Thursday, December 29, 2011

Relationships of Choice

In describing his views of heaven and hell, Swedenborg presents a world where people choose their own environments, but these are not, as it were, geographical. Souls select communities in which they feel at home. Therefore the condemned want to be in hell; the saved choose a heaven that suits them. Indeed we see souls, as it were, doing their real estate shopping by visiting these high communities. If they sense mutual agreement, they settle; if not they move on. There is, to be sure, also an intermediate region that reminded me of purgatory, a region where the initial sorting happens.

When I first encountered this view a German word presented itself spontaneously, die Wahlvervandschaften. The word literally means relationships of choice, but Goethe’s novel of that title is rendered as Elective Affinities, a novel I’d read, but only in part. A couple invite a man and a woman for a weekend, as it were, and wouldn’t you know it, the result is a kind of mixing of affinities. Goethe’s reference is to chemistry. In the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century chemists used “affinity” as the handy concept to explain why some elements attract each other while others won’t compound.

Reading that book, as soon as I discerned what would be coming down, I lost all interest. “Chemistry?” I muttered. “In that case there is no genuine choice. So why use that word?” A kind of determinism in elegant guise. Goethe’s novels are also incredibly longwinded, hence I’ve only ever sampled them. But I liked the title and the concept—but only if real choice is actually involved.

By contrast I’ve spent quite a lot of time—usually on walks—pondering Swedenborg’s projection. In that view the choice is real. We see such choice in this dimension too. Like clings to like, although what like means is often rather coarsely spun. Thus, for instance the wealthy live together, the artsy have their quarters. The poor endure their slums but, having endured them, feel more comfortable there. Freed of the weight of matter and its rude demands? In a realm where matter does not weigh us down, in a world where residence is not a matter principally of income and proximity to work—and the need for work seems also suspended and, per Swedenborg, is also a matter of choice—surely there people would then relate with those who genuinely please them. The Internet has created a new version of such odd, virtual spaces where we may cultivate Relationships of Choice. Blogs. Here they are, floating in the immaterial world of cyberspace. Each blog creates a kind of cultural environment readers are never compelled to visit. They do so at their choice.


  1. As you yourself reported more than once - at least as I recall it - German so often has the "mot juste" for complex notions that I think I shall choose it to be one of the four languages I am going to devote my studies to.

    (The only odd thing here is why "mot juste" ?... )

  2. Had to chuckle, Montag. Yes. But the truth is that I've never met a language I did not come to love after some acquaintance, hence I'm frequently regretful I haven't really mastered Latin, Greek, Italian, Spaninsh, Arabic, Japanese, Urdu, Ketchua, etc. The world of language? Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate...