Goethe , the “refugee”
In the summer of 1819, Goethe had just published his West-East Divan—his homage to the peerless Persian poet Hafiz—the only full-length lyrical work he published in his lifetime. Celebrated as the first work of “world literature,” the Divan was intended to overcome the dichotomy of East and West by raising it to a higher unity.
The title page is in both German and Persian, as are the half titles of the twelve books that make up the collection of more than two hundred poems. But the title itself is not simply translated: in typical Goethean fashion, its apparent unity actually conceals a duality. Facing the German—“West-Easterly Poetry Collection”—the Persian reads: “The Eastern Poetry Collection of a Western Author.” Thus, the German sounds a dialogical or synthetic note, whereas the Persian indicates something more unified and provides a more integral, monological, or unified note. The poems themselves—Sufi-like invocations of divine and human love—are dense and allusive in their language, which draws both on the Bible and the Qu’ran, as well as Western and Persian (Hafizian) traditions. Multiple un-attributed citations from East and West are embedded in the text. The whole work echoes the then-emerging sense of the Eastern origin of the Bible, which cast doubt on the supposed opposition between East and West by demonstrating that religion was one and oriental in origin.
Johann Georg Faust c. 1480 or 1466 – c. 1541), was an itinerant alchemist, astrologer and magician of the German Renaissance. The erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. An important version of the incredible legend is the play Faust, written by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The story concerns the fate of Faust in his quest for the true essence of life (“was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält”). Frustrated with learning and the limits to his knowledge, power, and enjoyment of life, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), who makes a bet with Faust that he will be able to satisfy him; a notion that Faust is incredibly reluctant towards, as he believes this happy zenith will never come.
In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful relationship with Gretchen, an innocent young woman. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles’ deceptions and Faust’s desires. Part one of the story ends in tragedy for Faust, as Gretchen is saved but Faust is left to grieve in shame.
The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into allegorical poetry. Faust and his Devil pass through and manipulate the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, having succeeded in taming the very forces of war and nature, Faust experiences a singular moment of happiness.
Despite its theological underpinning, the Faust legend has thrived in secular consumer societies, particularly in a culture of instant gratification. From credit cards to fast food, we opt for immediate pleasure even in the knowledge that it brings long-term pain. Faustus states that the only God he serves is his “own appetite”, and Goethe’s Mephistopheles offers him the opportunity to “sample every possible delight… grasp at what you want!”
The ecological and human cost of this insatiable appetite for expansion is evident in the 21st Century. Climate change is perhaps the most fitting contemporary analogy for the Faustian bargain – decades of rapid economic growth for an elite, followed by grave global consequences for eternity. Similarly, the temptation of nuclear energy has been described in Faustian terms: those “powers of the underworld” unleashed, with the potential of fuelling – and destroying – the planet.
“Every notable historical era will have its own Faust,” wrote Kierkegaard. Our challenge today is that, to some extent, we are all in a Faustian bind. We are plagued by politicians offering easy answers to complex problems – especially when those easy answers are empty promises. The legend warns us to be wary of the cult of the ego, the seductions of fame and the celebration of power. These are hollow triumphs, and short-lived; indeed, “what good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
- Goethe and his poem “Hegir” : Hijra
when one speaks of the Hijra one is not merely speaking of a journey from Mecca to Medina, or the starting point of a calendar; but one is also speaking of a new start for humanity. And Johann Wolfgang von Goethe make his Hijra, his emigration and take refuge in Islam. He became a “Refugee”.
The Hijra is symbolic of changing those conditions that cause problems and that clash with ideals and beliefs, as well as the search for new opportunities.
In this caravan poem, Goethe gives us a picture of the restless nomad existence which early Arabian poetry had enabled him to envision.
The whole “West-East Divan” is shot through with something of this nomadic restlessness. Already in the first great poem entitled “Hegir” the poet alludes to Arabian life and traditions.
His own “Hedschra” is an inteliectual emigration to a simpler state of existence which seems to him to be purer and righter than his own immediate world. Thus he calls out to himself:
North and South and West are quaking,
Thrones are cracking, empires shaking;
Let us free toward the East
Where as patriarchs we’ll feast:
There in loving, drinking, singing
Youth from Khidr’s well is springing.
Seeing rightly, seeing purely,
There I’ll penetrate most surely,
To the origin of nations,
When on earth the generation
Heard God’s words with human senses,
Heedless of their formal tenses.
When to fathers they gave honours
And rejected foreign manners;
I’ll rejoice in youth’s demotion:
Wider faith, narrower notion–
Words weighed then as value’s token
Since the word was one that’s spoken.
With the herdsmen I’ll go questing,
In oasis freshness resting,
Roam in caravans wide ranging
Coffee, shawls, and musk exchanging;
Every track my footstep traes
Through the sands to market-places.
On the mountain’s desolation
Hafis, you give consolation
When our guide, afraid of capture
High upon his mule in rapture
Sings, to set the stars a-blazing,
Startled thieves with dread amazing.
You at wells and inns I’ll ponder,
Holy Hafis, thinking fonder
When my love unveiled caresses,
Strewing fragrant amber tresses.
Yes, the poet’s whispered yearning
Even starts the Huris burning.
If your envy this despises,
Of belittles precious prizes,
Think awhile that poet’s diction
Is no commonplace of fiction,
Hovering soft in heaven’s portal
Life it seeks that is immortal.
What the Emigration Demands of Us
Starting from a narrow family-tribal environment Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) underwent 13 years of hardship and torment in Meccan society; with the immigration (Hijra) to Medina, a new stage began. This stage, if one takes into consideration the time that it took all religions to spread, is the starting point of one of the fastest religious developments in recorded history. In this sense, when one speaks of the Hijra one is not merely speaking of a journey from Mecca to Medina, or the starting point of a calendar; one is speaking of a new start for humanity.
The Hijra is symbolic of changing those conditions that cause problems and that clash with ideals and beliefs, as well as the search for new opportunities.
The Hijra, as is expressed in a variety of verses, was extrication from a difficult and stressful situation with the aim to widen the belief and the ideals, and a search for new possibilities and new places. From this aspect, the Hijra is not something that was realized as part of a certain process or a completed historical event in the life of Muslims. The Hijra is symbolic of changing those conditions that cause problems and that clash with ideals and beliefs, as well as the search for new opportunities. Thus, the Hijra, which includes certain preconditions, is a moral duty and responsibility for every individual.
Prophet Muhammad placed the Hijra in the minds and hearts of the Islamic community with a hadith (Prophetic tradition) that expresses two basic interconnected matters.
The first is a general principle which, in particular, is considered to be one of the reference points in the evaluation of laws for Islamic jurists. This principle is connected to intentions in behavioral values, as it is the intention that gives behavior direction. As we know the Hijrawas the first and most important social movement of the young Islamic society.
As is to be expected with all social movements, it is only natural that there were people who had different intentions when participating in the emigration led by Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad drew attention to this situation and stated that those who performed the same action received different responses, each according to their intention. The matter expressed in the hadiths is concerned with a Meccan Muslim who had joined the emigration and come to Medina to marry the woman he loved. The ruling that Prophet Muhammad gave concerning this person can be considered to be a universal principle compulsory for all Muslims to take into account when performing an action.
Prophet Muhammad said: “Actions are according to intentions, whoever emigrates to Allah and His Prophet, that emigration is to Allah and His Prophet, whoever emigrates to marry a woman, his emigration is to marry a woman...” The idea of actions and behavior being judged according to intention is the clearest and most immutable rule that stands against those who desire to hide their personal or prosaic intents behind ideals and virtues.
The most important principle to learn from the Hijra is the constant observation of intention. In particular, Sufis consider the constant observation and control of intent to be a basic principle for attaining ikhlas (sincerity). From this aspect, Sufism can be considered to be a total investigation and interrogation of intention.
In other words, the thing that determines the value of a person’s action is the intention, and nothing else. In this direction, the most important principle to learn from the Hijra is the constant observation of intention. In particular, Sufis consider the constant observation and control of intent to be a basic principle for attaining ikhlas (sincerity). From this aspect, Sufism can be considered to be a total investigation and interrogation of intention.
There is another dimension to the hadiths; in particular, this aspect is widely interpreted by the Sufis. In the above hadith, Prophet Muhammad said “Whoever emigrates to Allah and the Prophet.” The Sufis carefully emphasize the phrase “Emigration to Allah and His Prophet.” What does emigration to Allah mean? Here, while speaking the emigration to Medina, the direction is changed and the Prophet speaks of “emigration to Allah and His Prophet”. This approach alone gives the possibility that the Hijra is something that every Muslim can repeat over and over again. While the emigration to Medina was a historical event, emigration to Allah and His Prophet is not limited by history or location, and thus is always possible.
In this sense Hijra gains a meaning that is parallel to the Sufi term of tawba, adding a wider interpretation to the Hijra. The general meaning of tawba (repentance) means “to repent of a sin and to decide not to repeat the sin.” The Sufis have added a special meaning to this general definition; tawba has come to mean “turning” and is thought of as an action. But, what are people turning to? To find the answer to this question we need to contemplate the question of where do people go when they sin and why they are considered to have left somewhere. When people sin, they distance themselves from Allah and they are left with their nafs. Sufis see the nafs and its desires as something that straitens people and limits them. In contrast to this, repentance turns people back to Allah; that is, it turns them to the wide expanse of the divine after the straits of the nafs and its desires. In this situation tawba and hijra take on the same meaning. Thus, for Sufis, the Hijra is the action that every person constantly experiences, internally and externally. People emigrate from bad actions and evil morals to virtues and good behavior. In this situation the emigration is towards Allah, and in response Allah turns to us.
