|Goethe's 1809 novella Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), original German cover, adjacent to an updated reprint of the H.M. Waidson translation (1960, Kindred by Choice), One World Classics edition.|
“Romantic love, we still read in cosmopolitan, is a ‘matter of chemistry’, an image that has its support in the writings of the greatest poets, in Shakespeare, for instance, and in Goethe, whose novel Elective Affinities has been prime reading in Europe for almost two centuries.”— Robert Solomon (1981), Love: Emotion, Myth, Metaphor (pg. 38)
“Words like 'great' and 'genius' could aptly be used for but a select number of artists—for Michelangelo or say Shakespeare. In the United States, the works of these great artists have been incorporated into popular culture as the epitome of visual and linguistic beauty. By contrast, on these shores, Goethe's works remain largely unread and rarely discussed except among college students, most of whom develop a healthy dose of amnesia shortly after graduation.”— Daniel Spiro (2005), “Remember to Live! The Philosophy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe”
“How I look forward to the effect that this novel will have in a few years on many people upon rereading it.”
See also: Animal magnetism; MesmerismAt some point in the novella, Goethe, supposedly, explains human passion in the language of both magnetism and chemical attraction. 
|Left: a 2011 Albatros reprint cover of Die Wahlverwandtschaften. Right: a 2001 watercolor rendition of the estate (retort, reaction vessel, closed reaction system), by Colombian artist Nohra Barros, in which the the story or rather reactions (human chemical reactions) of Elective Affinities take place, chapter-by-chapter. |
“In 1809, Goethe printed the most exceptionable of his novels, the Wahlverwandschaften (“Elective Affinities”), in which the charms and graces of this style are employed in the description of the impulses which spring from the collision of passion and duty in the relations of marriage. By the title of the book, and in the whole spirit of it, he would represent that sexual affinities follow the same inevitable law as chemical affinities, and that humanity struggles impotently against the dictates of nature. Like all his productions, this was suggested by circumstances in his own experience. The work shocked the moral world, in spite of the beauty with which it was written, and to this day tasks the ingenuity of those of his admirers who seek to defend it from attack.”
“After seeking through the world in vain, to find a means of cultivation for my unusual nature, I at last fell upon the Ethics of this philosopher. If would be impossible for me to render an account of how much I drew form my perusal of the work itself and how much I myself read into it. Enough that I found in it a sedative for my passions, and that it seemed to open out for me a free and boundless view of both the sensible and the moral world. But what especially riveted me to him, was the utter disinterestedness, which glowed in his every sentence.”
“To facilitate our comprehension of the concept of organic existence, let us first take a look at mineral structures. Minerals, whose varied components are so solid and unchanging, do not seem to hold to any limits or order when then combine, although laws do determine these conditions. Different components can be easily separated and recombined into new combinations. These combinations can again be taken apart, and the mineral we thought destroyed can soon be restored to its original perfection.
The main characteristic of minerals that concerns us here is the indifference their components show toward the form of their combination, that is, their coordination or subordination. There are, by nature, stronger or weaker bonds between these components, and when they evidence themselves, they resemble attractions between human beings. This is why chemists speak of elective affinities [see: human elective affinity; human chemical affinity], even though the forces that move mineral components one way or another and create mineral structures are often purely external in origin, which by no means implies that we deny them the delicate portion of nature’s vital inspiration that is their due.”
“There is no trace of the delicate verwandtschaft (affinity) through which they (his characters) attract and repel, neutralize each other, separate again and re-establish themselves.”
|One of the stepping stones to the writing of the Elective Affinities was Goethe's 1808 unfinished draft The Renouncers, in which the hero is simultaneously in love with four women, and the "moral" implications and repercussions of this situation. |
“Each in her own way is lovable; whichever one he is drawn to in the mood of the moment, she alone is lovable.”
“No one can fail to recognize in it a deep passionate would which shrinks from being closed by healing, a heart which dreads to be cured … In it, as in a burial urn, I have deposited with deep emotion many a sad experience. The 3rd of October 1809 (when the publication was completed) set me free from the work: but the feelings it embodies can never quite depart from me.”
|Famous "chapter four" discussion of the affinity reactions occurring between the characters, from the 1996 French-Italian film adaptation.|
See main: Goethe’s human chemistry; Goethe's human affinity table; Human chemical reaction (history)The central plot of the book is centered on a double elective affinity, through which the four main characters Eduard, Charlotte, Captain, and Ottilie go through as the novella proceeds:
AB + CD → AC + BD
Charlotte-Eduard + Captain-Ottilie → Charlotte-Captain + Eduard-Ottilie
A = Charlotte
B = Eduard
C = Captain
D = Ottilie
|R.J. Hollingdale translation, Penguin Classics editions, 1971 (left) and 2005 (right); the latter with chronology and further reading by David Deissner, with the cover detail from Family Portrait (1813) by Merry Josph Blondell, in the Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany (photo AKG Images).|
“It seems as if the author’s continued natural studies have caused him to use this unusual title. He may have noticed that in the natural sciences one often uses ethical parables in order to bring closer what is quite distant from the circle of human knowledge; and so he also probably wanted, in a moral case, to bring a chemical figure of speech back to its spiritual origins, especially since there is only one nature overall, and also since throughout the realm of cheerful freedom of reason the traces of sad, passionate necessity irresistibly pull themselves and may only be erased by a higher hand, and perhaps even then not in this life.”
“It seems that his continued work in physics made the author choose this strange title. He may have noticed that often in natural science ethical similes are used to bring something nearer that is remote from the region of human knowledge, and so, presumably, he may have wanted to trace the parlance of a chemical simile back to its spiritual origin, all the more so since there is after all just one nature.”
