Subject to famine

May 6, 2007

When I observe the restrictions that lock up a person’s active and probing powers, when I see how all activity is directed toward achieving the satisfaction of needs that in turn have no goal but to prolong our miserable existence, and that all reassurance about certain points of inquiry is only a dreaming resignation, since one paints with colorful figures and airy views the walls within which one sits imprisoned – all that, Wilhelm, makes me mute. I withdraw into myself and find a world!

[…]

[W]hoever recognizes in his humility where it all ends, whoever sees how nicely every comfortable citizen knows how to trim his little garden into a paradise, and yet sees too how the unfortunate person groans along on his path undaunted under his burden, and all are equally interested in seeing the light of this sun for just one minute longer – yes, he is quiet and forms his world out of himself and is also happy because he is a human being.

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

In these passages, Werther manages both to “find a world” inside himself and to make a formula whereby one “forms his world out of himself.” Consider the mix of sociality and quietude: observing the universality of needs in others, the individual becomes quiet and constructs that world.

Consider, too, what a world is in this passage. Is it simply a microcosm – a walled-off space full of intricate intra-actions like a medieval town? In other words, is the “worldliness” of a space determined by the ability to draw an analogy with the larger world? Or is there in this passage a more radical definition of a world as that which is completely self-sustaining? One builds his world out of himself “and is also happy because he is a human being;” that is, one’s being human creates a happiness which is separate from (and not necessary to) the completion of that world. It does not penetrate the world which one builds from oneself, but sits beside it or, perhaps, is the pedestal on which that world rests – pleasant, but entirely unneeded.

Is it any wonder then, that Goethe associates quietude with making a world out of oneself? For the mouth of this world-forming person is full of himself. His weight is “where it all ends” – the limits of orderly matter that are spent, little by little, until entropy and dissolution take over: like dreaming of autofellatio. Maybe this is what Werther is about: the economy of resources that each person discovers only in building a world of himself.

Susan Sontag tells us in Regarding the Pain of Others that George Bataille kept a photo of a torture victim on his desk and looked at it every day; he would gaze at the ecstatic expression on the victim’s face and try to remember that suffering is not as one-dimensional as we usually think it is. Maybe Goethe is on this same tack: in forming a world of yourself, you have no option but to consume that self; but without that suffering, you can never experience (through consumption) the self either.

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