(Third)worlding the House of Literature: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Weltliteratur---An Early 21st Century Indian Response



            Introduction:  Goethe’s India

              The starting point for this paper was my recollection the memory of the thrill that I had experienced on first reading The Sorrows of Young Werther almost twenty years ago as a graduate student, far away from home.  Werther, to me, was the window to the whole predicament of the Romantic self: alienated, self-absorbed, and fatally attracted to the sensuous, yet seeking some sort of transcendental permanence.1 Of course, I was not the first young man to be so possessed by Werther.  About 200 years ago, the whole of Europe had fallen prey to what has been called "Werther-sickness."  In fact, Napoleon is known to have read the book seven times—even at Waterloo!  More than any other single text, it was Werther that was responsible for the creation of European romanticism (Strich 159-173).  I was, of course, full of trepidation in approaching Goethe considering how great a figure he was and how little I knew of him.  I remembered what none other than T. S. Eliot had said of Goethe: "Whenever a Virgil, a Dante, a Shakespeare, a Goethe is born, the whole future of European poetry is altered" (Dasgupta 8).  In addition, there was the daunting volume and vastness of the Goethe archive.  As his English biographer, Nicholas Boyle, said in the very first line of his Preface:  “More must be known, or at any rate there must be more to know, about Goethe than about almost any other human being." But, despite my reservations, I soldiered on, thinking there was no harm in approaching Goethe in the attitude of a student, not an expert.  Hadn’t Albert Schweitzer famously remarked:  "No one who comes to Goethe will go away with empty hands, but will always take with him something that is good for his own life" (quoted in Dasgupta title pg).2

              There was, let me confess, an additional reason for again picking up the slender thread of my acquaintance with Goethe.  The fact is that to my knowledge there are very few notable Indian scholars of Goethe and a significant tradition of Goethe scholarship in India is yet to emerge.  This is a fact that Sisir Kumar Das, in his essay “Goethe and India:  Towards a World Literature” notices right in the beginning:  “few indeed have intimate acquaintance with this many-splendoured genius who has often been described as Europe’s last universal man” (120).  And yet the need for such an Indian response to one of the great figures of European literature is more than obvious.  Because, as we all know, Goethe had a special link with India.  I remember how as a very young child I had heard the story of Goethe's ecstatic response to Kalidasa's Shakuntala.  "He put the book on his head and danced," I was told very confidently by my now forgotten interlocutor, no doubt as proof of the undying greatness, even superiority, of the classical Indian poet-playwright.  Even if the gesture and the theatrics attributed to Goethe are apocryphal, who can forget the rich and fulsome praise of his encomium to Kalidasa?  It was in 1791, just two years after William Jones' English translation, that Georg Forster published the first German version of Shakuntala. Goethe wrote his famous quatrain on Shakuntala in a letter to F. H. Jacob dated 1st June 1781:

              Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline,

              And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed?

              Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?

              I name thee, O Sakoontala!  And all at once is said.

                                                                                    E. B. Eastwick's translation

It is believed that it was from Shakuntala that Goethe borrowed the idea of the Sutradhar for his own masterpiece, Faust, where in the Prologue he uses the theatre director to introduce the play.

              Though Goethe's enthusiasm for things Indian waned with the years 3, that there was a distinctive Indian moment in German Romanticism of the eighteenth century cannot be denied.  As is well known, some of the leading literary and cultural figures of that time, such as Herder, Heine, August and Friedrich Schlegel, Habbel, were deeply influenced by India.  This German response, along with that of countless others from William Jones to Kathleen Raine, might be characterized as the Other mind of Europe, to use a phrase by J.P.S. Uberoi.  It is the Other mind because it was different from the dominant Europe that we have encountered from the beginnings of the modern colonial era. The dominant Europe has been, I need not spell out, imperialistic, hegemonic, oppressive, exploitative, violent, predatory, and destructive.  Of course, there are links between the two faces of Europe as they are presented to us; some have even argued that the softer visage was merely a mask that hid the true face of the conqueror.  I need not add that even if there was this Other side of Europe, it was not monolithic or homogenous but diverse and, often, contradictory.

