There Are No Words To Express :: from Goethe’s Werther

Werther, Selected Letters, 1771

May 22nd

The illusion that life is but a dream has occurred to quite a few people, and I feel the same way about it. When I see the limitations imposed on man’s powers of action and inquiry and observe how all his efficiency is aimed at nothing but the satisfaction of his needs, which in turn has but one purpose — to prolong his miserable existence — and when I see how all his reassurance on certain aspects of his inquiries is little more than a dreamy resignation, in that he chooses to bedaub the walls of his prison with motley figures and bright prospects — all this, William, makes me mute. I turn in upon myself and find a world there, again more in a spirit of presentiment and dour longing than dramatically or with vitality. Then everything grows hazy in my mind and I go on smiling dreamily at the world.

All learned schoolmasters and tutors are agreed that little children do not know what they want, but no one likes to admit that grown men stumble across this earth like children, not knowing whence they came nor whither they are going, and that a grown man can be just as poor at pursuing the higher aims of life and can be ruled, just like a child, by cookies, cake, and rod. To me all this is quite obvious.

I am perfectly willing to admit — because I know perfectly well what your answer will be — that those people are happiest who live for the moment, like children dragging their dolls around with them, dressing and undressing them, eying the cupboard where Mama keeps the cookies with the greatest respect and, when at long last they get what they want, stuff their cheeks full, chew, swallow, and cry, “More!” Happy Creatures! And they are lucky, also, who know how to give high-sounding names to their shabby professions, even to their passions, passing them off as great achievements that will benefit humanity. Any man is well off who can do that. But he who is humble knows very well where it all ends and can see how neatly every contented citizen prunes his garden to suit his idea of Paradise, with what perseverance even the unhappy man bears his burden, and how all of them have but one thing on their minds — to see the sun shine for one short moment more. Believe me, such a man remains silent and learns how to create his own world by himself, and is happy — as they are — to be alive. And however confused he may be, he always carries in his heart a sweet feeling of freedom in the knowledge that he can leave his prison whenever he likes. (28)

from June 16th

It is not going to be easy for me to tell you what happened chronologically — that I have met a most endearing creature. I am in high spirits and very happy, therefore no good at all for a factual accounting of affairs… (34)

“And I like those writers best who help me find my world again, where the sort of things happen that happen all around me, and the story is as interesting and sympathetic as my own life at home, which may not be paradise but is, on the whole, a source of quite inexplicable joy to me.” … (37)

If an accident or some natural disaster surprises us when we are enjoying ourselves, it naturally makes a stronger impression on us than usual, partly because of the contrast, which makes itself keenly felt, but also — and all the more strongly — because our sensibilities are open wide to all feeling and we can therefore be impressed more acutely… (40)

August 8th

I assure you, William, that I did not mean you when I took those men to task who demand from us resignation to an unavoidable fate. It never occurred to me that you might be of the same opinion. And actually you are right. But, my good friend, in this world things can be settled with an either-or attitude so rarely. Feelings and behavior overshadow each other with an effect as varied as the difference between hawk- and pug-nose. So you won’t be offended with me, I hope, if I concede your entire argument and try to squeeze through between the either and the or!

You say that i must “either” have hope of winning Lotte “or” I must have none. Very well. In the first case I am to try to grasp the fulfillment of my wish and make my hopes come true; in the second I am to pull myself together and try to rid myself of this miserable emotion that must in the end utterly debilitate me. Dear William, you put it so well, and it is easily advised. But can you demand of an unfortunate human who is dying by inches of an insidious disease that he should end his misery with one knife thrust? Wouldn’t you rather say that his misfortune weakens him to such an extent that it must rob him also of the courage to rid himself of it?

Of course you might reply with an appropriate parable: who would not rather sacrifice his right arm than lose his life through hesitation and despair? I don’t know. And don’t let us settle it with parables. Enough! Yes, William, sometimes I do have moments of surging courage to shake it all off, and then… if only I knew whither… probably I would go.


