WILLIAM!!! The guy I just wrote to you about? The lucky psycho? He was a secretary for LOTTE’S DAD, and HIS crush on her, which he fed, hid, confessed, and got fired for, is what drove him crazy. I hope you feel through these dry words how INSANELY the story threw me when Albert told it to me just as detachedly as you’re probably reading it.
Please, please — look, I’m done, I can’t take it any more! Today I sat beside her — sat, she played the piano, all kinds of tunes, and ALL THE FEELINGS! ALL OF THEM! — ALL! — where were you going with this?? — Her little sister was bouncing her doll on my knee. I started tearing up. I bent down, her wedding ring caught my eye — tears running down my face — and all of a sudden she started playing that old, heavenly-sweet melody, just all of a sudden, and this feeling shot through my soul, this sense of comfort and a flash of the past, of all the times I heard that song, that dark time I was so humiliated, the hopes that crashed and burned, and then — I paced up and down the room, my heart was imploding from the pressure. — “For God’s sake,” I said, wheeling around, running over to her, “For God’s sake, stop it!” — she froze and stared right at me. “Werther,” she said with a smile that just destroyed me, “Werther, you’re in really bad shape, your favorite things are setting you off. Go home! Please, take care of yourself.” I tore myself away and — God! You see my misery and You’ll make it stop…
The way this image FOLLOWS me! Awake, asleep, it fills up my whole soul! Here, when I close my eyes, inside my brain, like a permanent afterimage — her dark eyes. HERE! I can’t describe it. I close my eyes, and they’re there; like an ocean, like a pit, they hover in front of me, inside me, flooding the nerves in my brain.
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! WOOO! Doesn’t all that strength let him down at the EXACT moment when he needs it? And when he rides the upswing into joy or sinks into pain, doesn’t he hit a dead end at the EXACT moment, at the EXACT moment, doesn’t he get pulled back to cold consciousness at the EXACT moment when he was THIS CLOSE to losing himself in the fullness of infinity?
// Hi, dear reader. Little change here—this is me, the blog-runner, stepping in.
I’d really hoped that enough of Werther’s own writing would be left over from his eventful final days that I wouldn’t have to break up the flow of his letters with my own narration.
I’ve taken it upon myself to interview everyone who might be in a position to know what happened. The story’s pretty straightforward, and everyone’s versions line up except for a few minor details; the only thing there’s any real disagreement about is what was going on in the heads of the people involved.
So all that’s left is to describe as meticulously as possible everything I managed to dig up, insert the letters he wrote before he passed, and not overlook even a single line in his notebooks or unsent draft in his email — especially because it’s so hard to uncover the specific causes of anything that involves people who are so far from ordinary.
* * *
Scorn and resentment, always fundamental character traits of Werther’s, had gradually gotten more and more tangled up together and ultimately took over his whole psyche. His internal balance was totally thrown off; the fire and violence inside him, which pitted all his personality traits against each other, made him act in the most unpredictable ways, and finally left him with nothing but an exhaustion he struggled even harder to get out of than he’d fought against all these other demons. Panic and anxiety wore away at all his strengths, his liveliness, his insight, until he became a real downer, unhappier every time you saw him, and more and more unfair to people the unhappier he got. At least, this is what Albert’s friends say: they claim that Werther was in no position to judge Albert, who was basically a pure, peaceful person, finally enjoying a nice thing that he’d looked forward to for a long time, and doing what he needed to to preserve that happiness for the future, while Werther, meanwhile, spent every day throwing his money away just to come home every night and feel terrible. They say there’s no way Albert could have changed so much in such a short period of time, he was still the same guy Werther had always known and respected and looked up to so much. Could you blame Albert if he’d wanted to make sure it didn’t even seem like anything funny might be happening? if, at that point, he didn’t feel like sharing his precious possession, even in a totally innocent context? They admit that Albert usually cleared out of his wife’s room when Werther came over, but not out of dislike for his friend — just because he could tell that Werther felt awkward around him.
