"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”

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Die Passion Christi – Hieronymus Bosch

Goethe’s final novel is often described as “experimental;” a description which, I think, primarily reflects its puzzling character. Like Beethoven’s late quartets or Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, it’s hard to know how to take it, or how it wants to be taken. Its readers have long struggled to articulate a coherent response to this book, and I daresay my own response – a mix of admiration, frustration, and confusion – puts me in good company.

Most of the action occurs beneath the level of story and must be extrapolated from the events. The plot, such as it is, is relatively simple. Eduard and Charlotte are a happily-married couple who live on an estate in the country. As part the leisure class, they have the luxury of pursuing their personal interests, which primarily consist of directing a series of continual and ever-incomplete improvements and modifications to the buildings and the grounds.

Like a Japanese gardener, they attempt to collaborate with nature, and to coax the world around them toward their ideals. The wanderer on their lands should have the experience of chancing upon inspiring, meditative vistas in a series of perfectly-timed disclosures as they move through a landscape of controlled epiphany. To this end, paths are modified or closed off, views are opened up through the pruning of trees or the removal of rocks, and buildings are reworked to provide rest at just the right point on a steep path.

Before long, Eduard and Charlotte are joined in their endeavors by an old friend of Eduard’s called “the Captain”, and later by Charlotte’s charming foster-daughter Ottilie. The newcomers take to the estate work with inspired passion, and quickly join the rhythm of the house.

One night in the drawing room, where they come together to read and to play music, Charlotte comes across the esoteric topic of “elective affinities.” She and the reader subsequently learn that this term refers to a theory in chemistry that accounts for the tendency of certain pairs of compound substances to break their stable bonds and “trade dance partners,” as it were. That is, stable compound AB is introduced to stable compound CD, and, after a sudden, destructive reaction, you end up with AC and BD, which are united by even stronger bonds.

The characters and the reader quickly pick up on the amusing possibility that such reactions could also affect human couples, and the author thereby sets the stage for the complicated emotional entanglements which play out for the remainder of the book. As Eduard and the young Ottilie become closer, so too do the Captain and Charlotte, which leads headlong into a conflict between two competing views of marriage – as a socially-recognized and regulated bond, and as the epitome of passion, intimacy, and choice.


One of the core concerns of this book is the irreconcilable conflicts that result from regarding the same situation from competing systems of values. Take, for example, the theory of landscaping which preoccupies the protagonists. On a superficial level, their work celebrates the Romantic ideals of free wandering and the unadulterated experience of nature. Someone walking through their grounds is meant to feel the wonder of vistas encountered by chance.

Ironically, we know that the landscape is highly controlled, with the heavily-planned paths subtly directing the wanderer to the illusion of happenstance. Choice only plays out within an invisibly-regulated landscape.

On one level, this is presumably a critique of the Romantics, who may conceal their own elaborate techniques for producing the controlled aesthetic effects which are celebrated as the experience of natural spontaneity.

On another level, this is an arresting image of how people shape their lives, acting not just on the level of conscious choice, but working in dialog with their inner selves, and with their societies, to affect the context in which they live. It is probably worth noting that this, in the language of the book, is the prerogative of the leisure class.

The book is fundamentally concerned with the hidden rules that shape choice. Through altering the landscape, as in altering their relationships, the characters shape their own context for action, and thereby experiment with the possibilities of life.

The book functions as a kind of scientific experiment or laboratory in which the mechanics of human choice become more visible. Here, the fact that the landscaping is always a work-in-progress becomes significant. We follow as the characters experiment with the very framework for their own action and experience, just as people build their lives: gradually, playing out different possibilities, and then course-correcting, in a never-ending process of trial and error.

The link between this work as an examination of human nature and as a kind of laboratory experiment is called out by the title. This laboratory provides indirect access to the characters’ inner lives, which can only be extrapolated, just like the bonds that unite various compounds. The governing patterns that regulate the dynamics lie under the surface.

In another sense, the book functions as a laboratory by presenting life on a remote estate as a microcosm of their society as a whole. The use of a mini-society as a device for depicting core dynamics of human interaction has a long tradition. It has been pointed out, for example, that nearly every comedy of Shakespeare’s involves some version of characters going outside the city walls and creating an alternative social order.

The link between the language of chemistry and the language of the unconscious tells us this is a sort of alchemical laboratory. We have known since Carl Jung that when the alchemist speaks in a hybrid language of chemistry and metaphysics – describing, for example, the mystical marriage of chemical substances that unites and reconciles opposites – they present an image of their own unconscious process of psychic integration, using the vocabulary of the natural sciences, which is noticeably hijacked by the twilight language of dream and myth.

The question posed by the motif of elective affinities, then, is to what degree our choices are free, and how do we gain insight into the invisible rules. I see this as a kind of naturalistic antetype to the modernist use of myth, such as we find in Wagner, Joyce, Eliot, or Thomas Mann. For these great artists, myth sheds light on the hidden patterns that shape conscious action and intention.

Thomas Mann described “Elective Affinities” as “a perfect book,” and its profound influence on his own work is readily apparent. In “The Magic Mountain”, for example, we also find characters trapped together in a miniature world, which functions as a microcosm of society and nature, and as a macrocosm of the individual psyche. The ordering patterns of life are examined as if in a Petri dish or alembic, where they are reduced, extracted, and sublimated to an archetypal plane.


Green Man, Bode Museum

It must be noted that the character Ottilie is the chief catalyst for the action that drives the plot forward. Eduard is the principle agent of action, but he is motivated by his passion for Ottilie, which she elicits through the unique qualities of her character. It is no surprise, then, that we find her at the heart of the book’s pivotal events.

Ottilie embodies on the level of character the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the co-occurrence of orders of value. She drives the action, but indirectly; she is both conscious and unconscious of the economy of passion she is inscribed within; she is both guilty and innocent of transgression. She guarantees the contradictions that come forth from the collision of passion and social regulation, but by her being, not through her action or choice.

One can say much about this special status, but what most illuminates her function in the novel is knowing that Goethe had a daughter-in-law named Ottilie, with whom he was much enamored. As Rüdiger Safranski notes in his recent Goethe; Kunstwerk des Lebens: “It should here be remembered, without making too much of a fuss over it, that in 1816, Goethe pushed hard in support of the liaison between his son [August von Goethe] and Ottilie von Pogwisch, so that he should have this fetching and clever young woman in his vicinity” (pg. 579, my translation). Ottilie and August would marry a year later.

In my opinion, in the context of “Elective Affinities”, it would actually be difficult to make too much fuss over this fact, which is the single most important key we have to understanding what happens in the novel and why. I have been genuinely surprised by how gingerly this is held by many interpreters, who sometimes give the impression that it would be in poor taste to recognize it. But Goethe could hardly have called more attention to this point than by naming this key character after his daughter-in-law.

It would be a mistake to reduce the entirety of this complex book to an autobiographical study of the author’s obvious infatuation with his son’s wife, but it would also be obtuse to fail to recognize that the book reproduces the same logic of ambivalence that Goethe presumably felt. By this reading, Goethe blames her for his own attraction, yet cannot find fault with her, because he is the agent of his own passions, even if she is the catalyst. He wants her and cannot have her, and he feels trapped between the irreconcilable dictates of the logic of passion and the social code of marriage and fidelity. Ottilie von Goethe, like Ottilie in the novel, embodies the conflicts that governs this novel.


Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2019 at 2:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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