Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Blind spots

Volume 24 of the Goethe Yearbook  includes a special section on “The Poetics of Space in the Goethezeit.” The essay by Tove Holmes, “Blindspots as Projection Spaces in Die Wahlverwandtschaften,” also suggestively conjoins that novel with The Sorrows of Young Werther as well as Goethe’s Farbenlehre to discuss issues of vision, of seeing the world. The world includes the “real world” that exists outside of ourselves, as well as inner worlds that we imaginatively produce. The latter in particular can be a site of illusions and fancies, of “mis-visions,” of limited vision.
Mobile landscape viewing device
At the beginning of Elective Affinities, when Eduard visits the new summer house, Charlotte positions him in such a way that the prospect before him, viewed through windows and doors, appears “like a sequence of framed pictures.” The prospect, however, is not described. In the course of the novel, we glean that Eduard in any case only sees what he wants to see. Thus, the “blind spots” of Holmes’s title. As is well known to those familiar with the novel, reconfiguring the environs of the estate plays a large role in the activities of the four main characters. Again, however, Goethe does not describe what the characters actually see when they discuss their plans. As Holmes writes, “landscape viewing in the novel frequently turns the focus back to the subject, positioning her or him in relation to the scene.”

The English visitor at Charlotte and Eduard’s estate has created drawings during his travels using a camera obscura, a framing device used by artists to convey proper perspective. The drawings are never described. We learn only that Charlotte and Ottilie are much edified by “sights” of different parts of the world. Their perceptions are different. Charlotte is interested in historical details, while what Ottilie cares about is the regions in which Eduard had traveled.

The article is interesting for the conjunctions it introduces, for instance, Goethe’s transferring of his ideas on optics to the characters in Elective Affinities. If Werther withdraws into himself and finds a world, something similar goes on with Ottilie when the object of her affection — Eduard — is removed from view. Here is the passage from the novel:

Wenn sie sich Abend zur Ruhe gelegt … schien es ihr, als wenn sie in einen ganz hellen doch mild erleuchteten Raum hineinblickte. In diesem sah sie Eduarden ganz deutlich … jedesmal in einer anderen Stellung, sie aber vollkommen natürlich war und nichts Phantastisches an sich hatte: stehend gehend liegend, reitend. Die Gestalt bis aufs kleinste ausgemalt bewegte sich willing vor ihr, ohne daß sie das mindeste dazu tat, ohne daß sie wollte oder die Einbildungskraft anstrengte. Manchmal sah sie ihn auch umgeben, besonders von etwas Beweglichem, das dunkler war als der hellen Grund; aber sie unterschied kaum Schattenbilder, die ihr zuweilen als Menschen, als Pferde, als Bäume und Gebirge vorkommen konnten.

Viewing platform, Bonsecours, Belgium
In a review of 1824, Goethe takes what Holmes calls a “step away from outward stimuli as the cause of visual effects.” He refers there to the “activity of his eyes” as ‘productive,’ yielding a primary creation rather than a representation.” Thus, the last sentence in the above quote: "Sometime she saw him surrounded, especially by something in motion which was darker than the light background…"

In a similar vein, I just came across an article by Rosellen Brown in the recent issue of the journal New Letters. It is entitled “Offstage: Scenes You Will Not See, People You Will Never Meet.” Brown considers the practice of painters who hold up a hand in front of their drawings and paintings “to see what changed when they blotted out something.” This practice is a way of imposing “a kind of provisional silence.” She proceeds to discuss several literary works in which important things happen offstage. An example is the figure of Michael Furey whom the protagonist’s wife, Gretta, pines for in James Joyce’s story “The Dubliners.” We see Michael Furey, as Brown writes, “caught in time, standing beneath [Gretta’s] window, catching his death in cruel weather.” But the story is not actually about Michael, lying dead in a snowy graveyard, but about conflicts in the life of the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy. By moving the action offstage, the story acquires its poignancy.

Picture credit: Stephen Hugart; Serge Brison

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