Today I came across my diary. I haven’t written in it for some time, and I was astonished to see how I got into all this, step by step, with my eyes wide open; how clearly I saw the whole things and my condition, yet dealt with it like a child. I see just as clearly today and note no sign of improvement. (56)

August 12th

Albert is the best man on earth… agreed! Yesterday I had a strange experience with him. I went to see him, to bid him farewell, for it had occurred to me that a ride up into the mountains (I am writing to you from there now) was just what I wanted to do. As I was pacing up and down his room, I happened to see his pistols. “Lend me your pistols for the trip,” I said.

“By all means,” he replied, “if you want to take the trouble to load them. I only have them hanging around here pro forma.” As I took one down, he went on: “Since my sense of caution played me such a nasty trick, I don’t want to have anything more to do with them.”

I was anxious to hear the story. “I was in the country, staying with a friend for about three months,” he said. “I had a brace of pistols with me, unloaded, and I slept peacefully. On a rainy afternoon I was sitting there with nothing much to do and, I don’t know why, but it occurred to me that we could be attacked; we might need the pistols and could — you know how it is. I gave them to a servant to clean and load. He fooled around with the girls, wanted to frighten them…. God knows how it happened, but the gun went off with the ramrod still in the barrel and shot the ramrod into the thumb of one of the girls, smashing it. And I had to listen to all the lamentations and pay the surgeon’s bill. Since then I leave the pistols unloaded. My dear fellow, what is precaution? We can never learn all there is to know about danger. To be sure…”

Now, you know, that I love this man very much, except for his “to be sure,” for isn’t it obvious that every generalization admits of exceptions? But this fellow is full of such self-justification. When he thinks he has said something too hastily, or spoken a half-truth, or generalized too much, then you can’t stop him from attaching limitations to what he has said, from modifying it, adding to it and subtracting from it, until at last nothing is left of the original idea!

In the end, Albert became so involved in what he was saying that I stopped listening and was soon lost in my own thoughts. Suddenly, with a rough, abrupt gesture, I pressed the mouth of the pistol against my forehead, just above the right eye.

“Shame on you!” Albert said, as he forced my hand down. “What on earth is the meaning of this?”

“It isn’t loaded,” I said.

“Even so … what was going on in your mind?” He sounded impatient. “I simply cannot imagine how a man could be so foolish as to shoot himself. The very idea disgusts me.”

“Oh you people,” I cried, “who, when you take about anything must immediately declare: that is foolish, that is clever, that is good, that is bad! And what does it all amount to? Do you think you can uncover the vital circumstances of an action with your questions? Are you sure you know how to get at the heart of the matter: why did it happen? Why did it have to happen? If you were, you wouldn’t be so hasty with your decisions.”

“You will grant me, I am sure,” Albert said, “that certain actions are vicious whatever the reason may be.”

I shrugged and had to agree with him. “And yet, my dear fellow,” I went on, “here too you will find your exceptions. To steal is a sin, true, but the poor man who steals to save himself and his dear ones from starvation, what does he deserve? Pity or punishment? Who will cast the first stone against the married man who, in his first fury, murders his faithless wife and her vile seducer? And what about the young girl who in a blissful hour loses herself in the irresistible delights of love? Even our laws, cold-blooded and pedantic as they are, can be moved to withhold punishment.”

“That is something quite different,” said Albert. “A man who lets himself be overwhelmed by passion can be considered out of his mind, and is treated like a drunkard or a madman.”

“Oh you sensible people!” I cried, but I was smiling. “Passion. Inebriation. Madness. You respectable ones stand there so calmly, without any sense of participation. Upbraid the drunkard, abhor the madman, pass them by like the priest and thank God like the Pharisees that He did not make you as one of these! I have been drunk more than once, and my passion often borders on madness, and I regret neither. Because, in my own way, I have learned to understand that all exceptional people who created something great, something that seemed impossible, have to be decried as drunkards or madmen. And I find it intolerable, even in our daily life, to hear it said of almost everyone who manages to do something that is free, noble and unexpected: he is a drunkard, he is a fool. They should be ashamed of themselves, all these sober people! And the wise ones!”

