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Goethe in Marienbad

Christopher Bamford

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

Appropriately, if only by name, the legendary Bohemian Spa of Marienbad is a place of alchemical associations, harking back as it does to the legendary alchemist Maria the Jewess, “divine Maria” or Maria Prophetissa, the supposed sister of Moses, who was the inventor, among other alchemical apparatuses, of the celebrated balneum Mariae or the bain Marie: the double boiler. Maria is the source of one of the central alchemical axioms: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and, out of the third, comes the fourth as the one.” Or: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and, by means of the third and the fourth, achieves unity; thus two are but one.” She also said: “Join the male and the female and you will find what is sought.” Or, more alchemically stated: “Marry gum with gum in true marriage.”

Goethe, to my knowledge, does not mention Maria, but, as we shall see, he certainly lived by her principles, for Goethe’s whole work—all “fragments,” as he says, “of a great autobiography”—is Hermetic through and through: his poetry, novels, and dramas no less than his science, which is explicitly so.

Continuing with alchemical associations surrounding Marienbad, there is also the odd, possibly Hermetic, fact that it was Josef Jan Nehr, the doctor of the nearby Premonstratensian Monastery of Tepla, who, at the end of the eighteenth century, began to promote the healing properties of the mineral springs belonging to the Order. Until then, only locals knew of them because of their inaccessible location deep in a rugged valley. The Premonstratensians had always included alchemy, Hermeticism, and medicine among their interests, and therefore it is not unlikely that a Hermetic motive in the largest sense inspired both the doctor and the Abbot, Karel Kasper Reitenberger, a personal friend of Goethe—and perhaps even inspired them to name their Spa as they did. Hermetic (and Herculean) likewise was the effort to reclaim the inhospitable terrain: vast amounts of earth had to be moved, ravines filled in, bogs drained—in all, a staggering job of landscaping, recalling the end of Faust Part Two, when Faust himself is engaged upon such a project of raising nature into art.

Which, if any, of these associations most appealed to Goethe is unknown, but he began visiting the Spa in the summer of 1819, eleven years after the first spa house was built. He 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.

Who knows Self and OtherDivan
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.

17 April 2012


Tagged Under
love, Sufism, wisdom, divine, poetry, Islam, alchemy, green hermeticism, divine feminine, Rumi, Goethe, Divan, Hafiz,
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