Sunday, May 31, 2009

Relationships of Choice

Goethe once used Elective Affinities as the title of a novel (Die Wahlverwandschaften). The German literally means “relationships of choice,” but Goethe’s indirect reference was to an old way of describing why certain chemicals combined, and in English that phrase had been “elective affinities.”

I got to thinking about relationships in the context of culture, that maddening and fascinating, ubiquitous yet ephemeral phenomenon. And my thought ran thus: You have no choice in the culture where you’re born; and later, when choices do appear, they are greatly hemmed in by your total experience, so much so that leaving one culture for another is often a climactic experience—as exemplified especially by religious conversions. Goethe’s title came to me as I was walking along—inevitably because my mind produces associations in several languages. In Goethe my obedient brain found the two concepts I was thinking about, association and choice, neatly combined in into a single word.

This set me off on the sort of thing that can easily fill an hour’s ambling exercise. Language. The German tongue sticks to its roots—whereas English has been seduced by Rome—but indirectly by way of France: the Norman Invasion. Wahl and Verwandschaft are both good-old Germanic words; both elective and affinities have Latin roots. In Old English both relationship and affinity were expressed by the word gesibnes (in German, to this day, Sippe means blood-relationship and may come from the same root). But where does Verwandschaft come from? It comes from the root within it, Wand, or wall; those related occupy the same walled enclosure. For folks like me an Old English dictionary is a Godsend. The one I use is here. It tells me that the wall is used in the same way in Old English. The word was weall. Thucidides strongly suggests that walls and wealth helped produce each other—but weall has no link to weal, so far as I can discover, but the Old English for commonwealth was a Genæwela holding echoes of the current German word for community, Gemeinde. I wish I had a dictionary for Althochdeutsch as well…

Goethe’s aim in using the phrase was to ponder sexual and love relations in a context both chemical and transcending that level—and we talk of “chemistry” between two people, a phrase that, to the best of my knowledge, arose quite recently. Goethe’s contemporary, Swedenborg, saw this pattern in the heavenly reaches beyond. He said that souls up there gathered into communities by affinity—as did the damned in hell; both did so of inner choice. And we recognize the same thing in nature when we say that birds of a feather flock together. As above, so below. Swedenborg was 61 when Goethe was born (in 1749); Goethe was 23 when Swedenborg died (in 1772).

Marching along—it was gorgeous day today, cool, sunny, a light wind—I was thinking: Culture is another instance of being “walled in together,” as it were, but the choice is left to our genes. But within a culture, later, when our choice expands, we select our association by elective affinities. And if Swedenborg really did converse with angels, we are likely to do a great deal more of that after we shuffle off this mortal coil. Did I just say coil? Well, let’s not go there beyond saying that it also comes from the French...


  1. Fun read. And, I see that you've made a change in terms of the way that posts on this site are laid out... You now have a Read more... option. Nice!

  2. That "read more" was a long and often fruitless quest. At long last I found what looks like a Roumanian site where a spirit like my own wrote Java code that I could actually read, understand, and trust. On installation, I was tickled pink because it worked so well and cleanly...

  3. Ah, those Romanian programmers are good ones. Good thoughts for our own friend, Radu! And, I like the new format a lot. Well done.