Indeed, a little reflection will show us how our view of Europe will depend, to a large extent, on our view of ourselves.  There is, as I have said, a "hard" Orientalist position that would paint all of Europe with one imperialistic brush.  From this standpoint Europe's contacts with the rest of the world were motivated only by greed and lust for power.  This position would deny any redeeming or positive values to the contact of India with Europe.  On the other hand, there are those whom we might call the "hard" Anglicists who might claim that all of Europe's impact on us was eminently salutary and worthy of imitation.  As the late Nirad Chaudhury claimed, "all that was good and living within us was made, shaped, and quickened" by British rule (Dedication to The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian).  This hard Anglicist position would, it goes without saying, reject Indian civilization and would seek to reconstruct a brave new modern India along western lines.

I myself would tend to assume a softer, more varied stance that allows for differentiation and variety.  I would argue that the European impact on India was neither wholly beneficial nor wholly harmful and that even its beneficial effects were not free of the arrogance and taint of imperialism.  But this is inevitable of all encounters between unequals.  Whenever power enters into a relationship, it produces a distortion.  So whenever we read Europe, we have to take this distortion into account.  I have spent sometime in elaborating, if not reiterating, the above framework because I intend to use it as the groundwork for my reading of Goethe.  Without such a framework I believe that most Indian responses to Europe flounder and falter, ending up as little more than weak echoes of Europe's own self-understanding.

A little while back, I made a plea for an Indian tradition of reading Goethe, or indeed, of German or European literature.  This is needed not only because of Goethe (or German or European literature) are great, but because we in India need very badly to break free from the stranglehold of Anglo-American scholarship.  Europe is much more than just England and America.  Without opening our eyes to other European literatures, our understanding is bound to be incomplete and inadequate.  And of all other nations of Europe, it is Germany that has had the longest and most sustained interest in Indic studies.  It is even more useful to study Goethe and the German Romantics because most of their views on India were untainted by the kind of imperialistic blindness that infected a majority of the British Indophiles.  As Pramod Talgeri says "It is a peculiar phenomenon that the relationship between the two countries in this context was free from political or economic motives" (14).  Whereas most of the British Orientalists, let us not forget, were also administrators and rulers of India.  In Goethe and some of his contemporaries, then, we get a rather fresh, natural, and uncontaminated response to Indian culture.  Though mediated through colonialist translations, the Indian texts that reached them made a genuine impact on them and elicited a strong, creative, and fruitful response.


Goethe’s Modernity

Goethe is important to us for another reason.  His outlook on life, his worldview was holistic and, to that extent, opposed to the emerging currents of modernity in Europe.  It is in this sense, too, that he represents the Other mind of Europe.  Goetheian science, for example, is totally different from the mainstream of modern science as we have come to know it.  It is well known that Goethe was the founder of comparative anatomy, that his work helped considerably in the construction of the theory of evolution, that he founded important museums collections in botany, geology, and zoology, that he make significant investigations in plant growth processes, and that he propounded a profoundly original theory of colour.  Goethe's scientific work was not just overshadowed by his eminence as a poet, but also rejected by most of his contemporaries.  Despite this rejection, he laboured with an inner faith in the value of his work.  In fact, Goethe scientific studies continued right to the year of his death in 1832.  Despite what he himself called the prevalence of "esoteric confessions" in his scientific work, Goethe never advocated a lax or mystical approach to the observation of phenomenal reality.  The only difference was that for him empirical observation had to progress to intuitive perception.  As Douglas Miller says, "Despite the need to categorize, Goethe remained convinced that nature was a whole, and that it simply manifested itself through individual phenomena" (xvii).  Goethe, like Vivekananda and Tagore after, sought to reconcile science and poetry:  he looked forward to a time when "the two can meet again on a higher level as friends" (quoted in Miller xviii).  As Rudolf Steiner points out in Goethe, the Scientist, Goethe was against the mechanistic worldview.  Similarly, Dennis L. Seppar in Goethe Contra Newton argues that Goethe's science was not only anti-reductionist, but it also had an ethical dimension (187-190).  The most extraordinary dimension of Goethe's science was his insistence on the self-development of the scientist:  "Goethe realized that proper scientific work should bring a change in the scientist himself, especially in his mode of perception, and that this change then affected the practice of science" (Miller xix).

