Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

I signed up for German literature month which is cohosted by Caroline and Lizzy Siddal, and I agreed to read a few German books during the month. My choices are here. I’ve already read Doris Dörrie’s Where Do We Go From Here?  and I just finished a second book, Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Here’s a post about a passage that struck me as terribly cheeky and autocratic, and which, I suspect, reflect’s Goethe’s philosophy.

Two of the novel’s wealthy characters, Eduard and Charlotte are obsessed with ‘improving’ their estate. It’s an obsession that gets the couple in trouble, but more of that in another post. Anyway, at one point, Charlotte sets out to improve the local churchyard:

Let us recall those alterations Charlotte had made in the churchyard. All the gravestones had been moved from their places and set up against the wall and against the base of the church. The ground had been levelled and, except for the broad walk which led to the church and then past it to the little gate beyond, sown with various kinds of clover, which provided a fine green and flowery expanse. New graves could be added from the end of this expanse, but each time the ground was to be levelled again and sown with clover. No one could deny that this arrangement provided a dignified and cheerful prospect when you went to church on Sunday or feast-days.

The families of those buried there were given no choice in the matter. Ok, so it’s picturesque, but not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Fancy that.

But for all that, there were some parishioners who had already expressed disapproval that the place where their ancestors reposed was no longer marked, and that their memory had thus been so to speak obliterated. There were many who said that, although the gravestones which were preserved showed who was buried there, they did not show where they were buried, and it was where they were buried that really mattered.

One local family who had arranged to give a “small bequest to the church” decided to withdraw their support, and the family’s solicitor eventually finds himself in front of Charlotte. He has this great speech about why everyone’s rights/choices in the matter have been violated:

You will understand that all persons, the highest and the humblest, are concerned to mark the place in which their loved ones lie. To the poorest peasant burying one of his children it is a kind of comfort and consolation to set upon its grave a feeble wooden cross, and to decorate it with a wreath, so that he may preserve the memory of that child for at any rate as long as his sorrow for it endures, even though such a memorial must, like that grief itself, at last be wiped away by time.

The entire passage goes on for quite a few more lines, but after giving his eloquent speech, the solicitor diplomatically agrees with Charlotte:

I can think of nothing more natural or more cleanly than that the mounds which have arisen fortuitously and are gradually subsiding should be levelled without delay, so that the earth, since it is now borne by all together, shall lie more lightly on each.  

What an ass-kisser.

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13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Goethe

13 responses to “Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

  1. I cannot remember this passage but I remember that redesigning the state is an importnat part. Goethe has written almost as many non-fiction books as fiction books and a there are books on anything from landscape design to the meaning of colors. Some of these ideas are quite esoterical and that’s why they haven been taken up by the anthroposophical society and why their “home ” – close to where I live – is called Goetheanum…
    I would have to look up why he chose to have this garveyard flattened in the book and whether this was his position or if he was against it.
    Just looked it up and as ususal, it’s full of double meaning but symbolizes basically Charlotte’s fear of death. She thinks redecorating can sanitize the place…

  2. Knowing nothing of the novel except its title since it has become a phrase, the thought that came to my mind was about the French Revolution. Wipe all the past to build something knew without taking into account people’s feelings.
    And colonisation as the whites destroyed sacred places for Indians without a second thought.

    • Emma and Caroline: The churchyard is just one instance of the immense efforts made at land and architectural improvement. One instance goes horribly wrong. Some of the improvements come off as idle folly. The part when Charlotte redesigns the churchyard is, I think, the best example of the high-handedness exhibited in the novel. I love the way the lawyer makes the speech about how even the poorest of the poor can show their grief if they have a gravestone, but then it doesn’t matter what he says as the gravestones have already been removed and then he agrees anyway. There are several instances of these arguments set up between characters to argue moral positions. Probably Goethe’s positions.

  3. leroyhunter

    I just read Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas and there are similar episodes there: in fact, the whole story proceeds from the heedless and high-handed behaviour of the priviliged land owning class.

    I’ll be writing a review up which Emma kindly offered to post.

    • Leroy: there are several instances of this sort of behaviour in the novel. Yes it’s 19th C and all that but it still hit me several times. I read somewhere that Goethe believed that rather than the unification of Germany, small principalities (within Germany) should be ruled by benign despots. This shows in this novel.

      I’ll look forward to your post.

  4. To be honest, as much as i like some of his work, I never liked Goether. Today a saw a book in a book shop called “Goethe’s women” subtitled 44 (!) portraits. We know he was a womanizer… He might have been a somehwta condescending fellow.
    Saw a wonderful biopic of Schiller not long ago (not subtitled) and thought that Schiller was a likable man. Far more than Goether biut Goethe is this enormous tower in German literature and everything else is in his shadow…

  5. Sorry…bad typo day again Goether lol

  6. Caroline: my copy has a very good intro about how he lived with Christiane Vulpius for years and had 5 children by her. He married her when he was 57 and she was 41. The intro says after that “he discovered that he had all along harboured very stern moral principles” about marriage. Of course then he proceeded to fall in love with a series of younger women. We get a few of the marriage lectures throughout the book. It’s obviously one of those situations where the author tried to work out in print what he struggled with in his personal life.

  7. I checked but don’t think Zweig wrote about Schiller. They both chose Maria Stuart as topic and that’s why they are mentioned together. Maybe he quotes Schiller’s play.

  8. Pingback: German Literature Month: Building a badge « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  9. Pingback: German Literature Month Week I Wrap-up and The Winners of the Heinrich Böll Giveaway « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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