Omar Khayyam and Max Stirner

Translated by Ulrike Hirschhäuser


Omar and Goethe

Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall´s “History of Persian Rhetoric” was available for Goethe when preparing his book “West-Eastern Divan” in 1819. Among those 200 poets introduced by Hammer-Purgstall there was “Omar Chiam´s” name quoted and his 25 Rubaijat. Joachim Wohlleben[1], however, rules out the possibility that Goethe occupied himself with Omar intensely. It is an established fact that Goethe never made mention of Omar. We may assume doubtlessly that Goethe´s ignoring Omar when he wrote his “Divan” resulted in the fact that Omar remained unknown as a poet-philosopher in Germany. Joachim Wohlleben deeply regrets Omar´s unlucky meeting with German literature and tries to appreciate his real significance for German literature by his own comprehensive work. Wohlleben states that after Goethe it has been Hafiz “who has been the most popular Persian poet. One could put it like that: Hafiz cast a shadow on Omar concerning the German interest in Persian literature.”[2]

Let me add some ideas that may help the reader comprehend why Omar did not arouse Goethe´s interest, given Goethe concerned himself with Omar at all. As I would like to point out some parallels of the spiritual relationship between Omar and Stirner, which I think to be important to the history of Stirner´s philosophy, this short introduction will be indispensable: Goethe will accompany us on a bridge linking the west with the east.

Hafiz´s poems evoke such passion in Goethe that Hafiz becomes the main character in his “Divan”. Hafiz and Goethe unite and become bloodbrothers. Goethe vents his enthusiasm for Persian poetry by making the following declaration:

“DO ADMIT IT! The oriental poets

are greater than us western poets.”[3]

“May the whole world fade away,

Hafiz, with you, with you alone

I want to compete! Let us share

Pleasure and pain like twins

To love like you, to drink like you,

This shall be my pride, my life.”[4]

To Goethe Hafiz is the incarnation of the Persian poet. According to Goethe Persian poetic language culminates in Hafiz´s poetry. What is the reason for Goethe´s indifference towards Omar? To my mind the main reason is the style and content of Hafiz´s poetry. Hafiz, one of Omar´s successors, followed Omar in many ways, but he primarily wrote ghazals. In contrast to Hafiz, Omar neither wrote ghazals nor arabesques, but only Rubaijat. Undoubtedly Goethe was especially susceptible to ghazals.

Ghazals are love poems and “devoid of” any philosophical content. Any kind of satirical, melancholic and depressive mood is alien to them. In the case of Rubaijat, however, we are dealing with purely reflective poems. What is more, in Omar´s poems the consumption of the world, indignation, rebellion, the autonomy of human willpower on the one hand blend with melancholia, resignation, desperation, pessimism, “fatalism” in a very unique way on the other hand. Omar´s basic attitudes towards life manifest themselves in these subjects as we shall see later. They signify his philosophical impulse and are a melting-pot for his emotions and thoughts. To tell these apart and even categorize them to gain insight into Omar´s mind and to gain orientation in this world seems to be impossible for Europeans. Only an authority would be capable of putting Omar in a place that is worth his achievements, says Wohlleben. Goethe, however, was and still is such an authority.

But unlike Omar, who ended up in self-forgetfulness, Goethe did not resign. In his search of God Omar despaired when looking for a way to comprehend God and he becomes a blasphemer. During his satirical, melancholic conversation with God, Omar is definitely godless, and the nature of his poetic wittiness is determined by sarcasm and a type of humour  that shatters everything one can imagine. Both seriousness and wittiness are characteristics of his humour. This can be derived from his basic philosophical attitude, which makes him declare everything to be vain and meaningless, while he continues to be able to laugh at everything simultaneously. Therefore he is a free spirit who is  chain-breaking ,

a rebel who intoxicated by the consumption of wine can give way to his thoughts. He loathes any belief in love and the truth. He thinks the well-ordered world of religious and rationalistic dogmatism to be intolerable. Intoxicated by love, he mocks at any illusive security in life, Goethe, however, trustingly holds on to love and humaneness. He is a critic who defends himself, Omar, a troublemaker, who acts quickly and aggressively. He is hostile to any type of authority. Scholasticism and the belief in progress become the targets of his mockery. To Omar everything is vain, nothing is truly meaningful; Goethe means to heal instead. In contrast to Goethe, Omar, disappointed and full of despair, forgets himself and does not believe in any state of human happiness.

Goethe´s main characteristic is his ultimate truthfulness, whereas Omar is a sceptic with an agnostic frame of mind.

Nevertheless the kinship between the two poets is plain to see. Goethe created some poems which do resemble Omar´s. In his poem Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas!(Everything on earth is vain.) Goethe´s message reads: “I don´t rely on anything mundane.” This motto was to be the gist of Stirner´s philosophy. Apart from the literary form the content of the poem clearly parallels Omar´s poetry. Being a loving and philanthropic man at first, Goethe gets involved in the worldly businesses of mankind, lives through this and that trouble, takes this road and that, overcomes a lot of obstacles before everything loses its meaning for him and as a consequence he does not want to rely on anything anymore. We may put it like this: I have tried my best in all fields of life, but nothing has been worth the trouble. This, too, is the essence of Omar´s philosophy.

Goethe´s poem conveys his frustrations and his sense of vanity; what Omar is profoundly convinced of and what Omar reveals as his basic attitude towards human life, however, appears to be only a superficial sentiment in Goethe´s case. Thus Goethe´s poem does not reflect any serious conviction, but merely a temporary “disturbance of his emotional life”, which can be cured. This shallowness becomes even more obvious in his “Tame Xenia”. But in contrast to  Wohlleben I can spot parallels with Omar nonetheless. In some of his xenia Goethe at least expresses his complaints about that edifice called world;  his criticism aims at Christian and rational dogmatism. But this only happens because his “bottled-up frustrations cannot be sublimated. Therefore the ‘Tame Xenia’  are hardly speculative in any way and much more realistic than Omar´s Rubaijat.”[5] That explains Goethe´s shallowness, which is the product of a quickly developing and, as stated above, temporary disturbance of his mind and his emotional life. To put it in Wohlleben´s words: On the basis of this disposition Goethe´s attitude can be regarded as a defence strategy, Omar´s as aggressiveness. Omar attacks the whole world of religious and philosophical dogmatism and this attack will result in freeing his mind from logical thinking at all. But I´m going to concern myself with this later.


[1] J.Wohlleben Die Rubajat des Omar Chajjam und die deutsche Literatur. In: Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch, Berlin 1973, p. 65 (Omar Chajjam´s Rubajat and German Literature. An Unlucky Encounter)

[2] pp. 65-66

[3] J.W.Goethe: West-Östlicher Divan, Frankfurt 1998, p. 57

[4] p. 25

[5] J.Wohlleben, p. 67


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