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On the Sorrows of Young Werther

Everyone (almost) raves about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe nowadays.

Despite my reluctance to read in translation, I Prime Shipped myself an of his Selected Works for Christmas.

Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther when he was my age, 24.

Werther is a young well-educated artist admiring the idyllic German countryside. He falls in love with Lotte, a beautifully positive woman engaged to some doofus. They marry.

Werther comes to visit more often, attaching himself evermore to Lotte, until he can no longer bear the pain of her unrequited love and he meticulously kills himself.

A banal story were it not for the ease with which the reader identifies with Werther.

The story is mostly in his intelligent letters to his friend:

“I have a deep respect for religion, you know that; I feel that it is a support for man’s weary soul, a comfort for many who die of thirst. Only – can it, must it, be that for everyone? ”

Werther is lonely, and he is aware of the effect solitude has on him: “Our fortune or misfortune depends on the objects and persons to which we compare ourselves, and for that reason nothing is more dangerous than solitude. Our imagination, by its nature inclined to exalt itself, and nourished by the fantastic imagery of poetry, creates a series of beings of which we are the lowest, so that everything else appears more wonderful, everyone else more perfect.”

This reminds me of how entrepreneurs feel when working on an idea or a coder building a product by themselves.

Werther seems to be speaking to a Stanford Entrepreneurship class when saying, “all unusual people who have accomplished something great or seemingly impossible have always been proclaimed to be drunk or mad.”

Moreover, Goethe went viral after publishing it. The Sorrows of Young Werther was an extraordinary and immediate bestseller in Germany and abroad. It even caused some of the earliest recordings of copycat suicides (that’s where people start committing suicide more to emulate their hero).

Funnier still, Goethe renounced the book and the Sturm and Drang movement he started (and which went on to become Romanticism), calling it a “sickness.” Goethe abandoned his young passion and turned towards “higher” artistic and classical values.

On the other hand, Werther believed “nothing in the world makes a person indispensable but love.” :

“He admires my intelligence and my talents more than my heart, which is, after all, my only pride, and the fountainhead of all - all strength, happiness, and misery. Anyone can know what I know. My heart alone is my own.”

I think Werther was an entrepreneur. He had a startup he was extremely passionate about. But he did not know when to pivot.

Goethe did.


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