It is a matter of special pride that one of the most eloquent and forceful interpretations of Goethe the scientist has come from an Indian sociologist, J.P.S. Uberoi.  In Science and Culture (1978), Uberoi outlines two approaches to the development of science in Europe, semiology versus positivism.  Semiology was pushed into the background by an ascendant positivism.  "For the semiologist, the whole is always in some sense superior and even prior to its parts," says Uberoi, while the positivist system is based upon two dualisms, between fact and value on the one hand, and theory and practice on the other.  Uberoi locates Goethe firmly in the tradition of semiology.  In The Other Mind of Europe:  Goethe as a Scientist (1984), Uberoi pushed these ideas farther.  He argued that Goethe was operating in a different scientific paradigm that gave importance to the archetype and symbol, as against the science of system and method.  Tracing this tradition back to Paracelsus and the hermeticists, Uberoi offered a new defence of Goethe's theory of colours and his work in plant metamorphosis.  Uberoi regarded Goethe's science as basically nondualist, while the whole edifice of modernity is built on duality.

Thus we see that not only do Goethe's ideas go against the separation of the subject and the object, of value and fact, of morality and science, upon which the whole edifice of modern civilization is built, but they also refuse to accede to the emerging dominance of the positivistic, the empiricist, and the instrumental attitude to nature.  It is therefore stunning to read the following description of his own perceptive processes that Goethe wrote in his review of Purkinje's Sight from a Subjective Standpoint (1824):

When I closed my eyes and lowered my head, I could imagine a flower in the center of my visual sense. Its original form never stayed for a moment:  it unfolded, and from within it new flowers continuously developed with colored petals or green leaves.  These were not natural flowers; they were fantasy flowers, but as regular as rosettes carved by a sculptor....

                                                                                                   (Quoted in Miller xix)

To me, at least, this description resembles that of a mystical vision or the unfolding of the Kundilini, in which an illumination, not the regular thought processes, reveals the nature of truth.

In a similar vein, Fritz Strich observes:  "Goethe's devotion to the East is itself a kind of devout longing to be transformed through self-sacrifice, to be purified and born again out of the East to rise anew as a European" (149). Of course, it would be too tempting and facile to slide into any simple assertion of affinity or resemblance between Goethe and Eastern mysticism.  Quoting Erich Truntz's remark that "The oriental world was not strange to Goethe," Talgeri warns against precisely such an assumption:

In the secondary research literature Goethe's interest in the oriental culture and philosophy has normally been attributed to the resemblance of his views with the oriental way of life and thinking" ("Goethe's perception of oriental culture" 171).

Talgeri says instead that "in fact not the familiarity but the strangeness" of Oriental culture appealed to Goethe, that it was this Otherness that he sought to incorporate into his own world view in works such as The Divan:  West and East in order to arrive at his own "life coherence" (ibid).

We shall have occasion to return to this idea of absorbing diverse influences so as to form a sort of composite coherence later--indeed, perhaps, this might be what Goethe meant when he spoke of world literature--a new literature which would emerge from a new mind.  But, right now, let us return to a remark that Goethe made after he had written his Divan in 1818.  He wished to create a conceptual framework for an even more ambitious work in the future which would contain a kind of "observation which oscillates between the sensuous and the super-sensuous, without however clinging to only one of them" (ibid 173).

              In the foregoing discussion I have tried to show how Goethe is a figure of special importance to us in India because he represents one of the most coherent and successful attempts within European tradition to attain the kind of integral approach to reality which we have always valued in Indic civilizations.  What Goethe achieved is really a fine balancing act, to invoke an Upanashidic phrase, like walking the razor's edge, because he could be progressive and evolutionary without denying the beauty and perfection of the past; he could be scientific and empirical without giving up the subjective, the poetic, the ethical; he could be moved, inspired, and enriched by the treasures of other cultures without giving up his own; in other words, he could be German, European, and yet universal in a uniquely rich and fulfilling way.  In turning to Goethe's thoughts on world literature, it would be particularly useful to bear this negative capability, this ability to reconcile opposites in mind.  I propose that it is out of such a quest for a larger "life-coherence" that Goethe's idea of world literature emerges.


