More Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

German Literature month co-hosted by Caroline and Lizzy continues, and after getting annoyed about one part of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, here’s a post regarding a wonderful quote. This passage is spoken by Ottilie–a veritable saint of a girl. In the novel, Ottilie leaves boarding school and comes to live with her guardian, Charlotte and Charlotte’s husband, Eduard. Charlotte and Eduard are middle-aged and this is the second marriage for each of them as they were both ‘strongly encouraged’ to marry others in their youth. Eduard married a much older wealthy woman who conveniently died. Charlotte also married, and after she was left a widow, she and Eduard finally married. A dream come true? Well it didn’t last long, and after Ottilie enters the picture, Eduard falls in love with Ottilie. Not only does this shatter any notion of domestic happiness Eduard  shared with Charlotte, but the situation also creates no small amount of awkwardness.

Anyway, according to the intro, Goethe married his long-time lover Christiane Vulpius in 1806 after living together for over 18 years. Goethe was 57, Christiane was 41, and they had 5 children together. Why did Goethe marry Christiane at this point? Translator R.J. Hollingdale argues that the marriage was generated by “new affection” for Christiane. She had bravely faced off marauding French soldiers after the battle of Jena. Goethe’s house was invaded, and Goethe was “saved from a manhandling” only by the efforts of Christiane. 5 days later Goethe married her.

Is this a happy ending?

During the winter of 1807-8, Hollingdale tells us that Goethe fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl, Minna Herzlieb. This resulted in a contest of duelling poets: Goethe vs. Zacharias Werner, another poet who also loved Minna. Elective Affinities was published in 1809, and since it features an older married man who falls head-over-heels in love with a teenager, well it’s not difficult to see auto-biographical elements in the novel. And perhaps this explains why Goethe’s characterisation of Ottilie is idealised. So idealised, in fact, that at one point she ‘stars’ as the Virgin Mary–glowing face an’ all–in a tableaux designed for entertainment.

So here’s Ottilie, offered to us as an impossibly saintly young woman, wise beyond her years, industrious, graceful, kind, sweet, and yet also still living with Eduard (well he’s packed his bags and left at this point) and Charlotte–whose marriage is now wrecked. This is one of her journal entries written partly as a result of Charlotte’s decision to ‘improve’ the churchyard and partly due to an evening spent with an architect:

There are many kinds of memorial and memento which bring us closer to those who are far away and those who have departed, but none is more meaningful than the portrait. There is something exciting about being with a much-loved portrait, even if it is not a good likeness, just as there is sometimes something exciting about arguing with a friend. You have the pleasant feeling that you are divided, and yet can never be separated.

Sometimes you are with a real person in the same way as you are with a portrait. He does not have to speak, or look at you, or concern himself with you at all: you see him and feel what he means to you, indeed he can even come to mean more to you, without his doing anything about it, without his realizing in any way that his relationship with you is merely that of a portrait.

You are never satisfied with a portrait of people you know; which is why I have always felt sorry for portrait painters. You rarely ask the impossible, but that is what you ask of them. They are supposed to incorporate into their portrait everyone’s feelings towards the subject, everyone’s likes and dislikes; they are supposed to show, not merely how they see a particular person, but how everyone would see him. I am not surprised when such artists gradually grow insensitive, indifferent and self-willed. This would itself be a matter of indifference if it did not mean one would have to go without the likenesses of so many dearly-loved people.

It is indeed true: the architect’s collection of weapons and ancient utensils, which were, together with the body, covered with great mounds of earth and rock, testifies to us how vain is man’s provision for his personality after death. And how inconsistent we are! The architect admits he has himself opened these graves of our ancestors, and yet he continues to occupy himself with monuments for our prosperity.

But why take it all so seriously?Is everything we do done for eternity? Do we not dress in the morning so as to undress again at night? Do we not travel in order to return? And why should we not wish to repose beside our own people, even if it is only for a hundred years?

When you see all the gravestones which have sunk down and been worn away by the feet of the churchgoers, and even that the churches themselves have collapsed over their own tombs, you can still think of life after death as a second life, which you enter into as a portrait or an inscription, and in which you remain longer than you do in your actual living life. But sooner or later this portrait, this second existence, is also extinguished. And over men, so over memorials time will not let itself be deprived of its rights.



Filed under Fiction, Goethe

5 responses to “More Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

  1. Interesting, thanks for sharing the comments on Goethe.
    I think it’s a remarkable novel, very complex which your second post shows very well. Goethe must have been a complex character, maybe not likable and not “über alle Zweifel erhaben” meaning – a bit dubious but fascinating.
    You think he did overdrwa Ottilie? Is she too wise for her age?

  2. Beautiful quote. She does sound mature for her age. I wonder if they grew up quicker at the time or if they were as young as now and thrown unprepared into responsibilities, with various disasters.

  3. I think she’s an embodiment of Goethe’s infatuation. The translator says that Minna was just the first of a series of extremely young girls Goethe fell for. It’s a theme you see with a great deal of humour in a Man of Fifty.

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

  5. Pingback: German Literature Month 2011: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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