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JUDITH RYAN Elective Affinities: Goethe and Henry James The MOST FAMOUS examples of literary reception—Blake's outdoing of Milton or Goethe's reworking of the Iphigenia material1—show us a later author 'correcting' in one degree or another the conception of his predecessor. But reception theory would also have it that the later 'correction' is at the same time a 'concretization' of the previous work's 'virtual image.'2 The later work, in other words, is an answer to questions left unresolved in the earlier work; indeed, it brings to light problematic aspects of its predecessor which might otherwise have remained hidden and helps us to understand its coordinates more subtly and intricately. This part of the theory is less easy to demonstrate than is the corrective function of reception. In examining the relationship between Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften and Henry James' Golden Bowl I hope, however, to be able to look at both aspects of the two-way interaction. If we begin by placing the two titles side by side, a striking difference is immediately apparent: Goethe's title, while actually drawn from chemistry,3 also refers quite evidently to relationships between human beings; James' title refers to an inanimate object of art. Art and human relationships form, in fact, the dual theme of both novels, and in both cases the connection is so ingeniously worked out that the reader tends to take it for granted. But what do the two really have in common? Art and adultery have no necessary connection. I would suggest that here is the question raised by Goethe and resolved in a different fashion by Henry James. On this score the two novels provide the greatest mutual illumination, as I hope to show in due course. A master in the srudy of relationships, James shows 154 GOETHE SOCIETY OF NORTH AMERICA us what they have to do with art and artifacts, revealing and refining at the same time the mainspring of Goethe's novel. As for the 'corrective' aspect, I believe this takes place here on two levels: first, the motivation of the chiastic love affairs which remain in Goethe somewhat artificial and abstract, and second, in the treatment of the theme of subjectivity. In reworking the motivation of the central device, James essentially provides it with more modern underpinnings, i.e. greater psychological and social credibility. But when it comes to Goethe's critique of subjectivity, he does not so much refine it as revoke it. Thus we are confronted with the strange phenomenon of a literary work that relates to its predecessor in ways that are almost contradictory, drawing out its hidden implications and drastically revising its basic presuppositions at one and the same time. Before I develop this line of thought any further, let me first sketch the connection between the two novels. Although the James brothers tended to regard the French language as Henry's territory, the German as William's, Henry was nonetheless competent in German and familiar with the works of Goethe. Leon Edel tells us that Goethe figured in Henry's library as early as the 1860s,4 and Henry seems to have read Goethe both during his stay in Bonn in 1860 and on his grand tour of Europe in 18695; in 1865 he reviewed (anonymously) a translation of Wilhelm Meister, and in 1875 he similarly reviewed a new translation of Goethe's Faust. The second volume of his autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother (1914),6 looks back on this period of his life and comments on his early struggles with German prose, which he found "much tougher than verse, and thereby more opposed to 'life.' "7 During his short stay in Bonn, James wrestled with two examples of the genre: Schiller's Thirty Years' War and Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften, which were for him as much a part of the German experience as his early morning walks on the "neighbouring Venusberg, long, low and bosky."8 The walks, in fact, were an "attuned thing" with the readings, he claimed.9 Important here is the personal and very fundamental level on which the young Henry James came to know the novel, in a way that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-9087
Print ISSN
0734-3329
Pages
pp. 153-171
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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