Goethe’s book is a pathbreaker, a boundary-crossing intercultural poetic dialogue—one of the most notable and far reaching visions of East-West understanding achieved in modern times. Martin Bidney p. xxv
I would count Goethe among the wisest well-instructed admirers of the Middle-Eastern cultures he non-dogmatically, entertainingly, and thoughtfully presents. Martin Bidney p. Li
The catastrophe of 9/11 brought the fact and complex reality of Islam closer to those in North America than had been the case in the history of those living in Canada and the USA. Many were baffled, confused and angry about the aggressive nature of Islam. Most, sadly so, know little about Islam other than exotic and romantic tales of the East or the demonized image of the militant, suicide bombers. Is there more to the West and Islam than two cultures waged in a clash of civilizations?
The European Tradition has, since the early Middle Ages, pondered the relationship of Islam and Christianity, Orient and Occident, and there can be little doubt that Goethe’s West-East Divan is one of the crowning achievements of that lengthy intercultural dialogue. Goethe (1749-1832) died 180 years ago this year (2012), so there are plenty of good reasons to turn and heed this icon of German culture. The publication of East-West Divan and Goethe’s “Notes and Essays” is a plough to soil cultural breakthrough. The “Introduction” and ”Commentary Poems for Goethe’s West-East Divan” by Martin Bidney makes for an exquisite dessert after a literary feast from a well prepared table. Goethe would be more than pleased and delighted with Bidney’s palate pleasing literary insights and poetry.
I taught a course on Goethe this passing summer, and I have taught courses on Islam for many years. Often, Goethe’s West-East Divan is ignored when Goethe is studied, the “Notes and Essays” are rarely read and few are those who thread together Goethe’s tapestry of Islam and the West. There is no doubt Goethe was on the cutting edge of East-West dialogue, and Bidney’s informed, historic and wise ‘Introduction’ highlights why this is the irrefutable case. The 249 poems in West-East Divan are evocative charmers that walk the curious reader into the best and deepest of the Islamic mystical tradition. There is a welcoming tone and texture to Bidney’s translations, and meditative reads of each of the poems win and woo the longing soul.
Readers of Bidney’s tome will be amply rewarded when reading Goethe’s “Notes and Essays for a Better Understanding of the West-East Divan”---these brief notes and essays invite the reader into the sheer breadth of Goethe’s classical humanistic vision and catholic tastes. The combination of the 249 poems and 60 notes and essays makes for some high ridge sights to be seen.
The fact that Goethe was centuries ahead of his time when probing the mystical depth of Islam makes him a necessary read today in a period of time in which many are suspicious of Muslims. The finale to this compelling tome brings together Bidney’s ‘Commentary Poems for Goethe’s West-East Divan’ in a way that highlights how the West has interacted with Islam and why Islam has still much to teach the spiritually hungry West. The 242 poems by Bidney are must read keepers on Goethe and many other poets. The hefty text would have been much weaker without Bidney’s final poetic reflections.
West-East Divan is a creative portal that if walked through will reveal to the reader both the fullness of Goethe’s mind and poetic imagination and, equally important, finer and more nuanced possibilities for West-East dialogue. Bidney has translated the texts well, brought together some of the finest scholars on Goethe and Islam and advanced the opportunities for a higher and more sophisticated approach to the West and Islam. West-East Divan is an A++ keeper and should be a must read text for those longing for a better future on this fragile earth our island home.