Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Daniel Weintraub A Friendship Across Lifetimes

                A Friendship Across Lifetimes

For my final paper, I will write about the relationship and legacies of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe and Hafez. The two were separated by about 500 years, with Hafez dying in 1390, and Goethe in 1832. Hafez was born in the city of Shiraz, which back then was located in Persia. He was said to have remained there until death. Goethe lived his whole life in present-day Germany (formerly the Holy Roman Empire), barring two years in Italy and Sicily. Hafez was a Sufi Muslim, Goethe a Protestant Christian. Hafez wrote in Persian, Goethe in German. Different continents, different time periods, different cultures, different languages, different stories. With so much separating the two, how can one say that Hafez and Goethe even had a relationship?

True friendship in its simplest form is a reciprocal relationship. When remarking on civic friendship (what I will refer to as deep friendship), Cybil Shwarzenbach states that “The central idea is that in civic friendship {…} (there is) a reciprocal awareness of the moral equality of the other, reciprocal goodwill towards them, and a practical doing– become embodied in the background ‘basic structure’ of society” (Schwarzenbach 5). Deep friendship goes against narcissism and self-importance. It involves sacrifice for the other and is often antithetical to one’s immediate good.

Now that I have elaborated upon deep friendship, I will introduce Goethe and Hafez. Following this, I will analyze a poem from each, exemplifying how both shared the value of deep friendship. I will also consider several questions, including; what are the implications of the Goethe-Hafez friendship? What can their relationship teach us about deep friendship? And finally, what could their friendship mean for east-west relations?

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe regarded literature, language, and religion as the best way to discover another culture. Though he was a religious man, Goethe was not particularly loyal to the Church, and openly opposed many of its teachings. The Catholic Church even rejected friendship, stating it was preferential love. So, they believed, if you cannot love all, it is unfair to love one over the other. This echoes the Kierkegaardian belief that friendship was a mockery of G-d. Goethe would have vehemently denied this, as he condemned many of the Church’s ideals, corruption, and autocracy in his writings.

Goethe was highly enthusiastic about Jesus, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. But his religious fervor did not stop there. He persisted in doing something very unusual for the time and place; he studied Islam, a religion highly concentrated in a different continent. From an early age, Goethe became deeply interested in both the Middle East and the Religion of Islam. One of his first major works was Mahomets-Gesang (A Song for Mohammed,) written when he was only 25. It was not until later that he became enthralled by the literature and history of Persia, and Goethe delved into Persian poetry. Here is when it gets interesting. Something about Hafez simply stuck with Goethe. Perhaps Goethe even became obsessed with the Sufi poet. Either way, Hafez served as one of his biggest influences.

Goethe valued deep friendship, composing many poems on the subject including “Threatening Signs,” which I will analyze later. It is important to note that for each of his love interests and romantic relationships, Goethe composed poetry. Deep friendship is exemplified here. The reciprocity of his relationships is clear; “You enchant me so much that I will devote my day and night, and write for you.” Perhaps if this were done more often, romantic relationships would be strengthened; a good poem flatters any man or woman.

Goethe also became close friends with Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher and poet. Herder introduced Goethe to Shakespeare, whom the latter quickly fell in love with. It should be noted that their friendship blossomed over a common love of literature. Deep friendship is clear; Goethe loved the man who introduced a new passion into his life. In turn, he gifted Herder with a long and loving friendship. Give a gift, get a gift. Though one should not misunderstand; I am not referring to material things. It is the gesture behind said “gift” that exemplifies deep friendship in any form. But Shakespeare did not sway the life and character of Goethe as much as his friend across lifetimes, continents, and cultures. Indeed, to truly understand Goethe, one must understand the man who had such importance in his life; the Persian poet, Hafez.

Hafez serves as something of a mystical figure, perhaps because little is known about his life. As such, I will not discuss his background as much as his originality and influence. Still, it is worth nothing that fantastical stories (which may or may not be fabricated) have been applied to Hafez. So whether they are true or not, the man who is said to have memorized the Quran at a young age certainly maintains significant prestige. And this supposedly occurred not through academic study, but purely because his father would recite the passages! One thing is for sure however; Hafez became one of history’s most influential poets. In the Near East his proverbs and poetry are so celebrated that they have become a part of everyday language and culture. In America, Hafez remains one of the first names brought to mind when considering Islamic and Persian poetry.

