Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Gingko, Goethe and the Need for Pluralism

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th December, 2014

Goethegingko“East is East, and West is West, and never shall the twain meet,” Rudyard Kipling notoriously wrote in the Ballad of East and West. I say notoriously, because even if it may not have been Kipling’s true intention, the phrase was adopted by jingoistic Brits in an attempt to justify their separateness from and “superiority” over “coloured” races. How different from the German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s homage to the Persian poet Hafiz inscribed at the foot of a monument in Weimar:”Know yourself and in that instant/Know the  Other and see therefore/Orient and Occident/Cannot be parted for evermore.” It was in the latter spirit that the Gingko Library project was conceived by the Cairo-based publisher Werner Mark Linz, to organise a 10-year programme of dialogue and publications bridging East and West, through history and biography, philosophy and religious studies, literature and literary criticism, conservation and sustainability, art and architecture, music and performance, science and technology, political thought, commerce and economics, and education and social development — including the holding of an annual conference. Linz died without seeing the project come to fruition, but it has been carried forward by his partner, the publisher Barbara Haus Schwepcke, and last night there was a reception at the British Academy on the eve of this weekend’s inaugural conference on “The First World War and Its Aftermath: The Shaping of the Middle East”. The former British Foreign Secretary David Owen, who has been a supporter of the project from the beginning, spoke in tribute at the event. Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, a Co-Convenor of the conference, was also due to be there, but had been summoned to a shura between Sunni and Shia leading figures in Tehran to discuss how to avert further conflict between the two. As Barbara Schwepcke commented in her own remarks, he could hardly have had a better excuse for being absent. In a letter from the Prince, read out by Dr Owen, he lamented the assault on pluralism in the Middle East. The gingko of the project’s name is a tree (also known as the maidenhaiir) whose leaves are divided at the top but united at the bottom. Goethe was fascinated by a specimen that grew in his garden, and wrote, “Is that leaf one and lonely?/In itself in two divided?/Is it two that have decided/To be seen as one leaf only?”

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