Feeling is everything!

            - Goethe, Urfaust (ca 1772-75)

The master demonstrates his craft in limitation
And only the restraint of law grants us freedom

            - Goethe, Nature and Art (1802)

We are in the presence of a man who combines the vitality of youth with the wisdom of age.

            - T.S. Eliot, Goethe as the Sage (1955)


Among those who identify as members of the “dissident” or “new” right, there are many young men who lack a sense of prudence and proportion.  Emotions often run high, and online gangs - apparently organized in private discussion groups - delight in conducting witch hunts against those deemed insufficiently radical.  Recently on Twitter, a moderately successful account undertook a sort of digital parody of seppuku (perhaps “bukkake” would be the better word for his performance), going on an hour-long rant of racial profanity for no apparent reason, after which his account was quickly reported and banned.   

This impulse towards self-destruction is reflected in what these young men are reading.  Names that appear with frequency are Jünger, Mishima, and Nietzsche. More revealing is the limited selection of these great writers that the young men cite. With Jünger, it is inevitably Storm of Steel, which is a somewhat celebratory memoir of the greatest cataclysm in recent world history, the collective suicide of the European peoples.  In Mishima, it’s generally Sun and Steel, celebrating the cultivation of the body.  That’s a good read, but no one ever mentions that Mishima also wrote charming love stories, such as The Sound of Waves, or that his seppuku was a senseless performance following a farcical coup attempt.  With Nietzsche it’s hard to tell what people read other than a few aphorisms (“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”), generally torn from their broader context.  That Nietzsche went insane, that he wrote aggressive texts but was apparently quite meek and polite in private company, and that he appears to have been a forerunner of the incel - this is glossed over.

An author seldom (if ever) mentioned is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who is the closest thing the Germans have to a Shakespeare.  This is unfortunate for many reasons.  For a start, it might broaden the horizons of some people who apparently believe German history consists of little more than twelve years of rallies and snappy uniforms. But more to the point, Goethe experienced and described the sort of unbridled passion that seems to drive many of these young men now, but did not succumb to it.  As T.S. Eliot observed, Goethe’s work combines the vitality of youth with the wisdom of age.  This is not to say that Goethe should replace any of the talented authors people are reading now, only that he might supplement them, and offer a corrective to certain destructive impulses.  A careful reading of a couple of his more accessible novels will illustrate the point.


In this flat world of changing lights and noise, Goethe’s biography is difficult for us moderns to conceive.  Born in 1749, he witnessed the 1764 election of Joseph II as Holy Roman Emperor in his home town of Frankfurt am Main. Forty-four years later, he sat down for a discussion with Napoleon, who had recently abolished the Holy Roman Empire. He lived through the American and French Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars, and the reorganization of Europe after the Council of Vienna.  He was a poet, a playwright, a novelist, a travel writer, a scientist, as well as a lawyer and a high-ranking bureaucrat, serving the Duke of Saxe-Weimar for most of his life.  In the midst of composing the last major epic poem of the Western literary tradition (Faust), and shortly before writing the first major Bildungsroman (Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship), he served as aide-de-camp to his boss, and witnessed French revolutionary forces defeat the Prussian army at the Battle of Valmy in 1792.  He is said to have commented that the battle’s outcome promised a “new era” of world history - an accurate assessment.

It was the 1774 publication of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, that made Goethe a household name and opened the door to this eventful life. The novel, in its evocation of unhinged emotion, embodied the literary movement of the day, called “Storm and Stress,” an abortive forerunner of Romanticism that quickly burned itself out. The novel became an international bestseller, and it caught the attention of Karl August, the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar, who invited Goethe to become his tutor and advisor.  The book has never gone out of print, and is probably the most widely read of Goethe’s works in English.  It is also misunderstood.

The plot of Werther is simple.  A passionate young man falls in love with a woman (Lotte, short for Charlotte) who is engaged to be married.  Werther refuses to relinquish the doomed relationship, and generally rejects the conventions of society.  This gets him into trouble with Lotte, her husband Albert, and members of the nobility with whom he consorts.  His inability to get along in the world ultimately leads to despair, and then to suicide. 

