For those of you who are looking for ways to mix up your history or literature surveys and expand students’ horizons beyond what remains the “usual fare” in many places, here are two different works that speak to each other across a century and can prompt your students to think about the interchanges between European and Asian culture in 1819 and in 1924–borrowings, appropriations, exoticism, cooperation, re-appropriation, colonialism, nationalism and decolonization, and so on.
The first is the famous German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous Western-Eastern Diwan (1819), and the second, written as a response to it, is the legendary Punjab author, lawyer, politician, and scholar Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s Payam-e-Mashriq [A Message from the East], published in 1924. Iqbal’s preface contains fascinating analysis of where the world was in 1924, and how and why his work responds to and comments on European interest in Asian literature (what we would refer to today as “Orientalizing,” and which was referred to at the time as the “Oriental movement”).
Iqbal is widely regarded as the “spiritual father of Pakistan,” and his writings in Urdu and Persian have been widely translated. His comments here on the purpose of Payam-e-Mashriq, and what the world looked like in 1924 from what was then British India, are worth quoting in part (it is several pages long):
I need not say much about A Message from the East, which has been written a hundred-odd years after the West-Oestlicher Divan. My readers will by themselves appreciate that the main purpose underlying it is to bring out moral, religious and social truths bearing on the inner development of individuals and nations. There is undoubtedly some resemblance between Germany as it was a hundred years ago and today’s East. The truth, however, is that the internal unrest of the world’s nations, which we cannot assess properly because of being ourselves affected by it, is the fore-runner of a great spiritual and cultural revolution. Europe’s Great War was a catastrophe which destroyed the old world order in almost every respect, and now out of the ashes of civilization and culture Nature is building up in the depths of life a new Adam and a new world for him to live in, of which we get a faint sketch in the writings of Einstein and Bergson. Europe has seen with its own eyes the horrible consequences of its intellectual, moral and economic objectives and has also heard from Signor Nitti (a former prime minister of Italy) the heartrending story of the West’s decline. It is, however, a pity that Europe’s perspicacious, but conservative, statesmen have failed to make a proper assessment of that wonderful revolution which is now taking place in the human mind.