Goethe's Fantasies about the Orient

Walter Veit Monash Univer ity

Exotiscb, which entered the Cermar» language only in the eighteenth century,] wa used by Goethe as a way of referring to artificially introduced exogenous plants and animals, and he disregarded its etymological meaning of "extraordinarily strange and unknown." Thatmeaning, however, explains why "exotic" bad resonances similar to those of "Oriental." Heyse's Fremduiorterbuch [Dictio1la1Y of Fore.ign Words] (I8:'i9) shows that it was in the nineteenth century that the meanings of these words became colored by judgmental attitudes toward the Orient-at opposite extremes, either rejection afar enthusiasm for everything foreign.

Goethe's relationship to the Orient (here defined as including the Near East) was marked by a contradictory attitude. On the one hand, he was drawn to Oriental subjects during his whole career. Already among the famous hyrnnic poetry of his youth we find a poem entitled "Mahomets-Gesang' ["MobaJTIlLlcd's song"] (T774);2 some of the best poems of Goethe's later years are to be found in the collection entitled rVcJt-Ost/icher Diuan [Hft!st-Eartc1'1l Divan] (1815); and his Orientali In continued in two shorter lyrical seque.nce.s, the Indian trilogy Paria (1824), and the: Chi1Zej'isrh~deZl.tsche·'2 [abres- unt/. 1irgesz'.eiten [Chinese-Ge'·flltln Seasons and Times CifDayJ (IS}O). On the other hand, Goethe expressed a marked dislike for the Orient because he experienced it as a threat to his aesthetic sensibility. In any case, during the seven years between 1808 and I8rS, Goethe moved away from the firm norms of classical antiquity that he had

Eighl'mlth-C IItury Lift

Volume 21\, Number ,Fall 200, © ~QO~ hy The College of William & bry


Goethe's Fantasies about the Orient 106

himself helped to make popular in earlier years. Oriental fluidity is expressed, for instance, in the poem «Lied und Gebilde" ["Song and Formation"] from the Divan:

Mag clef Gricche seinen Thon Zu Gestalten drtlcken,

An der eignen Hande Sohn Steigem sein Entzilcken.

Aber uns ist wonnereich In den Euphrar greifen, Und im fI'ilssgen Element Hie trod wider schweifen.

Loscht ich so der Seele Brand Lied es wird erschallen;

chopft des Dichters reine Hand Wasser wird sich ballen,

May the Greek his clay Press into form ,

Through the son of his hands Increase his delight.

B\Jt for us it is to be rich in joy Grasping into the Euphrates, And in the liquid element Roaming to and fro.

Qpench 1 thus the fire of the soul, Song w:ill ring out;

Scooped by the poet's pure hand, Water balls into a fist. :3

Leaving other important aspects aside, it is possible tougue that Goethe's turn toward the Orient was a re ponse to the political, social, and intellectual turmoil in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In a letter to the Russian Count Uwarow (18 May 1818) conceming the genesis of the Divan> Goethe reminisces: "In terrible and unbearable times when 1 could not physically remove myself, r fled into those regions where my ideals and also my heart is. My only consolation was to sip at Chiser's well [Goethe's metaphor for poeti.c inspiration and spiritual fulfillment)."'! Indeed, the Napoleonic wars brought the Near East much closer to European intellectual and forced them to expand their view beyond the biblical Holy Land. Published reports, drawings, charts, and collections brought back by scholars and scientists attached to the army during the Egyptian campaign OfIJ98 that not only offered an enormous increase of factual knowledge about Egypt, but also reflected a new method of collecting it.' It represents one of the first, if not the first, large-scale research expeditions undertaken by any nation as a state enterprise, and ir matches in significance the three journeys into the Pacific by Captain Cook and his companions some thirty years earlier. Whereas the accounts of Bougainville's and Cook's voyages fuelled the fashion for the Pacific, the Egyptian venture gave rise to a type of exoticism with a specifically Oriental flavor.s

Goethe was himself attracted to this vogue for Orientalism. 10 the


Eight,te1lth-Cen.tury Life

Morgenblatt fiir gebi!dete Stiinde [Morm:ng HeraldIar Cu!tured.Audiences] (24 February 1816), therefore, he offers the foI1ow.ing comments concerning the opening poem of the Divan "Hegire": "The poet considers himself a traveler. He has already arrived in the Orient He delights in. the customs, habits, objects, religious beliefs, and opinions: indeed, he does not countermand the suspicion that he is a Muslim himself"? A number of excellent critical interpretations of the Divan explain that Goethe wished to overcome the national boundaries of his time and to lay the foundation for a We!lliteratur by immersing himself in mainly Persian literature.f However, the question remains why Goethe should have shown such a deep interest in the Orient, surrounding hirnselfwith specialists in practically every field of knowledge concerning Asia and the Near East. My inve tigation of the intellectual background of Goethe's poetry leads me to conclude that the Orient came to symbolize the cradle of civilization, where he hoped to discover the origins of language and poetry. Furthermore, Goethe's exoticism was used to critique the superficiality and hypocritical foundations of European culture.

Goethe's interest in medieval Persian writers such as Firdausi, Rurni, Saadi, and Hafis.? whose works had gradually disappeared from Western consciousness, was triggered by his idea that they embody the origin of poetry, or indeed the origin of European civilization. He did not devalue the classical heritage or disavow his earlier work, but by deliberately immersing himself in a different culture he hoped to answer one of the most pervasive questions of his life: how can the intrinsic need for one's own, personal fulfillment be reconciled with the need for self-fulfillment of others?


