How many of today’s 24-year-old men would think and write like this:
A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. I am alone, and feel the charm of existence in this spot, which was created for the bliss of souls like mine. I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.
When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the uppersurface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image, and the breath of that universal love which bears and sustains us, as it floats around us in an eternity of bliss; and then, my friend, when darkness overspreads my eyes, and heaven and earth seem to dwell in my soul and absorb its power, like the form of a beloved mistress, then I often think with longing, Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God!
O my friend — but it is too much for my strength — I sink under the weight of the splendour of these visions!
It is a well written, rather short novel in which the main character is 24-year-old Werther. We read his letters to his friend Wilhelm and thus follow how Werther falls in love with Lotte and ends up committing suicide because his love is not returned. What struck me was not so much the story but:
- The richness of Werther’s emotional life, which ranges from the above quoted romantic absorption by nature to almost cynical observations about the lack of enculturation in certain other people, to anger and frustration, deep, innocent fondness of playing with Lotte’s young siblings, utter shame when he commits an irreversible social faux pas, and, finally, distress, pain and desperation towards the end.
- That Goethe was only 24 when he wrote it (apart from the suicide it is overwhelmingly autobiographical).
- That, apparently, an emotional life as rich as the one described in young Werther was so normal 240 years ago that his generation identified with it and the novel became an immediate bestseller and led to a series of suicides in young men.
I did not give this further consideration, though, until I stumbled upon the two articles Teaching Men to be Emotionally Honest and A Master’s Degree in … Masculinity? in New York Times this Monday, both dealing with the limited emotional life “real men” are allowed today.
The first article explores how the only emotion men are allowed to show is anger, and how it cripples them and may even be one of the reasons for the school shootings:
Some cultural critics link such mounting emotional vulnerability to the erosion of male privilege and all that it entails. This perceived threat of diminishing power is exposing ugly, at times menacing fault lines in the male psyche. Experts point to sexual assaults on campus and even mass murders like those at a community college in Oregon and a movie theater in Colorado. These gunmen were believed to share two hypermasculine traits: feelings of profound isolation and a compulsion for viral notoriety.
Considering the kind of emotions men show in the majority of pop-culture consumed by today’s 24-year-old males, have we lost a crucial part of ourselves in Western civilization since Goethe? Did people in general have richer emotional lives some 200 years ago?And if so, how do we get it back?
Could a novel like Werther capture a young audience today? (I bet the average German high-school student could answer that question and that the answer would be eye rolling.)
And if anger and feelings of profound isolation drive the school shooters, is there literature that might connect them to other emotions?