Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Elective Affinities

Goethe (Stieler 1828).jpg

(Continued From Birthday & The Man)

- This talk of science, individuality, society, is putting me out, putting me off. I can't even talk.
- Sure you can.
- An individual's life ought to be naturally, reasonably, intelligently worked into society. Making the different parts involved and how they relate to each other the subject of conversation doesn't begin to tell me how to do that.
- What does?
- Stories of people trying.
- I'm listening.
- We've looked at Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.* Goethe's last novel, according to him his best and requiring three readings for full comprehension, was Elective Affinities. The title refers to an account of the way two chemical elements that are compounded together, in the presence of another compound of two elements, each of the two joined elements separates, and each of the two parts of each compound joins instead to one of the two parts of the other compound.
- The compounds separate only to combine with the separated elements of the other compound.
- Yes. At the beginning of the story the chemical dance of changing partners comes up in conversation, with obvious application to present company: the rich aristocrat Eduard, his wife Charlotte, the Eduard's friend the Captain who's come to stay, and his wife's absent, but under consideration for invitation, protege Ottilie. Charlotte immediately observes such application would be an unrealistic simplification.
- Which is Goethe's position?
- We'll get there. An aristocrat, it is said in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, must make a show of good breeding, but need not actually have it and consequently usually doesn't. Eduard and his wife in Elective Affinities had both made previous marriages of convenience, though they were in love with each other even then, and only the death of both their spouses allowed them ten years later to marry.
- Marriages of convenience evidence of living more for show than natural impulse.
- Yes. Now it comes to pass that Eduard falls in love with the invited Ottilie, his wife to a lesser extent with the Captain. All four characters have the syllable 'ott' in their names: the Captain's name is Otto, that is also one of Eduard's names, his wife's name is Charlotte, and then there's Ottilie. We said about science that it relates classes of parts of things to classes of parts of things. The parts of things in the class are treated as if they were identical, varying from each other only in place or movement. In tableau vivants organized at the castle living people enact famous pictures, according to the narrator improving upon them but leaving an uneasy feeling in the audience: the living have become 'elements' in the picture, parts of themselves that have their being among parts of other people and the background of the scene presented.
- What's Goethe's point? Eduard and his wife were proper aristocrats, making a show of good breeding. Then, when opportunity arises and love interests more to their taste arrive, they - again? - in acting on their passion are merely putting on a show, they've lowered themselves to the status of elements of a picture? They're all instances of "otts", are drops of chemicals, dabs of paint?
- So it would seem. The prime activity of Eduard, his family, his friends, and employees is remaking the extensive grounds of the castle into parkland, drawing out its beauty, making it a show of itself. The characters live in a strict hierachy: Eduard is served by his wife, she by her protege Ottilie, Ottilie by her own protege and numerous servants, and below them all: the poor. Special police are employeed to keep beggers away from the family and friends' elaborate celebrations of birthdays, that is, their shows to the glory of themselves and their 'quality'.
- How does the story end?
- To be guilty of a simplification like the analogy of elective affinities itself: Ottilie and Eduard each die of being unable to accept appearances of themselves. Ottilie resists breaking up Eduard and Charlotte's marriage; taking on the daily care of the newly delivered, surprise child of that marriage, her carelessness leads to its accidental death by drowning. She stops talking; then stops eating and dies. Eduard, seeing himself without her as permanently bereaved, is found dead in his chair.
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* Romantic Lives