Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Semiotics of Young Werther

Ah, sweet love. Sweet depictions of love. Words of love.

In our interdisciplinary class on "Language, most dangerous of possessions," we've begun talking about Goethe's first novel (1774). Written by a 24-year-old who was spurned by Charlotte Buff and whose friend Jerusalem killed himself after being turned down by a married woman, there's a high potential for embarrassing sentimentality (captured nicely in this etching by a contemporary artist).

"Why does it need a name?" Werther asks, "Tell it as it is!" And that's the crux of the problem: things are as they are; we know them through language. Frustrated by the constrictions of the very language through which he knows things, Werther sees "nothing but an eternally devouring, eternaly cud-chewing monster" (when he's not kissing Lotte or her letters).

Semiotics and epistemology are Goethe's antidotes to romance in this novel that even Napoleon couldn't get over (or are they the poisons that make love wither?). So when Werther sits at his desk in his famous yellow trousers,
weighing the pen and the pistol against one another, reading Lessing's tragedy Emilia Galotti, writing the words to Lotte that will announce his death, he's caught in that web of words, that prison-house of language that is our shared human condition.

Although this ends tragically for Werther, Goethe found solace in his own writing, and went on to a ripe old (and very productive) age.


grabloid said...

I really loved "The Sorrows of Young Werther" and just got 2 copies of it to give to my friends to see what they think of it. Thanks for including it as a part of this class.

Scott Abbott said...

I was nervous about how students would respond to an eighteenth-century novel like Werther, so I'm very glad to read that you loved it.

If you're interested further, Goethe's "Faust" is, first to last, a play about language and knowledge.

Torben B said...

I loved it also. I think Werther is, in many ways, an ever-relevant archetype for the passionate person. The parts about language are beautiful. Who hasn't felt like Werther at some time or another? I devoured this book in a few days, which I rarely do. Thanks.