Char(Lotte in Weimar)’s Web

Lovers, Pablo Picasso

In Thomas Mann’s revisionist novel, Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns (1939), the beloved grapples with an existential quandary. Charlotte Kestner, née Buff, became a literary muse overnight when the young Goethe made her the unattainable “beloved” in his epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Charlotte was, to put it plainly, the source of “sorrows”. Thomas Mann re-imagines Charlotte’s old-age return to Weimar, after years of living in the novel’s shadow, to confront the man who loved her and immortalized her against her will. But her quest is not as straightforward as she imagined, and it very soon turns into hagiography. As she speaks with friends and family and German luminaries about the would-be suitor of her youth, she comes to realize that she was not merely loved by a great man, but by a tyrannical genius. A superior spirit, a multifaceted, suffering god. Because of this, Charlotte is treated as a celebrity, as something nearly sacred too. The suffering god loved her, therefore, she must be worthy of his love. Charlotte is both annoyed at the sycophantic attention and tempted to give into it. Perhaps she is special, after all. A few questions arise, however: Does the love of a genius render its subject worthy? And, more importantly, can Charlotte ever rise to the challenge of being the “beloved”, of being “Goethe’s Lotte”?

Such questions are also posed by a creature of different rank and order, but who, nonetheless, is seeking similar answers. I speak, of course, of the hapless young pig from E.B. White’s much beloved classic, Charlotte’s Web (1952). Wilbur, our four-legged protagonist, is not the hero of his story. He is the object of affection, “the beloved”. He has the good fortune to be loved by a spider named Charlotte who sacrifices her life for his own wellbeing. Charlotte, like Goethe, is a superior “animal”. She is a genius in her own right, literate and compassionate, a scientist who examines the world, and an artist who recreates it. Like Goethe, she writes and weaves words in order to consign Wilbur to lifelong fame on her web. Yet Charlotte is not the center of Charlotte’s Web; she is the spirit, but Wilbur is the flesh. The young pig soon remarks upon Charlotte’s undisputed superiority: “You’re ever so much cleverer and brighter than I am, Charlotte”. As such, he cannot help but wonder why someone like her would love someone like him. Towards the end of the novel, he asks her plainly why she would go to all this trouble: “Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.” Charlotte’s response is worthy of a great spirit. She tells him that Wilbur’s friendship is recompense enough for her and that, “by helping you, perhaps, I was trying to lift up my life a trifle”. In other words, selfless love has given the spider’s life meaning. It’s a wonderful, heartfelt message which is meant to teach children that they, too, can give their life meaning through love. And more importantly, they too might be someone else’s Wilbur. They are worthy of love, regardless of merit.

That is all well and good. Yet one cannot help but notice that Charlotte’s choice was beautifully calculated. The spider singled out the young and lonely Wilbur as her perfect candidate. Wilbur makes for such a wonderful “beloved” precisely because he is a helpless little pig, an adorable inferior. Loving someone below you can only elevate you. This is not to say that Charlotte’s feelings are not genuine; rather, the problem is that Charlotte is aware of the “design”. She is always constructing worlds. She is the artist and architect of everything she experiences, even love. She has constructed the perfect tragedy and moral lesson around her selfless gesture. That is what a genius does. Yet what is poor Wilbur to do with her love?

In Charlotte Kestner’s case, Goethe’s love has placed her in a bell jar of fantasies and impositions. She complains often to her audience that she must fight for the authenticity of her own person:

That character in the novel did become so real, so living, and so widely celebrated that actually a person could come to me and say that between us two she was the real and more substantial one- the which I was, of course, most seriously concerned to disclaim.

“Goethe’s Lotte”, as perceived by readers, has far more power and credibility than the real Charlotte. More disturbingly, Charlotte herself is expected to know and accept this, as prefaced by those same readers. It seems that once you are a “beloved”, you cannot expect to compete with “her” – the elusive, ideal her. It is worth mentioning here that when Werther meets “Lotte” for the first time in The Sorrows of Young Werther, she is caught in the act of cutting bread, of giving slices of herself to others:

She was holding a rye loaf in her hand, and was cutting slices for the little ones all around, in proportion to their age and appetite. She performed her task in a graceful and affectionate manner.