Thus, there are two important principles or duties that the Hijra demands of us.
The first is to constantly control our intentions; we must establish our “personal place and stance”. Everyone is responsible only for their own intentions and actions, and it is these same intentions and actions that will save them.
The second principle is to remove the connection of the Hijra with actual places and times. Hijra is a turning and a change in the mind, belief, action or morals; everybody can do this at any time and in any place.
Goethe’s “ West-East Divan”
Eternal will be for you the One that self-divides
Into the Many and, remaining One, remains eternally the only One.
Find the many in One, feel the many as One,
Then you will have the beginning, the end, of art.
The Soothsayings of Bakis
Who knows Self and Other
Will cognize here
That East and West
Are to be divided no more.
The West is God’s
The East is God’s
Northern and Southern lands
Rest in the peace of his hands.
He, the only Just One,
Makes Justice for everyone.
Of his one hundred names
Let his one be highest praised: Amen
Goethe had always been interested in oriental studies, and above all, Islam. Over the years, he read and reread the Qu’ran intensively, making his first notes in Hebrew and Arabic when he was only twenty-one. Throughout his life, in fact, he studied and collected Arabic handbooks, grammars, travel books, and whatever translations of Eastern poetry and philosophy he could find. As a collector, he bought original manuscripts of Rumi, Hafiz, Attar, and others. Himself an accomplished penman, he admired Arabic calligraphy and was delighted when a page—the last Surah—of an antique Qu’ran came his way.
All this came to a head in 1814. In May, his publisher Cotta sent him a copy of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall’s translation of the complete poems of Hafiz. Overwhelmed, he recognized a kindred spirit: another self. So close did he feel to Hafiz that it’s as if he believed that in another lifetime he himself had lived, loved, and strolled in the gardens of Shiraz. In June, he wrote:
So, Hafiz, may your charming song,
Your holy example,
Lead us, as the glasses clink,
To our Creator’s temple.
Just then, too, Russian Muslim soldiers were billeted in Weimar. “Who would have dared to say a year or two ago,” Goethe wrote to a friend, “that a Mohammedan service would be held in the hall of our Protestant Grammar School and that the Surah of the Qu’ran would be murmured there?” Perhaps he experienced a kind of conversion then, for as he said later: “The poet… does not refuse the suspicion that he himself is a Muslim.”
Emotionally, however, this was not a good time for Goethe. His marriage was becoming more difficult. The burdens of his official position oppressed him. So he did what he always did in such situations: he went in search of love.
On July 25, he left Weimar for Frankfurt, his old home. The journey was extremely productive. Powerful, inspired poems came down, above all, “Holy Yearning”:
Tell it to no one, only to the wise,
Because the crowd will only mock:
What lives will I praise,
What yearns for death by flame.
In the coolness of the love nights
That begot you, where you begot,
A strange feeling comes over you
While the still candle shines.
No longer are you hemmed in
By the shadow of darkness
And a new longing rends you
For a higher copulation.
No distance is difficult.
You fly onward and enchanted.
And finally, passionate for the light,
Butterfly, you are burned.
As long as you do not have this:
Die and become!
You are but a cloudy guest
On the dark earth.
By the end of August, he had written thirty poems, and met an old banker friend, Johann Jakob Willemer. Willemer introduced Goethe to his longtime “little friend,” Marianne Jung. This “dear little woman” would become Goethe’s inspiration—his Suleika—and a co-conspirator in the Divan. Later, thinking of Marianne, Goethe would speak of “a temporary rejuvenation,” a “repetition of puberty,” explaining: “This can happen to outstandingly gifted people, even during old age, while other people are young only once.” For Goethe, such a renewal of the springtime of human life was the means of new birth, of dying and becoming.
Though the relationship with Marianne was completely secret—and nothing in a physical sense happened—Willemer must have sensed something for, on September 27, on Goethe’s insistence, he married her after eighteen years of cohabitation. Nevertheless, in October, Goethe and Marianne spent nine “unforgettable” days together in Frankfurt. Poems continued to be written and Goethe, having named Suleika, gave himself a name, Hatem: (· Muslim: from an Arabic personal name, ̣Hātim, literally ‘decisive’ or ‘determined’. ̣Hātim al-Tā‛iy (died 605) was a personage living in Arabia immediately before the rise of Islam, famous for his benevolence and hospitality. The name is popular throughout the Muslim world.)
Now that you are called Suleika
I should also have a nickname,
When you praise your beloved,
Hatem is the name to use.
