The Sorrows of Young Werther was a text that assisted in the birth of modern literature: it set off a form of hysterical mimicry as soon as it appeared. It was not only fashionable to dress like Werther; it was also fashionable to commit suicide. Well, not entirely . . . Goethe backed off on implementing his own destruction, after all! Moreover, the question comes up over and over, from Kleist to Blanchot; how did Goethe survive his own suicidal drive? Werther was a text that programmed suicides, even right here in the Seine. Shortly after Werther’s arrival in 1774, several drowning victims were found with Goethe’s text in their pockets. This was a scenography of suicide by insemination, with the book as the program.
Thematically, Werther gave Goethe the means to invent the idea of Krankheit zum Toda, sickness unto death, which interested Kierkegaard and others. It was the first time in modernity, I think, that someone had conceptualized the sovereignty of the subject to the last outpost of self-determination as including the right to kill oneself. In the process, Goethe took the question of suicide away from the precincts of morality and religion.
Werther was originally published anonymously. Denounced and forbidden from the outset, it was already trafficked as an illicit, clandestine drug. Not only were there discursive moments in the book that supported one’s right to put an end to one’s life, but Werther was in a sense the first stealth bomber: the book really caused a lot of damage in its wake, and this result was to a large degree calculated, programmed. The effects of “killer texts” aren’t limited to the field of literary or philosophical criticism; they’re infinitely more corrosive.
Did Werther have a real posterity? Or was this book rather just a moment in history that announced a new era, a different relation to the world?
It seems to me that the book functioned like a virus, that is, by poisoning and programming disasters that continued to mimic the text. Napoleon is said to have read it six to eight times! He had taken it with him to the campaign in Egypt; later, when he met Goethe, he made the famous remark: “Voila un homme” (here’s a true man). Goethe complained to Eckermann that Napoleon had reproached him for Werther’s exaltation of suicide and held him responsible for mass deaths. Napoleon thought his own impact on history was less catastrophic than Goethe’s! He even indicated that there was a sort of militerary strategy in the text that acted along subterranean pathways, whereas he himself, Napoleon, as a “killer text,” was more or less readable! Perhaps Werther worked like a vaccine, poisoning first so as to “cure” afterwards.
Then things calmed down. As I see it Goethe created a poison that has had its moments of latency and its moments of uncontrollable emergence. As a text, The Sorrows of Young Werther (and, semantically, Werther means “value,” even “surplus value”) is really a machine for producing and destroying values; this no doubt enchanted Nietzsche, even though Werther falls on the side of sickness. Still, the work was anti-or un-Christian on many of its points, especially the ending, so it my have evaded the charge of pessimism, fatigue, or general creepiness – qualities to which Nietzsche was sensitive.
Let us not forget that for Nietzsche there are also good illnesses and the matter or promise of convalescence, which he underscores for instance at the conclusion of Zarathustra. We need to think the Nietzschean promise from the perspective he opens on the ailing being. Goethe, for his part, wielded spiritual illness in a decisive way. As text and machine, Goethe sowed the seeds of a virus against Enlightenment notions of progress. Of course, we would have to try to answer the question “Was ist Aufklarung?” – what is enlightenment? – to see what this unique meeting between literature and philosophy signifies.
With Werther, Goethe was able to insinuate a critique into blockbuster Enlightenment tenets despite the absolutely nonreciprocal coupling of literature and philosophy. By way of Werther, though by other routes as well, his work scattered obstacles along the path of that meeting, obstacles to which the philosophers have tried to respond, positively or negatively, explicitly or covertly. We can understand why Freud was swayed and even subjugated by Goethe, for Goethe is one of the few who maintained that there is a weakness, a fissure in the psyche and particularly in the possibility of mourning that cannot be resolved, not even by the bright lights of the Enlightenment. In Werther there is something like a mourning disorder played out and an inclination toward what is called melancholy. Goethe did not restrict the motif of illness to a theoretically manageable condition or to a recognizable set of consequences. Something that Goethe calls a “sickness” operates like a pathology, something beyond all pleasure that, during the Enlightenment, navigates among the mores, the historical movements and the question of Bildung –of education and upbringing. A spot of incurable melancholy that cannot be educated out of you, a path or pathology that already points beyond the pleasure principle.
It was a psychic sickness that spread against the current and was not embraced by philosophy. In Kant’s storehouse one found lists of illnesses, intoxications, aberrations, but here we are talking about something else. Because what interested Goethe was not only some ort of speculative malady. Goethe launched Werther right in the middle of the Enlightenment. He gave the floor to someone who could not be saved, a hopeless case par excellence, and that existential impossibility of being saved shocked and also satisfied the world. Werther attracted a world of unbearably close readers. We really have to raise the question of close reading, texts “closely read” as one would say “closely guarded” –or those that trigger a “close call.”
Heidegger put it differently when he said that certain texts or statements can destroy you or undermine you for years, or for centuries. I would love to see someone armed by Werther and by Goethe address Kant, the Enlightenment, the complex and still latent itineraries of rationalism, and call all this into question, cause it some more trouble. There’s something here that has not found an echo in our works of philosophy.