An Irresistible, Almost Magical Force
April 22, 2014 | by Michael Lipkin
There were no best-seller lists in 1809, but it was quickly clear to the German reading public that Goethe’s third novel, Elective Affinities, which appeared in the fall of that year, was a flop. His first, The Sorrows of Young Werther, had inspired a fashion craze and copycat suicides, and had fired the heart of a young Napoleon. His latest effort, on the other hand, received befuddled notices from critics and little love from the coterie of writers and philosophers drawn to the Great Man. Everyone from the Brothers Grimm to Achim von Arnim to Wilhelm von Humboldt agreed that the book was a bore, that its plot made nearly no sense, and that its treatment of adultery bordered on the distasteful.
At sixty, Goethe was not one to let bad reviews get him down. The universally beloved Faust had appeared in 1808, and by 1810, Goethe was to have completed his Theory of Colors as well as his autobiography, Poetry and Truth. Nonetheless, in the correspondence he sent out around the time of publication, Goethe found himself compelled to admit that he had as little idea as anyone else of what he was trying to accomplish with his most recent book, or of what it had finally become. Then as now, Elective Affinities is an incredible, deeply mystifying read, the headstone of a man who hoped to groom the wilderness of life into an English park where even loss, pain, and death have finally found their proper place.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes the novel so elusive, in our time as in Goethe’s. The book is neither long nor dense; its characters’ motives are not hard to fathom, its plot not difficult to follow. In fact, Elective Affinities is the rare book that opens by spelling out what will happen by its end. The protagonists, Eduard and Charlotte, are aristocrats who have overcome loveless marriages to find true love with each other. At the start of the story, they invite Eduard’s childhood friend, the Captain, to live with them, ostensibly to help out with various projects around the estate. Soon after his arrival, the Captain, a dilettante scientist, explains the principle of elective affinities to the couple—how the elements of a seemingly stable compound, such as limestone, will separate and form a new combination when introduced to sulfuric acid. With Charlotte’s beautiful but withdrawn niece Ottilie due to arrive shortly, the company observes how amusing it would be if, like the limestone and the sulfuric acid, Eduard rushed to Ottilie while Charlotte paired up with the Captain. (No points for guessing what happens next.)
Chemistry is, to be sure, hardly the most inventive metaphor for romantic feeling. And yet, as Charlotte observes, we often forget just how much of natural science, which we take to be the inalienable reality of our existence, is informed by the human experience it is meant to illuminate. Elements don’t elect to do anything; they just rush together blindly, machinelike. Nor are the “laws” of thermodynamics freely legislated—they just are. Everywhere Goethe’s characters look, they see portentous signs that give the action a sense of fatefulness, as though it were being propelled by an “invisible, almost magical force of attraction.” Eduard discovers that he and Ottilie have the same handwriting; a visiting Englishman reads from a novella that perfectly describes the plot up to that point. All the while, Goethe reminds us, via the supporting cast, how often we misread the world in order to dress up self-serving behavior for which we are reluctant to take responsibility. What begins as a rather slight take on the romantic tribulations of the moneyed class gradually unspools, in Goethe’s hands, into a meditation on the murkiness of the laws that rule us—on the “riddle of life,” as the narrator calls it, for which we only ever find the answer in one another.
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The biggest obstacle between Goethe and his American readership has always been his style. Only Goethe could write a sentence like “He took note of all the beauties which the new paths had made visible and able to be enjoyed,” skipping, in typical Goethe fashion, right past the actual beauty to linger on the sensibility of organization that makes it possible. When his dialogue and scene direction are not delivering one perfectly crafted aphorism after another, they’re bare and utilitarian. (At a dinner party, Charlotte, “wishing to get away from the subject once and for all, tried a bold shift of direction and was successful.”) And then there is Goethe’s strangely limited vocabulary, which favors simple yet maddeningly untranslatable words—like bedeutsam—that never sound quite right, no matter how they are rendered. (“These wondrous events seemed to her to presage a significant future, but not an unhappy one.”) Goethe’s English translators have always turned the clarity and placidity of his prose into something flat and wooden—although, in their defense, Goethe was never really one to wrangle for le mot just to begin with. By the time of Elective Affinities, he dictated his works entirely to his secretary. The privy councilor to the Duke of Weimar was simply too busy to spend the day trying to decide if scarlet sounded better than vermillion.
