Bad Habits of the Heart: Werther’s Critique of Ill Humor in the Context of Contemporary Psychological Thought
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Bad Habits of the Heart:
Werther’s Critique of Ill Humor in the Context of Contemporary Psychological Thought

The importance of contemporary psychology and philosophical anthropology to an understanding of late eighteenth-century German literature has been highlighted in several major studies published in the last four decades.1 Although Werther has been interpreted in the context of diverse aspects of contemporary psychophysiological thought,2 the discussion of ill humor (“üble Laune”) in the text has not been subjected to renewed scrutiny against this backdrop. This article endeavors to close this gap, placing Werther’s views on ill humor in their contemporary psychological context and exploring anew their significance for the novel as a whole. In so doing, it challenges the interpretation of “üble Laune” in Werther put forth by Stuart Atkins in 1948 in his seminal article “J. C. Lavater and Goethe,” and largely unquestioned since— namely, that Werther succumbs to the very vice against which he inveighs.3 Situating the treatment of “üble Laune” in Werther in the context of contemporary psychology, this article urges reassessment of this position, in particular because discussions of ill humor by eighteenth-century German psychologists raised issues of free will and responsibility that render Atkins’s interpretation problematical. Furthermore, this article also highlights the importance of the theme of ill humor in underscoring the ambiguity of Werther’s suicide.

Werther’s Speech in the Light of Contemporary Psychological Discussions of Ill Humor

In his letter of July 1, 1771, Werther relates delivering his impassioned speech on “üble Laune” to an audience of Lotte, the old pastor of St. —— and his wife, their daughter Friederike, and her suitor Herr Schmidt, whose apparent ill humor and its assumed impact on the assembled company have served to provoke Werther’s indignation. Werther’s curiously precise description of “üble Laune” in this speech as “ein innerer Unmuth über unsere eigene Unwürdigkeit, ein Mißfallen an uns selbst, das immer mit einem Neide verknüpft ist, der durch eine thörichte Eitelkeit aufgehetzt wird” (an inner dissatisfaction with our own unworthiness, a displeasure with ourselves forever tied to envy that is stimulated by foolish vanity),4 has been the source of some critical debate. The most straightforward part of this statement, the [End Page 57] identification of ill humor as “dissatisfaction with our own unworthiness” and “displeasure with ourselves,” refers to a tendency inherent in “üble Laune” to be self-perpetuating that was also remarked on by contemporary writers on psychology. Dissatisfaction and ill humor lock us in a vicious cycle, for we become bad-tempered over our bad temper. In a contribution to his own journal of psychology from 1788, Karl Friedrich Pockels describes how the shame felt by victims of “böse Laune” at their bad behavior generates more of the same because it produces a defensive response:

Wir fühlen es nicht selten, daß wir dabei gefehlt haben, daß wir in unsrer bösen Laune zu weit gegangen sind;—allein diese innere Scham bringt uns oft noch mehr auf. Wir wollen nicht gern das Ansehn haben, als ob wir gefehlt hätten, und wir suchen alsdenn eine noch größere Hitze zum Beweise unsrer gerechten Sache zu machen.5

[We often realize that we’ve made a mistake, and that we’ve gone too far in our bad mood—but this inner feeling of shame just makes us more irritable. We don’t want to be seen to have done wrong, so we try to defend the justice of our cause by being even more ill-tempered.]

Similarly, for Lavater in his Jonah sermons, the defensiveness that characterizes sufferers of “üble Laune” threatens to undermine their entire moral character:

Ach! wenn man einmal unzufrieden gethan hat, einmal mürrisch und launisch gewesen, so will man es nicht gestehen, und die erste üble Laune mit der zweyten rechtfertigen und gleichsam bedecken. Man will den andern abschrecken, uns Vorwürfe zu machen; Man fügt Unrecht an Unrecht; Man will Sünde durch Sünde verdrängen. . . . So schrecklich zerrüttet Unzufriedenheit und üble Laune das Herz, und den ganzen Character des Menschen.6

[Alas! Once a person has behaved in a dissatisfied...