coetzee on goethe, regarding werther


The Sufferings of Young Werther (otherwise known as The Sorrows of Young Werther) appeared in 1774. Goethe sent a synopsis to a friend: I present a young person gifted with deep, pure feeling and true penetration, who loses himself in rapturous dreams, buries himself in speculation, until at last, ruined by unhappy passions that supervene, in particular an unfulfilled love, puts a bullet in his head. This synopsis is notable for the distance Goethe seems to be putting between himself and a hero whose story was in important respects his own. He too had gloomily asked himself whether a self-defeating compulsion did not underlie his practice of falling in love with unattainable women; he too had contemplated suicide, though he had lacked the courage to do the deed. The crucial difference between himself and Werther was that he could call on his art to diagnose and expel the malaise that afflicted him, whereas Werther could only suffer it. As Thomas Mann put it, Werther is “the young Goethe himself, minus the creative gift.” Two energies go into the making of Werther: the confessional, which gives the book its tragic emotional force, and the political. Passionate and idealistic, Werther is representative of the best of a new generation of Germans sensitive to the stirrings of history, impatient to see the renewal of a torpid social order.

more from J.M. Coetzee at the NYRB here.