Goethe's Orient Investigated
No other specialist in German Studies has so thoroughly researched or written as much on Goethe and his intense bond with the Islamic world as Katharina Mommsen. Her conclusions are not only highly charged, but also remain very topical. On the occasion of her eightieth birthday, Qantara.de offers the following article in recognition of her work. By Stefan Weidner
Katharina Mommsen published her famous study on Goethe and the 'Thousand and One Nights' 54 years ago, yet the highly charged conclusions of her research have still to find resonance with the general public. The reason for this should be perfectly clear – her conclusions are just too culturally explosive.
Unprejudiced approach to the orient
They are, however, breath-takingly relevant. The philological achievement of Katharina Mommsen and her unprejudiced approach to the orient truly stands out, especially if one considers that her findings were reached only through careful and objective reading, long before the appearance of Foucault or Edward Said and without the aid of Karl Marx or any other theoretical godfather.
Katharina Mommsen's conclusions, accessible in her publications and even translated into English and Arabic, hold simply that Goethe would not have been Goethe without the orient.
This applies in particular to the tales from the 'Thousand and One Nights', which Goethe knew and loved in his early childhood and, as has been documented, read repeatedly well into his old age.
Goethe's occupation with the orient left its mark not only on his famous West-Eastern Divan collection of poetry, but can also be seen throughout his work, spanning the earliest dramatic compositions of the 1760s all the way to Faust II in the early 1830s as he approached the end of his life.
Goethe's "Sheherazade nature"
Goethe's novels and short stories are especially influenced by oriental literature, as Katharina Mommsen has established. The eighty-
year-old Berlin-born German literature scholar refers to Goethe's talent of inventing and developing stories as his "Sheherazade nature," inherited from the literary figure in the 'Thousand and One Nights'.
She regards this as an essential, if not the decisive element in Goethe's texts, imbuing them with modernity and sparking the fascination of readers to this day.
Katharina Mommsen's books provide good arguments for the position that the culture of the orient had a decisive influence on the greatest German author, and, as consequence, the Renaissance of German literature in the 18th century.
In other words, even as far back as the 18th century, the Arab-Islamic world cannot be regarded as the quintessential other, but is instead an essential part of German cultural identity. Although this conclusion seems apparent – and Mommsen provides many arguments for this view – she does not formulate it herself.
She is concerned with objective findings and not with mere opinions, providing her readers with intellectual stimulation free from ideological blinders.
Against the Russian repression of Chechens
Yet, Katharina Mommsen is also no stranger to taking sides when she feels it is necessary. A poem from Goethe's 'West-Eastern Divan', in which he refers to an old account of a journey to Chechnya, provides the starting point for Mommsen's passionate plea against the Russian repression of Chechens. Let us allow her to speak in her own words:
"This is a people currently regarded as a nation of 'terrorists' by Russians and, as a result of the alliance against terrorism, to a large extent by the rest of the world as well. What is even worse is that they are treated as terrorists. One begins to think that it is not terrorism being castigated here, but rather that under the pretext of terrorism, the idea of freedom and even freedom itself is being suppressed.
This is a nation that has evidently understood a great deal about freedom and has ensured the survival of this understanding into the 21st century. The refusal to accept alien forms of government, the rejection of subservience, and the desire to preserve one's own independence cannot simply be equated with terrorism. The modern world is in danger of slandering a people and its expressed desire for freedom with the label of 'terrorism'.
Instead, the world could learn something from these splendidly anti-modern people, who bear no traces of a slave mentality, whose language does not include the word 'command', who don't recognize right in power alone, and who would rather die than be subjugated. Goethe's sympathy for such a position should encourage us to once again reflect on the situation of this brave people, who are currently facing annihilation, just because they will not allow themselves to be enslaved, but will only bow down before God."
In an age of media control over intercultural conflicts, Katharina Mommsen's words show that after more than 50 years of research and writing on Goethe's relation to the orient she has been far ahead of her time. It is now a matter of rediscovering her work and reading her books anew.
She has been the subject of international recognition, enjoys numerous honors, and maintains a non-stop lecture schedule. Her work has been translated into many languages, including those of the Islamic world. The great German Studies scholar celebrated her eightieth birthday on Sunday, 18 September.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: John Bergeron