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Germany’s Cultural Heritage
Goethe’s imaginary Islam

© Ian Roberts

In a quiet, leafy corner of the Beethovenplatz in Weimar, next to the Park and der Ilm stands the Hafis-Goethe Denkmal. It depicts two large, throne-like chairs, cut from grey granite, partly smooth and partly rough-hewn. The chairs face each other as if to imply an encounter or meeting of some kind. Who, though, is meeting there? 

by James Hodkinson
A closer inspection of the monument reveals the chairs are situated atop a decorated plinth: embossed bronze letters form quotations taken from the poetry of both Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafis of Shiraz. The words of the two men are connected through arabesque patterns fashioned out of the same material. On one level, the two chairs signify a meeting of two key figures from oriental and occidental culture. Yet they do not represent the two poets literally. In a city bristling with statues of important men, especially Goethe, the chairs remain empty, and the message is, then, more open-ended. The monument arguably represents a wider series of encounters: here Islam, the Orient, Persia, somehow meet the occident, Germany and Christianity, across time and space.

Although the chairs seem to set up a series of apparent polar opposites, across which two fundamentally differing cultures meet, the message I take from it is more complex. The poetry is inscribed in two alphabets and in two languages. It is taken from works of two men who lived centuries apart, and the two chairs themselves are stark symbols of two distinct cultures. And yet both chairs are also, quite literally, cut from the same piece of stone – indeed they seem to have come from a single whole, broken into two fragments. In this way the monument implies a series of connections that can be seen to underlie East-West cultural encounters. For all of their crucial and significant differences, Christianity and Islam (together with Judaism) form the family of Abrahamic faiths and, as such, share many key tenants of belief and moral codes, transmitted through a shared prophetic heritage and embodied in continuous scriptural and oral traditions. The value of the monument’s message, for me, lies, in the fact that it reflects two ideas – it speaks both of preserving the distinctiveness of cultures at their point of encounter, whilst also reminding us of that which connects them. The words chosen from Goethe and displayed at the monument are well known to scholars:
Wer sich selbst und andere kennt,
Wird auch hier erkennen:
Orient und Okzident
Sind nicht mehr zu trennen.

The passage works in categories well known to scholars interested in east-west cultural relations: ‘orient’ and ‘occident’, ‘self’ and ‘other’, yet it also speaks of the connections between these pairings that cannot be severed. At the most general level, then, the chairs speak of a common humanity that unites us all, though without obscuring or devaluing cultural differences.

These ideas are not merely the invention of the two sculptors, Ernst Thevis and Fabian Rabsch, who created the piece back in 2001. The two artists drew upon ideas and images to be found in Goethe’s collection of poems of 1819 – the West Eastern Divan (West östlicher Divan). The poems focussing on oriental scenes, events and subject matter. The silent ‘voice’ speaking Goethe’s poems, refereed to often as the lyrical voice, speaks in German, but seems to identify with Islam: “Wenn Islam Gott ergeben heisst,” it tells us “so leben und sterben wir alle in Islam.” The statement, though, is deliberate hyperbole. It does not call for all humanity to convert to Islam, but is a kind of poetic experiment, which plays off the idea that the word Islam, in Arabic, describes an act of submission to God – an act common to all religions at some level in sense. In a sense, Goethe is asking us to suspend disbelief and imagine ways in which Muslims and those following faiths other than Islam can frame their respective beliefs and practises in terms of their mutual similarities, and not solely in terms of that which divides them.

Goethe had also already imagined a fictitious encounter between the Divan’s poetic voice and Hafis. The poems refer to Hafis as a “twin,” a kindred soul with whom he (the “Ich” of the poems) would, above all others, wish to sink into oblivion at the world’s end. Ultimately, though, Hafis remains a shadowy figure in this writing. There is no dialogue as such – in fact he does not speak at all. Why is this? We could, at this point, accuse Goethe of ‘silencing the other’, of failing to represent the Muslim voice. Though we can also read differently. The poems can also be seen to imply that, from a nineteenth-century German context, one can imagine Hafis, his thoughts, feelings, experiences and beliefs, though one cannot, ultimately, speak for him.  Goethe’s collection has been criticised as a typical example of what the critic Edward Said called ‘Orientalism’ – a European tradition of exoticizing and demonizing the Orient in art and writing, effectively controlling and manipulating it for Western purposes. Perhaps, though, Goethe’s poems do something different and subtle. By gesturing towards Hafis without mimicking him, by having the poetic voice of the poems ‘hover,’ as Goethe put it, between the two worlds of Islam and the West, the poems can arguably represent the Islamic world generally and the figure of Hafis in particular without seeking to colonize or control either. It is, according to the German academic Hamid Tafazoli, borrowing the term from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, a ‘heterotopic’ moment – an idealized representation of a relationship without hierarchy.

Reaching Further: Using the Two Chairs to connect communities

A relationship without hierarchy: that’s an interesting concept. How, though, can it reach non-academic audiences? And do Muslim and other communities that coexist within our multi-cultural Western societies stand to benefit from considering such concepts at a time when those relationships are so often marked by tension? The idea of leaving one’s cultural comfort zone, relinquishing control, opening oneself to others – these concepts bring with them challenges. Working on the conviction that these ideas are of value for wider society, provided they can be made meaningful for their target audiences, I have been taking these ideas into non- communities in the form of public talks and the travelling exhibition I recently brought to Stockholm University.

These ideas arguably yield their richest fruit, however, when I, as an academic, surrender the privileged position of being the sole, authoritative voice. Over the last year I have run a competition that encouraged young people and old from across the UK to write creatively, in English or German, in response to the ideas represented by the two chairs of the monument. The response was overwhelming and the winners, one as young as eight years old, celebrated by reading their work aloud at an event in Oxford, alongside more established British poets – some of them Muslim. In a parallel project, I worked with a community arts group in Birmingham to draw members of diverse communities together in an encounter experience, in which individuals sat in pairs, looking at each other in silence before meeting and engaging in discussions. In both exercises, the participants all took part because they believed they would be open to the views of other cultures. In reality, the collaborations and discussions proved initially uncomfortable as people learned to adjust to, to process and accept mutual cultural differences. Equally, though, in both exercises a common finding was that, after that period of adjustment, new working and social relationships tended to fall into place. As one visitor commented: “the differences remained, but the strangeness fell away.” That was an idea very close to the ideals Goethe’s writing and the monument to it in Weimar.

When I last visited that city I was struck by powerful messages I took away from the two chairs. However, I was also alone with the monument that grey, windswept day. Not a soul was visiting, other than me. How can we broaden its audience? I, for one, aim to continue promoting artistic responses to the chairs, which itself already mark a response to Goethe’s poems, and will aim to do so in a way that consciously leaves a space for others to speak and provides a context in which cultures can meet in a less oppositional and less ideologically charged manner. In this way, I hope, we can continue to pass on a valuable message that has a little German cultural DNA at its core, but is potentially universal in scope and relevance.