Sublimation

The historical errors in the Goethe film are few but significant. It’s not the case that Charlotte herself had Werther published, nor even that Goethe sent her the manuscript. All this is poetic license to increase the pathos of the penultimate scenes. The film also dramatises the triangle between Goethe, Charlotte and Kestner well beyond what is biographically substantiated. But nevertheless it shows – implicitly – something that is brought out so well in Thomas Mann’s novel Lotte in Weimar, the idea that Goethe is essentially an ‘egoist’,  or as Schiller put it, ‘er besitzt das Talent, die Menschen zu fesseln…aber nur wie ein Gott, ohne sich selbst zu geben’ (Letter to Körner, cited in Safranski, p. 120). It seems to dawn on Charlotte that she may have been mere grist to his mill, to his poetic talent. This would be one obvious reading of the film’s ending. At the same time, all this could be viewed differently. Perhaps Goethe’s experience in Wetzlar did deeply affect him. Perhaps he never really got over it, instead carried it with him thoughout his life, sublimating it in his mature works, the very self-conscious maturity of his later works, the strenuous privileging of the classical over the romantic, revealing something nicht verarbeitet. The genius in Mann’s scenario is to have Charlotte confront Goethe with this truth, not only his manipulation of their past but the unacknowledged and incomplete sublimation, late in life.