Everything is illuminated, but something is lost
Can a book really cut so deep that it can inspire you to take your life?
Right after the publication of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, the literary world of Europe was gripped by a kind of Werther-fever. It was a bizarre cultural phenomenon never before witnessed: Copies flew off the shelves, pirated editions started to come out within a few years, scenes from the novel were being painted on to porcelain.
A strong case can be made, then, that Werther was the "big bang" that made room for the modern concepts of the "best-seller," literary piracy, and novel-based merchandising. Europe's porous borders made it easy for the book to seep into other countries, and translations appeared fast, delivering forbidden thrills to people in the privacy of their homes at a time before radio or TV.
These days, a successful novelist enjoys a kind of rockstar status–they get courted by agents and publishers and are offered astronomical advances for book deals, they jet-set off to literary festivals around the world, they sign books for adoring fans. There is a kind of cult of the author in all of this, which appears normal to our contemporary eyes.
But in 1774, this was not so obvious. Sure, Europe already had its share of canonical literary names–Homer, Shakespeare, Dante. But the fact is, those texts were not really accessible outside of a highly guarded literary priesthood. Most households had only one book in the house, and that was the Bible. People didn't really think about buying novels for personal enjoyment–paper and printing were prohibitively expensive–and so when the Werther phenomenon got out of hand in the way that it did, neither the youthful readership, nor their censorious parents, nor the gobsmacked author himself had a very good handle on what exactly was going on.
In retrospect, we can perhaps make the argument that Goethe was the first "international literary celebrity." But with that kind of fame and importance, often there is the unbearable burden of knowing that your words can affect, really affect, those who read them–and this is especially true for young, impressionable minds who are still grappling with who they are; minds that are likely to latch on to a charismatic protagonist, and not merely learn from them or draw inspiration, but emulate them.
When a tragic hero is to die for
Every glittery surface has a dark side, and so it was with the Werther phenomenon. Those familiar with the novel will know The Sorrows of Young Werther is a brief, epistolary novel about a love triangle, a romantic failure, and a mental tailspin that culminates in Werther's tragic suicide. Goethe, at the time not yet 25 years old, wrote the novel primarily to exorcize the pain and confusion he felt upon the suicide of his close friend Jerusalem.
The book is so short that it should be called a novella, really, best read in one sitting, and Goethe wrote the whole thing in a matter of four or five weeks. And yet, as goes the popular history, this was the book that made hordes of young men dress up like Goethe–yellow waistcoat, blue tailcoat–lose themselves to Werther-like sentiments, and kill themselves.
Along with the easily spotted Werther outfit, it is said that a copy of the novel was often found at the scene of the suicide. Clearly, this was never the author's intention, though it did add a kind of morbidly sexy aura to Goethe's reputation.
It was not until exactly 200 years later though, that sociologist David P Philips used the term "Werther effect" in a rigorous, academic context to describe copycat suicides and the phenomenon of observable spikes in suicide following any celebrity suicide or media reporting on such incidents. Much of our contemporary media training regarding sensitivity in dealing with such subjects, particularly in news reporting–though Bangladeshi media is still at its infancy in this regard–goes back to Philips's research, as does the practice of placing trigger warnings on certain content.
Of course, Philips was not particularly interested in the actual effects of Goethe's work, but just needed a good working title for his thesis, and Goethe's (probably best) biographer Rudiger Safranski has pointed out that the Werther effect is almost certainly a myth.
There is no hard evidence to show that the number of suicides post-Werther were different from any other period in any statistically significant way, and furthermore, it would be naïve to attribute an act as drastic as suicide to a book–a work of fiction at that–while ignoring the real problem: Pre-existing mental health issues. Psychiatrists and psychologists are well aware though, that while a book cannot be the main culprit, it can potentially act as a trigger.
Nobody forgets the first time
It is best not to underestimate, then, how deep a book can cut when in the hands of a young person hungry to be influenced. I was lucky though–Goethe's works did not reach my hands in the early blooms of youth. Certainly, I was already susceptible to bouts of Werther-like romanticism–refusing to go out and play or get sunlight, brooding in a dark corner writing reams of unreadably bad poetry.
There was much else that I read, though, much of it I was certainly too young for, but it is impossible for me to regret ever reading anything. All of it–the material right for my level, the books a bit too adult for me at the time, the texts where I could only guess at the brilliance but would have to shelve until I could revisit them a couple of decades later for better comprehension–all of it has led me to become myself: For better or for worse.
There is no doubt that some books hit different when younger and are best read early: I remember my father handing me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye when I was 16 and telling me Holden Caulfield was the same age as me. The teenage me had his mind blown, and indeed felt a strong identification with Holden: That's right! I thought, like Holden says, everything is so phoney! But then I grew up bit by bit, and while I still have great fondness for Salinger's novel, the nature of this appreciation has changed.