* * *
Lotte’s father had gotten so sick he couldn’t leave his room, so he was letting her use his car, and she went off for a day trip. It was a beautiful winter day; the first snow had fallen heavily and covered the entire region.
Werther went over the next day to welcome her back, since Albert was still stuck at the office.
The clear skies couldn’t do much to brighten his dark mood; a dull pressure on his soul and those sad mental loops had hardened in him, and the only shifts in his mood were from one painful thought to another.
Since he was in a permanent state of anxiety, he saw other people’s situations as that much more unsettled and tangled too; he thought he’d troubled the great relationship Albert had with his wife, and he was always beating himself up about that, with some subconscious resentment towards Albert mixed in there too.
The walk over was one of those times his thoughts got stuck on this. “Sure, sure,” he said to himself, sneering inwardly, “this is how you act as an intimate, caring, tender, sympathetic partner, this is what steady, long-term commitment looks like! It’s NUMBNESS and INDIFFERENCE! Doesn’t he get more turned on by his stupid job than his amazing wife? Does he even know how lucky he is? Does he give her the kind of attention she deserves? She’s his, fine, fine, she’s his — I know, same way I know lots of things, I think I’m used to the thought, it’ll still drive me crazy, it’ll still kill me — and does he honestly still see me as a friend? Doesn’t he see my attachment to Lotte as already creeping in on his territory? Doesn’t he see the attention I pay her as an implicit criticism? It’s obvious, I can feel it, he doesn’t like seeing me, he wants me out of here, having me around makes his life harder.”
Over and over, he paused mid-frenetic-stride, stood still, and seemed like he wanted to turn around; but he kept on marching straight ahead and, with these thoughts and inner dialogues playing in his head, finally arrived, almost against his will, at the D.A.’s house.
He walked in the door, looked around for Lotte or her dad, and found the house in a state of chaos.
[…to be continued]
He walked in the door, looked around for Lotte or her dad, and found the house in a state of chaos. The oldest boy told him something terrible had happened in Pickton, a farmer had been murdered! — This barely registered. He headed up to the bedrooms and found Lotte busy talking down her father, who was trying to power through his illness and head over to investigate the crime scene. The perpetrator was still unidentified — they’d found the victim that morning outside his front door — there was a prime suspect: the dead man was the handyman for a widow who’d previously employed another man… who’d left her employment on bad terms.
When Werther heard this, he started violently. “Seriously?!” he yelled. “I’ve got to get over there, I can’t wait a minute.” He rushed off to Pickton, so many memories flashing through his mind, without a moment’s doubt that the guy who’d committed the crime was the same guy he’d spoken to so many times, who’d come to mean so much to him.
When he had to pass by the lindens to get to the stretcher where they’d laid the body, the sight of that spot he’d always loved so much made him furious. Those tractor treads, which the local kids had played on so many times, were spattered with blood. Love and trust, the best sides of humanity, had turned into violence and murder. The tall trees stood naked, the beautiful hedges that spread over the low cemetery wall were leafless, and the tombstones stared out through holes in the snow that covered them.
As he got near the stretcher, which the whole village was gathered around, a huge yell went up. You could see a police car off in the distance, and someone shouted that they had the killer with them. Werther didn’t have to wonder for long: he looked in the window as the car passed slowly by, and yes — it was the guy who’d loved that widow so much, whom he’d bumped into a little while ago with that quiet grimness, with that secret despair.
“What have you done, you idiot?!” Werther shouted, banging on the window. The prisoner looked at him quietly, stayed silent, and finally called out tonelessly, “Nobody’s gonna have her, she’s gonna have nobody.” The car drove off towards the police station, and Werther rushed away.
