Heinrich Heine on German Romantic Orientalism

Hence it is very significant that this work [Goethe’s Westostlicher Divan] appeared soon after Faust. It was Goethe's last phase and his example exercised a great influence on literature. Our lyricists now celebrated the Orient in song. It may also be worth mentioning that while celebrating Persia and Arabia so joyously, Goethe expressed the most decided repugnance for India. He disliked in this country the grotesque, the disorder, the lack of clarity, and this antipathy may have arisen because he suspected Catholic wile in the Sanskrit studies of the Schlegels and their friends. For these gentlemen regarded Hindustan as the cradle of the Catholic world order; they saw there the model for their hierarchy; they found there their trinity, their incarnation, their penance, their atonement, their mortification of the flesh, and all their other beloved manias. Goethe's antipathy toward India irritated these people not a little, and Mr. August Wilhelm Schlegel called him with glassy anger "a pagan converted to Mohammedanism."

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After the appearance of Madame de Staël's De l'Allemagne Fr. Schlegel presented the public with two more large works, which are perhaps his best and in any case deserve very laudatory mention. They are his Wisdom and Language of India [1808] and his Lectures on the History of Literature. [1815] With the former book he not only introduced the study of Sanskrit into Germany but also founded it. He became for Germany what William Jones [1789] was for England. He had learned Sanskrit with great ingenuity, and the few fragments which he gives in this book are skillfully translated. With his profound powers of intuition he recognized perfectly the significance of the Indian epic meter, the sloka, which flows along as broad as the clear and sacred river, the Ganges. In contrast how petty Mr. A. W. Schlegel shows himself to be when he translates a few fragments from Sanskrit into hexameters and does not know how to praise himself enough for not letting any trochees slip in and for whittling out so many clear little metric art works in alexandrines. Fr. Schlegel's work on India has certainly been translated into French, and I can spare myself further praise. My only criticism is the ulterior motive behind the book. It was written in the interests of Catholicism. These people had rediscovered in the Indian poems not merely the mysteries of Catholicism, but the whole Catholic hierarchy as well and its struggles with secular authority. In the Mahabharata and in the Ramayana they saw, as it were, an elephantine Middle Ages. As a matter of fact, when in the latter epic King Visvamitra quarrels with the priest Vasistha, this quarrel concerns the same interests about which the Emperor quarreled with the Pope, although here in Europe the point in dispute was called investiture and there in India it was called the cow Sabala.

SOURCE: Heine, Heinrich; Hermand, Jost; Holub, Robert C.; eds. The Romantic School and Other Essays. New York: Continuum, 1985. (The German Library; no. 33). "The Romantic School" (translated by Helen Mustard), pp. 43-44, 48-49.

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