Goethe’s Weltliteratur

              Goethe's ideas on weltliteratur (world literature) were scattered, not systematic.  As Fritz Strich in the only book which bears the exact title of our seminar, Goethe and World Literature says, "at no point did Goethe himself unequivocally state what he wished to be understood by world literature" (5).  It is, nevertheless, what Strich calls a "magical term" which at once "brings to mind a feeling of liberation, of such gain in space and scope" (Strich 3).  That is all the more reason that we bear in mind that Goethe's thoughts on the subject belong to a specific time and place--the term itself was coined in 1827 (Strich  160), though Goethe had been thinking along these lines earlier and continued to do so later.  It is therefore imperative that we do not wrench these ideas out of their context and attempt to derive from them some contemporary, even postcolonial idea of a global literature.  But before proceeding, let us briefly recount some of Goethe's observations.


1.  "National literature is no longer of importance; it is the time for world              literature, and all must aid in bringing it about."  (Gearey 224).

              Lest we jump to the conclusion that Goethe was suggesting a postmodern withering away of the nation-state, we must remember that he was capable of saying what seems like exactly the opposite thing:  "Poetry is cosmopolitan, and the more interesting the more it shows its nationality" (Gearey 228).  Elsewhere, Goethe says, "only from a real nation can a national writer of the highest order be expected" (Spingrarn 84).  From this one example, we can see that like all great men, Goethe was wont to contradict himself now and again.


2.  "...I am convinced that a world literature is beginning to develop, in which an honourable role is reserved for us Germans."  (Gearey 225)


3. "The world at large, no matter how vast it may be, is only an expanded homeland and will actually yield in interest no more than our native land.  ...  The serious-minded must therefore form a silent, almost secret congregation, since it would be futile to oppose the powerful currents of the day."  (Gearey 227)


4. "The phenomenon which I call world literature will come about mainly when the disputes within one nation are settled by the opinions and judgements of others."  (Gearey 228)


5."For it is evident that all nations, thrown together at random by terrible wars, then reverting to their status as individual nations, could not help realizing that they had been subject to foreign influences....  Instead of isolating themselves as before, their state of mind has gradually developed a desire to be included in the free exchange of ideas."  (Gearey 228).

The fullest discussion of these ideas is found, as I mentioned earlier, in Strich's book, which was published in 1945, but based on lectures that he gave as early as 1929.  For Strich, world literature essentially meant "the choice literature which has gained for itself a significance transcending nationality and time" (4).  He also identifies various other senses of the term such as: a link literature; the literature of/in translation; letters between authors of different nations; a branch of scholarship, especially comparative literature; and world poetry as the essence of world literature (Strich 5-16).  This shows us the multiple, overlapping, and at times contrary meanings inherent in the term world literature.

There are only two Indian scholars I know who have written in some detail about this idea is R. K. Dasgupta.  He begins his brief essay "Goethe on World Literature" by quoting from a letter that Carlyle wrote to Goethe on 22 January 1831:  "What I have named world literature after you ... [is] to become more and more one universal Commonwealth" (Dasgupta 21).  Dasgupta uses this letter to argue that by world literature, Goethe did not mean "airy cosmopolitanism" or an "intellectual internationalism" that was a cover for "intellectual rootlessness" (21).  Nor, according to Dasgupta, is Goethe's notion of world literature to be confused with comparative literature, the study of "resemblances and differences between national literatures" (ibid). Dasgupta also clarified that "Nothing could be further from his [Goethe's] mind than to suppose that World-literature was the total amount of literature produced in the world" (ibid). Later, Dasgupta went on to say that "Goethe's World-literature does not really mean the production of a new literature which would be the literature of the new universal man" (22).  Instead, for Dasgupta, it was the discovery of "those elements in a national literature which are universal and are, therefore, capable of being appreciated by other nations" which makes for world literature:  "The discovery of this element of universality makes possible the emergence of a World-literature" (ibid). Dasgupta adds, "to appreciate the universal element in a literature you must first understand its national peculiarity" (22).  And finally that "World-literature involves the idea of a world mind" (21).

The other scholar, whose work I’ve already cited, is Sisir Kumar Das.  He notes that Goethe’s idea of a world literature was really an extension of his notion of European literature as the a collection of, in Goethe’s own words, “the universally valid human elements that are distributed over the entire earth in most varied forms” (124).  But this notion was predicated on the possibility of the emergence of a new epoch in human consciousness, something that Rabindranath Tagore also reiterated, without referring to Goethe, in his 1907 lecture at the National Council of Education (125).  Das’s essay is, despite its title, not a detailed exposition of Goethe’s idea of world literature.  Instead, he notes that the idea no longer has the kind of vital energy that it once enjoyed.  According to Das, world literature must include the “study and understanding of texts which have been admired and preserved by different literary communities through a considerable length of time” (126).  World literature, in other words, is tantamount to “a study of classics” though necessarily free from “any hegemonic poetics” (ibid). 