The following summer, Goethe enjoyed six long weeks with the Willemers. In the morning he wrote, appearing at noon in his frock coat. In the afternoons: a walk. In the evenings, dressed in his white flannel robe, the Master read poems—mostly from the Divan—and Marianne played her eight-string guitar and sang folksongs. Goethe gave her a copy of all he had written for the Divan so far. Mysteriously, he noted in his journal: ”Divan. Beginning—End.” What only he and she knew was that he had also given her a poem, “Hatem”—
It’s not opportunity that makes a thief,
Because it itself is the greatest thief:
It stole what was left of the love
That still remained in my heart.
It handed over to you,
The sum of all my fortune,
So that now, penniless,
I depend on you alone for sustenance.
Already in the jewel of your glance,
I feel your mercy
I enjoy within your arms
A destiny renewed.
—And that, a few days later, Marianne had returned with a poem of her own, “Suleika.” Goethe made a few corrections, copied it, and placed it with the other manuscripts. Marianne was to write three other poems—they have been called the most beautiful poems written by a German woman—and they likewise, un-attributed, became part of the Divan. Here truly was unity in duality.
This accomplished, Goethe hastened to Heidelberg to confer with Orientalists and biblical critics, and to deepen his study of Arabic and Persian. His grail: to discover and reconcile in himself in a new, higher unity the multiplicity of monotheism’s divine expressions. Such unity was always Goethe’s goal, for he well understood the alchemical truth that unity only divides in order to find itself again in a higher sense. As he wrote:
Anything that enters the world of phenomena must divide in order to appear at all. The separated parts seek one another again, and may find each other and be reunited: in the lower sense by each mixing with its opposite, that is, by simply coming together with it, in which case the phenomenon is nullified or at least becomes indifferent. But the union can also occur in the higher sense, whereby the separated parts are first developed and heightened, so that the combination of the two sides produces a third, higher being, of a new and unexpected kind.
Just then, the Willemers themselves appeared in Heidelberg. Goethe took Marianne into the castle grounds, where he showed her a Gingko tree. Presenting her with a Gingko leaf he suggested something of its “secret meaning” by asking: “Is it one thing that divides into two, or two that unite into one?” On their last day together, September 26, walking through the park, he inscribed “Suleika” in the sand in Arabic. Goethe and Marianne would never meet again. Filled with emotion, Goethe plunged again into the study of Persian. The next day, he sent her the poem “Gingo Biloba,” which he would place in the “Book of Suleika”:
Is it one living being?
That divides itself in itself;
Are there two? Who select themselves
So we know them as one?
To reply to such a question
I found, I think, the right sense:
Do you not feel in my poems
That I am one and doubled.
The two lovers become one in love—unity—but unity, which is love, is conditioned by duality. Hatem and Suleika are two, as is Goethe himself, who both loves and writes about it. His life is doubly double: hermaphroditic and inward/outward. He is both male and female, within and without. He lives and writes, is both subject and object, but what he praises and becomes is one, the unity of lover and beloved. To achieve this unity requires renunciation: to become love, he must renounce both himself and the beloved.
All this is Hermetic. The opening poem, “Hegira,” announces:
North, West, and South are shattering,
Thrones burst apart, empires shake,
Flee then to the pure East,
Taste the air of the Patriarchs:
There, with love, wine, and song
Khidr’s fountain will make you young again.
Khidr, a legendary figure in esoteric Islamic lore, is the “Green or Emerald One,” the source of all greening vegetation, freshness of spirit and eternal liveliness. He is a supra-earthly being, the throne of the angel of humanity, the true and only initiator of all saints, sages, and prophets—including Moses himself as the Qu’ran states. His fountain is none other than the fountain of life. His wisdom, drawn from “the living sources of life,” is the divine science of creation, and his disciples form the invisible, trans-historical spiritual order of those who have become truly free. Having attained the source of life, and drunk the waters of immortality so that he knows neither old age nor death, Khidr, the “Verdant One,” is the master of the alchemical elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone.
The Divan appeared in 1819. Marianne continued to write to Goethe sporadically, remembering his birthday, sending him poems, and never forgetting the gingko leaf:
It lets me savor a secret meaning
That edifies the one who loves.
Goethe reciprocated, never forgetting her. In 1832, just before he died, seventeen years after Hatem and Suleika became figures of speech, he collected her letters—“letters pointing to the loveliest days of my life”— into a packet and returned them to her, writing: “I would only like one promise, that you leave it opened for an undetermined time. Letters of this sort give us the happy feeling that we have really lived: these are the most beautiful documents upon which we may rest.”
Nevertheless, the ending of that beautiful moment left a void in Goethe’s life: his imaginal trip to the East and his travels to Frankfurt and Heidelberg would be the last journeys he would take—except for one. He was becoming too old for such distances. When the Divan appeared, he turned seventy. He became a patriarch, a legend, and a sage—but a lonely one.