“This strange title was one suggested to him by his continued work in the field of physics, that it was a metaphor in chemistry whose spiritual origins is demonstrated in the novella.”
|Left: The principle characters in Goethe’s Elective Affinities (Eduard, Charlotte, Captain, and Ottilie) original drawing by Heinrich Dahling, engraved by Heinrich Schmidt for the 1811 German edition.  Right: 1996 French film adaptation of Elective Affinities.|
|Goethe's Elective Affinities can best be described as a mixture of (a) the Rosetta stone, in the sense that it is one of the most cryptic publications ever, as evidenced by Goethe’s open comment that hidden in it are layers upon layers of gestalt; two of the keys to its translation being Clausius' Mechanical Theory of Heat and Gibbs' On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances; and (b) Pandora’s box, being that Elective Affinities has been described, as summarized by Herman Grimm, as “Goethe’s most dangerous work”, and example of this “danger” as can be glimpsed in the recent post 9/11 heated Rossini debate.|
See main: Otto (cryptography); See also: AnagramIt has frequently been pointed out that the four main characters as well as the child that is born share the same root name "Otto".  Both Eduard and the Captain were called OTTO in youth; the two women CharlOTTE and OTTilie, have related names; and the misfortune child born out of the "mental" double adultery (or double elective affinity) of the four main characters (reactants) is called Otto.  Opinions differ as to why Goethe used this naming riddle, but the modern chemical view would argue that Goethe intended the reader to grasp the logic that each person is a different type of "human chemical" in essence.
See main: MittlerAmerican chemist Roald Hoffmann argues that the character Mittler, “the mediator”, whose central point was to never enter any house where there was not a dispute to settle or difficulties to put right, was the role model for a catalyst or human catalyst.  In Goethe’s mind, however, Mittler more likely was modeled on the theory of “mediating affinity”, a species or substance the brings about an action in or between two other chemical species. 
“The German poet, Goethe, in his novel "Elective Affinities", describes a situation by which those who were once attracted toward one another, ("an affinity"), are torn apart by a change in circumstance; hence they "elect to be together" and "then elect to be apart". For Goethe, the theory is that we bind ourselves according to that which we are most passionate about, the more we yearn or love something or someone, the tighter we bind. To bind ourselves requires a degree of maturity and commitment. When faced with a decision to make, we choose on the basis of what would do our conscience best. Rather than vacillate in a grey world, we have the courage to elect an affinity; and each of us is required to elect an affinity of varying degrees of gravity throughout our lives. As mature adults we are required to commit.”
“These remarks were written as early as 1809. I should then have been much cheered to hear so kind a word about the Wahlverwandtschaften; for at that time, and afterwards, not many pleasant remarks were vouchsafed be about that novel.”
|Left: René Magritte's 1993 Elective Affinities (top); 1999 model re-construction (bottom). Right: 1996 French-Italian film adaptation|
● The 1933 oil-on-canvas painting (Elective Affinities) by Belgian surrealist artist by René Magritte's themed on Goethe's Elective Affinities.
● The 1950s novel Pornographia (and 2003 film adaptation) by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz is said to be an attempted modern-day remake of Elective Affinities, utilizing chemical combination models as well as newer ideas such as Michael Faraday's 1830s lines of force models to explain lines of desire or passion.
● The 1962 film Jules et Jim by director Francois Truffaut was filmed while reading Elective Affinities.
● Die Wahlverwandtschaften , 1974, DDR , Regie Siegfried Kühn , ua mit Hilmar Thate als Eduard, Beata Tyszkiewicz als Charlotte, Magda Vasary als Ottilie, Gerry Wolff als Hauptmann.
● Die Wahlverwandtschaften. Frankreich, BR Deutschland 1981/1982, TV-Spielfilm, 118 Min., Regie: Claude Chabrol , Erstsendung: ARD , 4. April 1982, ua mit Helmut Griem als Eduard Otto, Stéphane Audran als Charlotte, Michael Degen als Hauptmann Otto, Pascale Reynaud als Ottilie.
● John Banville’s 1982 novel The Newton Letter, adopts aspects of Goethe’s novella; the inhabitants of ‘Fern House’, of Banville’s book, e.g., are Edward, the often drunk master of the house; Charlotte, his wife, a tall, middle-aged woman with an abstracted air and a penchant for gardening; Ottilie, the big, blonde, twenty-four year old niece of Charlotte; and Michael, the adopted son of Edward and Charlotte.
● The 1993 play Arcadia by British playwright Tom Stoppard is a modern re-write of Elective Affinities, juxtaposed between the years 1809 and 1989.
● The 1996 film Le affinità elettive by Paolo Taviani is the French-Italian version of the book (with English subtitles).
“Pynchon’s novel points outside itself: the act of reading, to use thermodynamic terminology, can either be adiabatic or irreversible, either locking in the unchanging garden of fiction, or open to the shifting and uncertain world of choice, emotion, and community. The achievement of The Crying of Lot 49 is its ability to speak unwanted words without a hint of preaching or propaganda. The book’s transformation of the impersonal language of science into a language of great emotional power is a breathtaking accomplishment, whose nearest rival is perhaps Goethe’s Elective Affinities.”
See main: Elective Affinities (translations)The 1872 D.W. Niles English translation (translator anonymous) has an introduction by American woman's rights activist Victoria Woodhull.
|Left: Commemorative video on the 200th anniversary (October 2009) of the publication of Goethe's Elective Affinities. Right: 200th Elective Affinities Anniversary T-shirt, designed by Libb Thims, displaying the modern formulaic understanding of affinity A, as a function of entropy S, temperature T, and enthalpy H. |