“Now you are being fanciful again,” Albert said. “You always exaggerate, and you are certainly wrong when you classify suicide — and suicide is what we are talking about — as any sort of great achievement, since it can be defined only as a sign of weakness. For it is certainly easier to die than to stand up to a life of torment.”

I was about to break off the conversation, for nothing can so completely disconcert me as when a man presents me, who am talking from the heart, with an insignificant platitude. But I controlled myself because I had heard the same thing so often and let it vex me. Instead I said, with quite some vehemence, “You call it weakness? I beg you, don’t let yourself be misled by appearances. Would you call a nation groaning under the unbearable yoke of a tyrant weak if it revolts and breaks its chains? Or the man who, in his horror because his house is afire, musters sufficient strength to carry off burdens with ease which he could not have budged when he was calm? Or the man who, enraged by insults, takes on six men and overpowers them? Would you call these men weak? And if exertion is strength, why should exaggeration be the opposite?”

Albert looked at me and said, “Don’t be offended, but the examples you gave don’t seem to fit at all.”

“That may be,” I said. “I have been told that my way of combining things borders on the absurd. Let us try and see if we can imagine in some other way how a person feels who shoots himself, thereby throwing off the burden of a life that is generally considered to be pleasant. Because we have the right to talk about a thing only when we can feel for it.

“Human nature,” I continued, “has its limitations. It can bear joy and suffering, and pain to a certain degree, but perishes when this point is passed. Here there can therefore be no question of whether a man is strong or weak, but of whether he can endure his suffering, be it moral or physical. And I find it astonishing to say that a man who takes his own life is a coward, as it would be improper to call a man a coward who dies of a pernicious fever.”

“Paradox! Paradox!” cried Albert.

“Not to the extent you would have it,” I replied. “You must admit that we call it a fatal illness when Nature is attacked in a fashion that destroys a part of her powers and incapacitates the rest to such an extent that she cannot rise again and is incapable of restoring a normal flow to life. Well, my dear fellow, let us apply this precept to the spirit of man. Look at man, with all his limitations — how impressions affect him, how ideas take hold of him until finally passion grows within him to such an extent that it robs him of his peace of mind and ruins him. The calm, sensible man overlooks the poor fellow’s plight to no avail and encourages him was as little success, just as the healthy man, standing beside a sickbed, cannot imbue the invalid with any of his strength.”

Albert found too much generalization in all this. I reminded him of a girl who had been found in the river, drowned, not long ago, and told him her story. She was a sweet young thing who had grown up in a world narrowed down by household duties and the regimentation of her daily chores. She knew no better pleasure nor could hope for anything more than a Sunday walk with girls like herself, in finery accumulated gradually, bit by bit. Perhaps she went dancing on our feast days or past a few hours chatting with a neighbor, with all the liveliness of hearty participation in the cause of a quarrel or some other bit of gossip. And then her passionate nature begins to feel more intimate needs and they are increased by the flattery of the men she meets. Slowly the little things that used to please her grow stale, until she at last meets a man to whom she is irresistibly attracted by a feeling hitherto unknown. Now she puts all her hopes in him, forgets the world around her, hears nothing, sees nothing, feels naught but him, longs only for him — he is her all. Unspoiled by the empty pleasures of a fickle vanity, her desire has but one goal –to be his. In an eternal union with him she hopes to find all the happiness she lacks and enjoy all the pleasures she longs for. Promises, repeated over and over, seem to assure the fulfillment of her hopes; bold embraces increase her desire and and make her soul captive. With her consciousness dulled, she wavers in the anticipation of happiness and reaches the highest possible degree of tension. At last she stretches out her arms to grasp all she desires — and her lover leaves her. Petrified, out of her mind, she stands in front of an abyss. All is darkness around her, she has no comfort, nothing to hope for, because he, in whom she had her being, has left her. She doesn’t see the wide world in front of her nor the many people who might make up for what she has lost. She feels alone, abandoned; and blindly, cornered by the horrible need in her heart, she jumps and drowns her torment in the embrace of death. And you see, Albert, that is the story of quite a few people, and tell me — would you not call it a sickness? Nature finds no way out of a labyrinth of confused and contradictory powers and has to die.

