The recent production of Werther by the Scottish Opera brought my attention back to Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1932)’s first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), on which the opera is based.
Sources available indicate the semi-autobiographical elements of the book: of how Goethe, through his character Werther, recounts his youthful obsession for Charlotte, a woman he met and danced with at a ball in Wetzlar, six months after he ended a love affair in Strasbourg. Despite Charlotte was engaged to be married, Goethe fell helplessly for her: calling on her daily, wanting to spend every minute with her. It was to no avail, of course, however much Charlotte enjoyed his company. ‘Between us,’ I imagine Charlotte, who was touched by the young man’s infatuation with her, finally stare at him with her ‘rick dark eyes’ and steel her heart to spell it out, ‘there can only be friendship.’
Of course, Goethe was heartbroken. He had to write it down, the entire experience with the ‘loveliest of creatures’ ‘who dances with her whole heart and soul’, his obsession for her, of being rejected, and his sorrows as a result of that. The book was Goethe’s therapy. He had the poor, despondent soul that is Werther (his fictional self) commit suicide (‘It’s much easier to die than to bear a life of misery with fortitude.’) symbolically killing off the author’s own passion for Charlotte – a drastic measure to salvage his much tormented self in the real world.
To that extend.
Obsession. Infatuation. Passion. ‘Love’ is the word I intentionally omitted from the above passage. It is the desire to possess that has driven Goethe and his alter ego to despair: the urge to be with her, to make her his.
Years ago, I heard of a story about a respected lawyer (or a judge? – my memory has failed me) in Malaysia who fell in love with a married woman – the wife of an acquaintance – whom he met in a social occasion. It was mutual, the feelings between them. He, however, respected her and her situation (having a seemingly happy family with a dutiful husband and young children), did not attempt to trespass the threshold of friendship. Instead, he rendered his support to the family whenever his service was needed. He wanted her to be happy.
I imagine him, a widower, watching from a distance the love of his life, knowing and ensuring she was well and loved. He suffered no pain, no despair; only contentment for her happiness – all he had hoped for.
It was only after the death of the woman’s husband that they were finally united: a beautiful ending to a love story that spun over two decades.
What is love? An acquaintance of mine, a chemistry graduate, spoke of a chemistry effect that would draw two persons together, which explains the notion of ‘love at the first sight’. As to what kind of chemicals involved, he did not elaborate further, perhaps thinking it would be too complicated for a lay person like me to comprehend. A quick googling, though, took me to a list of hormones, including testosterone and oestrogen. Those two, I shall point out, are sex hormones; they induce not love but lust that is driven by physical attractions.
Sufferings arise with the absence of spiritual elements in a relationship, when one or both parties involved are unable to grasp the true meanings of love; when you cease to ask yourself if you have been giving unconditionally what the other person needs, and not imposing upon him/her what you want him/her to have; when you cease to see your lover’s true essence and instead, fuss over his/her momentary emotional upheavals or physical changes, which, for him/her to cope with, your support is most needed.
Love comes from the ability to discover your subject’s true essence, and from the ability to always keeping it in mind. It is his/her qualities that make your lover who he/she is, that bind the two of you together. All changes are transient. They may obscure his/her true essence, and if this happens, it would be you to help with peeling away those muddling layers and rediscover the gem underneath.
The Malaysian lawyer (or judge) lived happily ever after with the woman he loved. And Goethe? He embarked on another love affair not long after leaving Wetzlar.
[Note: This piece was first published in my blog, Eastward, Westward. http://eastwardwestward.blogspot.co.uk/]