Vol. 32 No. 24 · 16 December 2010

In the Time of Not Yet

Marina Warner on the imaginary of Edward Said

4132 words

Edward Said first met Daniel Barenboim by chance, at the reception desk of the Hyde Park Hotel in June 1993; Said mentioned he had tickets for a concert Barenboim was playing that week. They began to talk. Six years later, in Weimar, they dreamed up the idea of a summer school in which young musicians from the Arab world and from Israel could play together. They hoped, Said remembered in Parallels and Paradoxes, that it ‘might be an alternative way of making peace’. It was in Weimar, he noted, that Goethe had composed ‘a fantastic collection of poems based on his enthusiasm for Islam … He started to learn Arabic, although he didn’t get very far. Then he discovered Persian poetry and produced this extraordinary set of poems about the “other”, West-östlicher Divan, which is, I think, unique in the history of European culture.’ The West-Eastern Divan: the orchestra had a name; it was never discussed again.

It seems odd that Said, the fierce critic of European Orientalism, chose to use the title of a work that, on the face of it, belongs in the Orientalist tradition. Goethe’s poems are filled with roses and nightingales, boys beautiful as the full moon, wine, women and song. Yet as Said saw it, Goethe’s lyric cycle is animated by a spirit of open inquiry towards the East, grounded in a sense of the past in art and culture, not in dogma or military and state apparatuses. He read it as calling for an understanding of individuality as a process of becoming and therefore fluid. He also believed that poetry can have the metaphorical power to proclaim a visionary politics. The cycle represented for him an alternative history and epistemology, concerned with the cross-pollination between East and West. It seemed to confirm the orchestra’s principle that ‘ignorance of the other is not a strategy for survival.’

Said’s approach was always historical; his work as a critic and intellectual was rooted in an examination of context, both cultural and political, and the orchestra, which this summer toured South America, embodies his commitment to the work of art as an actor in its time. The word theoria, he liked to remind us, means ‘the action of observing’; for him, theory was a dynamic, engaged activity, not a matter of passive reception. The theorist-critic should be a committed participant in the works he observes, and the works themselves aren’t self-created or autonomous but precipitated in the crucible of society and history. ‘My position is that texts are worldly,’ he writes in The World, the Text and the Critic. ‘To some degree they are events, and, even when they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted.’ The making of music is an event in this sense too.

Said had long been interested in the historic entanglements of East with West. He always felt himself to be ‘out of place’ (this was the title of his autobiography), and was strongly attracted by displacements that brought one culture in contact with another. He evolved from that sense of dislocation his theory of ‘contrapuntal’ reading, put forward in his essay ‘Reflections on Exile’:

Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that – to borrow a phrase from music – is contrapuntal. For an exile, habits of life, expression or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment.

As a Palestinian who grew up in Egypt and was educated in Cairo and later in the United States, Said was well used to such antiphonal switches of viewpoint. He was a translated man, between East and West, and in between and back again.

The West-Eastern Divan is an example of this contrapuntal consciousness, and its publication in 1819 marks an apogee in the Oriental Renaissance, the era retrospectively named by the French literary scholar Raymond Schwab in a magnificent book, published in 1950, which explored how the culture and civilisation of the West was shaped by the encounter with Arabic, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures in ways not sufficiently recognised. In a wonderful phrase, picked up by Said, Schwab wrote that enthusiasm for the East ‘multiplied the world’; he went on to describe the change in the West’s image of the Orient, from ‘incredulous bedazzlement’ to ‘condescending veneration’. ‘There is,’ Said wrote in a 1976 essay, ‘a saddening impoverishment obviously, from one image to the other.’ Schwab’s approach to the Orient was one that the critic of Orientalism could recognise and support, and Said found a similar approach in Goethe’s passage between East and West, across languages, period and genre. The West-Eastern Divan must also have appealed to Said because of his theory of ‘contrapuntal criticism’: in Goethe’s Oriental masquerade, his impersonation of an exotic alter ego, accompanied by a creative throwing of the voice, acts as a literary analogue to musical counterpoint. No exile in fact, he transmuted Weimar into medieval Shiraz out of a desire to be reborn, renewed.