I now see the book as a cool, funny piece of YA, where the protagonist is a bright yet naïve kid whose innocence is about to be crushed under the weight of reality as he hits adulthood. Holden could be my own child, I sometimes think, and I want to protect him, but I know that desire is also futile, because all of us have to grow up eventually. Salinger never published a sequel to Catcher, but if he did, I fear we would see a middle-aged Holden Caulfield, his soul crushed and dreams faded, working maybe in the service sector, saying "have a nice day" with a phoney smile pasted on his face. What a horrible thought.
Making it to adulthood is a Faustian bargain
Werther, though, took a bit of time to reach my hands. The name Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one that, these days, strikes fear and loathing into young people. His name is omnipresent, but outside of very niche groups, and unless you take a special interest in "those crazy Germans," you are not likely to pick him up for fun. His Zeus-like stature in the canon of world literature, with Germany's main cultural institute named after him, take away from any subversive appeal his work may have had–in that regard he parallels our own Rabindranath Tagore.
There was no danger, then, of me wanting to read Goethe in my youth–I put him off as long as I could. My introduction to his body of work was through Nietzsche–the manically mustachioed German deep-fried my 21-year-old brain when I was in my junior year in college, from which I never quite recovered.
Well into my thirties, I finally got around to Goethe, and unlike those Nietzsche-afflicted days, this time I had on cynicism-tinted glasses and a practically professorial level of objectivity. I chuckled and rolled my eyes at Werther's histrionics, I sighed as his naivete, I finished the book, tossed it aside, and muttered "what a drama queen."
This newfound sense of adult detachment, however, gave me perspectives and a sense of appreciation I could not have had if I had run amok with the young-Goethean sense of romantic tragedy that, in the end, robs us of self-control and drowns us in sentiment. I had to grow up as a reader to understand how it was that Goethe grew up as a writer.
His post-Werther writings are vastly different: Gone is the callow romantic who wants to off himself. Goethe as he matures, has his feet planted firmly on terra firma while at the same time flying off into new creative horizons. As for me, like a connoisseur of the best wines who knows how not to get completely hammered, I waded through his corpus without losing my sense of balance.
I read his book on maxims and aphorisms, and learnt that even before Nietzsche, Goethe was the true boss of the Twitter-style one-line zinger. I read his erotic poetry, including the very dirty Roman Elegies, I dove into both Part 1 and Part 2 of the intimidating dramatic epic Faust, and then onto Italian Journey, a travelogue where the master poet, in the throes of a full-on midlife crisis, goes to Italy for creative rejuvenation, and takes rigorous notes on matters as mundane as the waste management system of Venice.
The best journey is where the view changes
In youth, there is so much we try to read, or half-read, particularly if we have books lying around the house. You never can tell if a certain book will hit hard and became the intellectual foundation for the person you are to later become, if you will hate it at first and come to love it decades later, if you will find the work inscrutable in the first few pages, give up in exasperation, and only after a long time come back to it with a more mature perspective.
As we grow up, in a way, the books that shaped us in our early years change, even though the words remain exactly the same. As children, our brains have that magical ability to deep dive into a world, and the world of a book we love is so much more for us than just a book at that age–it's real. When Lucy first walked into Narnia from the back of a wardrobe, I was not thinking: "Nicely written, Mr CS Lewis!" I was, like so many other children, completely and utterly absorbed in the story, in the universe that was being presented to me.
The world on the page felt more real than my mom calling me to put the book down and come to dinner. Jump-cut to my thirties: As a grown-up in search of epic fantasy, I bulldozed through the Harry Potter books (already too old to identify as a Ravenclaw-for-life or put down Hogwarts as my alma mater on my Facebook info page), The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, all of A Song of Ice and Fire till date, as well as the richly detailed fantasy worlds of Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson (terrible writer but great world-builder), and Marlon James.
I felt that my overall awareness and critical faculties were leveling up … but. But nothing was transporting me quite in the same way. Even Marlon James, who I consider to be one of the most searingly powerful prose-stylists of his generation, failed to fully immerse me into a new world the way Narnia once had. I am wiser, but I am less enraptured. Everything is illuminated, but something is lost.
Maybe it's for the best that one does grow up, and that past a certain point, your maturity makes it impossible for a book to cut so deep that it can inspire you to take your own life. Or mimic the hero's sartorial choices, for that matter.
Unlike the young Werther, the author Goethe was able to evolve, and so do we as readers, while forever holding a soft spot for that long-lost child within us. Our very own Humayun Ahmed gave the world Himu, a Werther-like vagabond who wears a yellow punjabi with no pockets, and is unable to hold down a job. Himu's detached insouciance influenced many of us who were kids in the 90s–we actually wanted those pocketless yellow punjabis. The lack of practicality was a part of the allure.
And now? No way, Jose! I need pockets, for chrissake!
Abak Hussain is a journalist, and Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh.