"Tell Me, What Did I Say That For?" Yet More Sorrows Of Young Werther And The Fragments of Albert

“Imagine a woman settling into a piano, opening her mouth, and drinking in the sounds her own hands make until they rattle around the cave of her skull and come pouring back out of her throat, now a waterfall, back into the piano, and so on and back and forth, self-sustaining bingeing and purging, holy musical vomit, a spectacle of ordered eating; she has rendered herself entirely unkissable by turning her mouth into a player-piano that eats music and spits it back out again.” Previously in the ongoing Sorrows of Young Werther chronicles: The man who loved the woman who ate a piano.

First, another Albert entirely (and yet all Alberts are part of the same Albert – there is but one Albert dwelling at the center of the world, who sends forth certain Albert-limbs through various apertures in the earth):

He's going in the Army

It's the best thing he could do

Now you’re free to start to do

What you wanted to

Albert, Albert – A-a-a-a-albert!

I remember how you told me

I should trust you for a year –

It would just be for a year –

But it's eight years, Albert!

Eight long years, Albert!

Albert is an excellent name for a long-suffering fiancé; in a 1990s film adaptation of Werther he might be played by either Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney and end up stepping gracefully, and with a sexy sort of dignity, aside in the final pages. And there is a sexiness to Albert’s dignity, don’t let anyone try to tell you different. Werther is very loudly in love with Lotte, yes, but he’s also deeply in love with every man he believes to be in love – not just in love with her, but in love with anyone, which makes Werther’s love for Albert at reinforced at least twice, like double-sided Scotch tape. And Werther, who is by and large perfectly eloquent on the subject of Lotte (see: feelings for, perfection of, uncomfortable bird-kissing of, etc) always seems to trail off – or, more accurately, always seems to cut himself off – whenever Albert enters a paragraph.

First piece of Albert:

As we were going down (and Heaven knows with what ecstasy I gazed at her arms and eyes, beaming with the sweetest feeling of pure and genuine enjoyment), we passed a lady whom I had noticed for her charming expression of countenance; although she was no longer young. She looked at Lotte with a smile, raised a warning finger, and as she flew by uttered the name Albert, twice and in a very significant tone.

‘Who is Albert?’ I said to Lotte, ‘if it is not impertinent to ask.’—She was about to answer when we were obliged to separate to dance the grand figure of eight; and I thought I saw signs of pensiveness on her brow as we crossed each other’s paths.

Is it impertinent to speak of Albert? Werther seems to think so! His name is almost always accompanied by a dash — both dashing and dashing out. Often when Albert arrives on the scene, Werther feels compelled to depart, although not always (or even most of the time) out of anger or resentment; what he finds unbearable is the idea of sharing something he can only experience in pieces.

Albert has arrived, and I shall leave; even if he were the best and noblest of men, one to whom I should be willing to think myself inferior in every respect, it would be unbearable to see him before me, in possession of such perfections.—Possession!—Enough…A dear and honest man whom one cannot help liking. He is so considerate, too, and has not yet kissed Lotte a single time in my presence. May God reward him for it! I have to love him for the respectful way he treats the girl.

What do you call it, exactly, when you hope another man will get the better of you in every way, when you love him more and more every time he doesn’t kiss his girlfriend? Let’s lob an em-dash between it and ourselves and make a quick run for the exits!

And anyway, I cannot help esteeming Albert. His tranquil evenness of manner is in marked contrast to the turbulence of my own disposition, which I cannot hide. He is a man of feeling, and knows very well what Lotte is worth. He seems to be almost free of ill-humour, which as you know is the human evil I loathe above all others. He considers me a man of some sensitivity; and his own triumph is augmented by my attachment to Lotte, and the joyful warmth her every action produces in me, and he loves her all the more.

Werther can never help himself with Albert, Albert exhibits an irresistible and undeniable pull on the liking-someone sections of Werther’s heart. To be around Albert is to be helpless, and so Werther leaves him again and again, never for the last time.

