When does romantic fervor collapse into shameful idolatry?
Few works of literature deliver a more devastating portrayal of erotic obsession than Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther’s desperate pursuit of Charlotte, even after her marriage to Albert, stands as one of the most uncompromising depictions of romantic devotion in the Western canon. The novel’s publication caused a sensation among readers, triggering a wave of copycat suicides and spreading “Werther Fever” across Europe. Young men emulated Werther’s style of dress, and the novel was reportedly discovered beside the bodies of those who had likewise fallen prey to an inordinate passion and followed Werther into oblivion.
The twenty-four-year-old Goethe wrote autobiographically, drawing on his disappointment over having lost his own Charlotte, Charlotte Buff, who had rejected him in favor of another man. The novel explores the consequences of pursuing romantic desire beyond any reasonable hope, and pits Werther’s absolute devotion against insuperable circumstances undermining his efforts. It’s a classic study of romantic longing devolving into idolatrous obsession due to a failure to acknowledge the proper status of erotic desire in the larger scheme of worthwhile pursuits.
Werther’s problems seem to stem from his emasculating, all-consuming passion. In their second to last conversation before his suicide, Charlotte admonishes him:
“Oh, why did you have to be born with so much vehemence, with this fixed, uncontrollable passion for everything you touch? I implore you [. . .] practice moderation! Your mind – all your knowledge and talents…think of the happiness they can give you! Be more manly!”
Her criticism may be valid, but it is precisely his tragic devotion, his uncommon fidelity and clarity of purpose that draw us to Werther. Were he to defy his nature we would think less of him, as would Charlotte who, despite her love for Albert, esteems him highly. Unremitting idealism and naïve commitment are his defining attributes and arise from his steadfast adherence to a coherent worldview. That he is bound to his cause by an immoderate passion endears us to his dilemma. Werther ultimately rejects Charlotte’s counsel, borrows Albert’s brace of pistols and shoots himself in the head.
Though he appears a victim of unruly emotions, Werther’s destruction actually proceeds from his misdirected passion, not the mere possession of it. Charlotte perceives this and offers Werther a means of evading tragedy by redirecting his passion towards more worthy ends. She encourages him to “Divert this tragic devotion from a human creature who can only pity you.” Werther’s fault lies not in clinging doggedly to an ideal, but in transferring his commendable yearning for Beauty and Goodness onto a finite entity incapable of satisfying his longing. Yes, Charlotte is married and therefore romantically unavailable. But more to the point, she is the wrong sort of being to bear Werther’s ultimate hopes.
Despite her undeniable beauty and singular grace, Charlotte is not the fount from which flow all Beauty and Goodness. A man ought only despair of losing her if he is convinced that his access to these absolute qualities depends upon her. Werther’s devotion, however consistent with his nature and necessary for his authentic expression of self, nonetheless errs in mistaking the transient and mutable goods found in physical beings for the permanent, immutable source of all good things. In the 5th century A.D. Augustine diagnosed this error as a case of confusing finite and permanent goods, or “mistaking the order of things.” In The City of God, he writes:
“And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.”
Mistaking a particular instantiation of Goodness and Beauty for the source of those qualities is an error all too easy to make, especially in cases where worldly beauty is so compelling, so alluring that we cannot help but perceive people or things as participating in the object of our ultimate desire. A women’s genuine value and appeal surely rank among the most worthwhile of pursuits, but her love cannot satisfy a deeper desire to commune with the source of Goodness and Beauty. Though they may be the closest we come in this world to those permanent goods, romantic partners are undeserving of idolatrous devotion; our love for them must be constrained by recognition of a hierarchy in which they are accorded only a derivative value.
Augustine developed his notion of rightly ordered love from Plato, and the Symposium in particular. During his speech in Symposium, Socrates characterizes love as a dialectical process through which a person ascends from individual encounters with beauty towards the beauty of general concepts, and finally on to an awareness of Beauty itself:
“And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.”
Werther’s tragedy unfolds as a consequence of him having mistook the beginning of his journey towards a more profound understanding of Beauty for the end or consummation of his search. He concludes that romantic conquest constitutes the final stage of desire, not the wondrous phenomenon prompting deeper reflection on the nature of Beauty itself.
Rejecting Socrates and Augustine’s vision of rightly ordered love, Werther falls prey to a misguided expectation prevalent among many passionate persons that romantic love should fulfill them by supplying what is lacking or deficient in their natures. This is the portrayal of love presented in the Symposium by Socrates’ rival Aristophanes, in which people are divided in half by jealous gods and spend their lives seeking to restore their former completeness through reunions with their other halves. It’s the concept perpetuated by Hollywood, too, and to which most of us unconsciously subscribe. On such a view, romantic union is the end of all striving, not the occasion for deeper reflection, and a man would be fully justified in viewing the object of his erotic passion as the final quarry in his quest.
In the case of Werther, that distorted vision of love proved fatal. An all-consuming passion need not destroy us, but a misdirected one almost certainly will.