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.
Continue reading ‘We were foolish,’ he said, ‘as I now see only too well.’
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
Continue reading ‘Who then more than the mason will be concerned to make what he does right for himself, by doing it right?’
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
Continue reading Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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.
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,
Continue reading Werthers Briefen
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
Continue reading The sorrows of reading Werther