»If we think about how many people we have seen and known, and admit how little we have given them, how little they have been to us, how do we feel! We meet spirited people without talking to them, scholars without learning from them, well-travelled people without listening to them, loving people without bestowing any pleasantness.
And unfortunately, this doesn’t just happen to the occasional passer-by. Communities and families behave like that against their dearest members, cities against their most worthy citizens, nations against their most excellent people.«
This quote stems from the novel “Elective Affinities” ¹ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from 1809. Indeed, as the remarkable title almost suggests, this is a virtually visionary book that tried to deal at the dawn of the 19th century with the sensitive matter of loving attraction regarding more than one person. The story addresses mutual desire, relationship compatibility, romantic motifs and speculates about the principles of affection. Alas, even grand doyen Goethe did not dare to conclude the novel at that time with a happy ending for everyone involved – instead he depicted chaos and suffering – and remained in doing so a child of his time.
However, I still appreciate Goethe’s courageous attempt because he deliberately designed the dynamics of a quadrangular relationship in order to philosophise with his work about the extent to which his main characters acted due to nomological necessity or based their decisions on free will.
The latter, in particular, is still one of the really big questions in relationship matters. Accordingly, up to present day there is still a lot of reasoning and writing on the topic, whether it be the philosopher Robert C. Solomon in “The Philosophy of (erotic) Love” and the biologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha in “Sex at Dawn”, or even the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in “Fidelity: How to create a Loving Relationship that lasts” as well as the psychotherapist Esther Perel in “Mating in Captivity”.
That is why I have the advantage over Goethe today that I can access a whole menu of different perspectives on the subject of “relationship skills” – furthermore I also know a handful of brave people who prove that ethical non-monogamy may not be simple every day, but that it is surely in no way an inevitable drama of “chaos and suffering”.
Sometimes, however, the “environmental conditions” for multiple relationships seem to have changed little since Goethe’s time. Large sections of the population still seem to have a hard time accepting any social and cultural dimensions beyond hetero-monogamous normativity. According to some interpretations, the four protagonists of the “Elective Affinities” were bound to fail in a novel of the 19th century “because the social acceptance wasn’t established” – and indeed it is a good question if the 21st century is much more advanced in that particular matter.
In fact, I believe that many people who are potentially interested in ethical non-monogamy would still agree to this assessment today.
And of course: it is always difficult to belong to an avant-garde of “dissenters”. Because this does not only mean choosing a different philosophy or way of life than the “mainstream” displays. Above all, it means to convince yourself of this different philosophy and way of life every other day, even though you are most likely in an environment that is predominantly based on other standards.
In other words: you need a pretty strong personality.
I believe that Goethe, who worked on the conception for nearly two years, recognised this rather clearly regarding his novel: Environmental conditions are an important factor – but there is also the factor of individual “resilience” – the degree to which a person, despite adverse circumstances, is able to remain true to its personal wishes and ideals.
And of course these two factors are interrelated. Goethe e.g., outlined four main characters, who all collapsed under external pressure for different reasons – and because at some point the various protagonists were overcome by their inner feelings of fear, despondency, insecurity, jealousy, or pride. At the same time, the whole story unfolds against the backdrop of highly authoritarian traditions and a petty bourgeois society which were precisely designed to keep their members dependent, immature and limited in their perspective.
What I perceive as “revolutionary” concerning Goethe’s story is that while formulating sentences like the one that introduces my Entry today, he pointed out quite clearly how strongly he was aware of a lack of encouragement regarding “personal development” during his time.
Concerning that insight, Goethe is still suprisingly topical.
Because in my opinion models of ethical non-monogamy, like Poly– or Oligoamory, will only have a lasting chance of success if we manage to preserve our individuality, our “diversity”, both socially as well as individually – and to understand this fact as a bridge towards community building.
The educational scientist Rainhard Kahl once formulated this apparent contradiction very impressively by calling us to dauntless action in this regard while inviting us “to be someone” ²:
»This is neither self-evident nor banal, because it means a risk to be someone, and not just to play a role or to behave.
