Particle 7

The Spiral Turban

{Chapter 6}

I had a long section in this chapter initially exploring Goethe’s relationship to the spiral as a form of lingual and medial translation in his collection, The West-East Divan. The turban and its elevation was the perfect counterpart to the bound foot and its earthiness of “Fräulein See-Yaou-Hing.” I realized of course that I had one example too many and that I needed to move into Goethe’s scientific work via his poetry but not his poetry per se. The bound foot united the chapter’s earlier attention to the lily and the botanical in a way that the turban did not, so out it went. But here is what was cut, which was already a condensed version of a larger whole.
The spiral’s importance during the early nineteenth century could be read not only off the graphic practices of natural scientists from the period, but also in the poetry of the period as well. Here again, Goethe offers a remarkably rich example of the translation of this visual practice into linguistic form, and it should not be a surprise that such medial translations were elaborately worked out in a work about cultural and lingual translation as well. Turning to his collection of adaptations of the Persian poet, Hafez, The West-East Divan (1819), I want to single out one particular contribution that focuses on the spiral composition of that quintessential figure of orientalism, the turban:

Komm Liebchen, komm! umwinde mir die Mütze
Aus deiner Hand nur ist der Tulbend schön.
Hat Abbas doch, auf Irans höchstem Sitze,
Sein Haupt nicht zierlicher umwinden sehn.


Ein Tulbend war das Band, das Alexandern
In Schleifen schön vom Haupte fiel
Und allen Folgeherrschern, jenen Andern,
Als Königszierde wohlgefiel.


Ein Tulbend ist’s der unsern Kaiser schmücket,
Sie nennen’s Krone. Name geht wohl hin!
Juweel und Perle! sey das Aug’ entzücket!
Der schönste Schmuck ist stets der Mousselin.


Und diesen hier, ganz rein und silberstreifig,
Umwinde Liebchen um die Stirn umher.
Was ist denn Hoheit? Mir ist sie geläufig!
Du schaust mich an, ich bin so groß als Er.[1]


Come love, come! enwind my cap
From your hand alone is the turban beautiful.
Did not Abbas, upon Iran’s highest seat,
Allow his head to be no more ornately seen?


A turban was the binding that fell
In loops from Alexander’s head
And to all his following rulers,
Those others, it appealed as royal ornament.


A turban it is that adorns our Kaiser,
They call it a crown. What’s in a name?
Jewels and pearls! let the eye delight!
The most beautiful ornament is mousselin.


And this one here, pure and silver-striped,
Enwind it love around my forehead here.
What is highness? I am fluent in it!
You look at me, I am as tall as he.


A smaller collection of the Divan poems had initially been published in Cotta’s Ladies’ Pocket-Book in the fall of 1816 (an issue which also contained the first part of “The New Melusine” which later appeared in the Travels), and like the Travels they too were paginated with roman numerals. The title page to the poems in the miscellany used a vignette of a turban around what appears to be a classical column, and thus the turban was immersed from the beginning within the translational problematic that the Divan as a whole engaged and that was captured most succinctly by the straight typographical line of the double dash (=) in the title.
If the poem’s concern was one of translation – cross-cultural comparisons of crowns – it was also one of verticality as well – the aesthetic and political ideals of “highness.” This simultaneous horizontal and vertical orientation was compressed in the physical gesture of winding the turban in the poem’s opening invitation and more precisely in the grammatical form of the preposition, “um [around],” which appeared three times in line fourteen. Indeed, the elevation captured in the poem’s visual attention to the “forehead” (Stirn), is not only echoed in the phonetically proximate “stars” (Sterne). It is also doubly picked-up in the third “um” of this line where its elision with “Stirn” (“die Stirn-umher”) alluded to the “e” sound of “Stern-e” as the preposition for “around” is endowed with an acoustic power of flattening out the vertical distinctions between heaven and earth. The line of poetry thus performs the very connections that the visual line of its central figure is designed to enact.
One should be able to see the extent to which the spiral line of the middle-eastern textile refashioned the typographical line of the dash in the title, not as a linkage, but as a form of sublation and elevation (aufheben). The cultural interaction of translation – between languages, between icons, between scriptural communities – produced something novel and superior to that which preceded it. At the same time, the turban’s spiral line also translated between visual dimensions, between the three-dimensional space of the turban and the two-dimensional space of the scriptural line. In the history of bibliographic illustration it was precisely the spiraled line of cloth that served as a key space of writing in illuminated medieval manuscripts. As in this example of the “annunciation” in a Book of Hours by the Boucicaut Master (ca. 1410) (fig. 6.15), who was a key influence van Eyck’s Annunciation discussed above, we can see how the whiteness of the lily was echoed in the serpentine speech scrolls that wind vertically upwards and whose curling top end both mirrors the lily’s drooping flower and points directly towards it. The straight line of the lily morphs in this iconic tradition into the serpentine line of the word, one more indication of the lily’s bibliographic resonance. The spiral line of “Mousselin” in Goethe was thus a line that simultaneously gestured towards a line that could become an image and an image that bore the line of writing. This textile/textual binding that linked together the scriptural and visual relations of the line with the physical form of the book (Band) in “Come, love, come!” was not solely the province of the West-East Divan, but emerged in Goethe’s subsequent and sustained interest in Chinese poetry and prose as well. The spiral line, in other words, had a remarkable capacity to link together textual traditions from vastly disparate geographic and linguistic spheres.


[1] J.W. Goethe, West-östlicher Divan. Sämtliche Werke, Hg. Hendrik Birus, Bd. 3.1 (Frankfurt/Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1994) 80.