Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

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At the time when Goethe undertook his journey westwards, he had just discovered, thanks to the translation of the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, the full amplitude of the “Diwān” of the Persian poet Mohamed Schemseddin, known as “Hafez” (or “he knows the Quran by heart”).

When speaking of Goethe’s Orient (1749-1832), we immediately think of the great late cycle West-östlicher Divan (1819-1827) which introduced to the German public Hafez, and the great Persian medieval poets, and whose title, as well as its dimension as dialogue, have also inspired Daniel Barenboïm and his Israeli-Palestinian West Eastern Divan Orchestra. Such a dialogue was the fruit at once of a long-lasting interest and a favourable turn of events. The fall of Napoleon I in April 1814 signalled the end of what the Germans called the wars of “liberation”. This meant that Goethe could now return to the Rhineland, and his native town of Frankfort, and thus, in a sense, leave Weimar without having to take the Eastern route. However, at the very moment when Goethe set off towards the West, he had just discovered, thanks to the translation of the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, the full amplitude of the Diwān of the Persian poet Mohamed Schemseddin, known as “Hafez” (or “he knows the Quran by heart”). The reading of this collection was a shock of such an intensity for Goethe that, feeling that his own inspiration was now threatened, his reaction came in the form of creative appropriation: he started to compose what was to become the “West-östlicher Divan”. His actual journey to the West, and his origins, took place under the sign of a spiritual journey towards the East, towards the Other, through a resolutely “Orientalised” form of writing.

Goethe, who came from a Protestant family, became familiar at an early age with the Near East of the Bible. He practised Bibelkritik, the philological and historical reading of scripture, which aims at distinguishing between elements coming from a historical context, and what is genuinely divine revelation. Nor was the Arab-Muslim world unknown to him: as a young man, his admiration for the Quran made him consider studying Arabic, and he wrote a poem and the fragment of a play devoted to Mahomet. He even tried his hand at copying out surah from the Quran, an activity which he took up again in late 1813. Goethe also appreciated the moallakats, or pre-Islamic epic poems. As for Persian poetry, which lies at the heart of the Divan project, he knew it essentially from a few poems by Hafez and texts by Saadi, the first Iranian poet who had been introduced into Germany as early as the 17th century.

But it was a complete reading of Hafez’s Diwān that really triggered a more systematic exploration of oriental culture. The presentation of sources and the homage paid to the great European Orientalists which can be found in the Divan (beginning with Silvestre de Sacy) display Goethe’s desire to gain an in-depth knowledge of the three great oriental cultural domains: Turkish, Arabic and Persian. However, their inclusion in the vast project of a West-östlicher Divan was also linked to a more biographical episode.

During his journey in the Rhineland in summer 1814, Goethe made the acquaintance of Marianne Jung, the adopted daughter of his friend Willemer, who was about to marry her protector. Within a few weeks of intermittent meetings, an affection mixed with tenderness and love grew up between this thirty-year old woman, and the poet who was then sixty-five. But this relationship was soon to become sublimated under the sign of Oriental literature (Goethe had given Marianne Willemer a copy of the translation of Hafez’s Diwān which allowed them to keep up a coded correspondence based on allusions).

So it was that an absorption in the Persian and Arab-Muslim poetry written between the 11th and 16th century, and the sublimation of an impossible love, gave rise to one of Goethe’s major works: a cycle of twelve books, a Book of Books, in which erudite references to Oriental characters, forms and motifs acted as a mirror to the Western poetic and religious tradition, as well as to the poet’s own revival and rejuvenation.

Presented as the love song of Hatem-Goethe for Souleïka-Marianne, the Divan is borne up by a twofold discourse: it is at once a dialogue with the Orient and a book of instruction aimed at the German public. This comes over clearly in the injunction in the “Notes and dissertations for a better understanding of the Divan”. Given that the first edition of the lyrical section of the Divan had come in for a lukewarm reception, due to a lack of knowledge of the Persian and Arabic culture in Germany, Goethe decided to add some explanatory notes, specifying the historical and cultural context of Persian poetry, presenting his sources and offering interpretative models. Based on the conviction – which has now been outdated in a world of postcolonial globalisation – that “the Orient will not come to us”, Goethe advocated an “Orientalisation” of German readers, and an assimilation of Eastern cultures, while they would remain fully aware of their own Western identities. In this respect, Goethe’s Divan is not a simple imitation of Hafez and Persian poetry, nor a plain exotic paraphrase. It is an original production which may regularly borrow images or motifs from various Persian, Turkish or Arabic poets, but, as opposed to such poets as August von Platen or Friedrich Rückert, who were later to exploit this pathway that had been opened up, Goethe’s aim was not to make a historicising pastiche, or even to imitate the ghazal, the great poetic form of the Arabic-Persian tradition.

As a reflexion concerning the comparison of cultures and the transmission of traditions, (following Herder, Goethe displayed a form of relativism, and refuted comparisons which, for example, made of Firdousi an Oriental Homer, or Hafez the equal of Horace), the Divan is the first major literary work in German that participated in the “Orientalist” construction. Just like Herder, Goethe envisaged the knowledge of people through History, Literature, Mythology and Religion, in other words thanks to the exploitation of cultural documents. In this respect, he laid himself open to the reproaches of Edward Said, in his essay on Orientalism, which were aimed at German poets and authors:  the presentation of a uniquely bookish Orient, which had nothing to do with the reality of Egypt or Syria, as can be found in Chateaubriand, Burton or Nerval. However, during the course of his imaginary journey, Goethe honestly set about penetrating the particularities of the literatures and cultures in question, to understand their rationales and evolutions, and thus make them loved by the German public. This makes for a form of diastole in the respiration of the classic works of Goethe who, before 1815, and despite his admiration for the Quran, had not shared Romanticism’s interest in the Orient. In this respect, the Divan stands as an undeniable opening in Goethe’s aesthetic towards anti-classical paradigms, even if he made no attempt to hide his aversion for Indian art, and its countless polymorphous divinities.

Can it be said that, in 1814-1827, Isfahan and Shiraz dethroned Athens and Rome in Goethe’s mind? No; for, even if at the end of his life he did elaborate the famous concept of “world literature” (Weltliteratur), he nevertheless did not give up on the Greek model: “Stay in Greek lands, nowhere else does one feel better; this nation has succeeded in extracting a phial of rose essence from a thousand roses”. (Letter to Riemer, 25th May 1816) Once he had finished drafting the Divan, Goethe distanced himself from it, as he said to Eckermann in 1827, like a snake that abandons its skin beside the road. The Divan remains unique thanks to the amplitude of its dialogue with the multiple, contradictory facets of Eastern culture.  In 1827, Goethe composed a short poetic cycle entitled Chinese-German Book of Seasons and Hours: while also being based to a degree on the polarities already dealt with in the Divan, this collection is no rival of the Persian project, not just because Goethe could not at the time draw on a highly developed sinology, but also because a dialogue of such amplitude is probably possible just once in a lifetime.


Image caption : Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Lithograophie de S. Bendixen ; d'après un dessin de C. Vogel. 1826

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