Thursday, February 18, 2016

Goethe’s Young Werther and the Painter’s Dilemma (no. 25)

 by Larry Witham


NOT MANY NOVELISTS renounce their best-selling works later in life. The German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did just that with his Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), the story of a wandering artist.
            Geothe wrote the novel when he was twenty-four. Young Werther has been called the stalking horse of the Romantic era in European arts and letters. And the plot explains why: Werther leaves aristocratic comfort to travel and draw. He is swept up in nature and simple village life. Then he falls for a maiden, Charlotte. But she must marry an older man. There is no way out, so Werther shoots himself in the head with a hunting pistol. No one but the gravediggers attend his funeral.
            You can see why a mature Goethe—who went on to science, philosophy, epic poetry, statesmanship, and travel writing—might have looked back on his first novel with some chagrin. It is clearly autobiographical. Still, it was a marvelously-written work, and defined “bestseller” in his century. It was a kind of Twilight or Titanic storyline for the lovelorn youth of his era, sans the vampire and Leonardo Dicaprio.
            The story is composed as a series of letters that Werther wrote to his friend Wilhelm. A fictional author (who is not Wilhelm) has “carefully collected” these missives, hoping that to Werther’s “spirit and character you [the reader] cannot refuse your admiration and love: to his fate you will not deny your tears.”
            Throughout his letters, Werther, a draftsman who also presumably painted, delivers a paean to Nature. It is the antidote to the “rules” of society. The power or Nature also challenges Werther’s work ethic, so to speak. “I am so happy [and] so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.”
            The one college-educated fellow in the countryside seeks out Werther when he learns that, as Werther explains, “I am drawing a good deal, and that I know Greek.”
            Werther draws two children in happy repose. He adds to the picture “the neighboring hedge, the barn-door, and some broken cart-wheels, just as they happened to lie; and I found in about an hour that I had made a very correct and interesting drawing, without putting in the slightest thing of my own.” In other words, Werther is a convert to artistic realism (aka naturalism). This was his “resolution of adhering, for the future, entirely to nature. She alone is inexhaustible, and capable of forming the greatest masters.”
            Goethe introduced the idea of “genius” into Werther’s “artistic contemplations,” and let that cat out of the bag. Sixteen years after the novel was published, the nearby Prussian philosopher Emanuel Kant took up the genius topic big time in his Critique of Judgment, and art history would never be the same. (That is, only exceptional and true artists merited the label of genius, which Kant meticulously analyzed and defined).
            Werther also introduces readers to the dilemma of the artist, commented on for generations. If there is so much beauty in the world, why does the painter have to make something beautiful in a sketch or on a canvas? One theory today is that artists are inherently unhappy; they can’t be content with seeing a beautiful flower, so they must make a picture of one. Or as Werther asks, “Can we never take pleasure in nature without having recourse to art?”
            His friend Wilhem, however, writes back to Werther to urge him not to lose his vocational focus amid all the epiphanies. Werther replies: “You insist so much on my not neglecting my drawing . . . and yet I am unable to express myself: my powers of execution are so weak, everything seems to swim and float before me, so that I cannot make a clear, bold outline.” Here is the “painters block” that artists know so well.
            Werther’s solution is to attempt to do a portrait of Charlotte, whom he loves from afar. Getting the exact likeness is not easy. He tells Wilhelm how he’s “disgraced myself” in losing his former ability to draw faces. “This is the more annoying, as I was formerly very happy in taking likenesses. I have since sketched her profile, and must content myself with that.”
            In the end, the art means little. Love means everything. Werther takes his life.
            Goethe lived a long life. He died at age eighty-three at the height of the Romantic era (1800-1850). If he distanced himself from the novel, perhaps as too adolescent, he remained an advocate of nature appreciation and artistic realism. His novel gave Western literature and the philosophy of art some major themes. It also produced a model for the romantic suicide, which young men would literally follow across that century.
            You might say he foreshadowed the 1950s Beat Generation and after—the drug-addled Romantics of the modern American era—if you want to stretch the matter. As Werther says at one point, “Once more I am a wanderer, a pilgrim, through the world. But what else are you!”

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