Because “every person stands in a place in the world where no other has ever stood before” ³.
It is only from this diversity and peculiarity of everyone, which cannot be reduced any further – from this plurality – that the possibility of understanding arises. If we were all would be – or should be – identical, understanding would be neither necessary nor conceivable.
The price of plurality, however, is first of all an original strangeness:
“The risk of appearing as someone in a co-existence can only be taken by those who are willing to move among one’s equals, who are willing to reveal who they are and who are willing to renounce their original strangeness, a strangeness we all bear, having been born as a newcomer to this world.” ³
Renounce your original strangeness! A thought in need of getting used to. Maybe this original strangeness could be overcome by building a common world.
However, a misanthrope is a person who does not want to renounce this strangeness. Because:
“Any humanity that realises itself in talks of friendship, the ancient Greeks called ‘Philantropeia’, a love for other human beings that shows that you are ready to share the world with them. Its opposite, misanthropy or the hatred of human beings means that the misanthrope finds no one with whom he wants to share the world, that he does not consider anyone worthy enough to enjoy the world and nature and the cosmos with him.“[…]
“A whole world lies between people, and especially this ‘in-between’ – much more than, as is often thought, the people themselves or even humanity – is the main concern today. Every ‘truth’, whether it brings salvation or mischief to people, is inhuman in the literal sense, because it could result in all people suddenly agreeing on only one opinion, and by that a manifold world, which can only ever be formed between people in their diversity, would disappear from the earth. ”³
By the way – all the quotes that Rainhard Kahl is using on his part stem from the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had been witness during the trial against SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, who had largely planned and implemented the “Final Solution (to the Jewish Question)”. Arendt had to face and to comprehend how a “compliant citizen” had turned into an unscrupulous executor of inhumane orders. Henceforth, this philosopher devoted much of her life’s work to the question what kind of conditions had to interact so that some people could split off part of their humanity – whereas others managed to remain compassionate and empathetic.
In her subsequent work she identified that refraining from “being (or staying) someone”, and becoming an adapted mass being and trend follower instead, contributed most to seductiveness and self-forgetfulness. And that such an adjustment ultimately led to an overall social climate of submissiveness and fear, which ultimately facilitated exclusion and excesses of violence all the more.
This is exactly where I, Oligotropos, see the connection to the present: In particular we – who try to live non-conforming, even queer ideas right up and down into our private relationships – are asked to practice “being someone” over and over again. Especially in a society that gives us today far greater freedom than the 19th century ever could – but a freedom that can still be put in perspective by right-wing extremes or digital mass hypes, so we have to remain vigilant.
For our loved ones, for our children, for ourselves, it is therefore important to cherish our profile, with its peculiarities and potentials – precisely to contribute to the integrative “colourful buffet”, which I describe in Entry 33 – which will be our best insurance against blind allegiance and oblivious crowd-following.
I leave the final word to Rainhard Kahl again:
»Hannah Arendt combines the desire to expose oneself with the willingness to be encountered by the unknown. Therefore, vulnerability is a prerequisite for gaining experience and being able to develop. In this way, vulnerability is a function of strength. A strength that grows with the abstinence of armour.
In a 1964 television interview she said:
“When we are starting something, we put our thread into a network of relationships; we never know what will become of it. This applies to all our actions, specifically because you simply cannot know it. It’s a venture. And now I would say that this venture is only possible while putting trust in other people, that is, in some kind of elusive, basic trust in the human nature of all people. It wouldn’t be possible any other way.”«
¹ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Elective Affinities”: Part 2, Chapter 1
² Reinhard Kahl, “In search of adults who have grown up”; essay in “Children are looking for Orientation”, 2002, Walther / Patmos-Verlag
³ Hannah Arendt, excerpts from her speech at the 1959 Lessing Award.
Thanks to Kurt Kleeb on Unsplash for the photo.