- Goethe. Inter- und transkulturelle poetische Spiele by Norbert Mecklenburg
Norbert Mecklenburg’s latest book is a meticulous and highly informative survey of Goethe’s intercultural literary activity, which should appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. It will be an invaluable work of reference even for subject specialists, but, at the same time, it is sufficiently clear to be accessible to students. As its title makes plain, the notion of the “game” is a key concept in the study. It denotes a reflective literary practice—playful, but intellectually rigorous—whereby an encounter with a cultural other is staged, metabolised, and a new kind of writing is produced. In most of Goethe’s writing, this entire process is highly literary: it is “imaginär, geistig” (15), based on “Gedankenexperimente” (26). This is a pertinent critical approach to this dimension of Goethe’s œuvre, although it is one which is not unfamiliar. The real originality of Mecklenburg’s book lies in the range of material that it treats, and the skill with which it combines works which one might not otherwise consider together. The study reminds us that, although intercultural themes reached their zenith in Goethe’s mature work, they had preoccupied him from early in his career. We are encouraged by its structure to view Goethe’s intercultural poetic games as a feature of his work which evolved over time, rather than one which burst onto the scene with the West-östlicher Divan. This broadening of the lens also enables Mecklenburg to take a more flexible approach to the intercultural question itself, and to point out links to other, related themes, such as processes of seeing and perception, or communication between the genders.
Nonetheless, the Divan offers the richest example of the phenomenon, and Mecklenburg devotes the central second section of the book to it. The chapters on that mature lyric cycle form the pivot, as it were, for the rest of the study. The first section is concerned with Goethe’s earlier works, and incorporates both the west-eastern and the north-southern axis; we move from his plans for a tragedy about [End Page 652] Mohammed and his reworking of a Muslim ballad from the Balkans, to Iphigenie auf Tauris and Die Braut von Korinth, and finally to the Italienische Reise. This latter piece has a special status among Goethe’s intercultural works: as Mecklenburg observes, it is almost unique in its basis in physical travel and actual, lived experience on Goethe’s part. The third section continues the focus on ‘the East’ established in section two, ranging from “Der Gott und die Bayadere” to the Paria trilogy and the exquisite—if under-appreciated—Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten. Mecklenburg rounds off his study with a differentiated account of the development and use of the term “Weltliteratur”—which, as he reminds us, was in fact coined by Wieland, but galvanised by Goethe.
It is impossible to do justice to every section of the book here, but the chapters on the Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten will serve as a useful sample of the analysis on offer. Although they seem to fit the intercultural theme perfectly, these little poems are in fact problematic. Mecklenburg alludes to the polarising effect that the cycle has had on critics, who at various points have either tried to force the ‘Eastern’ dimension of the work, doggedly pointing to ‘Chinese’ elements even when these border on the clichéd, or have dismissed the intercultural aspect altogether. He suggests an eminently sensible line of enquiry as a foil to this dispute: given the centrality of nature to Goethe’s thinking, above all in his old age, the poems might best be approached by searching for resonances between Chinese understandings of nature and Goethe’s own. Here, too, the intercultural theme brings another into relief, namely, the alienation which Goethe felt in his old age. The resonance of Chinese philosophy with the patterns of his own thought offered him a means of dealing with his sense of foreignness at home, Mecklenburg suggests. As elsewhere in the...