Frankly, I find both these views not entirely satisfactory.  Das, by turning Goethe’s idea to the study of world classics, reduces, to my mind, its possible implications.  Dasgupta's positions, on the other hand, appear to me to be somewhat contradictory and, in any case, not properly elucidated.  Yet, it is useful to examine his comments because they help identify the key features of the debate on world literature.  I tend to agree with Dasgupta that Goethe's idea of world literature is, first of all, not a sum total of various national literatures.  It is not, in other words, what Sisir Kumar Das in his Introduction to A History of Indian Literature calls "an arithmetical approach" (vol 8: 8).  Nor does Goethe suggest that world literature is, by definition, opposed to national literature.  This relationship between the local and the global, between the national and the international is quite a tricky issue.  Indeed, Bhalchandra Nemade in his famous essay "Nativism in Literature" (Sahityateel Deshiyata") argues that what goes by the name of internationalism is only a European colonialism in disguise.  For Nemade, the classics of world literature are nothing but classics of specific native literary traditions which, because of certain historical and cultural forces, become reference points for the world community:  "Certain historical circumstances create situations in which literary works produced by a particular civilization act as a central reference code for the emotional problems of the world community" (Paranjape 245).  In other words, these works are not inherently international, but that "In such historical moments, such an atmosphere is created that the sensibilities of a regional group represent the sensibilities of the whole humanity" (ibid). Unlike Das who argues, for instance, that Goethe’s Faust has some inherently “international” themes, for Nemade the concept of a transcendental world literature, above and beyond space and time, is a myth.  All world literature is also at once regional or native literature of a peculiar place and time:  "An 'international' literature without native reference does not exist" (ibid 246). The real question, to me, is precisely this:  if world literature does not, by definition, oppose national or regional literature, then how is it to be distinguished from the latter?  Is world literature that which is not national/regional or is it a special type of national/regional literature?

Perhaps, this may be the appropriate place to bring in another nativist critic, G. N. Devy.  In a chapter called "Nation in Narration" towards the end of his new book, Of Many Heroes, Devy says that a literary history cannot be written without "the institutionalized teaching of history, and the emergence of a culture's self-recognition" (161).  To illustrate his point, Devy says:

For example, millions of people all over the world travel every day for various reasons; and often they travel through towns, territories, nations which are not their own.  No one has thought of writing a history of literature by and for travellers in the world.  But as soon as these people acquire a sense of sharing a common fate, the sense of being a community, there will emerge a need for the history of expatriate literature.      (Ibid)

Obviously, this process of the self-recognition, empowerment, and institutionalization of migrants, exiles, diasporics, and other displaced people is precisely what the emergence of postcolonial studies all over the world is all about.  This is what Bhabha means when he says that world literature is "an emergent, prefigurative category that is concerned with a form of cultural dissensus and alterity, where non-consensual terms of affiliation may be established on the grounds of historical traumas" (see "Introduction," The Location of Culture 1-18).  But this is going to the other extreme, of hegemonising alterity and difference, of privileging dissent and dislocation, of rewarding displacement with an ontological status.  If this is the shape of world literature, it is as much based on exclusion as are the older, more consensual and stable forms of self-formation and identity seeking. The point is that the world is still an idea, while the idea of the nation is a reality.  Everyone who lives in a nation also lives in the world, but it is not possible at present to live in the world without living in a nation.  That is why the idea of world literature is still emergent, not actualized.

