Glorious Cultural Promiscuity

March 7, 2021   •   By David Bentley Hart

West-Eastern Divan

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

WHENEVER LESSER SOULS — which is to say, most souls — feel their animal spirits flagging or creativity faltering, they can always look to Goethe for both encouragement and reproach. Age never robbed him of the energy of youth (which, in his case, verged on the titanic). There was something positively unnatural — even supernatural — in his indefatigable élan, and in his ability always to begin again, inspired anew, with no less enthusiasm and imagination than in his early years. He even retained, well into his eighth decade, an enviable capacity for becoming infatuated with beautiful and brilliant young women, while somehow never allowing his feelings to degenerate into something ghoulish or lubricious. So it isn’t surprising then that one of his greatest, most original, and most ardent poetic achievements should have appeared when he was 70 years old, or that it should have overflowed with such exquisite lyric invention. The West-östlicher Divan of 1819 was, as Eric Ormsby notes in his introduction to this edition, a “decisive reconfiguration of German, and indeed European, poetry.” But it was, first and foremost, an expression of its author’s uncannily irrepressible vitality, and of his untiring embrace of all the passions and preoccupations of young men: love, wine, intoxication, ringing glasses, clashing steel … God …

It was also testament to his fascination with Marianne von Willemer, whom he first came to know in 1814, when she was all of 29, and securely married to a Frankfurt banker. And, while there’s no evidence of any actual impropriety in her association with the elderly Goethe — or even of much opportunity for impropriety — there’s overwhelming evidence of just how thoroughly enchanting he found her. She was, among other things, a gifted poet in her own right. Goethe even included a number of her verses in the Divan, sometimes altered (though not really improved) by his hand. And she herself appears in the book, in what is arguably its most miraculous eruption of lyrical genius, under the figure of Suleika. Goethe, under the figure of the elderly Hatem, dotes over her with unashamed abandon.

If, though, Marianne was the inspiration for many of the book’s most fervent verses, the initial inspiration for the book itself was Goethe’s encounter, also in 1814, with Joseph von Hammer’s translation of the Dīwān (“record,” “compendium,” “collected works”) of the Persian poet and mystic Hafiz of Shiraz (1315–1390). This was not, by any means, Goethe’s first exposure to the classical poetry of the Muslim world; it had been an abiding interest of his for going on 40 years. And he had long been devoted to the cause of Weltliteratur, a new literary cosmopolitanism he hoped would ultimately free writers from the narrow parochialisms of “authentic” national literatures (which were all the vogue in his time). But in Hafiz he now felt he had discovered something more: not only a kindred soul, but a kind of spiritual “twin,” someone like himself capable of a perfect marriage of exacting craft and rapturous invention, devoted equally to beauty and precision, a sensualist and a mystic at once.

He also discovered an entirely new range of poetic possibilities. The encounter with Hafiz came at a moment when Goethe’s literary impulses were perhaps beginning to show signs of subsiding into a bit of a lull — not, again, as a result of age, but solely for want of a new inspiration. There seemed little more he could accomplish in his native poetic forms, and he was genuinely hungry for new models of artistic expression, new reservoirs of imagery, allusion, metaphor, and ellipsis. And Hafiz’s ghazals in particular — opulent, passionate, languid, flowing, sparkling — provided these in abundance. Goethe called the influence von Hammer’s Hafiz had on him a “second pubescence.” And this sudden rejuvenation, especially in the year directly following, resulted in an outpouring of poetry matched in few other periods in his life. (For what it is worth, it contains a great many of my own favorites among Goethe’s poems, most especially poem 146, addressed to God and God’s mystery, which concludes the “Book of Suleika.”)

The Divan is not, however, merely some slavish imitation of Hafiz — or, for that matter, of Jami (1414–1492), or of Eastern models in general. Even the “translations” it contains are more fantasias on the originals than direct renderings. As deep as his dive into the “oriental” sources was (he went so far as to make some study of Arabic and Persian, including an attempt at mastering the script), he was not interested in producing mere imitations. He certainly never surrendered his own total creative discretion over whatever he set his hand to. The Divan is a genuine synthesis of West and East, and its innovations are advances on both traditions, as unprecedented in the one as in the other.

