restricted access Hypochondria, Onanism, and Reading in Goethe’s Werther
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Hypochondria, Onanism, and Reading in Goethe’s Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s pathbreaking epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774, 2nd [rev.] ed. 1787) has been the focus of an enormous amount of scholarly attention.1 A recent analysis by Bruce Duncan of more than two centuries of Werther criticism, Goethe’s “Werther” and the Critics (2005), makes manifest the wide variety of critical approaches to this extremely rich text. Duncan discusses, among other things, contemporary late eighteenth-century reactions to Werther, biographical, religious, psychological, and political approaches to Goethe’s novel, as well as interpretations of Werther that focus on reading, writing, gender, and/or sexuality. The literary critic Michael Bell has determined that critical responses to this novel generally reflect one of two divergent modes of understanding Werther: readers tend to view Werther as either “a romantic tragedy” or “a neurotic case-history,” depending on whether they are reading in an “identificatory” or an “ironical” manner.2 Bell views these trends as equally justifiable yet mutually exclusive methods of reading the text. Bell’s understanding of the novel’s critical reception explains not only the intense response, both enthusiastic and condemnatory, from eighteenth-century readers, but also the great number of scholarly contributions that have read Werther as a pathography. The tradition of reading Werther as a pathography goes back as far as the contemporary reception of the novel in the late eighteenth century, as in, for example, Friedrich Nicolai’s Freuden des jungen Werthers: Leiden und Freuden Werthers des Mannes (1775), a text which will be discussed later in this essay.3 Twenty-first century scholars such as Ariane Martin continue to analyze Goethe’s Werther as a description of Werther the patient; Martin gives a detailed overview of pathographic interpretations of Werther and emphasizes the necessity of reading the novel historically against the background of contemporary medical discourse, pointing out that Werther’s Leiden, or sufferings, are both grammatically and nosologically plural in nature and that they include humoral-pathological ailments such as hypochondria and the side effects of onanism as well as ailments best explained by late eighteenth-century theories of the nervous system such as strained nerves. Using this as her point of departure, Martin then describes the ways in which the nineteenth century responded to the Werther novel and to the real-life mental ailments of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751–92) in order to brand the Sturm-und-Drang movement as a movement of the “kranke Jugend,” as she [End Page 117] states in her title.4 In an essay from 1985, Karl Renner diagnoses Werther as both a hypochondriac and an onanist.5 Renner interprets hypochondria and onanism as two diametrically opposed poles between which Werther travels, and he sees in them the result of a disruption of communication between the body and its environment (6–7). Renner excuses Werther of any responsibility in causing his ailments, tracing the origin of his sufferings to the “Ordnung einer Gesellschaft, die die unmittelbare Kommunikation durch Regeln einschränkt und die Harmonie der Arbeit zerstört” (15). For Renner, a potential cure for Werther lies in the harmonious communication with his environment, particularly in the “Aufhebungen von Trennung vermittels literarischer Kommunikation” (19).

By reflecting upon both recent scholarship on the intersections of literary and medical discourses in eighteenth-century texts and recent advances in the understanding of eighteenth-century conceptions of hypochondria and onanism,6 the following essay reads Goethe’s novel against the background of the contemporary medical discourse on hypochondria and onanism, thus demonstrating that Werther constructs a specific conception of hypochondria that, rather than representing an opposite extreme far removed from onanism, is instead thoroughly rooted in onanism as its cause, which, in turn, is rooted in the misuse of imagination, a faculty that Werther develops via a dangerously identificatory reading style. Literary communication is not the cure for his sufferings, as Renner posits; Werther’s relationship to literature is the ultimate cause of his abuse of his imagination, his self-abuse of his body, his hypochondriacal ailment, and his death. The novel, far from exonerating Werther, provides readers with a stark warning about reading, imagination...