Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Sorrows of Young Werther

With the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) set in motion a phenomenon called "Werther-Fieber" ("Werther Fever"). The plot of the epistolary story focuses on the narrator's unrequited love for a woman named Charlotte, who is already engaged to an older man named Albert. Werther determines that one member of this triangle must die and decides it must be himself. He convinces Albert, under pretense, to lend him two of his pistols, which Charlotte sends. Werther then uses it to shoot himself in the head, dying 12 hours later. Neither Albert nor Charlotte attend his funeral. After the publication of the book, from which Goethe later distanced himself, young men who identified with Werther began to dress like and emulate him - even to the point of copycat suicide. Groups of related suicides are now referred to as "suicide clusters," a term I first learned in cryptozoologist Loren Coleman's 1987 book of the same name. After Goethe's own death of unspecified causes, his personal secretary Johann Peter Eckermann (1792-1854) recorded in Conversations with Goethe the following passage about his corpse:

The morning after Goethe's death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbour thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off. The body lay naked, only wrapped in a white sheet; large pieces of ice had been placed near it, to keep it fresh as long as possible. Frederick drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the divine magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched; the arms and thighs were elegant, and of the most perfect shape; nowhere, on the whole body, was there a trace of either fat or of leanness and decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart - there was a deep silence - and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.
Goethe took more pride in his studies in natural science - especially his Theory of Colours - than in his writings. His most famous work Faust was only published in its entirety after his death.

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