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This edition of the Divan is probably without any serious rivals, even among the best German versions. Eric Ormsby is not only a Goethe scholar and translator; he is also an accomplished scholar of Islam — of Muslim religion, languages, literature, and culture — and as a result possesses a comprehensive knowledge of the original sources from which, at a considerable remove, Goethe’s poems were derived. The scholarly apparatus is far more than one has any right to hope for. No other edition, certainly, offers so full an appreciation and illumination of both the Eastern and the Western sides of the text. Moreover, Ormsby includes the original German of all the poems, and then (blessedly) provides prose renderings on the facing pages rather than the sort of feeble doggerel that used to be common in English versions of Goethe. I might quibble with one or two of his choices of translation — a word here or there — but on the whole they are as graceful as they are clear. Ormsby even includes the poems that Goethe wrote for the Divan but never published, as well as translations of Goethe’s numerous essays on matters “oriental.” Simply said, this is a version of the Divan that any lover of Goethe, even one whose native tongue is German, should want to own.

It also — if I might be forgiven an excursus here — comes at something of a poignantly apt cultural moment, as something like a voice from another, better world (real or imagined). The volume’s epigraph reads:

Wer sich selbst und andre kennt,
Wird auch hier erkennen:
Orient und Occident
Sich nicht mehr zu trennen.


Which Ormsby renders as:

Whoever knows himself and others
will recognize this too:
Orient and Occident
are no longer to be separated.


Goethe detested every kind of provincialism, and most especially any kind of jealousy regarding national or cultural “purity.” As much as he hated the Napoleonic Wars, he was no less repelled by the new nationalisms of the German peoples. To his mind, he was as much a Greek or Roman as a German, and — more than that — as much a citizen of the world as of Europe. His devotion to Weltliteratur was not a mere aesthetic predisposition — some dainty “orientalism” or “exoticism” or superficial cultural tourism — but was rather a real commitment to the idea of a truly humane universalism, a new epoch of global civilization.

This might not be a bad moment to pause and contemplate the essential nobility of such a vision, and reflect upon the extraordinary fruitfulness that has always followed from the breaking down of barriers between peoples and cultures. Admittedly, and tragically, great civilizations have more often than not been the products as much of imperial aggression as of cultural openness. Even so, the highest achievements of the greatest of them — Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Mongol Chinese, even the High Middle Ages — have always been the offspring of a kind of glorious cultural promiscuity. The distinctive greatness of Europe, for instance, was never a purely European phenomenon: European culture always flourished most extravagantly whenever the roads to the East lay open (as a result of Hellenistic and Roman syncretisms, or of the Christian fusion of Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures, or of Muslim incursions into Europe, or of Christian incursions into the Near East, or of the Mongol Empire’s extension of the Silk Road to the borders of the Western world, or of Renaissance Italy’s hospitality to embassies from Byzantium, and all the still remote lands upon which it opened).

We are living just now in a season of especially vigorous barbarism, especially in the United States. True, the most barbarous public figure of all will soon be slouching gelatinously away into his lurid sunset, and maybe his ratings will start falling again even among his loyal base (one assumes that their attention span isn’t a particularly elastic one). But, even long after he has died and gone to hell, the monsters he summoned up out of America’s spiritual sewers will probably still be slithering about above ground, if not always in the full light of day, at least in the shadows at the edges of sunlit places. That is because he was, as the saying goes, more the symptom than the cause of what ails us. He’s too much of an imbecile, narcissist, and sociopath to be anything more than emblematic of his time, and of forces far beyond his ken or control. Throughout much of the world today, the midcentury struggle of Kultur — national, religious, even racial — against civilization has been renewed, as (among other things) a sort of despairing resistance to a late capitalist globalism whose gales of “creative destruction” bring unimaginable wealth to the very few, while causing only decline and hopelessness to whole economic classes, whole regions, national economies, and cultures. And yet, needless to say, that is precisely the sort of resistance that only hastens the decline, and turns the hopelessness into ever deeper resentment, cruelty, willful ignorance, and civil violence.

So it is something of a tonic to immerse oneself in another vision — something infinitely more expansive, more generous, more full of humanity and of the mystery of cultural diversity. A truly global civilization would be a grandly, uncontrollably fertile chaos, and it is a far more elevating object of political and cultural longing than either the sterile, banalizing spectacle of neoliberal market globalism or the degenerate mythology of blood and soil nationalism (or “national conservatism,” or the “new integralism,” or whatever else it calls itself).

Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan remains a radiant testament to that vision, and to the reality of another possible historical horizon. It is a monument to a deep and liberating desire for civilization without the tragic ambiguities of empire — a nuptial union between differing cultures, and the birth of something at once ancient and new. It is a book that not only delights and carries one away into another, lovelier reality. It also points toward a future worth longing for, and worth imagining into existence.

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David Bentley Hart’s most recent books are Roland In Moonlight (Angelico) and You Are Gods (forthcoming from Notre Dame).