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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 164-180

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Goethe's Fantasies about the Orient

Walter Veit
Monash University

Exotisch, which entered the German language only in the eighteenth century, 1 was 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." That meaning, however, explains why "exotic" had resonances similar to those of "Oriental." Heyse's Fremdwörterbuch.[ Dictionary of Foreign Words. (1859) 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 of or 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 hymnic poetry of his youth we find a poem entitled "Mahomets-Gesang" ["Mohammed's song"] (1774); 2 some of the best poems of Goethe's later years are to be found in the collection entitled West-Östlicher Divan.[ West-Eastern Divan. (1815); and his Orientalism continued in two shorter lyrical sequences, the Indian trilogy Paria.(1824), and the Chinesisch-deutschen Jahres- und Tageszeiten.[ Chinese-German Seasons and Times of Day. (1830). 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 1815, Goethe moved away from the firm norms of classical antiquity that he had [End Page 164] 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 der Grieche seinen Thon May the Greek his clay
Zu Gestalten drücken, Press into forms,
An der eignen Hände Sohn Through the son of his hands
Steigern sein Entzücken. Increase his delight.
Aber uns ist wonnereich But for us it is to be rich in joy
In den Euphrat greifen, Grasping into the Euphrates,
Und im flüssgen Element And in the liquid element
Hin und wider schweifen. Roaming to and fro.
Löscht ich so der Seele Brand Quench I thus the fire of the soul,
Lied es wird erschallen; Song will ring out;
Schöpft des Dichters reine Hand Scooped by the poet's pure hand,
Wasser wird sich ballen. Water balls into a fist.3

Leaving other important aspects aside, it is possible to argue that Goethe's turn toward the Orient was a response 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) concerning the genesis of the Divan, Goethe reminisces: "In terrible and unbearable times when I could not physically remove myself, I 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 poetic inspiration and spiritual fulfillment]." 4 Indeed, the Napoleonic wars brought the Near East much closer to European intellectuals 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 of 1798 that not only offered an enormous increase of factual knowledge about Egypt, but also reflected a new method of collecting it. 5 It represents one of the first, if not the first, large-scale research expeditions undertaken by any nation as a state enterprise, and it 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. 6

Goethe was himself attracted to this vogue for Orientalism. In the [End Page 165] Morgenblatt für...


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