‘We were foolish,’ he said, ‘as I now see only too well.’

Elective Affinities opens with a discussion between Eduard and Charlotte about whether they will invite his friend, and then her ward, to stay with them. And a strange discussion it is.

More “Goethe weirdness”? Similar to the mason, I don’t know how much to take the way characters address each other in this novel as a joke. As Anthony noted on Twitter, the narrator is hilariously ironic. I second-guess myself on irony way too much. Because this is definitely a joke—a large one, I mean, one the size of the novel pretty much. More on that later, but first, a sample. Eduard has just completed his argument for why they should let the Captain come and stay:

‘Enough: I am grateful to you for listening so sympathetically. Now it is your turn to be just as frank and circumstantial. Say whatever you have to say. I promise not to interrupt.’

‘Very well then,’ Charlotte replied, ‘and I will begin by making a general observation. Men attend more to particular things and to the present, and rightly, since they are called upon to act and to influence events. Women, on the other hand, with an equal rightness attend more to the things that hang together in life, since a woman’s fate and the fate of her family depend on such things hanging together and it is up to her to see to it that they do. Accordingly, let us look for a moment at our present and our past lives, and you will have to admit that inviting the Captain here does not wholly fit in with our intentions, our arrangements, and our plans.’

Oh, what lovebirds they are! Charlotte proceeds to rationally and linearly lay out their history and the decision they had taken to now be together, alone. “‘All that was done with your consent,’” she says, “‘solely in order that we should live for ourselves and enjoy undisturbed the happiness we had longed for early on and had now at last achieved.’” Nineteenth-century German newlyweds were so dreamy.

(As best I can tell, this absurdly dry rationality is in the original German. I’m not competent enough to guarantee it, nuance-wise, but I read it pretty much the same. For example, Eduard’s bit quoted above: “Nun danke ich dir, daß du mich freundlich angehört hast; jetzt sprich aber auch recht frei und umständlich und sage mir alles, was du zu sagen hast; ich will dich nicht unterbrechen.”)

So what’s the point of all this? Well, if you can explain the back-and-forth of human relations as simply as a chemical reaction, why shouldn’t you be able to argue with your husband as clearly and reasonably as laying out a mathematical proof? And why shouldn’t you be able to lay out the grounds of your estate along completely rational lines, and keep the village peasants in good order through enlightened methods of improvement, and teach the village children to be cleanly and take care of each other and become good parents? You can order it all, if only you think about it well enough, consider it calmly enough, and plan cleverly enough.

All except that nasty fate, those things that hang together.

‘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?

Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), Goethe’s 1809 novel, is the story of Eduard and Charlotte, a middle-aged couple who have recently married, finding themselves, each widowed, unexpectedly able to fulfill their youthful dream of romance together. Not long after getting together, finding it simply irresistible to do so, they introduce new, volatile elements into their nuptial household: specifically, the Captain and Ottilie.

The Captain, Christian name Otto, is a friend of Eduard’s a bit down on his luck. Ottilie is Charlotte’s ward, a sweet young woman who might do well at her boarding school if only Charlotte’s daughter Luciane weren’t such a shining, sneering star. The Captain arrives first, and one evening as the three read aloud together he discusses with his married friends some principles of chemistry.

So the Captain began: ‘The first thing we notice about all the substances we encounter is Nature is that each is always drawn to itself….’

‘Let me run ahead,’ said Charlotte, ‘and see if I can guess what you are aiming at. Just as everything has an attraction to itself so too there must be a relationship with other things.’

‘And that will vary according to the different natures of the things concerned,’ said Eduard in haste. ‘Sometimes they will meet as friends and old acquaintances and come together quickly and be united without either altering the other at all, as wine for example mixes with water. But others will remain strangers side by side and will never unite even if mechanically ground and mixed. Thus oil and water shaken together will immediately separate again.’

Other elements have elective affinities for each other—the Captain gives the example of limestone being dissolved by sulphuric acid, because calcium has a greater affinity for sulphur than it does for oxygen. “‘A separation and a new combination have come about and one even feels justified in using the term “elective affinity”, because it really does seem as though one relationship were preferred to another and a choice made for one over the other,’” the Captain explains.

This direct discussion of chemistry is clearly important to the novel, and remarkable for a few reasons. First, its very explicitness is surprising, or at least jarring. It also makes it clear (or at least, even more clear than it already was) that there will be some separations and some new combinations coming up in the novel; the arrival of the Captain and Ottilie will disrupt the household, it only remains to be seen how.

And on close reading, the passage also reveals a funny flip in the scientism of elective affinities among people. The chemical bonds that are treated as a potential metaphor for human relations—thus implying that humans combine and separate “mechanically,” not through free will—are themselves anthropomorphized. The affinities are, after all, “elective,” and in the Captain’s explanation, that word is particularly apt because the chemicals are “preferr[ing]” one pairing over another. The novel may—may—be trying to take away the wills and preferences of its players, tossing them into a crucible together to see what comes out. Or it may just be that there is no difference at all between such elections and preferences and fate itself.

I read David Constantine’s translation of Elective Affinities as part of the bibliographing Reading Challenge, chosen by Anthony. Don’t miss yesterday’s sonnet on the novel, and I’ll be posting more throughout the week. It was fun, ridiculous, and continued to change my perspective on Goethe, so thank you, Anthony!