“What a wretch, the man who sees it happen and can say, ‘Foolish girl! If only she had waited, if only she had let time take effect, her despair would have left her, another would have come forward to comfort her.’ That is as if someone were to say, ‘The fool! He died of a fever. Why didn’t he wait until he regained his strength, until his physical condition improved and the tumult in his blood died down? Then everything would have turned out well and he would be alive today!’ ”

Albert, who still couldn’t see the point, had a few things to say — among others, that I had spoken about a simple girl. But he could not understand how any sensible person, not so limited, with a broader outlook on life, could be excused for similar behavior.

“My friend!” I cried. “A man is a man, and the little bit of sense he may have plays little or no part at all when passion rages in him, and the limitations of humankind oppress him. And what is more — but no, we’ll talk about it some other time,” I concluded and reached for my hat. Oh, my heart was full, and we parted without having understood each other. And that is how it is in the world. It is not easy for men to understand each other. (58.)

from February 8th

But if it rains and blusters, is chilly or thaws–ha! I tell myself that it can’t get worse inside than out, or if you like, the other way around, and that suits me… Sometimes I feel like falling on my knees and imploring them not to be so fanatically intent on cutting each other’s throats. (77)

from March 15th

I could run a knife into my heart! Because people can say what they like about being independent — show me the man who can stand being raked over the coals by scoundrels when they have the advantages over him. When their talk is idle nonsense, ah, then it can be easily ignored.

from March 16th

To hear her tell me all this, William, with so much compassion in her voice… I wish someone would dare reproach me about the whole thing so that I could run a dagger through his heart. If only I could see blood, I know I would feel better. Oh, I have picked up a knife a hundred times with the intention of plunging it into my own heart! I have heard tell of a noble breed of stallions who, when they are overheated and run wild, instinctively bite open one of their veins to relieve themselves. I feel like that often. I would like to open the vein that would give me eternal freedom. (82)

from May 9th

And now I have returned from the wide, wide world, oh my dear friend, with so many shattered hopes and ruined plans…

I approached the town and greeted all the old familiar little houses, thought the new ones were repulsive… I walked in at the gate and at once found myself again — all of me! Dear friend, I don’t want to go into details. It was an enchanting experience, but would only fall flat in the telling… (84)

I could remember vividly how I used to stand sometimes and watch the water, with what a marvelous feeling of reverie I would follow its course, and in a highly adventurous spirit, imagine the regions into which it flowed, until I soon found that my imagination had gone as far as it could — still it had to go on and on until it was lost utterly in invisible distances. Yes, my dear friend, that is how restrained and yet happy our glorious ancestors were; their feelings and poetry were childlike. When Ulysses speaks of the boundless sea and the never-ending earth, it is so true, so human, so sincerely felt, so close and mysterious. Of what use is it to me that I can now recite with every schoolboy that the earth is round? A human being needs only a small plot of ground on which to be happy and even less to lie beneath… this heart of mine, of which I am so proud, for it is the source of all things — all strength, all bliss, all misery. The things I know, every man can know, but, oh, my heart is mine alone! (84)

from June 11th

Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge when I point out nature and art to him with my heartfelt imagination, and he feels suddenly that he must do the right thing and ruins everything with a platitude. (86)

June 16th

Yes, I am a wanderer on this earth — a pilgrim. Are you anything more than that?

from June 18th

And I have to laugh at my heart as I do its bidding. (86)

One thought on “There Are No Words To Express :: from Goethe’s Werther

  1. “The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the writer of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. It is a marvelously done parody and takes on similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books reflect on each other and think everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”

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