How much did Goethe know about the non-European world? Although the A.mericas appear frequently in his published letters, diaries, and conversations, there are gaps: in that interest between 1813 and 1820, when Goethe was preoccupied with the Orient, about which, it seems, he was much better informed. Travel literature formed a significant part of Goethe's library,l° and the list ef travel and related titles mentioned in his letters and diaries is even more extensive. He was also familiar with many

Goethe's Fantasies about the Orient /6'7

historical scholarly works on the Orient- from Turkey, Egypt, and Persia, to China and Japan-and from r808 he reread time and again Marco Polo's travels to China.

In his explanatory notes on the DivQ1.1, Goethe commented extensively on Polo, as well as on early travelers, imaginary or real, including John Mandeville, Pietro della Valle, Adam Olearius, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, and Jean Chevalier de Chardin. He also read Fernao Mendes Pinto's Pereg7"inaFaO On Arabia, India, Ceylon, China, and japan-r-presumably in the German translation of 1671 with its rich illustrations. He owned the German editions of the Dutchman Olferr Dapper's r681 compilation of accounts of travels in Turkey, Syria, Persia, India, and China. He probably also read Francois Bernier's factual AujJgezeicl.mete Beobaduungen, was sich 'im Reiche des Grosse?! Mogois begeben [Recorded Observatio11S in the Kingdom of the Great Mogul].ll Although the name does not appear in his letters or conversations, Goethe would also have been familiar with Carsten Niebuhr's Beschreibung von Arabien [Travels in Al"abia] as well as Pierre Sonnerat's Voyage dans Ies Indes orientales et a la Chine, which he mentioned in an important draft letter of February I8n to the Russian count S, S. Uwarow, He thanked the count for having instilled in him the love of the Vedas, the ancient Indian hymns.P Goethe's own library contained the translation of Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf Volney's Voyage en Egypte et en, Syrie. He was similarly informed about the Pacific through Georg Forster's German translation of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville's Voyage aut OW" du monde, Georg Forster and Johann Friedrich Schiller's translations of John Hawkesworth's compilations, and another translation of Hawkesworth by his friend Johann Heinrich Merck, but most directly through conversations with Forster himself and by reading Forster's own Reise uan die Ufelt mit Captain Cook [Voyage around the World with Captain Cook].13 Other sources of geographical and ethnographic information included Christoph Meiners's standard ethnographic work on the different human natures in Asia and the islands of the Pacific" Friedrich Ludwig Walther's on cannibalism and human sacrifices.l+ and reviews of publications on journeys of discovery and exploration in several periodicals, such as the EthllOgraphisthes Archiv, ANgemeine geoJP'aphische Ephemeridm, and Der Teutsche Medt#1·.

Goethe's interest in the geography, ethnography; botany, and mineralogy of the Orient did not diminish after the Divan. He closely followed

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the travels and explorations of AJ.exander von Humboldt, whose scientific work he considered to be the completion of his own; but whereas Humboldt explored the America" Goethe's attention remained on the East. Withkeen interest he read M_oritz von Kotzebue's journey through Asia, published in Weimar in 1818; the translation of john Davy's An Account of the Interior if Ceylon) and of its Inhabitants; and many other works about travel and exploration.P

There can be little doubt that the reports from Napoleon's expedition into Egypt prompted a flood of information that cha_nged the European perception of the Near East right down to matters of fashion; Egyptomania was one of the consequences. Sifting through numerous works, Goethe assembled the facts and images that would eventually find their way into the fabric of the poetry of the Dioan and other poems. At the same time, he gave full accounts of them in the "Notes;' adding penetrating theoretical consideration that made them one of the first serious ethnographic studies. In short, Goethe became a traveler again as he had been a traveler during the two years of his escape to Italy (1786-.88). That journey had resulted in one of the most important travel- aCCOL1nts in the German language, hisltcdieniJcheRl1i.~e [Ila/ian]inaney], which-as Sulpiz Boisseree reported after a conversation with Goethe 011..3 August 1815- he worked on while starting to write the Divan. They share the same critical mood that expressed "onesideness; hatred of everything Germani Gothic architecrure; the climate."H, But in the Divan his journey is imaginary, and one of a special kind. He travels as the poet who yearns to experience the world beyond the confines ofWe.im~u· and German-speaking Europe. His attempt to do so explains why the first book of the Divan is preoccupied with guestions concerning the poet and his craft, as is demonstrated by the poem "Lied und Gebilde."

Goethe's imaginary travels through the Orient may capture the essence of the foreign in his work and world and for this rea. on are not fictional in the traditional sense of the word. Paola Mildonian calls the Divan a "voyage philosophigue": I would prefer the phrase "voyage spirituelle." Collecting all the information he could, he became one of the fust "armchair ethnographers"- similar to james Frazer of the Goldsn Bough and others- .ompiling materials from foreign lands and then structuring and interpreting them according to his own ideas. Four of the most prominent themes ill the 196 poems ofthe Divan first published with "Notes" in 18I9- 20, and the 239 poems in the final version of 1827 (in \101. 5 of the Voll-

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