    At this point, you may be wondering what it was about Hafez that so captivated Goethe. His poems were written in the lyrical style, depicting personal feelings or emotions. Something which makes Hafez so remarkable is the sheer range of his poetry. One seldom encounters writers who can capture sheer joy/love and such depression/sorrow; sometimes in a single poem. Yes, his poetry is shockingly beautiful. But it is also useful. Hafez has served as something of an oracle not only to Goethe. Ralph Waldo Emerson (another accomplished friendship writer,) Nietzsche, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Queen Elizabeth herself have all been known to consult Hafez writing’s in times of stress. There is even an ancient tradition known as The Fal-e Hafiz, in which a reader consults Hafiz when facing a difficulty or important moment in life.

    Many American writers have contributed indelibly to our moral life. In times of need, the American literary tradition can offer healing wisdom and insight. But a tradition utilizing, and named after one sole writer? Surely this is unprecedented. Perhaps the poem “She Married Me” is emblematic of the Fal-e Hafiz tradition. I chose this poem not only because it is my favorite, but also because, to me, it exemplifies Hafez as well as anything I have encountered. It is simple, concise, and quite honestly, offered more than many novels I’ve read. We often get caught up in the complexity of academia. Scholars want to say one thing but have three PHD’s- they must say it using unfamiliar words and impenetrable thesis’ But 700 years ago Hafez had nothing to prove. Degrees and titles do hold a purpose, but “She Married Me” offers unfading wisdom, without all the fluff.

She married me

In spite of the tribe

And she traveled with me

In spite of the tribe

And she gave me Zeynab and Omar

In spite of the tribe

And when I used to ask her: Why?

She would take me, like a child, against her chest

“Because you are my tribe.”

    “She Married Me” is so simplistic, yet so captivating. It is hard to believe that such a nuanced message of acceptance can be conveyed in a mere 55 words. But what this poem lacks in length it more than makes up for in lyrical genius. “She Married Me” begins with the title- showing that in the end, the author does in fact marry the woman whom the poem was written for. Hafez then uses repetition for the second line, “In Spite of the Tribe.” Since this same line is written three times, it would be safe to assume that it is a focal point of the poem. But what exactly does Hafez mean in saying “In spite of the tribe?” In spite and despite have similar meanings, rather than the dictionary definition of spite as the desire to hurt. If this women married the author “In spite,” of her own tribe, it can be assumed that her tribe does not approve of this marriage. Most likely this is due to some type of national/ethnic/religious differences.

    But the woman does not care. She marries him anyway. She travels with him anyway, She even bears him two children, which is what Zeynab and Omar most likely refer to (names for a girl and a boy, respectively). Ok, it has been established that the author’s love interest is in this relationship for the long haul. She travels with, marries, even has kids with someone whom her tribe strongly disapproves of. Why is this so? Would the simple answer “love” be sufficient. Yes and no. Despite their relationship, which presumably has persisted for some time, the author still wonders how she could possibly love him. The ire of her tribe is strong- what forces could possibly be responsible for overcoming the biases she was raised with? Love, and friendship. It is the two which create a relationship strong enough to combat any biases one is raised with. So even if she maintained allegiances to her kinspeople, she is engaged in deep friendship, for they have a bond which has persisted across hatred and bigotry. In the end, the two are one. They have formed their own tribe, benefiting one another within their relationship.

    The crux of this poem is that love conquers all. Simple enough, right? But it is important to note that throughout the poem, the women’s belonged tribe is presumably, “the tribe” (i.e, “In spite of the tribe”). At the poem’s conclusion though, the woman joins the author in “my tribe.” In doing so, Hafez places those who practice love, friendship, and openness squarely above its opposites, those infected by prejudice, malice, and violence. So, if we are speaking more specifically than “love conquers all,” Hafez places on one end, the tribe; those who mindlessly continue the cycle of war (or initiate violence,) and fail to question the hatred and bigotry found in prejudices and harmful stereotypes. But on the other end, there is the woman, the poems bravest character. She is placed alongside those who actively go against the cycle of war (rather than adhere to it), as well as those who question, and oftentimes break the beliefs that pollute social, political, and international relations. Though the poem is written in first person, it is clear to see that Hafez injected his own beliefs into the woman’s character.