It doesn’t help Goethe’s case that how his characters spend their days seems, for lack of a better word, insane. The newest Oxford Classics edition of Elective Affinities misleadingly promises a scathing critique of aristocrats “with little to occupy them.” If anything, Eduard and Charlotte have too much to occupy them. Their music-playing and constant replanning of the grounds of their estate seem straightforward enough; before long they are reorganizing their graveyard, examining old Germanic weapons, and planning birthday parties with all the seriousness of imperial coronations. In the book’s most famous scene, Charlotte’s party-girl daughter, Luciane, arrives home from boarding school and insists that everyone dress up and pose as their favorite painting. Just before that, she has Charlotte’s architect draw a mausoleum behind her while she pretends to be the queen of Casia, mourning for her lost husband. When that gets boring, she pages through an illustrated book of monkeys and compares each one to someone in the room. (“How can anyone bring himself to do such careful pictures of those horrible monkeys?” a horrified Ottilie asks her diary.)
A recent piece in n+1 astutely observed that though Goethe was enough of a nineteenth-century author that we expect to understand him easily, he was ultimately too much of an eighteenth-century author to really like. Nowhere is this clearer than in Elective Affinities’s very slippery sense of what it means to do something. Occupation, in the middle-class sense that would come to define the nineteenth century—making things, buying things, selling things—held little interest for Goethe. His great ambition, in his life and in his art, was to take the indefatigable work ethic of the bourgeoisie and apply it not to business, but to life itself, as only an eighteenth-century aristocrat could. Eduard and Charlotte don’t bother composing music or writing novels. The object of their artistic aspiration—as their fascination with botany, landscape architecture, and tableaux vivants attests—is reality itself. Considering that by the novel’s end two of the main four characters are dead, it might be persuasively argued that Elective Affinities is a meditation on the vanity of our desire to mold reality to our liking. But no matter how grim the plot, Goethe’s narrators are never shaken in their values. There is no surer sign that we are to admire one of his characters than when we learn that, through tireless labor, they have restored some room or building that has fallen into disuse, or that, by applying their considerable expertise, they have revealed the beauty dormant in a grove of plane trees or a garden path.
The great mystery, then, is that despite its fixation on death, loss, and the inscrutability of fate, Elective Affinities never wavers in its optimism. At no point does the narrator ever concede his claim to the final truth of life, which he offers to the reader piece by piece, in one brilliant aphorism after another. (To take just one example: Ottilie’s famous observation that no one is more fully a slave than when they believe themselves to be free.) It’s easy to confuse Goethe’s stoic acceptance of life’s vicissitudes for a lack of feeling. But in his first work to his last, renunciation has always gone hand in hand with emotion—as when Ottilie, in a sign of devotion to Eduard, hands him the portrait of her father she wears around her neck. For Goethe, true happiness is not simply a religious or ethical abstraction, but something palpable and real. Art’s ambition, as Goethe saw it, was to still the rush of the world to reveal those vertiginous instants when all of eternity seems to be gathered into what is nearest at hand, and, no longer ruing the past or fearing the future, we finally feel at peace. The highest feeling in Elective Affinities is not ecstasy, but serenity.
Goethe’s age was, in retrospect, the last time when literature might credibly have claimed that it could reconcile the different sides of life into a happy, harmonious whole. In a letter to Carl Friedrich Zelter in 1825, seven years before his death, Goethe wrote, “The world admires wealth and velocity—these are the things for which everyone strives. Railroads, the post, steamboats, and all possible modes of communication are the means by which the world overeducates itself and freezes itself in mediocrity. We will be,” he concluded, “with a few others, the last of an epoch that does not promise to return any time soon.” If Goethe is alien to us now, as he was to the crop of writers who replaced him in Germany, it is because we are the children of the “clever minds and quick, practical men” who took over the reins of history from the “enlightened” despots he preferred to see in charge. Just the same, it is a testament to the depth of feeling that suffuses Elective Affinities—an incredible patience with life, rather than a hatred of it—that Goethe’s optimism is still legible to us today.
Michael Lipkin is a student and writer living in New York City. His writing has appeared in n+1, The Nation, and The American Reader.