- Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften [Elective Affinities]:A Scholarly Bicentennial
Two hundred years after its original publication in October 1809, the novel Goethe called his "best," Die Wahlverwandtschaften [Elective Affinities], has lost none of its power to fascinate and mystify its readers and critics, tempting them to add to the long string of commentaries that has made it the most interpreted novel in German literature. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Wahlverwandtschaften's bicentennial has been marked by the publication of important critical studies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Goethes "Wahlverwandtschaften," the Walter de Gruyter volume edited by Helmut Hühn, is the published outcome of a research project conducted at [End Page 613] the University of Jena, which celebrated the bicentennial with a literary exhibit, a lecture series, scholarly symposia, and a public reading of the novel by prominent stage actors. Interdisciplinary openness is the trademark of this volume, whose contributors include philosophers, historians, art historians, and scientists along with German literary scholars. The editor's stated goal is to offer a multiplicity of critical perspectives rather than a comprehensive interpretation, with such a diverse and finite approach being warranted by the diegetic plurality of the narrative itself (168). Nevertheless, this volume presents a radical departure from the more esoteric, mythical, allegorical, or deconstructive text exegeses of past decades, which, under the spell of Walter Benjamin's famous interpretation, often sacrificed surface analysis to the exploration of the subtexts of Goethe's most enigmatic novel. The fact that so many of the contributions focus on character psychology makes this volume both a refreshing reading experience and a welcome pedagogical tool.
In his brilliant opening, Ernst Osterkamp deflates the paradigm of moral renunciation by discussing the protagonists' mental isolation and failed sociability as hallmarks of the novel's modernity. Hermann Beland applies his psychoanalytical expertise to a fascinating diagnosis of the characters' psychotic mental tendencies. Benigna Carolin Kasztner calls on Kant's physiopsychical definition of the "Krankheiten des Kopfes" [illnesses of the head] to show how Eduard and Ottilie's symmetrical headaches signal a rupture between individual and social needs, while Birgit Sandkaulen explains the relevance of Spinoza's concept of "imaginatio" to Goethe's narrative of imaginary entanglement, a philosophical line of criticism continued in Temilo van Zantwijk's indictment of the autism of the four "singles." On a parallel path, Susan Baumert's analysis of narrative time shows how psychological time undermines its empirical linearity, whereas Michael Maurer illustrates the protagonists' disconnection from their historical context in the prevalence of ("botched") birthday celebrations. How all the characters are immersed in a wave of hastiness, trendiness, and inattention to the present is also emphasized in Elisabeth von Thadden's closing remarks.
A second group of essays focuses on the novel's intermedial aesthetics. In his critique of poststructuralist readings of Elective Affinities as an antihermeneutic manifesto, Jan Urbich argues that the novel demonstrates the mimetic power of signs, rather than their meaninglessness. With references to the folding pictures in Humphry Repton's theory of landscape gardening, Reinhard Wegner highlights the novelist's focus on the tension between illusion and reality. Multiple contemporary influences by, or on, garden and architectural design are the subject matter of Harald Tausch's elaborate demonstration.
A third group of essays centers on social history in the narrower sense of the term. Marko Kreutzmann shows how the novel deconstructs Adam Müller's romantic idealization of the landed aristocracy; Gerhard Müller links the figure of the "Captain" to the bureaucratic reforms in the wake of the French occupation, typified by the Prussian officer de Müffling; and Nicole Grochowina connects Eduard and Charlotte's marital crisis to the contemporary upsurge in divorce proceedings in the dukedom of Weimar-Saxony. Other more diverse contributions discuss Ottilie's maxims (Andreas Grimm); the novel's literary relations to Goethe's Pandora (Jochen Golz), Wieland's Freundschaft...