Goethe and the East

To break out of all literary confines and rigid modes of thought, poet, novelist, dramatist and philosopher Goethe threw himself open to other cultures, says B. N. Goswamy

Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words

— Goethe (1749-1832)

I had read — a long time ago — about the manner in which Goethe, who was among the tallest figures that Germany has ever produced, was so moved by Kalidasa’s great play, the Abhijnanashakuntalam — Shakuntala, in short — that he felt the urge to write his thoughts on its heroine, ‘she of the purest moral endeavour’, in verse. I chanced upon the exact words the other day. This is how the passage begins, in German: Willst du die Blüthe des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres, and this is how it was translated into old-fashioned English by Eastwick: Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline/ And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed? /Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine? /I name thee, O Shakuntala, and all at once is said. These are noble words, spoken with conviction, uttered in felicity. Goethe was charmed; but he went even beyond this when he borrowed one of Sanskrit drama’s familiar devices — begin a play with a prologue in which a sutradhara engages another person in a dialogue — and introduced it into his own most celebrated work. Faust: the director, the poet and an actor discuss what to play for an audience of ‘sophisticated spectators".

Portrait of Goethe in black and white. 19th century
Portrait of Goethe in black and white. 19th century

All this is delightful, but comes as no great surprise, for Goethe, who shone like a sun in the literary and artistic sky of Europe of his own times, was one of the most open of all men, eager to receive and impatient to share. India’s was not the only culture that fascinated him outside of Europe. This extraordinary man — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: poet, dramatist, novelist, theologist, philosopher, scientist — wanted to break out of all literary confines, and all rigid modes of thought. Narrow-minded, chauvinistic tendencies, especially those that were sweeping through Germany in the early part of the 19th century, tired him.

"We old Europeans, by the way", he wrote, "are not at all well; our conditions are much too artificial and complicated, our food and way of living lack appropriate nature and our social dealings are lacking in proper love and good will." For him, Europe was fast evolving into a ‘velociferous’ world, meaning a world dominated by false notions of progress and future-oriented demons. This word was of his own coinage, in which he brought together velocitas (Latin for velocity and haste) and Lucifer, meaning Satan. The intent was obvious: a restless society, driven only by the need for change and speed, was heading towards doom. The need was to slow down, and look towards other ways of thinking and living.

It is this, in considerable part, which led him towards the East. That "proper love and good will" the lack of which in Europe he lamented, that wisdom which he was looking for, might be there. Goethe read, and absorbed, a lot. It is with remarkable enthusiasm that he turned to Hafiz of Shiraz — that iconic figure of the 14th century, one of the greatest of Persian poets — and grew to love him. In fact, in emulation of the Divan of Hafiz, he named one of his own works — "a sublime masterpiece of poetry", as someone described it — as the "West-Ostlicher Divan", in other words West-East Divan, the last word, of course, meaning a Collection of Poems, as in Persian. The work, published in 1819, had a mixed reception. But, for Goethe, Hafiz was ‘divine madness’, a poet without peer. This, because, in his words, he "has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly". Addressing Hafiz at one place he wrote: "In you, the true source of joy and poetry shows; from you, unnumbered wave on wave outflows. In the word we see the Bride; Bridegroom is the spirit."

Given his inclinations, and his openness, it is not surprising that Goethe became an advocate of what is called "World Literature", its prime mover. "It is to be hoped", he wrote in his Journal, "that people will soon be convinced that there is no such thing as patriotic art or patriotic science. Both belong, like all good things, to the whole world, and can be fostered only by untrammelled intercourse among all contemporaries, continually bearing in mind what we have inherited from the past". Again: "I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men." He was aware that there will be many — and he was in constant correspondence with men of learning everywhere in Europe — who would be intolerant of other cultures. That is why he wrote in his famous novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: "In daily life, almost nobody is tolerant! Although one may allow others to live according to their nature and character, one is nevertheless inclined to exclude all those from all activities who have a different point of view from oneself."

As for himself, Goethe was a shining exception to this rule. How else would a man like him, inheritor of the great literature and thought of his own country, and of Europe, turn towards the East? His throwing himself open to other cultures was an act of faith, and, in a manner of speaking, of defiance. For this he is justly to be celebrated. As has been done by the erection of that simple but moving memorial at Weimar in Germany: the Hafiz-Goethe Monument. Two rough-hewn, high-backed chairs carved out of stone, facing each other across a small space, stand out in the open: as if two extraordinary men, separated by five centuries, each a princely figure in his own right, were in ceaseless dialogue.