The Man Who Loved The Woman Who Ate A Piano: The Sorrows Of Young Werther Makes Me Anxious About My Own Legacy

As some of you may know, I’ve been very slowly making my way through The Sorrows of Young Werther for the last two months, having to put it down every couple of pages because it is just so extremely much. It seems very much to understand itself as being full of muchness, but every time I’ve mentioned that I’m reading it to someone else, either in person or on Twitter, the response tends to fall under one of several variations on the same theme: Werther and Lotte would not make a very healthy couple, Goethe probably wrote it in order to make the argument that romantic rejection is tantamount to murder, that Werther was Patient Zero for the modern incel movement, that the book was itself directly responsible for a rash of suicides (Michael Hulse addresses the “rash of suicides” rumor in the introduction to his translation for Penguin fairly conclusively, I think), and I, Daniel, should not try to emulate Werther in my own personal life. Which I found quite strange! It made me feel more than a little self-conscious when it comes to my own body of work, which often spends a great deal of time sitting with intensity in literature, and worried that I myself had come across as entirely dismissive of such intensity rather than interested in it. Goethe apparently experienced this same self-consciousness in his own life, such that he felt moved to add a reader’s note to the 1775 edition that says, in effect, “I do not encourage you behave as Werther does.” Every generation feels compelled to have some version of the “Are novels ruining the morals of young people?” conversation in its own way, I guess!

None of this is to say that “everyone is wrong about The Sorrows of Young Werther,” of course, nor that I think people ought to find his character or outlook persuasive. I had thought, based on how people had spoken about the book, to encounter a wholly self-pitying, unpleasant, demanding, whining sort of creature at the center. But there was so much I loved about the book, so much care put into the portrait of a “likeable, generous, creative, spontaneous, responsive…man ill-equipped to cope with his life” (Hulse again), I thought I might write a bit about how I loved it. I may do so on an ongoing basis, as the spirit moves me, in a slow and a piecemeal fashion, since slowly and in pieces is how I first read the book.

Werther first sees Lotte on his way to a dance; he runs into her house to collect her because it’s a group date and she isn’t ready when the carriage arrives. There is, of course, a storm already gathering on the horizon, and Werther reassures the rest of the passengers by “affecting expertise in matters of the weather, although all the time I was myself beginning to suspect that our pleasures would be dealt a blow.”

I crossed the courtyard to a well-built house and, climbing the flight of steps in front, opened the door and beheld the most charming scene I have ever set eyes on. In the hallway, six children aged between eleven and two were milling about a girl with a wonderful figure and of medium height, wearing a simple white dress with pink ribbons at the sleeves and breast. She was holding a loaf of rye bread and cutting a piece for each of the little ones about her, according to their age and appetite; she handed out the slices with great kindliness, and the children reached up their little hands long before the bread was cut, cried out their artless thanks and then either bounded away contented with their supper or, in the case of the quieter ones, walked tranquilly out to the courtyard gate to look at the strangers and the carriage in which their Lotte was to drive away.

‘Do forgive me for putting you to the trouble of coming in,’ she said, ‘and for keeping the ladies waiting. What with dressing, and seeing that all will be well in the house in my absence, I forgot to give my children their supper, and they won’t have their bread cut by anyone but me.’

It’s a hell of a pastoral tableau, of course, but I love this image of a many-limbed woman slowly rotating, surrounded by a merry-go-round of children reaching up, crying out, and bounding away, arm after arm slicing and buttering and distributing bread, everyone bending and reaching and offering and receiving and unfolding and turning and returning in a perpetual production line of bread and gratitude, like the terrifying seraphim in Isaiah’s vision: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out.”

It’s that terrifying and life-defining a vision! Werther has mostly given up eating at this point in the book – I don’t mean he starves himself, but the pages before he meets Lotte are given over to describing the pleasures of eating cabbage you grew yourself or picking mange-tout in a friendly neighbor’s garden (ask Grace how I tried to pronounce mange-tout when I first asked her how to say it, go on, have a laugh), but as the book goes on and his failure to cope and thrive becomes total, he starts leaving meals abruptly or stops describing them in his letters. He can’t be fed, he can’t be nourished, bemoans the loss of his own “inner resources” because he recognizes that the inability to produce energy or properly address hunger is not the result of some external force but his own. Lotte’s life physically works in a way that Werther’s doesn’t, and he can almost manage to sustain himself on the sight of her feeding and being fed (There’s a great, gross scene later on where she feeds a pet parakeet out of her mouth, and he is totally turned on and totally heartbroken by the sight of weird Pet Intimacy).

Dante watching Beatrice and the beehive-saints in the Empyrean circle in Canto XXX of the Paradiso is fed in much the same way, although something about being in actual Heaven means the eating-by-proxy actually works in a way being in 19th-century Germany can’t replicate:

No little infant mouths as readily

Towards his mother’s breast, if he awake

much later than his hour is wont to be,

As mirrors of mine eyes I then did make,

In eagerness inclining o’er the stream,

Which flows that man his good therein may seek.

As as these eyelids drank unto their brim,

Beneath my gaze the river’s contours swayed,

Spreading and curving to a circle’s rim.

Im baby, we might say, if our mouths weren’t so full of our eyes.

Later on, Werther watches her retreat to the piano to avoid having to reject him, and she has another Transformers-style sequence, this time into a sort of musical robot that both eats and produces sound:

Why could I not throw myself at her feet? and fall at her breast, and respond with a thousand kisses? She retreated to the piano and accompanied her playing with harmonious sounds breathed forth in a sweet and tender voice. Her lips had never looked so lovely; it was as if they opened thirstily to drink in the sweet tones that streamed from the instrument, and what was returned from her pure mouth was merely a secret echo—if only I could describe it to you!—I resisted no longer, bent forward, and vowed: Never shall I dare implant a kiss on these lips where the spirits of heaven dwell.—And yet I want to—Ha! You see, it is like a barrier my soul has come up against—such bliss—

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. It’s masterful! It’s terrifying! It’s entirely deserving of worship and terror!

Back to Isaiah’s vision, where the prophet has much the same response as Werther at the throne of God, and flies into a panic about the unworthiness of his own mouth in comparison:

So I said:

“Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said:

“Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged.”

Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying:

“Whom shall I send,
And who will go for Us?”

Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

And He said, “Go, and tell this people:

‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’

“Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And return and be healed.”

So terror leads to fire, fire leads to purging, purging leads to healing, healing enables destruction, a holy vision leads to senselessness, and somehow healing again. None of it makes any sense, but it works.