To be a member of that delightful family, to be loved like a son by the old man, like a father by the children, and by Lotte!—and then Albert, an honest soul who never disturbs my happiness with any unpleasant ill-humour; who embraces me in a spirit of heartiest friendship; and who loves me better than anyone else on earth, Lotte excepted!—It is a delight, dear Wilhelm, to hear us talking about Lotte when we are out walking together; nothing on earth is more ludicrous than our connection, and yet I often have tears in my eyes…

I must leave! Thank you, Wilhelm, for stiffening my wavering resolve. This last fortnight I have been thinking of leaving here. I must go. She is in town again, with a friend. And Albert—and—I must go!

But Werther is, once again, insufficiently stiffened, and wavers before making a final break from Albert, Albert who can reduce him to tears and softness and receptivity by taking him out on a date with Charlotte as a phantom third wheel. Albert is not satisfied with Charlotte by herself, but delights in Charlotte-in-Werther, Charlotte-of-Werther. The three of them set up a revolving-door relationship: Charlotte’s back in town, now with a friend, Albert is somewhere unspeakable, Werther is backing away towards the exit to make room —

The sun is setting gloriously on a landscape glittering with snow, the storm has passed, and I—I must return and be locked in my cage once more.—Adieu! Is Albert with you? And what—? God forgive these questions!

Is Albert here? Are you here? Are you two in the same heres, or do you each have your own with you?

No, it is well! it is all well!—I—her husband! Oh dear God who created me, if Thou hadst bestowed that happiness on me, my entire life would have been one unceasing prayer. But I am not disputing Thy wisdom; forgive these tears, forgive my vain wishes!—She my wife! If I might only have held the dearest creature under the sun in my arms—It sends a tremble through my whole body, Wilhelm, when Albert takes her by her slender waist. And—dare I say it? Why not, dear Wilhelm? She would have been happier with me than with him! Oh, he is not the man to satisfy all the wishes of her heart. He lacks a certain sensitivity, he lacks—well, make of it what you will. His heart does not beat in unison with hers when—oh!—when they read a passage in a favourite book where my heart and Lotte’s beat together; there were a hundred other instances when we expressed our feelings concerning the behaviour of some third person and found they coincided. My dear Wilhelm!—He loves her with his entire soul, no doubt, and love of that order deserves a great deal!—

I, her husband / I and her husband / I vs. her husband

When I am lost in my daydreams I cannot help wondering: what if Albert were to die?—You would!—yes, and she would—and then I fantasize till I am at the brink of the abyss, and I flinch back with a shudder.

The sum total of this fantasy is this: If Albert were to die, I, Werther, would be at the brink of the abyss. Without Albert, there is no Werther; when Werther dies, there can be no more Albert.

She has been away for a few days, collecting Albert.

Someone has to pick up all the extra pieces of Albert that have been cut up into bits by em-dashes and left lying around. Albert fragments and Charlotte collects.

And what distresses me, Wilhelm, is that Albert does not seem as happy as—he hoped —or as I—should have expected to be—if—I do not care for all these dashes, but there is no other way I can express this—and I imagine this is clear enough…

About eleven that night he had him buried at the place he had chosen for himself. The old gentleman and his sons followed the corpse, but Albert was unable to. There were fears for Lotte’s life. Guildsman bore the body. No priest attended him.

The abyss again, always arrived at by the same mathematical procession. If Werther dies, Albert cannot continue, and vice versa.

Back to Bye Bye Birdie’s Albert, in “What Did I Ever See In Him?” (The Chita Rivera version, obviously.) More dashes, more promises of disavowal, more surprise at the realization that Albert is somehow, still, indispensable — how did Albert pull this one out from under me again?

How did I ever—?

Why did I ever—?

What did I ever—?

Do we need them? No, we don't!

Do we want them? No, we don't!

Will we leave them? No, we won't!—

Tell me, what did I say that for?