Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Water, the unsteady element

Georg Melchior Kraus, Weimar Römisches Haus, 1799
A building in the Park an der Ilm, based on an idea by Goethe

Goethe's novel Elective Affinities (1809) is about attraction and marriage, duty and freedom, centring on an analogy with the way certain chemicals combine with others.  It is also about landscape design - something barely mentioned in Walter Benjamin's much-admired essay on the book, but clearly influential on Tom Stoppard, whose play Arcadia, a re-writing of Elective Affinities, foregrounds this theme.  Goethe's story begins with a rich married couple, Eduard and Charlotte, gardening for pleasure on their large estate.  The first of the two characters whose arrival disrupts their marriage, Eduard's old friend The Captain, is given the job of surveying this land and making improvements.  He undoes some of Charlotte's work, suggesting changes to a rocky path she made that would create instead a sweeping curve.  Their constant companionship eventually turns to love and meanwhile Eduard is himself falling for Ottilie, the young girl - his daughter's contemporary - who comes to stay with them.  He has a new house has built in an ideal spot with a fine prospect over the landscape, and it seems as if he has built it for her.

In the introduction to his translation, David Constantine describes the characters' focus on gardening.  'Though the style aimed at is English and so, by comparison with the French, informal, this is only the studied informality achieved also in the village when the villagers, spruced up for Sundays, gather before their cottages in 'natural' family groups.  The principal impulse in the garden is still to control, arrange and tame.'  The novel, particularly in its later stages, is haunted by death.  And 'although in real life there may be nothing particularly wrong (at least nothing deserving of death) in landscape gardening,' this and other examples of controlling behaviour suggest a society set against change or any way for the characters to escape their roles.  The most ambitious landscaping project involves the merging of three ponds and in a celebration to mark this event, a boy is nearly drowned.  At the end of the book, Ottilie accidentally drowns Charlotte's baby in these same waters.
'Ironically, by merging the ponds they were returning them to their former and in that sense more natural state; for they were once, as the captain has found out, a mountain lake.  Nature, especially water, 'the unsteady element', constitutes a threat throughout the novel; or we might say, it is present as an alternative to the rigidity of the estate.  That alternative, the way of greater naturalness, appears as a threat, and in the end as a deadly threat, to people afraid to embrace it.'

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