Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Goethe and Free Speech

In truth, Goethe never directly addressed the issue on which I am currently working, in connection with the volume on the 18th-century history of free speech. I wrote on Goethe's absence from this debate in an earlier post. The past days, however, I have been reading the "Noten und Abhandlungen" that Goethe appended to the West-East Divan and have discovered some comments that address the issue.

About half way through the "Notes" (I am referring to p. 169 of the Hamburg edition), in the section entitled "Doubts" (Zweifel) Goethe mentions that a Westerner (Westländer) can never be entirely comfortable with "Persian poetry." 

It is not, he writes, the religion that distances us from this poetry, for the unity of God, the submission to His will, the prophets, and so on are also elements of our own beliefs and, indeed, our Scriptures are the basis for the Islamic ones. We have also been long acquainted with "Märchen" from the Middle East, and even its mysticism should not be too foreign to us. But, then, he puts his finger on the problem:

What is beyond the capacity of the Westerner to understand is the spiritual and bodily obsequiousness to rulers and masters, a practice of the most ancient times when kings were representatives of God. 

In the Old Testament we read without any particular displeasure of men and women throwing themselves on their faces and worshiping priests and heroes, for they were accustomed to doing the same before "Elohim." What began as a natural pious feeling transformed itself later into tedious courtly ritual. ... Many Western diplomatic missions have come to grief with this ceremony in Eastern courts ... Which Westerner can find it endurable that the Oriental not only presses his head nine times to the earth, but that he even tosses it away, for any cause or goal?

Goethe then describes a courtly sport known as "Maillespiel," a very rough version of croquet, in which a box-wood ball, a foot in circumference, is struck with a mallet (Schlägel) down an alley through a number of arches and hoops. (Click on image at the top for the course of the game. The history of the sport can be found here in English.) He quotes lines by the poet Dschami, from Hammer's edition, in which this extreme becomes a method of gaining the ruler's attention: the poet offers his own head as the ball.

Wie lang wirst ohne Hand und Fuß
Du noch des Schicksals Ballen sein!
Und überspringst du hundert Bahnen,
Dem Schlägel kannst du nicht entfliehen.
Leg auf des Schahes Bahn den Kopf,
Vielleicht daß er dich doch erblickt.

(I translate only the final two lines: Lay your head on the Shah's track; perhaps he will then notice you.) Goethe gives a few more examples of this sort, from Hafis. He adds that a deeper study of the subject might show that earlier poets (i.e., before the Golden Age of Persian poetry that is his subject) were more modest in their expression of such obsequiousness and, moreover, that later poets did not take these abuses (Mißbräuche) seriously, but, using the same poetic language, loved them for their parodic value.

Okay, I am getting to the free speech part. After a discussion of the characteristics of Persian poetry, he makes the interesting observation (HA, p. 189) that there is no drama in Persian poesy. "Had a dramatic poet been able to arise [aufstehen], its entire literature would have had a completely different aspect."

The nation [!] is inclined to silence [zur Ruhe geneigt]. It likes to be read aloud to, thus the countless fairytales and the endless poems. Oriental life is otherwise not talkative. Despotism has no need of dialogue [Wechselreden]. Thus we find that objections to the will and commands of the ruler appear only in quotations in the Koran and in lines from well-known poets, the understanding of which require intelligence [einen geistreichen Zustand] and deep, wide, and rigorous education [Bildung].

Thus, though Goethe never addressed the subject of free speech in connection with Europe (at least not so far as I have discovered), his acquaintance with the Middle East through the poetry led him to make observations that are relevant to the current issue of free speech and that also show his reflections concerning what has become the foundation of modern Western political life: Europeans were used to speaking out against their rulers. There was an important exception within the Enlightenment, namely, under the "enlightened monarch" Catherine in Russia, which I hope to touch on in my next post.

Picture credits: BMI magazine "Voyager" (Persian storyteller); the Ancient Web (Darius of Persia)

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