‘Who then more than the mason will be concerned to make what he does right for himself, by doing it right?’

There are a good deal more-serious things I plan to write about during Elective Affinities week, and this might have been a better Friday post, but since I’m tired I’ll use the foundation stone chapter now instead.

Ha, the “foundation stone chapter”—I bet I fooled you into thinking it was some episode of ultimate importance to the book, when it’s literally about the laying of a foundation stone. Maybe it’s both. I kind of hope not.

In any case, it’s an example, to my mind, of Goethe’s ultimate weirdness. The background: Charlotte has been from the beginning of the book working on “improving” the grounds of Eduard’s estate, and it becomes a major project of the three, then four residents to amend, enlarge, and execute various projects, including building a new house. They decide, at the Captain’s suggestion, to “celebrate Charlotte’s birthday by laying the foundation stone.”

It’s a big celebration, with “the whole parish” “dressed for a great occasion.” They troop from church to the site of the foundation:

The owner himself then and those closest to him, as well as the highest-ranking guests, were invited to descent into the depths where the foundation stone, supported under one side, was ready to be laid down. A mason, resplendently dressed, trowel in one hand and hammer in the other, gave a fine speech in rhyme which we must do less than justice to and reproduce here in prose.

‘Three things,’ he began, ‘are needful in a building: that it is in the right place, that it has good foundations, and that it is perfectly executed. The first is really the business of the man whose house it will be. For just as in town only the prince and the municipality can decide where any building should be allowed, so in the country it is the privilege of the man who owns the land to say: my dwelling place shall be here and nowhere else.

‘In the third, the execution, men of very many trades are involved; indeed, few trades are not involved. But the second, the foundation, is the responsibility of the mason and, to speak the truth, it is the most important in the whole undertaking. It is a serious business, and our invitation is a serious one: for this occasion is celebrated in the depths. Here within the confines of this excavated space you do us the honour of appearing as witnesses of our secret proceedings.’

So, when Goethe says a mason was dressed resplendently, he means, a mason. And one who’s a bit long-winded and certainly has no self-esteem problems. And speaks in rhyme, rhyme so clever the narrator himself can’t reproduce it! That part has to be a joke—it just has to be. But it seems like a joke I don’t quite get.

He goes on at much greater length, some of it rather pointedly relevant to the overall themes of the novel:

‘This foundation stone, whose corner will mark the righthand corner of the building, whose squareness will signify its regularity, and whose horizontal and vertical setting will ensure the plumb and level trueness of all the outside and inside walls, might now be laid in place without more ado, for it would surely rest on its own weight. But there shall be lime here too, in a mortar, to bind; for just as people who are naturally inclined to one another hold together better still when cemented by the Law, so likewise stones, suited in shape, are joined even better by these powers that bind….’

As if we hadn’t gotten the whole picture about elective affinities and bonds and such from a chemical lecture, we now get it from the engineering side.

I like the mason, he is funny, and while the celebration scene isn’t exactly a seamless part of the novel (there just aren’t usually this many people around; it sticks out as a “set piece” or whatever you want to call it), it is well-integrated in terms of themes and motifs. Mostly, it put me in mind of “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily,” what with Goethe’s masonic fascination. I should know more about what this is really supposed to mean, but regardless of my ignorance, I recognize it as “Goethe weirdness.” Also, did you know that at foundation stone–layings, people left items behind, sort of like a time capsule?

4 comments to ‘Who then more than the mason will be concerned to make what he does right for himself, by doing it right?’

  • I think the joke is no more than that the narrator, or someone very close to him, happens to be the greatest lyric poet in the German language. Unable, or unwilling?

    Nicholas Boyle has convinced me that “The Green Snake etc” does not mean anything outside of itself, that it perfectly simulates meaning without having any. A perfect work of art. Or an Ideal one, since that’s part of the weirdness of Goethe at this point, his elevation of characters, story, form, whatever into whatever Kantian argument he is working on.

    This masonic scene, though, probably does mean something, but heck if I know what.

  • I guess what I’m saying about the relationship to the fairy tale is, even if the fairy tale means nothing (and I think you’re right that it does), there is some interest Goethe has in this stuff, evidenced by the whole underground portion and whatnot, that must reveal something about what’s going on here as well. Does that contradict the meaninglessness of the fairy tale? Maybe. But still.

    And yes, that’s the joke. Makes Goethe seem like…a little bit of a jerk. In a good way.

  • Meant to add, “whatever into whatever Kantian argument he is working on” is probably the ultimate statement on Goethe for me at this point.

  • “A little bit of a jerk. In a good way.”

    Agree fully with this, Goethe takes pleasure in flaunting his intelligence and in his elusive symbols, mirroring and allusion reminds me very much of Nabokov, another jerk but in a good way.