On Elective Affinities

Atoms bouncing back and forth amid the ether,
Elemental bits of all earth’s matter,
Attract, repel, and sometimes come together
With a bond that’s hard to shake or shatter
Unless a rival element appears
To peel off half a once-strong compound.
Chemical specifics would bore you to tears,
But it’s these elective affinities by which we’re all bound.
From the Baron, impassioned and rash,
To his lovely wife, long-suffering and wise,
And little Ottilie, dazzled by the flash
Of love and chemistry; not so the Captain’s eyes.
The lesson for this once-happy group is not fun
But some chemical reactions can never be undone.

Werthers Briefen

I read The Sorrows of Young Werther as part of my long-lingering (malingering?) epistolary literature project, and in this respect it was rather on the disappointing side. The novel is, like Evelina, not really epistolary. That is to say, I’d argue it doesn’t really gain much from the structure.

The bulk of the novel is made up of letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm. At first this works out pretty much as usual. The letters are dated, and recount Werther’s life in a new town where he’s meeting new people and seeing new scenes. Many of the letters are of the travelogue variety. Others are of the advice-and-edification variety. Once Werther meets his great love, Charlotte, they get confessional.

This is all pretty standard, and fine, although the letters are uneven, some are bizarrely short, and much of the time it seems just as much like Werther might be writing in a diary as sending them off to his friend. Only relatively rarely does he seem to be responding to anything Wilhelm says. Of course, that itself could be telling us something about Werther.

But about 2/3 of the way through the novel the letters break off and an editor takes over. When problems with Lotte and her husband have reached a head, apparently Werther’s letters can’t get us to the end of the story. But I’ve come to view this technique, the more I’ve read epistolary novels, especially from their heyday, as a real weakness. The editor renders the exercise of the reader needing to put some of the story together himself a bit pointless. Why did we need the letters to begin with? If it was to experience Werther’s emotions firsthand, it seems we’d want to do that at least as much at the end, as we literally follow him to the grave. Why not include the letters of a second or third correspondent rather than information from a narrator who must either be, or have access to, Lotte, in order to know what he knows? I would argue the emotional effect of a letters-only format would be greater; I’ve always liked the discovery aspect of that.

Perhaps the greatest structural flaw, though, is the extended—and I do mean extended—insertion of Goethe’s translation of Ossian. Lotte has Werther read her his translation of the faux-ancient Scottish poetry, and it’s all right there, in the text. Self-indulgent is not even the word for this. I used to want to read Ossian, at least sort of. I have now officially had my fill. “Sad I am! nor small is my cause of woe!” Neither is mine.

Ach, harsh I am. I actually cannot believe how much I neither enjoyed Werther nor thought much of the structure, but there it is.

The sorrows of reading Werther

The problem with being a trendsetter is that the more successful you are, the less original you’ll seem. Thus is the trouble with The Sorrows of Young Werther, at least for me. Goethe’s influence was so great, and I’ve read so many influenced by him, that Werther seems almost derivative. He so epitomizes the pathetic Romantic hero that it’s difficult to experience him on his own terms. Intellectually, of course, I know the opposite is the case: Werther is not derivative, it’s everything else that is. But since I’ve only read Werther now…well, the eye-rolling came a bit too easily for me.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that wouldn’t have happened even had I not read other Romantic literature; Werther takes himself very, very seriously, and there is not much narrative distancing taking him less seriously. In the preface, we are told, “To his spirit and character you cannot refuse your admiration and love: to his fate you will not deny your tears.”* Admiration, love, tears—Werther got none of the above from me. I am a cold fish, but I think this is really a book for younger readers.

Still, a few things did surprise me. I knew Werther would commit suicide at the end, but I wasn’t expecting such a clear embrace of suicide from the very beginning. At first it seemed like subtle foreshadowing, but it became less and less subtle as the book went on and he kept on at it.

Another surprise was the structure; I did not realize the epistolary form would be “supplemented” so much. But save that thought for tomorrow.

I was also struck over and over by how closely the concerns in Werther mirrored those in Schiller’s essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.” It makes sense, of course. After all, I was just talking about how über-Romantisch this all is. But I don’t usually encounter “movements” quite so starkly.

Ernst Beutler’s afterword to my Reclam Universal-Bibliotek edition claims:

Goethes “Werther” ist der erste moderne Roman, und weil er das ist, greift er uns ans Herz, als wäre er heute erlebt, heute geschrieben. …

Das “Herz”, das ist das Wort, das immer wieder in den Briefen Werthers auftaucht, das als Thema den ganzen Roman beherrscht. Nicht von Heldentaten und Abenteuern wie in den Romanen vorher ist hier die Rede, nicht von Problemen, nicht von Nöten und Gefahren und buntem Vielerlei des Lebens wie im Roman unserer Tage, sondern nur von der Liebe, ja genauer gesagt: von einer Liebe.

Goethe’s “Werther” is the first modern novel, and because it is, it grabs our hearts, as if it were experienced today, written today. …

“Heart,” that is the word that always shows up in Werther’s letters, that dominates as the theme of the whole novel. The story here is not about heroic doings and adventures like in earlier novels, nor about problems, nor miseries and danger and the colorful variety of life like in the novels of our day, rather only about love, more exactly, about one love.**

This is all very nice, and very true, but the difficulty is in actually experiencing it properly, infected as we all are with so much of what came after.

*Quotation taken from the R.D. Boylan translation, which I read in conjunction with the original German. Mine’s a bit rusty.

**Mediocre translation mine.