Oriental masquerade had been the height of fashion throughout the 18th century, on the stage, in fiction and fable, as well as in philosophy and politics. Montesquieu, in Lettres Persanes, adopted the viewpoint of a foreign visitor, and Voltaire’s acerbic Oriental tales, his Contes philosophiques, are an obvious instance of the West putting on Eastern dress in order to examine itself more clearly and skewer iniquities at home, or point the way to social and medical reforms. Said loved Così fan tutte, the last collaboration between Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, which was first performed in Vienna in January 1790. The opera stages very knowingly and farcically an Oriental masquerade, when Don Alfonso devises a trick for the two young men to play on their fiancées, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. They will disguise themselves as Orientals and test the young women’s steadfastness. When they reappear in their masquerade (the word is used often in the opera), the maid Despina immediately draws attention to the new visitors’ appearance, expressing horror at their outlandish moustaches (lots of opportunity here for stage designers to indulge in pantomime excess – gigantic turbans, glittering damasks, swaggering seductiveness). She supposes they must be from the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans or Turkey – later they settle on Albania.

One might have expected Said to find all this demeaning and the worst sort of Orientalism. Instead, he points up the doubts the libretto casts on stable identities and notes the perplexing shifts in the characters’ emotions. His keen interest in the fluidity of the self, something explored by several of his favourite writers, returns again and again in his thoughts on late style, which are attentive to surprise changes of direction, to inconsistency, experiment, ‘anachronism and anomaly’. Don Alfonso, he writes, devises a game ‘in which human identity is shown to be as protean, unstable and undifferentiated as anything in the actual world’.

In a splendid comic aria, stuffed with innuendo, Guglielmo asks the two women to admire him:

Look at us,
Touch us,
Take stock of us:
We’re crazy but we’re charming,
We’re strong and well made,
And as anyone can see,
Whether by merit or by chance,
We’ve good feet,
Good eyes, good noses.
Look, good feet; note, good eyes;
Touch, good noses; take stock of us;
And these moustaches
Could be called
Manly triumphs,
The plumage of love.

The mock serenade reverses the usual direction of a singer’s praise: Guglielmo and Ferrando vaunt their own charms, not the beauty of their love objects. And beneath the froth and wit, the scene stages a double demand: the young women are being asked to look at the Orientals without being prejudiced against them on account of their unfamiliar features (those moustaches); and to see through the men’s disguises to discern their true lovers beneath. The women fail, but in doing so, come to realise their ignorance.

Such recognitions underlie the movement of fairy tales towards their happy endings: Cinderella is seen for who she is, not a slattern after all. In some ways, Così fan tutte also uses Oriental masquerade to warn that one should never trust appearances, not because they are deceptive but because everyone is burdened with prejudicial baggage. The Albanian disguises of the fiancés trigger uncharacteristic behaviour in the two young women: they fall for Oriental seductiveness, even when play-acted. (It’s piquant that fashion later adopted the Oriental moustache so wholeheartedly that every good Victorian paterfamilias cultivated luxuriant whiskers.)

Said was the Nation’s music critic for many years, and paid close attention to Peter Sellars’s productions of Mozart – he always found them compelling, if not entirely successful. Sellars is notorious for his extreme updates: his Don Giovanni is a heroin addict, and he recently set Zaide, an early sketch of The Abduction from the Seraglio, in an Asian sweatshop. Said found much to praise in Sellars’s Così fan tutte, singling out the way his production illuminated the opera’s portrait of human personality as almost infinitely capable of mutation: ‘What Sellars has picked up with great brilliance is the void at the centre … a void that allows an infinite series of substitutions, so long as each is internally consistent in its patterns and conceits.’ ‘La donna è mobile’ indeed. But not only in the sense of ‘fickle’: Said, in his thoughts on contrapuntal harmonies, points out that ‘flightiness’, in the strongest and best sense, could refer to flights of the mind. He discerns a presentiment in Così fan tutte of the more ambiguous, serious meaning that Goethe gave to masquerade, and productions today often refuse to provide a sense of serene closure at the end. What the characters have discovered has unsettled their complacent sense of virtue. They have experienced contrapuntal consciousness and are changed.

Goethe’s Oriental impersonation, which culminates in the poems of the West-Eastern Divan, published 29 years after the first performance of Così fan tutte, invites us to imagine a similar projection of the self into another. He first read The Arabian Nights in Antoine Galland’s French translation of 1704-17; it was one of the spurs to his lifelong curiosity about Eastern literatures and languages, which began with the Bible and soon took him to Islam’s sacred scriptures. The West-Eastern Divan, which he began between 1814 and 1815, is a long, elaborate lyric cycle which draws on Persian and Arabic verse forms, themes and imagery, and sings fervent praises to Oriental attitudes towards love, pleasure and ethics.