Lotte is, essentially, a dutiful housekeeper. In the absence of a living mother, the eldest daughter runs the house for her father and siblings. There is something domestic and graceful and immanently beautiful about her, so much so that she need not be aware of it. As Werther writes, “my whole soul was absorbed by her air, her voice, her manner”. Our young narrator has felt this before. In an earlier letter, he writes that he was impressed with a simple woman’s “thoughtlessness within the confined circle of her existence; she supplies her wants from day to day; and, when she sees the leaves fall, they raise no other idea in her mind than that winter is approaching”. Werther is almost primed to love Lotte’s feminine “je ne sais quoi”. Every single gesture she makes is given a magical, romantic aura. Werther can weave his web around Lotte without her doing much of anything to draw him.

Likewise, Charlotte the spider weaves her web around Wilbur, seeing in the young pig qualities that he is not obliged to possess. She, the delicate spirit, will lend them to him:

“But Charlotte,” said Wilbur, “I’m not terrific.”
“That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost anything they see in print.”

Charlotte does not contradict Wilbur. In fact, she reinforces his ordinariness. It is her design which shall make him “terrific”. She will lend him the magical aura of the “beloved” in writing. Charlotte’s vision of love gives Wilbur nobility, while his ordinariness makes her gesture all the more extraordinary. As with “Goethe’s Lotte”, “Charlotte’s Wilbur” is the version of the pig that the rest of the world prefers. It’s “Charlotte’s Wilbur” who wins love, admiration and prizes. Only the “written” pig is the truly worthy pig. As Charlotte predicted, people believe the printed word. Wilbur’s owner and his extended family never question the miracle of Charlotte’s words. They wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that this Wilbur must be special.

The blurring between the real and fictional is a quality of both Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Mann’s Lotte in Weimar. There are many shadows of real or half-fledged personages flitting in and out of the novels and there is an almost incestuous web between the writers and their beloveds. This blurring is inevitable. Love brings with it falsification. The desired subject is recreated, rewritten, made worthy. We say that everyone is worthy of love because we have an infinite capacity to make them so. Charlotte, the spider, much like young Werther, dies for her belief in the precious quality of her love. As she extinguishes, slowly drained of life for Wilbur’s sake, she is alone and uncomforted, but all the more transcendental for it:

Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

In Lotte in Weimar, Charlotte Kestner finally reunites with the fictional Goethe at the novel’s close and argues with him, telling him that all the people in his life have become “victims” to his genius: “what are they all but sacrifices to your greatness?” How does Goethe respond? He speaks to her of his own sacrifice. He becomes the insect, “the drunken butterfly” that burns to quench his spirit: 

I am the candle too, giving my body that the light may burn. And finally, I am the drunken butterfly that falls to the flame-figure of the eternal sacrifice, body transmuted into soul, and life to spirit. Dear soul, dear child, dear childlike old soul, I, first and last, am the sacrifice, and he that offers it.

The two passages strike a similar chord. Charlotte, the spider and Goethe, the butterfly burn for us in order to make us worthy of their love. The artists’ greatest, godly effort is rendering us lovable. How could we deny them? Of what can we accuse them?

This is the strange burden of being loved: of being exalted while remaining inferior, of having to embody the “beloved” and living with the strange realization that you are not your own anymore. Charlotte realizes that “Goethe’s Lotte” is her inescapable shadow, the true carrier of identity. Wilbur understands that he must continue being the creature that Charlotte “wrote” and loved for the rest of his life. His truly heroic act of saving Charlotte’s cocoon by carrying it in his mouth is fueled by this very identity. Wilbur must carry her creation forward. When the eggs hatch, Wilbur takes on the persona of Charlotte’s “beloved”, expecting to entertain a similar relation with the spider’s daughters. He has no illusion that it will be the same. There can only be one Charlotte, as there can only be one Goethe. Yet the fact remains that both Charlotte Kenstler and Wilbur, the pig, must endure the identity of the “beloved”. They must fashion themselves according to this idol, even as they are set up for failure and heartbreak. They may love or resent the genius, but that will not be recorded. What will be recorded is the participle of their being. They can only be loved.