The greatest works of art speak to us without knowing of us. As Schopenhauer put it:
The . . . poet takes from life that which is quite particular and individual, and describes it accurately in its individuality; but in this way he reveals the whole of human existence ... though he appears to be concerned with the particular, he is actually concerned with that which is everywhere and at all times. From this it arises that sentences, especially of the dramatic poets, even without being general apophthegms, find frequent application in real life.
Goethe's readers not only recognized themselves in The Sorrows of Young Werther, they also understood themselves better as a result, for Goethe had clarified a range of the awkward, evanescent moments of love, moments that his readers would previously have
lived through, though would not necessarily have fathomed. He laid bare certain laws of love, what Schopenhauer termed essential 'Ideas' of romantic psychology. He had, for example, perfectly captured the apparently kind - yet infinitely cruel - manner with which the person who does not love deals with the one who does. Late in the novel, tortured by his feelings, Werther breaks down in front of Lotte:
'Lotte' he cried, 'I shall never see you again!' - 'Why ever not?' she replied: 'Werther, you may and must see us again, but do be less agitated in your manner. Oh, why did you have to be born with this intense spirit, this uncontrollable passion for everything you are close to! I implore you', she went on, taking his hand, 'be calmer. Think of the many joys your spirit, your knowledge and your gifts afford you!'
We need not have lived in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century to appreciate what is involved. There are fewer stories than there are people on earth, the plots repeated ceaselessly while the names and backdrops alter. ‘The essence of art is that its one case applies to thousands’, knew Schopenhauer.
In turn, there is consolation in realizing that our case is only one of thousands. Schopenhauer made two trips to Florence, in 1818 and again in 1822. He is likely to have visited the Brancacci chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, in which Masaccio had painted a series of frescos between 1425 and 1426.
The distress of Adam and Eve at leaving paradise is not theirs alone. In the faces and posture of the two figures, Masaccio has captured the essence of distress, the very Idea of distress, his fresco a universal symbol of our fallibility and fragility. We have all been expelled from the heavenly garden.
But by reading a tragic tale of love, a rejected suitor raises himself above his own situation; he is no longer one man suffering alone, singly and confusedly, he is part of a vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love with other humans in the agonizing drive to propagate the species. His suffering loses a little of its sting, it grows more comprehensible, less of an individual curse. Of a person who can achieve such objectivity, Schopenhauer remarks:
In the course of his own life and in its misfortunes, he will look less at his own individual lot than at the lot of mankind as a whole, and accordingly will conduct himself. . . more as a knower than as a sufferer.
We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.
Alain De Botton
in The Consolations of Philosophy (Consolation for a Broken Heart) pp.200-202
© Alain De Botton, 2000