Goethe knew the language well enough to write some poems in Arabic script; he read the Koran with care, and acknowledged it as a profound inspiration: Islam seemed to him a liberating alternative to the Christian morality of Germany. ‘The poet considers himself a traveller,’ he wrote of himself in the ‘announcement’ for these poems. ‘He has already reached the Orient. He enjoys its ways, its customs, objects, religious beliefs and views.’ Though he recoiled from the puritanism of Islam (he was a keen tippler), he felt able to declare that he ‘does nothing which would rebut any suspicion that he himself could be a Muslim’.

The result of this immersion is a dramatic spiritual – and carnal – odyssey told in exclamatory lyrics, by turns ecstatic and tender, comic and ferocious; the verses are highly wrought, lapidary, difficult to render into English without producing something that sounds like patter or nursery rhymes. Occasionally, the poems step to the rough music of the vernacular forms developed by Schiller and Heine as well as Goethe himself, inspired by the European oral tradition: ballads, curses, spells, tales, dirges, lullabies, serenades and other kinds of love song. But Goethe chiefly adapts Persian and Arabic lyric forms. As the Arabist Jaroslav Stetkevych has observed, ‘Arabic poetry was admitted in an unmitigated way into European literary sensibility’ through Goethe’s enthusiastic imitatio. Stetkevych is careful to distinguish this development from the study of Arabic culture as a form of scientific ethnography designed to contain and control it, which came later and developed along a different path.

Goethe was captivated above all by the medieval poet Hafiz, who had recently been translated by the Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. Hafiz, who lived in Shiraz, survived the turmoil that resulted from Tamburlane’s invasion, and wrote passionate poetry about drinking and loving well into his later years; he died aged around 70 c.1389. Hailed as a Sufi mystic as well as the hedonist’s patron saint, Hafiz is celebrated as a virtuoso of rhyme and metre, a poète maudit and a great man. He is still a much loved and much quoted poet in Iran. In the souk in Shiraz, there’s said to be a fortune-teller with a pet pigeon: once you pay your rials, the bird pecks a screwed-up bit of paper from a tray on which, as in a fortune cookie, you’ll find a line or two of verse to guide you on your way. They are all from Hafiz. Goethe rhapsodises: ‘And though the whole world sink to ruin, I will emulate you, Hafiz, you alone! Let us, who are twin spirits, share pleasure and sorrow! To love like you, and drink like you, shall be my pride and my life-long occupation.’

The Napoleonic Wars brought Goethe into further contact with Islamic culture, and in unexpected ways. He was a believer in omens, and took it for a sign when a soldier, just returned to Weimar from the Spanish campaign, handed him a manuscript page from a Koran he had taken as booty, which contained Muhammad’s order: ‘Say, “I take refuge with the Lord of men … from the evil.”’ This spoke luminously to Goethe: he must take refuge from the gods and values of his own milieu. His Oriental studies were, he wrote, ‘a kind of Hegira, one flees from the present into distant times and regions where one expects something of paradisal quality.’ (He called an opening poem in the West-Eastern Divan ‘Hegira’.)

The word divan, a novelty in German at that date, originally meant ‘cushion’ in Arabic, and then came to designate the seat of the ruler as he presides over his council of advisers. Its meaning widened so that it could be used to describe an assembly or collection, and in turn a collection of writings, or a book. An analogy in English might be using the word cathedra – ‘throne’ – for a volume of poetry. The use of the word divan also underlines a significant aspect of Oriental attitudes towards literature and its role, to which Goethe in Germany and the Romantics in England (in their early days as radical idealists) also subscribed: poets, Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, must not dissociate themselves from politics.

The titles of the 12 books that make up the West-Eastern Divan – ‘The Book of the Singer’, ‘The Book of Love’, ‘The Book of Proverbs’ and so on – are given in German and Farsi, and lend the sequence a scriptural feel, echoing both the Bible and the Koran. The sequence opens with a quatrain which invokes the Barmecides, a clan famed for their wealth and munificence, who lived in the time of the caliph Haroun al-Rashid and feature in many of The Arabian Nights; this is the Golden Age in the Islamic imaginary, an era of civilised luxury and benevolent rule, when Baghdad was the richest and most populous city in the world. The mood is one of retrospective nostalgia (the translation is John Whaley’s):

Twenty years I let time run
And enjoyed the lot I drew;
Unmarred lovely years, each one,
Like the Barmecides once knew.