This horrible, powerful shock shook up everything inside him. For a second, he was dragged out of his moroseness, his checked-out indifference; his fundamental sympathy won out, and an incredible desire to rescue this man took hold of him. He could tell how unhappy the man was; even as a criminal, he seemed so innocent to him. He related so deeply to the man’s situation that he was sure he could convince other people too. He was already planning to testify in his defense, already rehearsing a passionate speech — he hurried back to the D.A.’s house, and on the way he couldn’t keep himself from already half-mumbling everything he wanted to lay out for the D.A.
When he got to the house, he found Albert there; this put him off for a moment, but he pulled himself back together and ardently presented his position to the D.A. The D.A., however, shook his head a couple times, and although Werther laid out, as fervently, passionately, and truthfully as he could, everything one man can say to exculpate a fellow man — even so, as you might imagine, the D.A. wasn’t moved by it. Quite the opposite: he didn’t let Werther finish, contradicted him energetically, and scolded him for trying to protect a killer. He explained how, at that rate, every law would be suspended and the security of the state would collapse, and also added that he couldn’t interfere in this case without assuming enormous responsibility: it all had to happen by the rules through the established system.
Werther still didn’t give up, he just asked the D.A. to look the other way if “someone” happened to help the man escape. The D.A. convinced him to drop that idea, too. Albert, who finally stepped into the discussion, took the old man’s side as well. Werther got shouted down, and he headed out in a terrible state after the D.A. finally said, “There’s no saving him!”
It’s clear how hard that phrase hit him from a line I found in his notebook that was definitely written on the same day:
“There’s no saving you, fuckup! I can see now… there’s no saving us.”
Whatever Albert had ended up saying in that conversation about the business with the prisoner had been particularly offensive to Werther: he thought he’d noticed some personal jabs in there against himself, and even when, after a lot of thinking, his intelligence couldn’t deny that the two men had been right, even so, it was as if he’d have to renounce his deepest self if he admitted it — if he gave in.
A note that relates to this, that maybe sums up his whole relationship with Albert, turns up in one of his notebooks:
“I can tell myself and tell myself that he’s good and kind, but it tears me to pieces inside… I can’t be fair to him.”
* * *
Since it was a mild evening and it looked like the roads were starting to thaw, Lotte went back with Albert on foot. On the way, she kept glancing around in different directions, as if she missed Werther’s company. Albert started talking about him; he criticized him for attempting to obstruct justice. He touched on Werther’s manic sadness and wished aloud that it were possible to get him away. “Not just for his sake,” Albert said, “for ours, too. And, listen,” he went on, “I’m also asking you to readjust the way you hang out with him, to cut down on his coming over all the time. People are starting to notice, and I know some rumors are starting here and there.” Lotte didn’t say anything, and her silence seemed to have an impact on Albert; at least, from then on, he didn’t criticize Werther in front of her, and when she mentioned him, he’d drop the conversation or change the topic.
* * *
All the unpleasant things Werther had encountered in his life along the way — the humiliation at the office job, everything else that had gone wrong for him, that had ever upset him — went round and round in his mind. Because of all these failures, he felt almost justified in not even trying, he felt cut off from all opportunity, like he had no way of grabbing any of the handles people use to get a grip on normal life, and so, finally surrendering completely to his extreme intuitions and patterns of thought and his neverending obsession, he sank down into the permanent isolation of his sad routine with the lovely and beloved person whose peace he was disturbing, throwing himself against the wall, wearing himself down, with no light at the end of the tunnel, closer and closer to an unhappy end.
How lost he felt, how manic, how restless, and how tired he was of life all come across most clearly in some letters of his which I’ll post over the next few days.
Dear Will, now I know how people felt when they thought they were possessed by evil spirits. Sometimes this thing comes over me; it’s not fear, not desire — it’s this obscure internal chaos that feels like it’s going to make my chest explode, like it’s strangling my throat! AHHH! AHHH! And then I go running outside through the terrifying midnight landscapes of this season that hates us.
