Monday, August 10, 2009

Elective Affinities

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"In the novella Elective Affinities (1809) Goethe brilliantly exposed and critiqued the negative dialectics undergirding Novalis's Naturphilosophie. Stretching Robert Hooke's notion of the 'sociability' existing between the opposite poles of a magnet, Goethe created a scientific romance to meditate on the mysteries of why and how people are drawn toward one another. He also expanded Newton's theory of gravitational attraction to include chemical and electrical phenomena, correlating these with the lodestone-and-iron-filing patterns of human behavior. Inspired by the fact that mixing certain chemical compounds resulted in their astonishing exchange of 'partners,' Goethe developed an extended material metaphor to capture the emotional switches occurring among a quartet of lovers. The Captain, one of the story's four characters, thus explained how close and strong, remote and weak connections—just as in an experimentally induced precipitation—really became interesting 'only when they bring about separations.' The chemist, then, was primarily and 'artist in separating.' To which the horrified Charlotte vainly protested: 'Uniting is a greater and more deserving art.'"

- Barbara Maria Stafford, Visual Analogy, p19

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