While unremarkable in terms of plot, Werther’s command of language, particularly his ability to express natural beauty and the corresponding feelings it awakes in him, spoke to a generation. Long before Shelley wrote “I fall on the thorns of life, I bleed,” Goethe’s Werther spoke the language of Romanticism:

My whole being is filled with a marvelous gaiety…When the mists in my beloved valley steam all around me; when the sun rests on the surface of the impenetrable depths of my forest at noon and only single rays steal into the inner sanctum; when I lie in the tall grass beside a rushing brook and become aware of the remarkable diversity of a thousand little growing things on the ground, with all their peculiarities; when I can feel the teeming of a minute world amid the blades of grass and the innumerable, unfathomable shapes of worm and insect closer to my heart, [then I] can sense the presence of the Almighty…

Goethe’s description of Werther falling in love with Lotte in the midst of a thunderstorm, and evoking the poetry of Klopstock (all the rage in 1774) also presages the language of the Romantics, and is perhaps the most famous in the novel:

We walked over to the window. It was still thundering in the distance, the blessed rain was falling on the land, and a most refreshing scent rose up to us with a rush of warm air. She stood there, leaning on her elbows, her gaze            penetrating the countryside; she looked up at the sky, at me, and I could see tears in her eyes. She laid her hand on mine and said, “Klopstock.”

The novel is full of such passages. As its popularity grew, the story (perhaps apocryphal) is that young men all over Europe adopted Werther’s mode of dress (blue jacket with yellow waistcoat and pants), and that some of them even followed him into death over unsuccessful love affairs.

But what was Goethe’s attitude toward Werther? In conversations at the end of his life with fellow writer Johann Peter Eckermann (who published a collection of these Gespräche), Goethe acknowledged that Werther was partially autobiographical, and that he wrote the book to purge himself of negative emotions. Yet not only did Goethe not kill himself, he used his experience to write a wildly successful novel, and he proceeded to undertake a lifetime of productive work.  This should tell us something of Goethe’s attitude towards his subject.  Here are a few passages that shed further light:

You ask whether you should send me books. Dear friend, I beg of you—don’t. I have no wish to be influenced, encouraged, or inspired any more. My heart surges wildly enough without any outside influence….

My mother, you say, would like to see me actively employed. I have to laugh. Am I not actively employed now, and does it make any difference, really, whether I am sorting peas or lentils? Everything on earth can be reduced to a triviality and the man who, to please another, wears himself out for money, honor, what you will, is a fool….

I realize that it means a great deal to you that I do not neglect my sketching, so I would rather say nothing at all about it except confess that I have not done much work…

Here is the portrait of a man who doesn’t wish to further his education (because he has all he needs inside himself), has no interest in working (because it’s all pointless anyway), and lacks the discipline to engage in a creative endeavor for which he has some talent.  These aspects of Werther’s character are missed by many readers, who are swept away by his leaps of fancy, and (if they are young) probably relate to the pain of disappointed first love. 

Goethe did not admire his creation.  He shared his passion, but criticized his indolence. This reading is further reinforced by the shift in tone at the novel’s conclusion.  Up until the final pages, Werther is a pure epistolary novel.  It consists of letters that Werther has written mostly to his friend Wilhelm.  But after he has killed himself, the narrator picks up the thread.  He does not glorify Werther’s rash decision, or use his lush style. In flat prose, he simply reports his death:

When the doctor arrived, he found the unfortunate man on the floor. There was no hope of saving him. His pulse could still be felt but all his limbs were paralyzed. He had shot himself in the head above the right eye, driving his brains out . . . At twelve noon, Werther died. The presence of the judge and the arrangements he made silenced the crowd. That night, at about eleven, he had the body buried in the spot Werther had chosen. The old man and his sons walked behind the bier; Albert found himself incapable of doing so. They feared for Lotte’s life. Workmen carried the body. There was no priest in attendance.

The narrator stresses that Werther did not die immediately in a flash of romantic glory, but lingered a while in a pathetic twilight.  He references the pain the suicide causes both Albert and Lotte, who see nothing noble in the deed.  Strangers bury him without ceremony or religious rites.


Following the success of Werther, Goethe abandoned the novel and focused his literary career on poetry and the theatre.  The book’s reception - the fact that most readers admired Werther for his passion, but failed to notice the subtle criticism of his character - must have irked him.  The reemergence of that style of literature around 1800, however, compelled him to revisit the matter. Goethe observed Romantic writers such as Wackenroder, Novalis and Kleist overindulge in emotion and fantasy, and burn themselves out as young men.  This may have been the impetus for the best novel he ever wrote.

Elective Affinities, published in 1809, is the work of an older, mature man. Whereas Werther consisted of the outpourings of a single individual, Elective Affinities is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, has four principal characters (all of whom are developed), and a series of secondary characters essential to the drama.  Academics have spilled much ink trying to link the book to Goethe’s interest in chemistry, but for our purposes it is best seen as a reworking of the Werther themes, this time making explicit the dangers inherent in a lack of self-control.