Last night I had to get outside. There’d been a sudden thaw, I’d heard the river had overflowed, burst all its banks, and flooded my dear valley from Pickton on down! I ran out a bit after 11pm. What a horror show, seeing the howling floods coursing down from the cliffs in the moonlight, over fields and meadows and hedges and everything, and the whole valley from end to end turned into a stormy sea roiling in the wind! And then, when the moon came out again and floated above the dark clouds, and the deluge, in its terrifying, glorious reflection, heaved and crashed: a shudder ran through me, and then this pull! Ahh, with open arms I stood before the abyss and breathed out! out! And lost myself in the joy of sending my troubles, my pain, storming down! To crash in like the waves! Oh! — And you couldn’t lift your foot off the ground, and end all this torture! — My time isn’t up yet, I can feel it! Oh, Will! I would have been so happy to give up my humanity to tear the clouds as a stormwind, to wield the waves! Ha! And who knows, maybe one day this prisoner will be set free?
— Ahh, and looking down at a spot where Lotte and I had stretched out under a willow, on a hot walk, — that was flooded too, so much so that I could barely recognize the place! Will! And their gardens, I thought, the area around their house! Our whole arbor must be trashed!, I thought. And a ray of sun from the past shone in, like a dream of plains and skies and loved ones for someone stuck in jail. I stood! — I’m not beating myself up, I know I’m brave enough to die — I would have — now I’m sitting here like an old woman picking pennies off the ground and begging in the subway, to make her fading, joyless life a second longer and more bearable.
What’s WRONG with me, Will? I’m fucking terrified of myself! My love for her is totally platonic, right? Like a brother? Have I ever had the smallest inappropriate feeling about her? — hmm, methinks the lad doth protest too much — and now DREAMS! Calling Dr. Freud! Whoo, don’t bother! Last night! I’m shuddering, typing this — I held her in my arms, pressed her hard against my chest, and covered her mouth with endless kisses as she whispered she loved me; my eyes swam in the drunkenness in hers! God! Is it wrong of me that I still feel so good, feeling that warm, blissful memory inside me again? Lotte! Lotte! — and I am GONE! My senses are all tangled up, for eight days now I haven’t been able to think straight, my eyes are full of tears. I feel terrible all the time, and I feel great all the time. I don’t want anything, don’t need anything. I should… I should just go.
This is around the time, coming off last week’s events, when the decision to die got more and more concrete in Werther’s mind. Since he’d come back to Lotte, he’d always seen it as his ultimate way out, but he’d always told himself it shouldn’t be a rushed, impulsive act; he wanted to take this step with total certainty, with as calm a resolve as he could.
His doubt and his internal struggle stand out in one fragment in particular, which is probably the beginning of a letter to Will and which I found in his drafts folder.
“Just seeing her, what she’s going through, her sympathy with what I’m going through — it squeezes the last tears out of my dried-out skull. Lifting the curtain and stepping behind it! That’s all! And why all this shaking and uncertainty?! Because we don’t know what it looks like back there? And you can’t come back? And that it’s pretty much the nature of our spirit to project confusion and shadows onto things we don’t know anything defined about”
In the end, he got more and more alienated and attached to this sad idea, and his decision became more and more irrevocable, as another letter he wrote to his best friend testifies. I’ll post that tomorrow.
Thank you for the love you show me, Will, in taking that phrase and running with it like that. Yes, you’re right: I should just go. I’m not a huge fan of your idea of my coming back to you guys… at very least, I’d want to do some kind of road trip on the way, especially since it’s barely snowing and the roads are clear. And it’s also very sweet of you to offer to come pick me up here; just give me another two weeks, and keep your eyes open for another letter from me with the details. You don’t want to pick a fruit before it’s ripe, right? And two weeks more or less can make a big difference.
Please tell my mom to pray for her son, and that I hope she forgives me for all the embarrassment I’ve put her through. I guess I was just meant to make life hard for the people I should be making happy.
Be well, dear friend! Heaven shine all its blessings on you!