Goethe versus Benjamin: Elective Affinities and Marriage Equality

Marcus Bullock


Walter Benjamin’s long and intricate essay on Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften shows an intriguing arc in the history of its reception. When Benjamin was still a relative newcomer in the 1920s, his contemporaries must have found little reason to look beyond his wonderfully inventive philosophical rhetoric. In the 1960s, however, when Benjamin had settled into a moderately established place among the many commentators on this novel, an astute reader named H.G. Barnes took note for the first time of some fundamental errors in the essay’s argument and startling misstatements of the novel’s content. From 1981, as Benjamin’s reputation rose to new heights, Norbert Bolz’s collection Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften: Kritische Modelle und Diskursanalysen zum Mythos Literatur established complete absorption in the philosophical rhetoric. The flaws of reading and interpretation that should have been stunningly evident to this degree of scrutiny slipped from view once more. This essay traces the distortions of Goethe’s text to accommodate Benjamin’s radically tendentious view of marriage and sex occasioned by theological absolutism. Our contemporary perspective on Goethe’s novel has gained immensely from the secular view of marriage equality, which echoes the background of the novel in changes wrought by the newly established secular marriage and divorce laws in Goethe’s time. (MB)

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