Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Elective Affinities, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Embarrassingly, I'd never read any Goethe, so decided to start with Elective Affinities, as it's short and sweet.  Elective Affinities is Goethe's third novel, and also one of three of Goethe's books on the 1001 list.

Elective Affinities is Goethe's attempt to explore human relationships, and marriage in particular, using the laws of chemistry as a...muse?, inspiration?, recipe book?, well, something of that sort.  Published in 1809, it was quite controversial at the time (and since) for what many perceived as immorality and the encouragement of divorce, though apparently many critics (and me!) can't actually decide if Goethe came down in the end on the side of the "sanctity" of marriage, or the pragmatism of divorce - at least, the destiny of true love.

The main characters, Eduard and Charlotte, have married late in life after their first partners have died.  They (for some reason) decide to ask Eduard's friend, the Captain, and Charlotte's neice and ward, Ottilie, to come and live with them, with predictable (apparently, this being the point) results.  Bonds are broken, new bonds are formed, apparently there is nothing to be done (or is there?).  This is, apparently, a double displacement reaction in chemistry.  Sounds thrilling, yes?  Perhaps not.

I'm not sure if Goethe was sure what moral lesson he was going for here, if any, but it seemed to me that the book was a tale of the inevitability of fate, coupled with the efforts of individuals to change it (or not).

 I can't resist quoting the blurb from a critical work on the book:
"From the time of its publication to today, Goethe's famous novel The Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften, 1809), has aroused a storm of critical confusion. Critics in every age have vehemently disagreed about its content (whether it defends the institution of marriage, radically supports its dissolution, or even whether it is about marriage at all), its style (whether it is romantic, realistic, modern, or postmodern) and its tone (whether it is tragic, anti-romantic, or ironic).
"[....]  Readers fiercely debate the role of the chemical theory of elective affinities presented in the novel. Some argue that it suggest a philosophy of nature that is rooted in fate. Others maintain that it is about free choice. Others believe that the chemical theory is merely a structural device that allows the author to foreshadow events in the novel and bears no relevance to the greater issues of the novel."
So, no great suprise that the novel is somewhat confusing and not easy to interpret.  Personally, I felt it was more about the effect of free choice impeding the "natural order" of things, the elective affinity between those who are "meant to be." When the characters refuse to follow the dictates of chemistry, a whole heap of bad stuff happens to them.  So the lesson seems to be: get in line with fate or get out of the way.  Except a tad more poetic and lyrical and stuff.

Okay, I didn't love it.  I found myself actually saying aloud as reading it, "this book is just odd!"  I just couldn't get into it, didn't find it convincing, and didn't get anything much out of it.
I understand that Goethe is telling us something about relationships, now with more chemistry [TM!], but the characters weren't compelling, the relationships seemed one-dimensional and unbelievable.  I didn't love that one of the main love interests was the neice of Charlotte, that Eduard had known as a small child, and was dependent on them, and still at school (!!).  I was [spoiler alert] also just jaw-dropped at the sudden killing off of Charlotte's child!  That, and the utter selfishness of the four main characters just made it an unpalatable read for me.

I have to admit, though, that I've since been interested in reading about interpretations of the book, (probably because I wasn't too certain of my own).  I was also fascinated to read that Max Weber took his concept of Elective Affinites in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, from Goethe's book!  I've always had a soft spot for Weber.

So, read it, it's interesting, and you'll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.  But not a fabulous one to just read.


This was an e-read on Kindle for iPad, though make sure you get the Oxford World's Classics edition, this is a good translation by David Constantine (I hate to think what a bad translation would do to this book!).  It was only a few dollars from Amazon, and the only decent translation in e-book form I could see there.

Ref: Goethe's Elective Affinities and the Critics, Astrida Orle Tantillo (2001), see here for a full reference and extracts.

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