I read The Sorrows of Young Werther because it has to be read. The first pages bothered me by the condescending tone of the author towards people of “lower condition” than him. But I persevered and ... I did well! I understand that this book has passed the centuries.
It is the story of an unhappy love lived by a young man rich enough to have nothing else to do but to sigh after the woman of his dreams, the perfect woman, who would exist, thus! Don’t look for humour in this book, what you’ll find is:
The roots of the romantic movement in Europe, very pertinent reflections on human nature, and a writing - even if I read it in French, in a pretty edition dating from 1926, illustrated with charming and obsolete engravings! - a writing, therefore, simple and profound; a progression in the thought of the main character, Werther, subtle, reasoned and relentless.
Here are some of the thoughts that caught my attention:
About the destiny of Men:
“The human race is but a monotonous affair. Most of them labour the greater part of their time for mere subsistence; and the scanty portion of freedom which remains to them so troubles them that they use every exertion to get rid of it.”
About the bad mood (or temper? I’m not sure about the right word in English, sorry) that people around us have to endure:
“Is it not enough that we want the power to make one another happy, must we deprive each other of the pleasure which we can all make for ourselves? Show me the man who has the courage to hide his ill-humour, who bears the whole burden himself, without disturbing the peace of those around him. No: ill-humour arises from an inward consciousness of our own want of merit, from a discontent which ever accompanies that envy which foolish vanity engenders. (…) Woe unto those who use their power over a human heart to destroy the simple pleasures it would naturally enjoy! All the favours, all the attentions, in the world cannot compensate for the loss of that happiness which a cruel tyranny has destroyed. We should daily repeat to ourselves that we should not interfere with our friends, unless to leave them in possession of their own joys, and increase their happiness by sharing it with them!”
This request of Werther to the woman he loves is romanticism expressed in a charming delicacy, forgotten nowadays:
“Dear Charlotte! One thing, however, I must request: use no more writing-sand with the dear notes you send me. Today I raised your letter hastily to my lips, and it set my teeth on edge.”
Goethe was of great clairvoyance: here’s what he had understood, well before psychoanalysis, psychology and all the recent notions about the mind:
"It is in vain that a man of sound mind and cool temper understands the condition of such a wretched being, in vain he counsels him. He can no more communicate his own wisdom to him than a healthy man can instil his strength into the invalid, by whose bedside he is seated."
Here’s an example of Goethe’s beautiful writing:
“Ah, how often at that time has the flight of a bird, soaring above my head, inspired me with the desire of being transported to the shores of the immeasurable waters, there to quaff the pleasures of life from the foaming goblet of the Infinite, and to partake, if but for a moment even, with the confined powers of my soul, the beatitude of that Creator who accomplishes all things in himself, and through himself!”
And this one too:
“Content and peace of mind are valuable things: I could wish, my dear friend, that these precious jewels were less transitory. Content and peace of mind are valuable things: I could wish, my dear friend, that these precious jewels were less transitory.”
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