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The Eye and the Gaze

Goethe and the Autobiographical Subject

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Evelyn K. Moore

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a dominant figure in European literature and intellectual life, was the creator of a new and influential visual culture. This volume investigates a new science of perception through an exploration of his autobiographical works, novels and writings on optics. The psychoanalytic approach taken in this study focuses on central acts of perception and the role of vision in Goethe as key to the formation of identity. By addressing the impact of visuality on the act of writing, new interpretations of his most important works emerge through analysis of subject formation in the autobiographies, The Italian Journey and Poetry and Truth. Further, the relationship between the self and the gaze plays a central role in the semi-autobiographical works, The Elective Affinities, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as well as Color Theory. In exploring the question of identity and identification within a Lacanian framework, The Eye and the Gaze offers an innovative approach to biography, autobiography, and narrative.
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Chapter 6: Images of Desire: Tableaux Vivants in Goethe’s Elective Affinities

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Chapter 6 Images of Desire: Tableaux Vivants in Goethe’s Elective Affinities

In the scopic field, the gaze is outside, I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture. (Lacan FF: 106)

The Elective Affinities takes up the question which Goethe had posed in the tableau of Mary and Joseph in Wilhelm Meister: What is the meaning of the edifice, the outside and given-to be-seen for the viewing subject?118 Goethe had originally intended to include Elective Affinities as a paradigmatic story in Wilhelm Meister. The title was to be “The Naysayers” (Die Entsagenden).119 The process of denial, which becomes the central lesson for Wilhelm in his journey toward full humanity, is laid out in the Elective Affinities in wholly visual terms. In this context, the tableau vivant becomes an important organizing image for the narrative structure of the text. It is a metaphor for opposition, a frame which divides the outside ← 167 | 168 → from the inside but also one which puts into question the distinctions between them.

In the Elective Affinities, Goethe presents us with a novel in which the characters are experiments arranged for the edification of the viewer. Eduard and Charlotte, a married couple, bring Otto, a childhood friend of Eduard’s, and Ottilie, Charlotte’s young ward, into their household. The ensuing couplings are presented like the slides under a microscope, the addition of a new character altering the chemistry of the interactions between them. The...

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