Site de Benoît Melançon / Thèses canadiennes en littérature française du XVIIIe siècle

Barton, Karin, «Viel Licht, viel Schatten. Rousseau, Goethe und die Unordnung der Geschlechter. Eine neue Interpretation der “Leiden des jungen Werther”», Toronto, University of Toronto, thèse de doctorat, avril 1999, vii/723 p. Dir. : Herbert Jaumann.

Traduction : Every Light Casts a Shadow. Rousseau, Goethe and the Disorder of the Sexes. A New Interpretation of The Sorrows of Young Werther

Goethe’s first and most popular novel, like the writings of the enigmatic Rousseau, has been the subject of an unusual variety of contradictory interpretations. Both writers challenge the reader by simultaneously constructing their text in highly paradoxical terms while insisting on the coherence of their fiction or philosophical “system”. Successful reproduction is the main focus of Rousseau’s controversial theory of the sexes. His depiction of woman as dependent on and subordinate to man contrasts sharply with the simultaneous assertion of her superior art and ingenuity that governs men while she affects to obey. The construction of feminity as the seemingly passive hidden force that determines masculinity is central not only to Rousseau’s anthropology and political philosophy, but also to his reflections on language and writing. The hermeneutic process is presented as an analogy between the old love-game of advancing and retreating, and the erotic communication between an incomprehensible woman (as artist) and her tortured lover (as reader), who is neither allowed to act against her wishes nor explicitly and unambiguously told what she actually wants. The main focus of my study is Goethe’s retelling of the tragicomedy of loving and reading in the Romantic mode: the story of the sufferings of young Werther, who blows his brains out to free himself from an equally consuming and hopeless passion for the unattainable Lotte. Contrary to the nearly canonical identification of the author with his male hero, it is the less conspicuous female character who truly represents Goethe (as artist). The well-known biographical model of Lotte (Goethe’s Jugendliebe Charlotte Buff) sheds as little light on her function in the love-triangle (a subtle but profound distortion of the ménage à trois in Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse) and the allegory of reading as does the reduction of Dante’s Beatrice to the daughter of a Florentine banker. The reversal of first impressions and apparent contradictions are important structural features of both Rousseau’s writings and Goethe’s Werther. The reader is expected to organize the text within a single perspective that dissolves its contradictions and reveals hidden matter. Werther’s passion is not hopeless because of Lotte’s marriage to Albert, which can be shown to be not quite legitimate by 18th-century standards; his suicide as Liebestod is designed as a special case of attempted rape for the purpose of procreation (of children and/or books), at the same time serving as a metaphor for the likely but avoidable result of the hermeneutic process. In this story of doom and redemption, Goethe employs feminine images and masculine numbers to reveal the Apocalyptic conviction that the faithful will be ushered to a brighter place: the beauty, coherence and transparency of his novel.

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