2. Reading the Philologists?*

By opting for philologische Wissenschaft, “philological science,” with texts at the center, and not for Altertumswissenschaft, or “archaeological science,” within the field of criticism—in a sense, against criticism and against a form of “essayism,” [1] as a way of acquiring the means for understanding—I was referring to a practice. At the same time I discovered unresolved problems, as well as good solutions that had been proposed by philologists and then rejected. So my analysis incorporated the study of obstacles that were not mere errors or inadequacies; the point was less to explore the substance of biases than to find the spots where obstructions had been erected. Blockages were closely linked to the way the scientific method was practiced; they revealed what was unscientific about the method. These extrinsic elements were thus linked to the object, but not limited to it; they also touched on its role in an independent and pre-constituted order of representation, so much so that I considered it useful, indeed imperative, to incorporate into my own approach the critic’s social environment in its specific aspects: these were usually associated with national origin but sometimes more universal in nature. (A colloquium held in Lille in 1977 was devoted to this topic: “Philology and National Cultural Traditions.”)
This was Pierre Bourdieu’s central thesis: that censoring mechanisms were linked not only to the specific posture of the interpreter, and thus to an identifiable prejudice, but just as much to the interpreter’s function, which determines a practice and, like a matrix, produces a chain of reaction and commentaries. This can be confirmed by going from the study of one culture to another, as I did in the body of work I began in “M. de W.-M. en France”: this was some fifty years after the scholar’s death, at that crucial point in time when one can begin to talk about such things. [2] Next door, in France, scholars had declared an interest in adopting or adapting this scientific method (and had been doing so for a hundred and fifty years), but they never succeeded, because they could not or would not sacrifice the traditional methods that occupied the same space in the field.
Philology as I prefer to understand it, including the comprehension of a work’s historical content, had not (and still has not) gained a foothold, because it also forms a closed universe, focused on the search for meaning. It constructs its own horizon, which allows us to read. But it was equally important to show that this science, when it was not rejected as non-science, was still limited by a host of inadequate opinions; it was important to show, moreover, that these restrictions would surely not have been shared by other, better-informed and more open-minded people who had been excluded either by their own choices or by the constraints of academic institutions. The conflict was intense. My essay “Odysseus among the Philologists” [3] tries to highlight a double aberration of ideas in the hermeneutic appearance of the work of the great masters, and, outside the field, in secondary and substitute constructions. Narratology and structural anthropology provided some keys to reading without really adding anything new.
Looked at this way, philology creates its own history, by dint of delving into its inherent alienation. It tries to find itself through cathartic exercises and uncovers the conditions of an internal liberation, at a time when it is subject to outside threats from the standpoint of a dogmatic pluralism and by a radical challenge to choices made by earlier generations. The discipline has a tedious side. It is not of great interest unless one finds the compensatory pleasure of discovery, unless the search for precise meanings, so often lost, is at its center and makes it a matter of contemporary concern. Discovering the forms alienation takes among philologists—their tendency to pursue archaeological, paleological, political, psychological, or other avenues of investigation—makes it possible to reveal and set aside the prejudices that color their readings. However, the meaning, even after part of the obstruction is removed, is not self-evident; only by looking for meaning do we become aware of the obstacles.
My commentary on Oedipus Rex (Oedipe roi, 1990) led me to the realization that the two approaches are interdependent. One goes straight to the text, and the immediacy that one maintains, undeterred by prior commentaries, nevertheless depends on the analysis of the earlier intermediaries, whether they have produced accurate readings or not. But those mediations need to be taken further. The whole range of solutions adopted in the past presents an unquestionable advantage for anyone wanting to legitimize the choice that is to be made. In a way, it is all or nothing, since only a well-founded proposition can be defended and discussed; comparing all prior arguments eliminates arbitrariness while keeping subjectivity in check. The rational and demonstrative criterion for one’s choice has to be put forward. Its motive is at once literary and technical.
I used the same method in analyzing the poems of the contemporary poet Paul Celan, whose work has been the object of thousands of scholarly studies all over the world for several decades. Different critical stances are evident here too, with all their biases. I was able to defend a semantic system against an obstinate refusal (which can be analyzed) to accept it. Its “reception” looks like a failure to listen, a rejection. One may wonder what positive progress this battle allowed me to make; my comprehension of the poems improved thanks to the passage of time, but surely also thanks to the struggle itself. In any case, comparing different readings involves the study of theoretical positions, be they implicit or openly stated, and necessarily contributes, at this level, to a deeper understanding of the prerequisites of a universally unknown poetic diction. Would we discover its laws if we did not uphold their specificity and their difference?
Recognition of the results acquired and the concomitant influence exerted on the direction of research are always dependent on pre-constituted intellectual boundaries that, whether they be ontological or analytical, cannot be discounted as long as they are current and take the place of other approaches. Progress requires provisional recourse to specific forms of logic, shielded from any activism or forced contextual adaptations; an in-depth study leads to renewed studies; one accepted correction leads to a second, which calls the first into question. If we start all over again, it is because we are engaging in discussion.

Works Cited

Bollack, J. 1990. L’Œdipe roi de Sophocle: le texte et ses interprétations. Lille.
———. 1997. La Grèce de personne. Paris.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Lire les philologues,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 25–28.
[ back ] 1. [TN: In French, the essai is a literary or philosophical form in which the author tries to move beyond university scholarship to reach a broader public. “Essayisme” indicates an excessive use of the essai, which is considered a substitute for a documented analysis. Thanks to Mayotte Bollack for this clarification.]
[ back ] 2. See Bollack 1997:60–92, on Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848–1931).
[ back ] 3. See below, Chap. 3; first published as “Ulysse chez les philologues” in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 1 (1975): 9–35; reprinted in Bollack 1997:29–59.