Posts Tagged ‘widow’

Goethe Month: Inaugural ed., “Elective Affinities”

July 3, 2010

AB + CD → BD + AC.


“I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact: A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraced the other’s partner.”

(Die Wahverwandtschaften / Elective Affinities, 1809: p. 44.)


“With the alkalies and acids, for instance, the affinties are strikingly marked. They are of opposite natures; very likely their being of opposite natures is the secret of their effect on one another.”

(Ibid., 39)


“They seek one another eagerly out, lay hold of each other, modify each other’s character and form in connection an entirely new substance.”

(Ibid., 39-40.)


“…And those are the cases which are really most important and remarkable — cases where this attraction, this affinity, this separating and combining, can be exibited, the two pairs severally crossing each other; where four creatures, connected previously, as two and two, are brought into contact, and at once forsake their first combination to form into a second.”

(Ibid., 42.)


“In this forsaking and embracing, this seeking and flying, we believe that we are indeed obsrving the effects of some higher determination; we attribute a sort of will and choice to such creatres, and feel really justified in using technical words, and speaking of ‘Elective Affinities.’ ”

(Ibid., 42-43.)


The title is taken from a scientific term once used to describe the tendency of chemical species to combine with certain substances or species in preference to others. The novel is based on the metaphor of human passions being governed or regulated by the laws of chemical affinity, and examines whether or not the science and laws of chemistry undermine or uphold the institution of marriage, as well as other human social relations.

(the wiki)


In the book, people are described as chemical species whose amorous affairs and relationships were pre-determined via chemical affinities similar to the pairings of alchemical species. Goethe outlined the view that passion, marriage, conflict, and free-will are all subject to the laws of chemistry and in which the lives of human species are regulated no differently than the lives of chemical species.

(Ibid.)

You may imagine that it ruffled some feathers upon its publication, as I think you can tell just from those excerpts that it sailed quickly into unpopularly murky waters in its critique of human sexuality and the social institution of marriage as it stood in Goethe’s time. The two chief protagonists, Charlotte and Eduard, are a married and like-minded couple obsessed by logic and reason. Both are on their second marriages, having been widowed by their first, arranged spouses.

With their original, societally-enforced family and financial obligations taken care of by their first marriages, Charlotte and Eduard were free in their second marriage to tie the knot with someone they actually like and to whom they are attracted: they married out of love and sexual desire. But now time has passed and they confirm to one another that they’re a little bored. As an experiment, they decide to invite two attractive, single friends — the Captain, an old acquaintance of Eduard’s, and Ottilie, Charlotte’s young cousin — to their rural mansion for the summer and see how things shake out.

Racy stuff that is peppered with sometimes-depressingly accurate evaluations of human behavior and theories of brain chemistry as it exhibits itself in romance. The novel is still studied because it continues to resonate as a touchstone for debate today between the theories of free will and biological determinism.

All these candid pictures come from the same set of found photos of a swingers’ party c. 1970s, on Square America.

PS: Explanation — It’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Month. For brevity, we’ll call it Goethe Month.