    Like Hafez, Goethe saw the value in each and every one of his fellow men and women. Writing poems for friends and lovers, he utilized language for its highest purpose; unification. Like Hafez, Goethe’s poems often tell the story of interactions between friends. “Threatening Signs,” is no exception. But more importantly, “Threatening Signs” is the story of deep friendship, albeit told differently than “She Married Me.”

IF Venus in the evening sky

Is seen in radiant majesty,

If rod-like comets, red as blood,

Are ‘mongst the constellations view’d,

Out springs the Ignoramus, yelling:

“The star’s exactly o’er my dwelling!

What woeful prospect, ah, for me!

Then calls his neighbour mournfully:

“Behold that awful sign of evil,

Portending woe to me, poor devil!

My mother’s asthma ne’er will leave her,

My child is sick with wind and fever;

I dread the illness of my wife,

A week has pass’d, devoid of strife,–

And other things have reach’d my ear;

The Judgment Day has come, I fear!”

His neighbour answered: “Friend, you’re right! Matters look very had to-night.

Let’s go a street or two, though, hence,

And gaze upon the stars from thence.”–

No change appears in either case.

Let each remain then in his place,

And wisely do the best he can,

Patient as any other man.

    “Threatening Signs” begins with a cosmic interpretation of the night sky. Although Venus and the stars are seen in “radiant majesty,” the “Ignoramus” identifies this as a threatening sign. Seeing negativity in beauty is our first indicator of his stupidity. Relatedly, the ignoramus belies self-importance. Why would the evening sky, visible to so many, mean a sign “exactly” for his dwelling? Maybe this paranoia is precisely what causes the ignoramus to place himself at the center of the universe. But let’s be sympathetic here; he has encountered unfortunate circumstances. His mother is asthamtic, his child sick, his wife ill. But even with all this, “A week has pass’d, devoid of strife.” Shouldn’t he be happy? A peaceful, healthful week with no complications. But to him, it is not this simple, and that, is precisely why Goethe labels this character the ignoramus. To Goethe- life always has its blessings, and the ignoramus fails in seeing his. Can’t he simply appreciate that week?

    One must always find the positives in life, but the ignoramus does not list any- only negatives. Conversely, his friend (the neighbour) recognizes the virtue of beauty, and the virtue of patience. Beauty because he actually appreciates gazing upon the stars. Patience because he truly sees what one must do when faced with stress… “Remain {…} in his place,”

“Do the best he can,”

And finally, be patient, “Patient as any other man.”

It is important to acknowledge the struggle of the ignoramus, but he only hurts himself in not seeing what is right in front of him; his friend. Just from the poem, I would surmise their friendship to be a deep one because the friend helps the ignoramus. Together, they simply enjoy. A mere walk can be enough to upend the paranoia of the ignoramus.  But he is the ignoramus after all, he is overaffected by mere signs, signs that don’t really mean anything. So even though Goethe does not state it specifically, simply being (with friends) is enough to combat any worry, or any sign.

But if deep friendship is reciprocal, what does our ignoramus offer his neighbor in return?

I cannot answer for sure- I can only hope. Perhaps he has a great sense of humor, or is a renowned chef. All I know is that everybody has something unique to offer; Goethe knew this too, and he exemplifies their relationship when the neighbour calls the ignoramus “friend.” This shows that there is something special in the ignoramus, something his neighbour does not see in anyone else. Oftentimes just being together is a kindness. Maybe the ignoramus reciprocates in no particular way, but he does reciprocate. Therefore, “Threatening Signs” exemplifies how deep friendship can come in many forms.

Hafiz and Goethe exemplified both a cross-cultural and cross-continental relationship. The past is often more relevant than the present. Despite being separated by 500 years (not to mention everything else), Goethe was more inspired by Hafez than most anyone else. Therefore, it goes without saying that they had a one-sided relationship. But I would still call the Hafez-Goethe relationship deep friendship because each contributed to one another’s legacy, whether humously or posthumously. The Hafez benefit does not require much elaboration; his poetry captured the wit of Goethe in a way that no western poet ever could. In the end, Hafez’ influence on Goethe led to one of the latter’s finest works; the West-Eastern Divan, symbolizing a dialogue between East and West.

