Elective Affinities (confusion)

In hmolscience, Elective Affinities (confusion) refers to a semi-prevalent ignorance seen in literature, and in cultural mindset, in respect to the scientific position of Goethe 1809 chemical affinity based human chemical theory; which tends to accrue either by discussion of how Goethe failed to account for "split affinity theory", aka Berthollet’s affinity theory (1799), in his novella, or via a blanketed statement to the affect that Goethe used an "out dated" theory, or something along these lines; whereas correctly in 1882, via Helmholtz ("On the Thermodynamics of Chemical Processes") and the thermodynamic theory of affinity, the premise or model of the forces of affinity or the force of reaction, and affinity chemistry in general, were subsumed into the model of free energy, Gibbs energy in human chemical reactions, and chemical thermodynamics in generally, and that in the years following 1923, via Gilbert Lewis (Thermodynamics and the Free Energy of Chemical Substances), the word "affinity", according to Henry Leicester (1956), was replaced by the word "free energy" throughout the English speaking world; a cultural ignorance has fermented since.

In 2008, Stefani Engelstein, in her Anxious Anatomy: the Conception of the Human Form in Literary and Naturalist Discourse, devoted her chapter "Formative Drives", on Goethe's Elective Affinities, albeit done in such a way that she seems to give a classic example of a confused interpretation of Goethe's human chemical theory. Engelstein, not only says that the theory used by Goethe was an "outdated chemical concept", but goes on to attempt to marginalize and to discredit the human chemical theory used by Goethe, arguing that: the title is a "misleading allusion"; that the "characters do not mimic the behavior of the chemicals to which they are compared"; that Goethe's famous anonymous advertisement was him pointing out that he was "not trying to map human relations into chemical reactions or vice versa"; that Goethe, in his essay "Analysis and Synthesis", and his mention of the Danaids, was his admittance that his theory "cannot hold water", etc., etc., and uses the term "fail" repetitively, in regards to the chemical theory. [5]

The following are representative quotes:

Lavoisier's triumph was sufficiently complete to make the language of sympathy, antipathy, affinity and attraction seem utterly archaic by about the time that Goethe's famous novel, Elective Affinities, was published in 1809. In that tour de force, in the context of learning about chemical combination and decomposition, human relationships are formed and broken: the result is tragic, inviting us to reflect upon the differences and similarities of people and things. Chemistry and its associated industry have since evoked all sorts of reactions, in the past often sublime, but nowadays often negative. Where would we be without catalysis or chain-reaction? – but the constant transfer back and forth of serious metaphors between chemistry and human life has ceased for the last two centuries.”
David Knight (2003), “Sympathy, Attraction and Elective Affinity” [6]

Goethe's [Elective Affinities] did not add any scientific knowledge.”
Tominaga Keii (2004), Thermodynamics of Chemical Reactions [1]

“In the late 1700s, Goethe devised a theory of how colors work, to refute Isaac Newton's theory; except Goethe's relied as much on poetry as science, including his whimsical thesis that "colors are the deeds of light, deeds and sufferings." Not to huff like a positivist, but that statement has absolutely no meaning. He also laded his novel Elective Affinities with the spurious idea that marriages work like chemical reactions. That is, if you throw couple AB into contact with couple CD, they all might naturally commit chemical adultery and form new pairs: AB + CD → AD + BC. And this wasn't just implied or a metaphor. Characters actually discuss this algebraic rearrangement of their lives. Whatever the novel's other strengths especially its depiction of passion), Goethe would have been better off cutting out the science. Goethe would have been crushed after his death in 1832 to learn that its science and philosophy [See: Goethean philosophy] would soon disintegrate and that people now read his work strictly for its literary value.”
Sam Kean (2010), The Case of the Disappearing Spoon; an example of secular delusion par excellence [2]

“The best example of such idle doings I the conversation in which the chemicalelective affinities’ are mentioned for the first time: Charlotte plays the role of the sensible, down-to-earth wife; Eduard, the enfant terrible; the Hauptmann (Captain), the well-informed man-of-the world. The irony here is, of course, that the theory expounded on and discussed is already ten years out of date.”
— Roger Stephenson (2010), Studies in Weimar Classicism [4]

“In 19th century chemistry, the term ‘elective affinities’ was used to describe chemical compounds that only interacted with each other under determined circumstances. The writer Goethe employed this as a universal organizing [see: universal rule] agent running across human relationships and science. I was drawn to these ideas – which are now seen as degenerated methods in modern science – as relevant to language, and how we use it.”
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz (2011), interview commentary on his “Elective Affinities” painting [3]

1. Keii, Tominaga. (2004). Heterogeneous Kinetics: Theory of Ziegler-Natta-Kaminsky (ch. 2: Thermodynamics of Chemical Reactions, pgs. 11-20; section: Chemical Affinity in 1806, pgs. 16-17). Springer.
2. Kean, Sean. (2010). The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (txt) (Goethe, pgs. 239-54, 367). Little, Brown and Company.
3. Pryor, John-Paul. (2011). “Interview: Wolfe von Lenkiewicz on his ‘Elective Affinities’”, AnotherMag.com, Apr 26.
4. (a) Stephenson, Roger. (2010). Studies in Weimar Classicism: Writing as Symbolic Form (pgs. 255-56). Peter Lang.
(b) Note: Stephenson footnotes that with: Jeremy Adler, in my view, errs here by following the scholarly consensus in taking this conversation too seriously. See his illuminating: Goethe’s Elective Affinity and the Chemistry of its Time (Ein fast magische Anziehungskraft: Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften und die Chemie seiner Zeit) (Munich: Bech, 1987), pgs. 88, 121, 205, 215. See also John Winkelman, Goethe’s Elective Affinities: an Interpretation (New York: Peter Lang, 1987), pgs. 142, and Lesley Sharpe’s review of Winkelman, MLR, 86, 1991, 785-87.
5. Engelstein, Stefani. (2008). Anxious Anatomy: the Conception of the Human Form in Literary and Naturalist Discourse (§Goethe’s Monstrous Otto, pgs. 26-30; Metamorphology, pgs. 48-54; Elective Affinities or Chosen Correspondences, pgs. 55-60). SUNY Press.
6. Knight, David. (2003). “Sympathy, Attraction and Elective Affinity”, Bulletin de la société d'études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, 56(56): 21-30.

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