of informal moral sanctions; the de-Christianization of Europe in the 18th century; the elevation of love as a life-defining sentiment during the latter half of the same period; and the Enlightenment war against superstition all form a pattern, fall under the empire of the happiness culture I’ve been tracking.

Let’s sort things out a bit. Ogien’s notion of the synthesis between a sanction and a sentiment should give us a sense of the interactional space within which lovers operate. The goal, of course, is to achieve that synthesis – to make it the case that the remark, “I love you’, gears up the sentiment, “I love you” in the person to whom it is addressed. Given the way the interactional space is constituted, its being governed by diffuse sanctions, we can use Ogien’s notion to have some grasp of the material degree of election exercised here – the freedom to love – by looking at the constraints on that election. For instance, do the lovers even know each other? In a society of arranged marriages, they may not until the moment of the marriage. Are they mature? What are the habits they take up with regard to each other and to other possible lovers after they are married? Obviously, a world in which arranged marriages were the norm would display a control over the lovers in terms of hardening the sanctions which made ‘I love you’ binding; yet it is also possible that the arranged norm allows for other love arrangements with other people after the marriage is sealed.

As we all know, the sentimental novel stamped its image, in the latter half of the 18th century, on the lover’s discourse. In the course of doing so, it downgraded ritual in favor of feeling. The legacy of the traditional world of arranged marriages, the rituals centered around marriage, the economics of it, the parental interference with it, became a collateral casualty of the attack on the loveless love bond. Although I should probably say, became a long range collateral casualty – but in any case, one recognizes, here, the kinship between the fashion for sentimentalism in the latter part of the 18th century and the attack on superstition that was mounted in the first half of it, by the first wave of philosophes. If superstition is defined as a rite or act which is performed under the false assumption that it will cause an event, an arranged marriage could easily fall victim to this same critique.

Well, this brings us to the Sorrows of Young Werther and my trying to puzzle out the three circles of his initiation into love.


In 1774, Goethe became a European wide star with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. In two years, there were two French translations. There were 8 English editions by 1800. Chinese porcelain manufacturers produced dishes with scenes from Werther drawn on them. Goethe himself became a tourist site, an oracle that travelers would go to visit. This, of course, was before Goethe went to Weimar and became a court councilor.

All of this was a puzzle and a vexation to the older generation of German Enlightenment figures, like Lessing and Lichtenberg. Lessing knew K.W. Jerusalem, whose suicide provided Goethe with an all important trouvaille for his book. But it wasn’t just Lessing’s outrage at what he regarded as the misuse of private sorrow – he did not like the ‘sentimentalism’: Do you imagine a roman or a Greek youth would have taken his life in that way and for that reason? They had a quite different protection from the folly [Schwarmerei – enthusiasm] of love. And in Socrates time one would have hardly excused such a ex ‘erotos katoke which spontaneously ti tolman para phusin in a girl. To bring forth such minutely gigantic, comtmptibly admiable, ‘original’ beings was a privilege reserved to Christian education, which is so beautifully able to transform a physiological need into a spiritual perfection.” [Quoted in Boyle, 187 – translation modified].

The last sentence is the true coin of the Voltairian, or materialist, phase of the Enlightenment. It is just the kind of thing one can imagine being said by Prince Andrei’s father, Count Bolkonsky.

Lessing looked at the novel through the suicide that Werther finally commits. LI is reading the novel looking at the scene in which Werther falls in love. In a previous post on Cosi Fan Tutte, I remarked on the way in which substitution among the lovers – an old, fairy tale test – becomes playful, a cause of a certain kind of delight, a tempering of love. It is a test of true love, and its result is that love is resistant to the lure of the truth.

In The Sorrows of Young Werther, the chapter in which Werther falls in love is curiously mediated by three circles.

Circle no. 1 is outside of Werther. He sees it as a “charming play” that appears to him when he enters Lotte’s house:

“ In the front anteroom, all six children from eleven to two milled about a girl with a beautiful form, of middle height, who wore a simple white dress, with pink bows on the sleeves and breast. She held a loaf of black bread and cut the small ones in the ring about her each a piece according to the proportion appropriate to their age and appetite, and gave it to each with such friendliness, and each call out so naturally thanks, while reaching upwards with their small hands, before it was cut, and now satisfied with their evening bread, either sprang back or after his quiet character were allowed to go to the gate, in order to see the strangers and the coach that was to carry Lotte away.” Here are the elements of the scene: a circle, a distribution, substitution. The children form the circle, Lotte at the center distributes bread, the slices fall into the hands of the children by a rule of thumb having to do with age and appetite, which rule of thumb governs the substitutions that can be made.

In circle no. 2, Werther is part of the circle. Then there is the circle of the ball itself. It is in dancing with Lotte that Werther both falls in love and receives the warning – a repetition of a warning he has forgotten – that she is engaged. The dance has no central distributor, but Werther’s feeling, aroused by this time, makes of Lotte’s position as his partner, or her dancing with someone else, the sign that Lotte still distributes. The rule is that partner switch – they substitute among each other. But Werther remarks that if he were Lotte’s husband, he wouldn’t stand for this rule – in other words, substitution has become, for him, the enemy of love.

It is circle no. 3 that is the oddest of the circles in this initiation to obsession. In order to divert the guests at the ball from the lightning storm that has broken outside – the hostess invites the guests to a room upstairs, where Charlotte quickly has everyone arrange their chairs into a circle:

“We will play counting,” she said. Now, pay attention. I will go in a circle from right to left, and you also will count out in a ring, each one saying the number, that comes next, and it has to go like a wildfire, and whoever stops, or makes a mistake, will earn a slap [an earpulling] and so on up to one thousand. And now it was comic to watch. She went with an extended arm about the circle. One the first began, the neighbor, two, three the following person and so on. Then she began to move faster, always faster. Then it happened, pow, a slap to the ear, and over the laughter, the following one also, pow, and always faster. I myself earned two slaps on the mouth, and believed, with inner satisfaction, that they were stronger than those doled out to the others. A general laughter and enthusiasm ended the game before one thousand had been counted out.” [GW 1899 19 35-36]

Substitution in its purest form is the number system. But as a pure form, it is also rather boring and childish, strikingly so. In fact, the game is conducted as a sort of return to infancy – the numbers are spoken so quickly that they lose their verbal distinctness, and the slaps that are distributed by Charlotte are like the slaps one gives a child: that is, they penetrate the adult space in such a way as to make the receiver like a child. At the same time, Charlotte, who made up the childish game, is seen as a child herself, whirling around the circle of seated adults. And what is one to make of Werther’s inner satisfaction? He is, consciously, like the child with the larger appetite, getting the bigger portion.