Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Werther Effect: The Esthetics of Suicide

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Werther Effect: The Esthetics of Suicide

Article excerpt

The "Werther effect" denotes within psychological literature the tendency of people to commit suicide under the compulsion of imitation rather than for individual motivations. In a 1974 essay, David Phillips uses the term to explore the idea that widely circulated stories of suicide cause a rise in national suicide rates. His idea is derived from the effect that Goethe's novel had on its reading public. The Sorrows of Young Werther was an esthetic failure, if esthetics is to be defined as a symbolic and essentially disinterested activity, for Goethe's readers were known to translate the novel into deadly practice. Werther, of course, was banned in Leipzig in January 1775 precisely because the theological faculty of the university believed that it would be successful in advocating suicide. The Werther effect, in short, stands as one of the great examples of the imitative effect of fiction on moral life.

We tend, however, not to recognize this same Werther effect within Goethe's lite and work. Rather than emphasizing imitation, we focus on either the original feelings that made Goethe write the novel or the originality of the novel itself and its role in literary history. We tend to view the novel, then, as separated from the imitative effects that most concerned its first reading public and against which any concept of "originality" must be defined. As a result, we lose the means to view the events surrounding the book as an opportunity for creating a more interdisciplinary view of the reading experience in general. First, we stress Goethe's now famous explanation of the origins of Werther in which he attributes the novel to his feelings of depression and makes a special point of denying that he was imitating other books. There is, however, something strange about this explanation. Although Goethe was only twenty five when he wrote the novel, he never again produced a work with a tragic conclusion like that of Werther. Apparently, the writing of Werther purged Goethe forever of his unhealthy feelings. Second, we give Werther a unique position in literary history. According to some critics, the book is the first psychological novel, and it continues to be regarded as one of the great literary models in the tradition. The same argument has been extended to Goethe's hero. Werther has acquired a unique status in the history of literature because he represents an exemplary case of personal emotion being transferred to literature and because he became the model for the artist-suicide in the Romantic age.

I would argue, however, that we will never comprehend the great artistic achievement of Werther if we insist on linking it to real suffering, because the novel's triumph is ultimately esthetic rather than ethical--although I hasten to add that distinctions between esthetics and ethics are of limited value in the age of Romanticism. The fact that we are tempted to trace the novel's power to Goethe's ability to sublimate his own personal sufferings in fiction exposes the extent to which we remain under the domination of the same esthetic ideology that created Werther, namely the Romantic myth that suffering is necessary to cultivate artistic originality and to be recognized as a unique individual. In this essay, therefore, I would like to pursue an anti-Romantic reading of the novel. I want to insist that the Werther effect and its imitative patterns are as much a cause of the novel as its effect. If Werther is more imitative than original, if something like a Werther effect produced Goethe's novel, we must seek an explanation for the power of the novel not in Goethe's emotions but in literary history--or, at least, in the effect that this history had on Goethe.

What does it mean, however, to claim that Werther is imitative? I do not mean to suggest that the suicide of Carl Wilhelm Jerusalem, Goethe's melancholic student acquaintance at Leipzig, serves as a model for either the novel or Goethe's emotional state during its writing. …

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