Goethe also borrows motifs and tropes from Firdusi and Rumi: their verse is erotic, languishing, potent, full of deep stirrings of desire and passion, the desire of the moth for the flame, but it’s also humorous and lively, as they extol the pleasures of nights of love and drinking. He adopts their verse forms: paeans, epigrams, revenge songs and, above all, the ghazal, the most important form in Persian poetry, a complex antiphonal song in which each verse stands alone, moving in a different direction with a new theme, to jagged and colloquial effect.

Goethe seems to want his readers to imagine that he’s channelling the poems rather than originating them himself. In the Oriental tradition, lyric poetry – with or without music – dominates. This mode seeks to create verbal music with a tempo that readers and listeners experience physically, as in dancing; poetry here attempts to free itself from the constraints of reference, meaning, even sense, and to reach a wordless state of transport (even of self-annihilation – hence the accompaniment of excessive drinking). In this way, lyric institutes an ordering of thought that might contribute to a realigning of values and a remoulding of alliances and allegiances, both personal and social.

The West-Eastern Divan cycle is known today for the rhapsodic suite of love poems in ‘The Book of Suleika’. ‘Suleika’ is an Oriental mask for the young actress, musician and writer Marianne von Willemer, 35 years younger than Goethe, one of a long sequence of women with whom he fell rapturously in love. These erotic invitations encapsulate Oriental lyricism in the Romantic era and have been much anthologised, giving a distorted sense of the whole cycle. Marianne was the youngest performer in a troupe of travelling players when at the age of 16 she was taken into the household of the Frankfurt banker Johann Jakob von Willemer to be educated with his daughters. She became his third wife in 1814 when she was 29, and he seems to have been the most complaisant of husbands, even offering Goethe a ménage à trois (an arrangement to the poet’s taste – this wasn’t the first time).

The two began their love story in Eastern costume: the lovesick Goethe called himself Hatem, after Hatem Thai, a poet to whom Hafiz often refers, who was celebrated for his ‘unsurpassed generosity’. Marianne cast herself as Suleika, the Islamic name for the woman known in the Western tradition as ‘Potiphar’s wife’. As in the Bible, she’s smitten by the young Joseph and makes amorous advances to him; when he flees, leaving his torn shirt behind in his eagerness to escape, she tells her husband he assaulted her. In the West, the story takes the form of a cautionary tale of entrapment and has a distinguished career in the annals of misogyny; in Christian moral exempla, in pictures and in stories, Potiphar’s wife embodies women’s lust and treachery. By contrast, Sura XII (‘Yusuf’) in the Koran relates that Suleika calls her attendants together to witness the power of Joseph’s beauty for themselves, and they are so overcome that they cut themselves with fruit knives – an odd but convincing insight into the perverse effects of desire and the springs of some forms of self-harm. Later, Suleika agrees to put the love of God above her lust for Joseph and her self-restraint earns her a place in the highest rank of Muslim saints.

Goethe deals with the ecstatic erotic strains in this story, rather than the later sanctity: the poems are filled with caresses exchanged, kisses given and taken on her face, her breasts. The poems have become famous in Schubert’s settings, in which the piano wafts and swells, and the voice, closely following the freight of metaphor in the verses, transforms the lifting and freshening of the summer wind into kisses, fondling and pent-up breath:

What means this stirring?
Does the east wind bring me good news?
The fresh moving of his wings
cools my heart’s deep wound…

Ah, the true heart’s message,
breath of love, life renewed,
can be granted me only from his mouth,
from his breath.

This poem, along with several others, has since been attributed to Marianne von Willemer herself, and has become an emblem of German Romantic women’s poetry. If Marianne wrote the lyrics, and Goethe appropriated them, she seems to have taken this as part of the masquerade – at least at first (she claimed authorship in old age). If Goethe wrote them, Marianne was providing him with yet another Oriental mask, a female one.

Although the West-Eastern Divan is chiefly known today for its blazing love poetry, to focus on this would be to ignore the truculent rebelliousness of several other books, in which Goethe emulated another aspect of Hafiz’s work. ‘The Book of Displeasure’, above all, with its dyspeptic epigrams and savage cynicism, is reminiscent of Ovid at his most worldly. In the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, Goethe found himself at odds with most of his contemporaries in his resistance to nationalism and sympathy for the French. His opposition to the power politics of European nations refracts Hafiz’s ferocious disgust with his times. In spite of all the roses, moonlight and nightingales, Hafiz also makes rough music, not so much in the sound of his poetry as its effects: shaking up received ideas, breaking through borders. In keeping with his spirit, Goethe’s songs change their mood and bristle with anti-worldly scorn.

