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This article is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Orient und Okzident Brian Morton
Barbara Haus Schwepcke and Bill Swainson (editors), forewords by Daniel Barenboim and Mariam C. Said, A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East and West (Ginkgo); Marilyn Hacker, Blazons: new and selected poems 2000–2018 (Carcanet)

‘Orient und Okzident / nicht mehr zu trennen.’ Even at the approaching end (surely?) of the jihadist spasm, even after a sturdy re-reading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which warned against reifying ‘the East’ as an exotic bazaar, Goethe’s words might seem impossibly utopian, even as a wish. Kipling might seem to offer the more realistic prediction; the twain seem still reluctant to meet. Two centuries after Goethe mused on East and West, forty years after Said’s salutary essay, the world is much foreshortened; Islam and what remains of Christendom are not so much in proximity as intermixed, but often not much better combined than oil and water and sometimes as binary explosive.

Goethe wrote his great West-ōstlicher Divan under the benign influence of the Persian pub poet Hafiz and in correspondence with his late love Marianne von Willemer; the wife of a friend, she became ‘Suleika’ to Goethe’s ‘Hatem’, and may have contributed a couple of lovely lyrics to the East and West winds. In Weimar, Goethe’s last home, there is a monument to the two (male) poets, a pair of chairs carved out of a single piece of granite and disposed facing one another in what still looks like an adversarial rather than companionable or clubby way, as if the world still doesn’t quite know how to interpret Goethe’s late ...


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