Saturday, February 12, 2011

Artifact of the Moment: A Book, and a Belief in World Cultural Unity Amidst Diversity

11 February

Beginning a new rubric, which I had been meaning to do for quite some time.  "Artifact of the Moment" (and yes, I did actually agonize quite a bit over "artifact" versus "artefact," since I somehow want to incline toward the former— but even leaving aside the various etymological arguments, this is the United States in the 21st century).

At any rate, it's an excuse to do something else and, I hope, slightly more than just show and tell. Saying that it does not have to be the equivalent of an elementary-school activity does not mean that it has to rise to the level of a museum exhibit, either.  Large institutions themselves have come to realize this; witness the very successful programs of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and Library of Congress. As individual bloggers have likewise shown, there can be value or at least pleasure in the simple sharing of images and brief commentary, for information and stimulation of conversation.  Matthew Battles brought an edgy intellectuality with a popular touch to the discussion of odd objects over at gearfuse.  Among my own nearby blogging friends and "Tweeps," Marian Pierre-Louis regularly posts images of New England gravestones at "The Symbolic Past," while, over at ArchivesInfo, Melissa Mannon shares finds from the world of ephemera and more (this week, appropriately enough, it's a vintage Valentine's Day card).  And friend Anulfo Baez, the ever-interesting "Evolving Critic," introduced readers to the furniture—rather than architecture— of H. H. Richardson (who knew?).

Given the upheavals of recent weeks—and the world-historical events of this very day—in the Middle East, I'm going to start with an object testifying to the European desire for cultural interchange and symbiosis.

frontispiece and title page:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, West-oestlicher Divan [West-Eastern Divan] 
(Stuttgart: Cotta, 1819)
556 pages, and 3 unpaginated leaves rare uncut, unbound copy (approx. 11.2 X 19.5 cm)
[=publication 1819 D in the Hagen inventory]

 The engraved frontispiece, in Arabic, reads: "The Eastern Divan by the Western Author," reflecting Goethe's concept of a broad and cross-cultural "world literature" (Weltliteratur) that was the patrimony of all humanity:
“I am more and more convinced,” he continued, “that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere, and at all times, in hundreds and hundreds of men. . . .National literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of World literature is at hand, and every one must strive to hasten its approach. But, while we thus value what is foreign, we must not bind ourselves to anything in particular, and regard it as a model. We must not give value to the Chinese, or the Servian, or Calderon, or the Nibelungen; but if we really want a pattern, we must always return to the ancient Greeks, in whose works the beauty of mankind is constantly represented. All the rest we must look at only historically, appropriating to ourselves what is good, so far as it goes.”

(1827) Conversations with Eckermann
Goethe had been working at least since 1814 on poetry inspired by the great fourteenth-century Persian lyric poet "Hafis" (Hafez). However, as he explained to his publisher Johann Friedrich Cotta in 1815, the latter's gift of his edition of Hafis's works in a translation by the prominent Austrian orientalist Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856) lent the effort new impetus.  The goal, Goethe said, was  "to connect, in a cheerful way, the West and the East, the past and the present, the Persian and the German, and to allow the customs and habits of thought of each to overlap."

In writing the Divan, Goethe did not so much try to copy the poetic form of the ghazal (German: Ghasel; rhyming couplets and refrain, in the same meter), as to evoke its spirit and feel. (Contemporaneous German authors of a later generation, such as Friedrich Rückert and August von Platen, pursued the goal of closer poetic imitation.)  The poems also reflect his interest in and respect for Islam.

Some of the pieces appeared separately in various periodicals and serials in the coming years, but it was only in 1819 that the complete collection appeared together. As editor Konrad Burdach put it in the great critical-historical "Weimar Edition" (WA) of Goethe's works, "There is not much to be said in praise of this first edition; although the printing dragged on, it by no means turned out to be particularly accurate." (WA 6:355) The firm of Frommann in Jena  began the work in December 1817 but did not complete it until August 1819, a situation that Goethe finally denounced as irresponsible.

There were all kinds of misprints, from minor typographical errors to garbling of proper names, only a few of which were corrected in the index (for example, rendering "a cygnet" (baby swan) as "a weakening" or "debilitation.")  Of the mistakes that went unnoticed, some were basically harmless but annoying, whereas other garbled names or obscured the intended meaning. There were some corrections. The most significant change was to the title of the fourth poem, "Talismans" ("Talismane"). The printer mistakenly used a far longer early title, "Talismans, Amulets, Abraxas, Inscriptions, and Seals" ("Talismane, Amulete, Abraxas, Inschriften und Siegel").

In the handpress era, text was set by hand (composed) from individual letters, line by line, and then arranged in pages (imposed) and printed on both sides of single sheets of paper, folded together to produce "signatures" (Bogen; Druckbogen) which were then stitched together in gatherings: in this case, "octavo" format, meaning 3 folds of the sheet, to produce a signature of 8 leaves or 16 pages. After the book was given a permanent binding, the page edges were trimmed of excess to remove closed folds and yield a volume of the proper size. (The copy depicted here is rare not only because it is a first edition, but especially because it somehow survived all this time unbound and uncut.)

The typical method of dealing with misprints was simply to add a list of errata (Druckfehler). If the mistakes were caught in time, they might be corrected, though this was not always simple. Corrections that resulted in the addition or deletion of more than a few letters could throw off an entire page, which could in turn affect the rest of the sheet. Circumstances permitting, a middle ground between doing nothing and starting over with a new sheet was to "cancel" and replace just the offending leaf (2 pages) or conjugate pair of leaves (4 adjoining pages). In German, the insert, or cancellans, was referred to as a Carton. This is what happened here, for Goethe ordered the reprinting of the quarter-sheet containing pages 7 through 10.

Here, the translation of the poem , from a late nineteenth-century edition:
God’s very own the Orient!
God’s very own the Occident!
The North land and the South
Rest in the quiet of His hand.

Justice apportioned to each one
Wills He Who is the Just alone.
Name all His hundred names, and then
Be this name lauded high! Amen.

Error would hold me tangled, yet
Thou knowest to free me from the net.
Whether I act or meditate
Grant me a way that shall be straight.

If earthly things possess my mind
Through these some higher gain I fnd;
Not blown abroad like dust, but driven
Inward, the spirit mounts toward heaven.

In every breath we breathe two graces share—
The indraught and the outflow of the air;
That is a toil but this refreshment brings;
So marvelous are our lifes comminglings.
Thank God when thou dost feel His hand constrain,
And thank when He releases Thee again.
(Stanza 1 is a poetic rendering of text from the Qur'an, and stanza 3 is derived from the Qur'an. The closing stanza draws upon the thirteenth-century Gulistan [rose garden] of the great Persian poet Sa'di.)

Speaking of the compass points:  the opening lines from the opening poem, "Hegira," seem most timely today, when the Mubarak government fell, following the collapse of the Tunisian regime and the overwhelming South Sudan vote for independence:
Nord und West und Süd zersplittern,
Throne bersten, Reiche zittern,
North and West and South are crumbling,
Kingdoms tremble, thrones are tumbling;
It sometimes pays to listen to a poet.


German text
• English text

1 comment:

Joe Thompson said...

I look forward to more Artifacts of the Moment. With this one, you went far beyond "simple sharing of images and brief commentary."