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.

2. Reading the Philologists?*

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 {12|13} 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. {13|}

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.