The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan

  Bollack, Jean. 2016. The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan. Trans. C. Porter and S. Tarrow with B. King. Edited by C. Koenig, L. Muellner, G. Nagy, and S. Pollock. Hellenic Studies Series 73. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

1. Learning to Read*

When I started out, I found it hard to distinguish writing projects from re-elaborations of subject matter, and I failed to pay sufficient attention to the breaks, large or very small, that produce the meaning of a text. I gradually came to understand that these breaks allow for freedom in the act of reading, without establishing the potentialities of language as a principle, and without minimizing either the specificity of an innovation or the space opened up by distance.

The act of reading requires reactualizing a text as such while attributing to it all the characteristics of a unitary composition. I first confined myself to making sense of textual networks, concerned with demonstrating their coherence. I examined texts from the inside, in their very structure; the texts themselves were to provide the reader with the means for understanding them. I did not apply myself as passionately then as I have done since to discovering their connectedness and intertextuality, nor did I pursue the transformations that traditions undergo, be they literary, religious, or philosophical, when their territory becomes circumscribed and when they have not been artificially reconstructed from a new pedagogical or dogmatic standpoint.

The opinions of the major philologists were put before us; each of these scholars had contributed to the advancement of knowledge. However, the consensual debates put before us were artificial, despite their obvious pedagogical usefulness. The fundamental questions were never raised. But at least we understood that the subject matter was difficult; that the current state of understanding of the works had already required an immense effort and remained unfinished; and that apart from the subject itself, we had to deal with the boundless layers of interpretation that had been deposited over it. Discouragement did not blunt the appeal of the endeavor: the two were closely connected.

Before taking an outstanding course on the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, we had to have read, often in Latin, the major commentaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries published in the wake of Gottfried Hermann, one of the most acclaimed scholars in academic criticism; that of Eduard Fraenkel, who had emigrated to Oxford, had not yet been published, but Peter Von der Mühll, who taught Greek at Basel, had pursued a research project of comparable scope, though it too remained unpublished. Humanists were taking renewed interest in the drama so admired by Humboldt and Goethe. But partly owing to ignorance and a misunderstanding of the qualities of literary art, the studies undertaken by these scholars, however skillful, transformed the endeavor into an extremely complex project that was intended to allow philology to compete with the natural sciences but that in practice excluded all the participants.

Apart from the Kritisches Hypomnema, a critical commentary on the Iliad published in 1952, none of the immense work that Von der Mühll put into preparing his classes led to publication; indeed, it never went beyond the confines of his classroom, so only a very small number benefited from it. For a Basel patrician steeped in the Protestant aristocratic mindset, the activity was sufficient unto itself; he was speaking for this small circle. The great professor displayed and used his erudition in class, but he denied himself the possibility of reaching a larger audience: he remained doubly inaccessible, assured of his own excellence yet renouncing public ambition in any form except professorial practice. Exercises in interpretation were supposed to be paradigmatic; the task was to transmit the practice of historical (or historicizing) philology, but also to go beyond its ethical meaning and demonstrate a scientific practice. With its age-old roots, philology was professed from the heights of the rostrum, and it {2|3} developed endlessly, constantly updated with new hypotheses, informed by the most recent “critical note.”

Meaning was the object of technical skills, and it was revealed at the end of a philological explication. The humanistic tradition surrounding the texts was gradually becoming more scientific than erudite. Historicism was not the problem—it would have been necessary to demonstrate, as Nietzsche advocated, the values that had been lost—as much as the practice of science; we would have liked to master it and to have both historical and aesthetic criteria at our disposal; we would have liked to be able to reach firm conclusions. We were feeling our way, and we made progress empirically and intuitively. The principles of hermeneutics were neither considered nor taught. The practice went without saying; its logic remained for us to discover. Attuning it to the real needs of reading was to make the science of philology the object of scientific study; that is, to write this book [La Grèce de personne].

For a twenty-year-old student, the dazzling virtuosity of arguments about the relative age of certain episodes in the Iliad seemed like a great feat or a moment of delirium. Taken together, these arguments provided an additional way of reading. Aristophanes of Byzantium, Aristarchus, Karl Lachmann, Erich Bethe, and all the modern Homer scholars contributed their own methods for evaluating criteria of taste, expectations, and prejudices. I quite naturally aligned myself in the opposing camp, that of the Unitarians, who affirmed the unity of the epic at all costs. I contested the scientific approach so as to resist its dizzying temptations, so as to remain in a position to play the game according to my own lights. We trained ourselves at least to uncover problems, and above all to doubt and contradict.

In the university seminars I frequented in Basel, and especially the one taught by Von der Mühll, the conditions for shared research came together. Scholarly techniques were transmitted implicitly through discussion; the meaning of the texts remained to be discovered. We assumed the texts were opaque, and this was confirmed, despite their fate in the classroom; they remained open to the work of elucidation. We would sometimes spend a quarter of an hour, often without speaking for several minutes, on one sentence that the professor said in all seriousness that he did not understand; he would point out the difficulties, accept suggestions, stimulate our thinking. Seminars in Paris had nothing in common with this exercise except the name. There, a general admission of ignorance is rarely the point of departure for a discussion. Of course such a beginning was inadequate; we rarely got as far as analyzing the preliminaries. But at least I had a glimpse of the principle of interpretation.

Speculative exercises were less widespread than they had been earlier. It was difficult to excel at conjecture, and hard to compete with scholars made {3|4} illustrious by their supposedly irrefutable findings. In Basel and elsewhere, the analysis of Homeric poetry was a virtuoso activity. It seemed less arbitrary, and better able to transmit the feeling of literary quality. Indeed, scholars were certain they possessed the criteria for expertise. In this field, as in others, we thought we could return to the values of a mythic origin and a superior humanity; we rediscovered the heroic age and did our utmost to revive it. In fact, “decadence” was an ancient phenomenon; it was thought to bear witness to the ravages of the intellect and to humanity’s separation from nature.

From the start, I systematically took the side of the poets and all writers, choosing to read the original text for powerful expression and unusual features; I understood that these were not self-evident, and I may even have exulted in the fact that literal reading was difficult, for it meant that I could resolve enigmas as yet unraveled. Over the years, mystery itself came to present itself as a form, and enigmas became less enigmatic. I learned that coded writings followed a clear principle, and thus allowed an initiation into the art of reading. Transferences from contemporary poetry, which was of great importance in my life, to philology led me to the classical authors. Less accessible, shielded by an armor of formal difficulties, these authors would provide much greater satisfaction once they were extracted from their envelope. I had to overcome some obstacles—but these increased and extended the pleasure of enlightenment that I had enjoyed with fewer hindrances when reading contemporary writers. The role played by poetry journals during the war is well known. Before that period, like everyone else at the time, I had been imbued with Rilke. His Rodin had been my entry into literature, a “first book,” different from the others; I read it when I was about fourteen. I then read—and reread—all I could find of his work, before I reached the end of this rite of passage in the 1930s and discovered that there were other less accessible authors who wrote differently and whose modernity made different demands on the reader. (My meeting during that same period with Wilhelm Stein, an art historian in Bern, introduced me to the art of looking, which he applied brilliantly for hours at a time to reading a painting.) I am especially indebted to Albert Béguin, who later became editor of the review Esprit and who held the chair in French Literature in Basel in those years, for it was he who introduced me to the world of contemporary literature. He knew this world intimately, and he knew how to kindle a love for it in others; not only Georges Bernanos, one of his guiding stars, but also André Breton and all the Surrealists, René Crevel and Robert Desnos, as well as recently published authors such as André Frénaud and Pierre Emmanuel.

Convinced by this dual apprenticeship that correcting and revising texts applied only to those that we did not accept into the canon or that we did not understand, I took my place on the side of tradition, but in a quite different {4|5} sense than that of those who defended humanistic values. I saw the abstruse aspect of tradition, a half-unknown matter that had to be brought into existence. There was no way to avoid working through prior scholarship. We had to embrace science, not only to be capable of using it ourselves, but also to appreciate its weaknesses. Tradition had to be protected from its own glorification.

A seminar on Empedocles initiated me into the methods of complex—analytical and inventive—readings of fragmentary texts, and no doubt instilled in me the desire to try to reconstitute their lost totality, but it also opened up the secret worlds of the indirect tradition, which has given us these fragments. I discovered that knowledge, like understanding, had a history, and I never lost sight of this fact. Understanding the context of a quotation, detecting the traces of a translation, separating readings and distinguishing points of view, using doxographical summaries that condense episodes—all this work was already leading me to a systematic analysis of the constitution of knowledge, paving the way for an intellectual historiography. One of my first paper topics was on the origins of doxography in Plato and his predecessors. The study of mediation was to come into its own later on.

This interest unquestionably strengthened for me the coherence of sets of texts. My long discussions with Kostas Axelos led the two of us to confront different points of view, to outline precarious totalities. In the spirit of the times, I harmonized my work with the ontological conjectures inspired by the pre-Socratic philosophers and on which I was necessarily dependent, one way or another; but I engaged more directly with the counterweight of formal analysis made necessary by the splintering effects of unrestrained positivist scholarship. Without really defending a purpose or a historical position, the concern with composition at least rehabilitated an object that had lost its shape.

I had reached a crossroads, a turning point that strikes me now as decisive. An enormous and dizzying amount of knowledge about literary works had been amassed: this knowledge was necessary, of course, but in a different form, as a prerequisite for understanding the works. The temptation to dispense with any intermediary was strong. We thought we could do without all the intervening scholarship and approach texts closely by more direct means. In most cases, readers, whatever their level of interest, latched on to a text constituted by others, pre-formed, as it were, by a scientific method that was rejected as unverifiable, so that they were no longer able to overcome their dependence or even to recognize it. They often interpreted a mere artifact. Conclusions were drawn and disseminated, leaving no room for further inquiry.

The philological approach, which led to the sources of knowledge in a different way than was commonly thought, took on a special meaning in the philosophical context of the postwar years, when the pre-Socratic thinkers, {5|6} Parmenides even more than Empedocles, enjoyed enormous prestige. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy was a spiritual guide. As we know, constellations change places in the skies of canonical values. Scholars of that era thought that they could lead readers into direct communication with an archaic way of thinking, and make them understand the heroic language of an origin, beyond any scientific methods, or even in opposition to them. Work on ancient interpretations of fragments and on the opinions of philosophers—doxography—shielded me from this trend, but the syntactic problems involved in analyzing the texts prevented me from indulging in verbal iconolatry. Grammar and linguistics revealed their power. Even though the art of putting words together continued to fascinate me, I was able to view the words from a distance, having learned to find and defend the literality of the original text against unsubstantiated claims. In philology, nothing is certain, nothing can be taken for granted. Still, philologists felt the urgent need to set these disparate and broken elements into an appropriate framework that could be conceived as a totality, even if that framework proved artificial.

This is how the Empedoclean construction developed, the cosmological system that lent itself most readily to being set up with the information gleaned from doxography. Ontological positions were applied to a design; they were inscribed within a structure of the world. When homology between a speculation and a representation is difficult to establish, it is because the initial point of view was different, more reflexive than deductive, more analytical than demonstrative. The discovery of the absence of cosmology in Heraclitus was thus the result, no less positive, of the failure of a long research project. It led me inevitably to a radical modification of the interpretation of aphorisms. And when I went back to the famous “fragment” of Anaximander, right at the beginning of philosophical speculation on the arkhē (beginning), I was convinced that Anaximander, already so close to the “dawn,” was making a statement about the conditions of possibility of assertions made by others before him. In a place, in an environment, that was not that of a solitary thinker, the raw material had a form; it was “made” before it was reconstructed. An authorial intervention took on meaning: it was rooted in a particular cultural situation, and a particular choice was already branching off from the dominant point of view.

I had always thought that, as soon as it became feasible, I would continue my studies in Paris, and I lost no time moving there after the Liberation. The Sorbonne had nothing like the working conditions or the open-mindedness I had found in Basel. The university had withdrawn into itself, despite the strong personalities on the faculty: these scholars were fully aware and independent thinkers, but they found it hard to adapt to the situation, more or less everywhere. The best strategy was to act as if this were not the case. In the École {6|7} pratique des hautes études, we had to look for courses that were good, sometimes very good, if not very profitable by the accepted standards; they were sometimes outside the curriculum and therefore poorly attended. At the time, one could quickly take the measure of this academic world to which I falsely ascribed a structure that it may have aspired to but had not yet acquired (and perhaps never did). I built up a quite artificial continuity with my earlier years in academe, rebelling against one reality in favor of another. Since, among other things, I lacked the posture of distanciation that I had adopted earlier, I tried to make that negation operate as a positive factor; I used as a point of reference an absent system with which I had not really identified either. I do not think this double dissociation bothered me. It taught me to see differences, to tolerate them, to resist and reject taboos. I had excellent professors in history and philosophy. In the field of Greek studies, I was very drawn to the history of the language, mainly because linguistics, quite advanced in France at all levels, was also the most scientifically oriented of literary subjects, with the fewest constraints, and because I had recognized how useful it could be for the critique of traditions.

Louis Robert (like Hans Georg Pflaum, from Germany, whom I got to know in Robert’s classroom) was interested in students and their training, and he answered our questions honestly. Father Festugière, in Religious Studies, whom I knew well, preferred to read to us from the text of the book he was writing. Both of them were engaged in an unbelievably relentless race against the clock to get through the material for the books they were preparing. The linguist Pierre Chantraine took me under his wing. I had been referred to him by Von der Mühll when I arrived in Paris with my letters of recommendation. The two men had Homer in common. The great Jacob Wackernagel, whom Chantraine compared to his mentor Antoine Meillet, had taught in Basel. Chantraine was the leading Greek scholar in France; because of his exposure to the international scene, he knew the limits of the French system but saw no way to reform it. He was sensitive to the difficulties that a student unfamiliar with its customs must face. {7|8}

I took an excellent course on Terence offered to advanced students by Jean Bayet, an impressive figure at the postwar Sorbonne, imperious yet approachable; it gave me a clear idea of what academic rhetoric could encompass. At the other extreme, there were only two or three of us to enjoy the unforgettable smile and wisdom of Alexandre Koyré, as he translated Spinoza’s Ethics with his own expressions, brilliant in their clarity, playfulness, and simple intelligence. In another, livelier wing of the Palais de Nénot, [3] I took the courses that Henri-Irénée Marrou offered to a crowded classroom full of ancient history students, in which he developed what would become a classic text, his Histoire de l’éducation dans l’Antiquité. Etienne Gilson, who had returned from Canada for his classes at the Collège de France, gave me another example of elevated and scholarly oratory in his course on Duns Scotus. He pursued his arguments in richly cadenced periodic sentences, before an audience that was then mostly ecclesiastical, and usually hit his mark, though not always. Just as with Koyré, there were not many traditional students in Gilson’s classes. The worlds were compartmentalized. I chose these four professors for their excellence and their generosity. I could meet them in the hallways, or elsewhere—Gilson would meet students at the Vrin bookshop, near a woodstove fed with unsold remainders. Sometimes professors invited me to their homes. I think they felt as frustrated as I did, swept along by the winds of an intellectual void that no one could do anything to counter. One day Marrou told me: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”; I had not learned that yet.

From 1956 to 1959, I was at the Free University of Berlin, where, thanks to the recommendation of Karl Reinhardt, professors Uvo Hölscher and Kurt von Fritz had invited me to teach. I conducted seminars on Parmenides, Empedocles, and Plato’s Timaeus, applying the techniques of open discussion of texts that I had learned in Basel. I realized that this practice was no more than a fiction in Germany, despite all the attempts to restore it after the years of celebrating massacres. It needed to be reinvented, and it required a personal, almost private commitment. Heinz Wismann, a participant in my seminar, followed me to Lille, in France, where I was teaching. We did a great deal of work, going over texts and systems of thought at the same time. We questioned all critical apparatuses. The analysis of error was most productive, methodologically, in the refutation of the idea, propagated by prevailing opinion, that there were two cycles in Empedocles. Our free-wheeling critiques were often taken to be “up-to-date” research, and this was indeed the case, because we were rejecting an opaque and authoritarian past. According to those who defended that past, we took tradition too seriously. {8|9}

Our shared work habits and a suggestion by Pierre Bourdieu led to regular “Saturdays” in our apartment on the rue de Bourgogne in Paris, where, in the company of Pindar and Heraclitus, students from the École Normale Supérieure (chosen by Jean Lallot) joined us and others for discussions. There was a hint of conspiracy in the air in this 1960’s milieu. Around a table, the face of things changed; there was no room for lectures, and few assertions stood up to examination. Moreover, philology as such led to exclusion from the fold. There was no institutional framework for this orientation: its technical aspects made it special, but it was too free and personal to be specialized.

A total lack of response from the scientific community—a largely fictitious community, in fact—has the effect of censorship. Exclusion is at once real and unreal; the lack of response actually hinges on a lack of expectations and of appropriate preparation. It has implications for the whole system of recruitment and training of teachers in secondary and higher education. Confronted with these obstacles, one is almost obliged to defend one’s way of thinking by creating other forms of exchange. Scholars are led to regroup in circles with common intellectual and scientific interests. This means a different, more limited kind of community. It may appear esoteric, but it tends to make itself known and welcomes publicity; it acquires the means to develop—in private, by substitution, in a common effort—a more legitimate public opinion.

Works Cited

Bollack, J. 1996. “Durchgänge.” In Zeitenwechsel. Germanistische Literaturwissenschaft vor und nach 1945, ed. W. Barner and C. Koenig, 387–403. Frankfurt.

Judet de La Combe, P., and H. Wismann, eds. 2009. “Liminaire.” La lecture insistante: autour de Jean Bollack. Colloque de Cerisy (July 11-18), 19–32. Paris.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Apprendre à lire,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 9–21.

[ back ] 1. I described the general setting of the town and its university, as I knew it during the war years, in a paper delivered at a conference on the problem of continuity after 1945: “Durchgänge” (“Passages”), Bollack 1996.

[ back ] 2. [Translator’s note (hereafter TN): George Waddington (1793–1869) was an English clergyman and great traveler; he stands for the amateur scholars of the period who began to explore lands that they had previously known only through books.]

[ back ] 3. Henri-Paul Nénot (1853–1934) was the architect of the Nouvelle Sorbonne (competition of 1882).

[ back ] 4. For information on this research center, see Judet de La Combe and Wismann 2009.