Passionate lyric is usually considered a game for the young. When he wrote the Divan, Goethe was in his sixties. That was old in 1814 (though we don’t think so now: on Saidian principles, the experience of age is itself being changed by history). In the same decade of his life, Said was terminally ill with leukaemia, and his thoughts turned to the effects of lateness. For him, late style is not merely a matter of chronological or biographical facts, but is rather a way of thinking and making, composing and writing; it can bring a newly discovered freedom of speech, a renewed courage in risk-taking and experiment, and open the mind to the potential for productive change. Goethe’s break with the past, on the one hand, and his contrapuntal projections, contradictions and harmonies, on the other, made him in his old age a perfect presiding spirit for the new orchestra.

The arts play a crucial part, Said maintained, in creating and fostering the historical memory vital in the foundation of a nation state. His argument grows in force when considered along with Paul Gilroy’s analysis in Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture.* In eloquent indignation, Gilroy sets out how ‘the wholesale privatisation of culture’ transforms the ‘mechanisms of social memory’, damaging people’s sense of social groups, their history and consequently their identities. Gilroy sees music, and especially live music performed to live audiences, as a powerful mode of cultural expression, with the potential to supersede individual interests and political antagonisms. The performers in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are, in Gilroy’s phrase, working as ‘responsible troubadours’. The time in which they play and perform is the time of the ‘not yet’, of one day soon – the time of the Blues. ‘The pursuit of an alternative future,’ he writes, ‘necessitates the cultivation of counter-memory. Even time … “loses its power when remembrance redeems the past”.’ Barenboim and Said’s orchestra is drafting an alternative future by living a different present, engaged in the making of these counter-memories.

Said in his own late style argues an oblique, difficult way back to politics, specifically to a politics of culture capable of admitting contradiction and in which the difficulties of reconciliation and harmony are confronted. It is a late style of furious advocacy as well as invective. He never lost this fine fury, but his many antagonists are blind to the humanism he embraced in this late period, and his belief in the possibility that culture might be able to cross borders and even move them. The name of the orchestra he founded sets up a counterpoint of voices across time: Goethe speaks to and through Persian poetry; the orchestra plays under the aegis of Said and Barenboim, independent-minded and interculturally tolerant.

To do something ‘in concert’ means to combine together towards an enterprise. There is an overtone of difficulty – concerted effort – and an echo (which has no etymological rationale) of concentration. Concord, concordance and the chord itself also sound in the word. A concert is a performance in unanimity but not in unison: different voices, different sounds are necessary to its full expression. A concert can also be a historic occasion, a landmark in human experience, as when the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra played in Ramallah in 2005. The orchestra has not played a concert in Israel, in Jerusalem. Not yet. We are still in the time of ‘not yet’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 33 No. 2 · 20 January 2011

Marina Warner in her otherwise fine article on Edward Said and the West-Eastern Divan has a few things backwards (LRB, 16 December 2010). The word divan, which Warner rightly states was ‘a novelty in German’ in Goethe’s day, did not originally mean ‘cushion’ in Arabic and then come to be associated with the members of the ruler’s court and, later, books. First, the word is not Arabic, but Persian. Second, diwan (as it is pronounced in Arabic) did not originally mean ‘cushion or couch’: in the first centuries of Islam, diwan and its related verbal forms referred to the process of recording, collecting and collating all kinds of information in writing. It was in this sense of a record that the word was used for the roll-call of soldiers in the early Muslim armies, then by the caliphs of Baghdad for the particular bureaus of government, and later by the administrators of the Ottoman sultans for their own administrative organs. In the course of time, the term came to refer not only to these units of government, but also to the hall or chamber in which the particular section of the administration held its sessions. Residues of the term’s widespread administrative usage can be seen in the Spanish, French and Italian terms (aduana, douane, dogana) for the customs house. According to the OED, the association of diwan/divan with a couch or cushion in English first occurred at the beginning of the 18th century, when English visitors witnessed Ottoman officials seated on long, cushioned benches during administrative sessions. It seems likely that a traveller confusing the practice of sitting on a cushioned bench with the name of the hall in which he sat was the first person to use the word in this way.

Maurice Pomerantz
New York University

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences