Who is the Other? Goethe’s Encounter with ‘China’ in his Concept of Weltliteratur

Yi Chen

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[Extract] In his influential book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said defined “Orientalism” as an attitude of superiority and hegemony on the part of the West vis à vis the East, an attitude derived from, and justified by, the historical process of colonization. Said demonstrated such Orientalism through a critical analysis of the writings of mainly British and French authors, but also applied the label to Goethe (Said 1978: 19), claiming that Goethe, even though belonging to a different historical context, nevertheless represented a specifically “German” version of Orientalism: “a kind of intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture,” which was the common denominator with both Anglo-French and, later, American Orientalism.
Applied to Goethe, the father of the concept of Weltliteratur , this criticism – if valid – has significant consequences, and has provoked a correspondingly vigorous response. Most scholars have argued that Goethe engaged in conversations with “the Orient” throughout his lifetime, and achieved an imagined unification between the East and the West. This, it has been claimed, was based upon his own personal fascination for, and identification with, the East, particularly as reflected in his lyric poems in West-östlicher Divan ( West-Eastern Divan ). In the case of Goethe, the sense of superiority and distance to the Other so central to Orientalism as described by Said is, on such a view, simply not a factor (Bahr 1982; Birus 1991; Veit 2002; Einboden 2005).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMajor versus Minor? Languages and Literatures in a Globalized World
EditorsTheo D'haen, Iannis Goerlandt, Roger D. Sell
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9789027268549
ISBN (Print)9789027201287
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameFILLM Studies in Languages and Literatures
PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Co.
ISSN (Print)2213-428X


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