Sunday, 19 November 2006

Goethe the Murderer

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a particular hero of mine, anyone who can lead a literary movement known as the 'Sturm und Drang' movement has to be deserving of one's respect It was the wonderful book 'the Sorrows of Young Werther' that shot him to literary fame virtually overnight. The philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were both big fans and Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have carried a copy of this book when he went on his military campaigns. The story of Werther, as the name suggests, is not a happy tale. It is the story of Werther's unrequited love for Lotte whom is betrothed to another, Albert. The story follows his descent into depression and indeed obsession before in a fit of torment he finally ends it all. As I've said, this book proved incredibly popular and following it being published there was a veritable 'Werthermaina'. To prove the power of literature it is thought that somewhere in the region of two thousand readers were thought to have killed themselves in what can only be described as 'copycat-suicides'.

In 1933 a Hungarian by the name Rezso Seress wrote the song 'Gloomy Sunday' after breaking up with his girlfriend. In an attempt at reconciliation he played her that song -- two days later she was dead. She left a two-word suicide note, the words being "gloomy sunday". On the release of the song it was thought that approximately one hundred suicides were directly as a response to hearing this song and it took on the rather macabre moniker 'the Hungarian Suicide Song'. There is a reported incident in which a beggar was playing this song as a gentleman passed, on hearing it he promptly gave him all his property and then threw himself out of the window of his apartment. So seriously is this song taken that until as recently as 2002 the BBC had banned it from being played on any of its channels.

This is the song but before you follow that link I'd like you to think happy thoughts and know that if you need an appropriate antidote there is always one available here. It is an interesting contrast between the two. Goethe wrote 'the Sorrows of Young Werther' back in the 1770's and it is easy to dismiss those who reacted to his work as being people of their time, perhaps not as well-rounded and intelligent as we like to think ourselves but the Hungarian Suicide song shatters that illusion as it shows that even (relatively) modern audiences can be so affected. Is Goethe a murderer? That's a difficult question, personally I'd like to think he isn't and applying a somewhat Kantian ethical analyses one could back up that belief. Though how far should one go absolve authors from the effects of their work?

I'd like to end on an even more macabre note (if that's possible) and ask the question what piece of music or indeed literary work do you find the most suicide-inspiring?


Casey said...

Ironically, there have been numerous times where I contemplated my death while listening to "Don't Give Up" by Peter Gabriel.

Paolo said...


my first comment, thanks. I just had a listen to that song and I think if there were going to be anything to push you over the edge, that could be it.

Personally I think the song 'Things can only get better' by D:Ream has got to be up there with them, I mean if things can only get better than you're really in the shit.

Sara Andrews said...

another thinky post by Paolo. I listened through a few different versions of the song - actually, Sarah McLachlan's version was pretty suicide-inspiring.

I'll go along with Casey on "Don't Give Up" (way to go, Peter) . . . and much (but not all) of Joni Mitchell's album "Blue".

David said...

I'd like to indict the entire genre known as Country and Western 'music', if I may, as inspiring to suicide. Because hearing the crap makes me homicidal, but I won't kill anyone else, so that leaves only me ... Most pop from the '70's, too, but that's more nauseating than consciously self-violent.

I don't know if Kant's arguments would parallel mine or not, but if you can't make General Motors responsible for assembling cars that kill hundreds of thousands each year, then you can't make authors responsible for assembling thoughts that do the same. Cars have to be driven - poorly, dangerously, unluckily - by people before lethal accidents happen, and books have to be read - poorly, self-indulgently, unhappily - by people before they kill themselves.

Paolo said...

@Sara: I had a listen to the Sarah McLachlan version -- is it just me or does that bear an uncanny resemblance to 'While my guitar gently weeps'? It has been a few months since I last listened to 'Blue' but I think you're right there are some tracks on their that one could wallow in.

@David: I can't say I know enough Country and Western music to indict it wholesale but I'd definitely send Dolly Parton to George Orwell's room 101. As for 70's pop you had better not be including Slade in that statement. :P

For Kant morality or ethics were derived from a rational analyses of the action rather than its consequences. When doing something Kant requires us to rely upon the categorical imperative and ask whether this action could, or rather should, be carried out in any circumstances.

So to give a classic ethical scenario, you have a man scorned by a town and he decides to poison the towns water supply, however, the poison reacts with chemicals already present in the water and the result of the reaction is that a miracle cure for cancer is created. Kant would ignore the consequences of the action and say that it should not be a generally applicable rule that people can poison water supplies, of course not. That makes sense but there are other scenarios in which his theory produces absurd results but that is besides the point. Applying the categorical imperative to either Goethe's Werther, Seress' Gloomy Sunday or indeed General Motors' cars then of course it should be a general rule that people write books, songs and make cars.

The problem comes when you deal with issues like negligence but at least from a legal position it will always be difficult to prove either that there is a duty of care or that there is a causal relationship between any apparent breach of such a duty and the harm that is claimed.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, It is so unpolite to answer a question with another question. But are you sure that those suicides about gloomy sunday are true. I mean, I have seen that movie and love Heather's song but, although depressing I find it hard to believe that it really would have had that effect.
Nice blog, Paolo!

Paolo said...

Hey Janet it's lovely to hear from you. I think one should be a little cynical about the legends that surrounds 'Gloomy Sunday'. My understanding is that the name 'the Hungarian Suicide Song' was one dreamt up in the American press which doesn't really boost the credentials of such myths.

Seress and his former girlfriend certainly did kill themselves and it is possible that this was the proverbial flap of the butterfly's wing which gave rise to the myths.

I think there will always be the evidential problem in that you can't really ask someone why the committed suicide so unless they left a note blaming the song, which you wouldn't really imagine if there was a genuine instantaneous reaction to hearing the song.