As far as what was possible, Goethe contributed much to the study of Hafez. Hafez was dead after all, and could not reciprocate any academic interest. But there is no death in scholarship. For those who wish to study Hafez seriously, it would be nothing short of a requirement to examine the relationship between him and Goethe. Failing to do so would mean missing out on a large part of what either one was really about. Hafez represents one of the oldest and finest examples of the highest form poetry can take. Goethe truly exemplifies the influence of this form, and the inspiration that language can have on someone. Poetry is meant to please the ear, not just in the way it sounds but the imagery it evokes. Eyes take over into a new seeing space, and all of a sudden, illusory barriers are broken by sound and sight. Before Goethe, Hafez was one of the most well-known and well-respected Persian poets. After Goethe, he is the same, but also helped one of the most well-known and well-respected German poets blossom into greatness.

    Deep friendship works like this- I do for you; you do for me. As our friendship grows, I know acts of the heart will be returned in kind. By its very nature, deep friendship is not always convenient. It is defined by sacrifice, as seen when the Kellogg retiree’s simply gave out beautifully made ceramic plates and bowls. They did not ask questions, they did not ensure that you were enrolled in friendship class or friendship circle, or even that you were associated with Oberlin College; they simply gave. Despite the fact that all they received in turn was a smile and a thank you, the retiree’s knew they had done a kindness. For deep friendship, this is enough. Can’t this always be enough? Why are we only willing to go so far, but not far enough? Those who do only what is convenient always let friends down eventually. Conversely, deep friendship maintains that doing a kindness may not always be convenient for me, but it is always convenient for you, and that is good enough for me.

Time might be real, but the limitations of friendship are illusory.  In the same way a good friend would, Goethe learned all there was to learn about Hafez. He admired his persian friend and became inspired by his life. Sacrifice is tantamount in deep friendship. One must do whatever a friend requires, with no questions, or if need be, minimal questions asked. Goethe sacrificed his time and energy to educate himself on Hafez and Persian culture. He worked endlessly to immerse himself in this new friendship, even learning Persian language in the process. Goethe’s teaches us that friendship cannot be half-done. All-or-nothing relationships make for deep friendship. With a very close friend, there is some sort of expectation set. With a deep friend, you don’t fear betrayal or the loss of friendship.

Can the same strategy not be implemented in international relations? Let’s look at East and West, as represented by Hafez and Goethe. Currently, the east-west relationship itself is brittle. It is liable to break at any minute, with fear infecting both sides. The west is in fear of losing money from the east while the east fears firepower from the west. They have the oil- we have the weapons. Such a simple ideology has led to countless deaths and the literal destruction of societies. After so much fighting, neither side has faith in the other. But what if there was some type of expectation? What if we gave, they gave, and neither side feared the loss of this new friendship? The real missing piece in relations between east and west is not money or arms but faith. Since both sides know the relationship can break anytime, they have no faith in one another. East has no faith in West. West no faith in East. It is a cycle that perpetuates fear on both sides.    

If Hafez and Goethe had lived at the same time, I think they would have been friends, great friends, deep friends. Likewise, countless friendships have existed between people from the east and people from the west. If each person reflects the values of their home nation (to a certain extent,) why can’t these nations, at the very least, begin friendly relations with one another? Instead, we are forced to kill one another. We are forced to kill people we know nothing about because we are fighting for our home nation? How about fighting for the world? With environmental issues looming large it is more important now than ever that we cooperate, not interrogate. If I antagonize, you antagonize. I must defend myself, you must defend yourself. Before you know it, 500 billion dollars and millions of lives have been lost.

    Was this what Hafez meant when he said “You are my tribe?” Was he preaching warmongering or loving all, no matter the nationality? When Goethe said “Let each remain in his place,” was he really saying “Invade whomever! Sell arms to whomever! It doesn’t matter so long as they pay!” Facetiousness is necessary to show the sheer absurdity of it all. With expectation, we establish a relationship. With faith, this relationship turns into friendship. With reciprocation, not only do we meet the other’s expectations, we affirm their faith. From this, deep friendship is born. If Hafez and Goethe had a reciprocal relationship, east and west can too. But they would turn over in their graves if they saw the state of the world today.

Shouldn’t we pay them back?

BibliographySibyl A. Schwarzenbach, Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship, 2015, AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies

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