Sunday, 19 March 2017
Forty-odd years ago now, I had to choose a "special" paper for my English degree, selected from the sort of long, and rather eccentric list of options you might expect to have accumulated, stalactitically, in one of the "ancient" universities. As it happened, one of the options was "Goethe". Not "Goethe's relation to Shakespeare", or "Goethe and German Romanticism in 19th century English literature"; just "Goethe". But, as I had studied Faust Part 1 as a set book at German A-Level – and had grown a little bored with my monolingual diet – it seemed a good choice. In fact, only one student made that choice that year, and the exam paper in finals had to be compiled and printed for a single candidate, me.
One of the works I studied was the novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, traditionally translated as Elective Affinities, which is a wonderfully grandiloquent, mysterious, yet baffling title. I can recall little of the actual plot or characters, now, but the title refers to an old chemical theory that particular substances are driven to combine with certain other substances, as if they were "naturally" electing (choosing) to do so. Goethe extends this idea to relations between men and women, and the way certain new attractions can turn out to be, um, stronger than other, previously-sanctioned bondings. Yep, Die Wahlverwandtschaften is Goethe's attempt at a high-minded bonkbuster, bolstered by a self-serving theory of adultery.
The book has also been translated with the clunky title Kindred By Choice, which is easier to understand, but rather misses the point. However, ever since coming across this I have had a fascination with the idea of an elective family. That is, that one might have a chosen family, in parallel to one's "blood" relatives, who – in most families, anyway – generally turn out to be a dull lot, with only a minimal involvement or, indeed, interest in the Sturm und Drang of one's actual life. Such elective bonds seem to form most strongly in adolescence and early adult life; these are the friends who – even if you haven't met for decades, or have since argued dramatically and terminally, and even if a few have died far too young – are the standard against which other relationships are measured. They don't need to know they have been chosen, and they need not be contemporaries, either. Certainly, I have had several older mentors – all dead now – whose help, guidance and example proved invaluable, and who still occupy a permanent and honoured place in my mind.
The point is, having made your choices, you are stuck with them; they're family. Some of these chosen cousins may be close, frequent companions, elective uncles and aunts to your children. Some may have continued down dangerous paths where you have decided not to follow, while others may have subsided into a complacent middle-age, where you are happy to leave them. A few may have been lost to the ravages of time, but somewhere (you hope) they are still out there, somehow, doing God-knows-what. At least one or two would rather forget all about you (you know this is true). But occasionally (you trust) all will be reminded of and find themselves thinking about you. Whether they think of you with pleasure, however, is not for you to determine. As I say, they're family, not friends.
With this idea of an elective family in mind, I thought it might be fun to construct for myself an elective family album, using some Victorian carte de visite album pages I found on Ebay. Happily, I've managed to hold on to photographs of most of the candidates for such an album, even if only photo-booth shots (actually, these scan rather well) or handed-on snaps for which I can take no credit (it's called "appropriation" in the trade, I believe).This will probably remain a private, rather than a public project, unless I find it has resonances which strike a sympathetic note with others.
To protect the innocent and avoiding naming the guilty, in these initial trial album pages I've associated each portrait with a song, rather than a name. I quite like this idea: it gives a nice extra dimension to the enterprise. You may not know these people, but through the medium of song I can convey something of how I see them, or how I saw them then, or perhaps how I think they saw themselves.
Of course, eventually, if you're lucky, elective relationships lead to a brand new set of "blood" relationships, and the whole cycle starts all over again. Or at least it should: there surely have to be better examples to follow and mentors to listen to out there for my own children to choose from other than me... Or naughty old Urururopa Goethe, come to that.