Bettina von Arnim Accuses Me of Unfaithfulness – Charles Haddox

Bettina von Arnim as drawn by Ludwig Emil Grimm during the first decade of the 19th century
Bettina von Arnim, drawn by Ludwig Emil Grimm. Image from Wikipedia

I dreamt one night about a bright-eyed young woman with dark hair who accused me of being unfaithful to her. Her accusations were apparently true, which troubled me deeply after I awoke. I had never been unfaithful to anyone but had myself suffered the pain of betrayal once or twice when I was young. I couldn’t connect the dream to anything that was currently going on in my life, which troubled me even further. Ordinarily, I would only have vivid dreams when I was in the midst of some crisis or dilemma. All I could manage to attach to the dream was the book that I had been reading before falling asleep, Bettina von Arnim’s Die Günderode.  

The woman in my dream was clearly Bettina, but I had no idea how or why I had been unfaithful to her. Perhaps in my dream I had become one of the men who had betrayed the poet Karoline von Günderrode, with Bettina playing the part of Karoline. I had, after all, never seen a picture of Karoline von Günderrode, but Bettina’s visage, captured by several artists including Ludwig Emil Grimm, was one of the most unforgettable in history. The well-known painting of her that was the inspiration for her portrait on the 5 Deutsche Mark bill remains fixed in my mind as Bettina idealized: the ethereal, magical character (or caricature) standing at the crossroads of her life and writing. That crossroads, the mixture of life and art found in Die Günderode, and most especially in Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child), is still, 160 years after her death, a source of intense controversy. But it is certainly not the only controversy that Bettina von Arnim (1785-1859) left behind.

I remember overhearing someone mention to my father, who had written a book on the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos, that an article had appeared on Vasconcelos which was causing some debate. The speaker went on to say he was not surprised by this, because “Don José was controversy embodied.” One could certainly say the same about Bettina von Arnim, not only in her own time but in ours as well. It seems to me somehow delightful that she can, after all these years, still create a riot of argument among her fans and detractors at the very mention of her name. And, in her case, this is quite literally true, as there are those who prefer Bettina, the nickname by which she is best known (her birth name was Elisabeth Catharina Ludovica Magdalena Brentano), and those who prefer Bettine, the name that appears in her writing. Some will say that Bettina should be used to refer to the person Bettina von Arnim, and Bettine reserved for the fictional version of herself that she created for her books. But that simply opens the door to the much more heated controversy over Günderode and Correspondence with a Child themselves. Were the letters and other fragments they contain deliberately fictionalized? (The “epistolary novel” school.)  Or were they an attempt to accurately portray the actual correspondence that took place between Karoline von Günderrode and Bettina; and between Goethe, and his mother, and Bettina? (There are scholars who argue that what survives of the actual correspondence is truthfully reflected in the books.) Or is the content of those books (and other correspondence between her and the “famous” that she published) simply a series of fabrications meant to create self-celebrity? (The “Bettina as nineteenth-century super-groupie wannabe” school.) This last theory was popular in her own time, and is still popular today, as evidenced by the way she is depicted in Milan Kundera’s Nesmrtelnost (Immortality). The question of which or what combination of these theories comes closest to the truth is the debate that seems to draw the most heat from literary scholars. But Bettina the person was equal to Bettina the writer in creating controversy.

As a teenager and young woman, her erratic, fey, impulsive and irreverent behavior was deeply shocking to those around her, and at times must have seemed deliberately anti-social, especially considering the class to which she belonged. (Again, much of it is self-described in her – um – “epistolary novels,” so there is further controversy about whether she was really as non-conformist as she presents her “fictional” self to be.) But if in fact she was (like the Countess Gritta in the wonderful fairy tale that she co-authored with her daughter Gisela) a “wild little thing,” was it an attempt, as some have suggested, to imitate the fictional Mignon from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship); or was it an attempt to protest the role she was expected to play as a lady from a wealthy and important family in an oppressive patriarchal society (there is no question as to the strong feminist bent of her later writings); or was she simply a young woman with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which has also been suggested by a few scholars (but then, don’t they always say that about the bright, exceptional ones—even when they’ve been dead for over a hundred and fifty years)? Whatever the cause, her youthful behavior was, according to bent of the observer, then and now, either delightfully spontaneous and fun, or shockingly rude and improper. She would climb the furniture, draw on walls, play with bugs and water hemlock, jump fully-clothed into ponds and fountains, give short shrift to men and women who bored her, and shamelessly flirt with those in whom she was interested (though the accuracy of the famous stories of her whispering her name in Beethoven’s ear, or of sitting on Goethe’s lap and falling asleep—well, he did say, “make yourself comfortable”—is itself the subject of controversy).

There was no doubt that she was a magnetic person throughout her life: friend of the great composers, thinkers and writers of her time; of social reformers who shared her then “revolutionary” ideas about the rights of women, children, the poor, minorities and prisoners, and her support for freedom of expression and belief; and of common workers who found in her a friend, a champion, a benefactor and an ally. As a young woman she was passionately in love with life, with everything beautiful and spiritual, and, like her friend Karoline, was terrified of being trapped by the limitations that were imposed on her because of her sex. She married a poet and played the role of wife and mother (to seven children) for many years, often urging her husband to use his creative gifts to the fullest even though she would not have the same opportunity to use hers. After his sudden death at age fifty, and with her children grown up, she would once again enter the world of art and society, write her “epistolary novels,” as well as provocative works of social commentary (including a censored study of the horrible misery and mistreatment of Silesian weavers that was apparently something like Danilo Dolci’s Inchiesta a Palermo), and continue to make friends with the brilliant, the powerful, the idealistic, and—especially—the controversial.

Bettina, let this little note stand as testimony of my fidelity to the memory of your greatness. Next time you visit me in my dreams, let us not quarrel about faithfulness or unfaithfulness, but about pleasant things, things like books or music or society, or by what name you really, truly, wanted to be called.

Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries.  He has worked in fair trade marketing, and as a grant writer and community organizer.  His work has appeared in a number of journals including Concho River Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Corium Magazine and The Summerset Review.

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