              Yet, Goethe's idea has a definite resonance for us today, partly because we are living at a time when national barriers are breaking down, largely by the forces of technology and trade if not by wars and disasters.  We may recall that the time Goethe lived in was also one of shrinking boundaries and unprecedented crossings.  As Dasgupta puts it:

When Sir William Jones's English translation of Shakuntala appeared in 1879 Goethe was forty years of age.  Forster's German translation of Shakuntala appeared in 1791.  Six years earlier, that is, in 1785, had appeared Charles Wilkins's English translation of the Bhagavadgita.  Frederick Schlegel's The Language and Wisdom of India was published in 1808.  Ten years after this, in 1818, Frederick Schlegel's brother A. W. Schlegel was appointed Professor of German at Bonn.  Bopp's Analytical Comparison of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Teutonic Languages appeared in 1816.  Jayadeva's Gitagovinda was translated into English prose by Sir William Jones in 1789.  (23-24)

The idea that Dasgupta tries to convey, I think, is that Europe and India, not to speak of the rest of the world, were closer than ever before.  You could read a text from a distant land and period in the most fresh and contemporary manner.  Literally, a new world of creative possibilities, a new cultural commonwealth was emerging.  It was out of such ferment the notion of world literature was born.4

              Today, however, we see that the vision of a global world order clearly implies the continued domination of the Western powers, militarily, economically, and culturally.  That is why some critics wish to salvage the universal, that older enlightenment notion, while still opposing the global.  Of these, Aijaz Ahmad is perhaps the most sensible and eloquent.  In an interview with the New York based Monthly Review, he says:

world literature remains the horizon of universalist desire. But the ground reality is that there really is no alternative to picking up small chunks and doing them well, whatever those chunks get called.

Ahmad arrives at this conclusion after warning us that "world literature will always reflect the inequalities of the imperialist system so long as this system lasts."5  Despite this drawback, Ahmad is unwilling to give up the idea of universality.  Of course, there is an even more serious warning that Ahmad sounds:

One problem is how this world literature is to be actually taught and read. The idea of world literature in the traditional sense, a la Goethe, remains deeply canonical, even Arnoldian: all the best that has been thought and written is now to be culled not from this or that nation but from the world. If you think about it, this way of reading "great books" produced in the various continents in the world, assembled in a canonizing way, is perfectly reconcilable with the intensified integration of the upper classes of the world into something resembling a world bourgeoisie. It is very easy for world literature to represent this global integration and arrive at an easy, even very glossy capitalist universalization. In this area, we have to question the very idea of literature and we have to be very suspicious of all texts, certainly including the ones that arrive from the Third World, insofar as they display the slightest potential for canonicity. We have to begin, in fact, with a great suspicion of the very fact that the category of world literature as a pedagogical object is arising in the core capitalist countries, whereas the poorer countries have no means of their own to constitute such objects.

I agree with Ahmad that like the idea of the nation or of national literature, we shall have to question what kind of world literature we are talking about before supporting or opposing it.  If world literature is just another name for imperialism, obviously we don't want it just as we don't nationalism if it is nothing more than fascism.  But if world literature points to the idea of a universal culture or civilization that is egalitarian, pluralistic, multicultural, then this idea, however utopian, is worth striving for.  I suspect that is what Goethe really had in mind.  In fact, it is an ideal that might inspire spiritual people as it does genuine Marxists.  There are doctrinal and theoretical questions at stake in Ahmad's position which, of course, I need not venture into just now.6

              What we have seen is that world literature is not a realized entity, but as yet an ideal, a distant dream.  It is the sort of dream of a world culture or civilization that inspired several Indian change-agents including Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. As Strich puts it, world literature is "Nor merely that which at any given moment actually exists, but also that which is striving to be born" (3).  It is, moreover, an idea predicated upon the emergence of a world community, a world civilization that is universal without being homogenous.  Those who believe in the New Age hope and pray for precisely such a perfected world, a new Satya Yuga, which includes and exceeds all the four previous yugas.  Perhaps the most detailed and persuasive formulation of this golden tomorrow is available in the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.  Like Goethe, Sri Aurobindo was had an evolutionary outlook.  He believed that the future of humanity is luminous because encased in the human is the Divine struggling to manifest itself in all its splendour.  In the idea of the Supermind, Sri Aurobindo saw the highest rung of the evolution of the cosmos before its merger into the Absolute, Satchitananda, that is beyond name and form.  But in the Supermind, both the Ananda of creation and the Perfection of the Absolute are present.  The Mother declared that the Supermind had actually descended into the earth atmosphere on 29 February 1956.7  Whether or not we believe in such millennial prophecies that is the direction to which, I believe, our study of Goethe's idea of world literature will actually take us.  That, after all, is also the direction in which alchemical thought from the earliest times, has ventured.  That Goethe was a part of this ancient wisdom tradition should be obvious to anyone who reads his work carefully.  Both as a poet and as a scientist, Goethe was passionately concerned with the perfectibility of nature, of the wedding, so to speak, of nature and supernature, the union of heaven and earth Blake envisioned too.  I trust that by such a reading, though I might have brought Goethe closer to us in India, I have not done the injustice of misunderstanding him or of wrenching him out of his European, German context.  Because, ultimately, is not merely as an Indian that I should like to encounter Goethe, but as one world citizen in dialogue with another on the stage that he himself so aptly named as world literature.