The novel revolves around a married couple, Eduard and Charlotte.  They had fallen in love when young, but circumstance required both of them to marry other people.  Following the death of both of their spouses, however, they come back together, marry and live happily on Eduard’s country estate.  Things go awry when they invite a military friend of Eduard’s (the Captain) to come stay with them, and Charlotte invites her niece Ottilie, who isn’t getting on well at her boarding school.  Eduard and Ottilie fall in love, and Charlotte and the Captain develop mutual feelings.  This leads to tragedy. By the novel’s conclusion, both Eduard and Ottilie are dead, and Charlotte is left alone to mourn the loss of her son with Eduard, who had drowned while in Ottilie’s care.

The critical distinction is how Eduard and Charlotte respond to events.  Eduard is very much like Werther.  He refuses to accept the constraints of society, and he demands a divorce.  But Goethe does not allow the reader to develop admiration for him.  He describes Eduard as “impatient” and “uncontrolled,” and his emotional state as “deranged.”  When he is unable to get what he wants, Eduard goes off to war with the determination of seeking death:

Eduard longed for danger from without to counterbalance the danger from within. He longed for destruction because existence was threatening to become unendurable: he even found consolation in the thought he was going to cease to exist and that by doing this he could make happy his friends and those he loved. 

He leaves knowing that Charlotte is pregnant with his child, and when he returns, he encourages her to marry the Captain (now promoted to Major), partly to relieve him of the burden of raising his son:

But what Eduard seemed to build on most of all, and to expect the greatest advantage from, was this: since the child was to stay with his mother, the Major would be able to bring him up, guide him according to his own outlook, and develop his capacities.

No one likes a man who abandons his children.

Charlotte is Eduard’s polar opposite, a model of decorum and self-control.  While she has feelings for the Captain, she is prepared to resist them, content with her life with Eduard:

In this confusion of contradictory feelings her sound character, disciplined and tested in a hundred ways through life’s experiences, came to her aid. She was always accustomed to know herself, to exercise self-control, and even now she did not find it difficult, by giving serious thought to the matter, to come close to the equanimity she desired…And then she was suddenly seized by a strange presentiment, a joyful anxious shuddering went through her, and deeply affected she knelt down and repeated the vow she had made to Eduard at the altar. Friendship, affection, renunciation passed as vivid images before her mind. She felt inwardly restored.

It is interesting that Goethe recycles the name Charlotte from Werther, but never shortens it to Lotte.  This use of the full name reflects maturity, for unlike Lotte, Charlotte here is decisive, prepared to renounce her feelings, to remove the Captain from her life entirely, for the sake of stability and happiness of all.

None of this works out.  Eduard’s impulsive behavior leads to the death and/or misery of the entire group.  Unbridled emotion leads directly to tragedy, whereas renunciation (Entsagung - a recurrent theme in Goethe’s later work) could have maintained the balance.


This is a short essay, and I have concentrated on these two novels because they are accessible and the English translations are sound.  Goethe’s best work, however, is his lyric poetry and his reworking of the Faust legend in his epic poem, which he worked on his entire life and only completed shortly before his death.  It is an encyclopedic work, in which Goethe adopts virtually every form of poetry known to him, and which thematizes everything from Ancient Greek philosophy (Thales makes an appearance) to the problem of inflation brought on by the introduction of paper currency (the assignat of the French Revolution).  But it should be read in the original German, as poetry in translation is at best an approximation.

That said, it feels wrong to say nothing about Goethe’s most important work, so here are a few concluding remarks.  In the original Faust legend, which circulated throughout Germany as a series of narrative episodes collected in a chapbook published in 1587, Faust sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and sensual pleasure.  When the time is up, he goes straight to hell.  Goethe adopts much from the chapbook, but his major alteration is that he allows Faust redemption in the final act.

Critics argue about whether this was a mistake, dulling the work’s dramatic impact, but it’s typical of Goethe and his anti-romantic impulses discussed above.  In Goethe’s retelling, Faust has assisted the Holy Roman Emperor in defeating a rival claimant to the throne.  As a reward, the Emperor grants Faust a strip of land, which is almost entirely under water. Faust then undertakes a major reclamation project, creating habitable, arable land that benefits humanity at large. In focusing on this project, Faust resists the efforts of Mephistopheles (the devil to whom he’s sold his soul) to direct his attention toward earthly delights.  He aims higher, engages in productive activity, and when he dies, angels come and save him from damnation, uttering the famous line: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen, which loosely translates to “we can redeem those who work hard.” 

So while Faust has engaged in the ultimate act of self-destruction - selling his soul - and has indulged in earthly pleasures (even having Helen of Troy raised from the dead to ensure he’s experienced history’s most beautiful woman), ultimately he redirects his energy toward productive ends.  The same man who early in the play says “feeling is everything” has traded youthful vigor for a mature vitality.  And so Goethe deserves a place among that pantheon of authors who so energize the young.