26. Reading the Signifier*

My essay on the freedom of signifiers in Plato’s Cratylus [1] was written as an extension of work on that dialogue that I had pursued with a group of researchers from the University of Tübingen who were defenders of Plato’s unwritten doctrine. At a colloquium focused on the theory of language, I had presented an overall interpretation, which has remained unpublished; one section had to do with discussions about the way the network of signifiers is structured in the dialogue. The orientation that Plato’s text imposes on “etymology,” on the figure of the phonological reinterpretation of words among the Ancients, the use of puns to express truths, enabled me to demonstrate that analyses of a superimposed meaning can create the illusion that a truth is deposited in the sonic underpinnings of language. By shifting to the conceptual order, Plato’s dialectics condemns the enterprise to collapse. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an entirely different reading of the world is constructed here, in the mode of a fictional narrative, showing that enigmatization can be pursued indefinitely from one element of language to another, and that it can suppress the appearance of arbitrariness in designations.
Familiarity with that particular exercise of decoding, which evokes the magic of a mysterious mathematics, has certainly been of use to me in my lengthy search for the meaning taken on by the idiomatic words in Paul Celan’s poems, a project begun systematically some fifteen years ago. From the start, I had followed a procedure that borrowed Mallarmé’s means of verbal restoration. The effort to make this procedure explicit occupied a central place in all my work.
I discovered little by little that I was indeed working with a network of truth that was introduced into the common language like a different language, a personal secondary idiom. The first language was not relegated, but rather clarified and contradicted, by rereading as an act tied to creation.
With “Eden encore,” [2] the first essay I wrote on Paul Celan, I presented and defended the position of Peter Szondi, who around 1970 had profoundly shocked his colleagues, Hans-Georg Gadamer first and foremost, by proposing an interpretation of a poem written by Celan in Berlin, almost in Szondi’s presence. Szondi had been reproached for basing his reading on factual references with which he was familiar. “Biographism,” in fact, transformed the hermeticists’ customary horizon of expectation. It was not the horizon that one knew in advance; specifically, it was constitutive of a network of particular or personal references that remained to be found, and it no longer belonged to the shared content of a culture or to an age-old experience. It had to be reconstituted. Gadamer asked, in effect, “What must one know in order to understand?” Szondi’s reply: one must know how to restore the aim or the grid through which one is decoding, how to restore the circumstances along with the critical eye that has captured them.
I sought to show in addition that the text ceases to be hermetic when one approaches it with the knowledge of the “Celanian” that is procured by familiarity with his poems. Hermeneutics then succeeds in identifying the particular by relying on the stable references of a vocabulary, and on the initially enigmatic data that come from a personal encounter with the world.
“Le mont de la mort” [3] comes into play in this lengthy debate. Celan wrote the poem after visiting Heidegger in 1967 at his home in the Black Forest. Readers had sought to locate an act of homage in this text. One had to read it, here again, in order to be able to identify the precise circumstances and decipher the texture of a linguistic restoration that gave those circumstances their meaning. This meant paralleling hermeneutics with a historian’s work; the two approaches merged to restore the unicity of a testimony. The poet made the philosopher speak; his own words position speech on the horizon of its actual referents.

Works Cited

Bollack, J. 1947. “L’en-deçà infini: l’aporie du Cratyle.” In La Grèce de personne, 341–348. Paris.
———. 1985. “Eden encore.” In L’Acte critique: un colloque sur l’oeuvre de Peter Szondi, Paris, 21-23 juin 1979, ed. M. Bollack, 267–290. Lille.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Lire le signifiant,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 337–339.
[ back ] 1. [TN: Bollack 1997:341–348.]
[ back ] 2. Bollack 1985:267–290.
[ back ] 3. [TN: See below, Chap. 27.]