Colophon:  This is a modified version of the Keynote address that I delivered at the International Seminar on “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:  Dwelling in the House of World Literature,” jointly sponsored by the Department of English, University of Mumbai and the Max Mueller Bhavan from 30th  September to 1st October 1999.  Homi Bhabha had been slated as the Keynote speaker, but could not make it.  Naturally, I had my own hesitations in the invitation to deliver the Keynote address in his stead.  I explained my reservations in the opening remarks of the Keynote address, some of which I reproduce below.

My acceptance of Professor Nilufer Bharucha's invitation to deliver a Keynote address in this seminar may, I am afraid, prove the age-old adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  Although the angel in this case might have been of a somewhat deconstructive disposition, nevertheless, filling in for him would be virtually impossible--after all, who could be as erudite--or incomprehensible--as Homi Bhabha?  But in matters of accepting such invitations, ultimately, what prevails is the kindness and insistence of friends if not one's foolish bravado; these two, at any rate, make the heady cognitive cocktail, fortified with which I stand before you today.


1. Clark S. Muenzer, commenting on Goethe's characters in Figures of Identity:  Goethe's Novels and the Enigmatic Self, observes:  "The aspiring individual in his orientation toward substantive centres, first establishes himself in relation to infinite hopes.  But he must also recognize these centres as possibilities of the imagination" (145).  Incidentally, Sisir Kumar Das, in his essay “Goethe and India:  Towards a World Literature” notes the “frigid Indian response” to this “novel of astonishing emotional power” (127).  Indian lyricism, according to Das, drew its inspiration from English literature rather than from a text like Werther which “made Goethe renowned all over Europe” (ibid).


2. This is a modified version of the keynote address delivered at an international seminar on “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:  Dwelling in the House of World Literature,” jointly sponsored by the Department of English, University of Mumbai and the Max Mueller Bhavan from 30th  September to 1st October 1999.  Homi Bhabha had been slated as the keynote speaker, but could not make it.  I explained my reservations assuming his place in the opening remarks:  my acceptance of Professor Nilufer Bharucha's invitation to deliver a Keynote address in this seminar may, I am afraid, prove the age-old adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  Although the angel in this case might have been of a somewhat deconstructive disposition, nevertheless, filling in for him would be virtually impossible--after all, who could be as erudite--or incomprehensible--as Homi Bhabha?

3.  In a letter dated 22nd October 1826 he wrote:  "I have by no means an aversion to things Indian, but I am afraid of them, for they draw my imagination into the formless and the diffuse, against which I have to guard myself more than ever before...." (quoted in Dasgupta 28).


4. Stritch makes a detailed survey of the European origins of Goethe's idea of world literature; see the chapters, "Sources," 31-51, and "History" 52-80.

5. Edward Said makes similar observations in Culture and Imperialism  52.  Such remarks reflect a larger mistrust with homogenizing and universalizing projects.  Consider, for instance, Bhabha’s diatribe against Commonwealth literature:  “[Commonwealth literature’s] versions of traditional academicist wisdom moralize the conflictual moment of colonialist intervention into that constitutive chain of exemplum and imitation, what Friedrich Nietzche describes as the monumental history beloved of ‘gifted egoists and visionary scoundrels’ ” (“Signs Taken for Wonders” 147).

6. For instance, what would be the role of an international bourgeoisie in the formation of the new world order.  Are they to be treated as the enemy of the emerging global proletariat or the agents of history who have a valuable role to play?  Besides, one may clearly discern the emergence of a global bourgeoisie, but hardly a global working class.  Perhaps, one would have to rethink the idea of class struggle itself.

7. For an introduction to Sri Aurobindo's thought see, The Penguin Sri Aurobindo Reader, which I have edited.






                                                                 Works Cited


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-----.  The Other Mind of Europe:  Goethe as a Scientist. New Delhi:  Oxford UP, 1984.

  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape