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.

21. Reading the Codes*

The hermeneutics of texts decodes what has always been coded, in some sense; this is the rule, and it is the underlying principle of univocity, which integrates ambivalence and polysemy. Its practice has not seemed to me to be limited to a particular literature. I have needed to know the language of the literature in question, along with relevant aspects of its history and social circumstances. One lives in a given country, one reads its authors differently than one would if they were transmitted in their original forms. One can even be on a familiar basis with the authors; one can be present at the genesis of a poem. But one also lives with other literatures, foreign literatures, translated or not, and why not ancient ones as well?

I have approached the great classical texts as I have approached those that were close to me, even while strictly observing the principle of distancing. It has been a new apprenticeship of difference, but at the same time I have benefited from greater freedom in the face of aesthetic problems. I have been led to recognize the unity of a global literary phenomenon, the existence of a field that is historical and trans-historical without being eternal, in which every sentence has always been taken up again or has awaited its repetition. We must turn the pages of this “book,” about which Celan speaks as Mallarmé had spoken, with the cognitive means of the critic, a creator in his own way, even if it is not the way of the poet.

After a period of distancing from Saint-John Perse, I discovered in 1987 the then-unrecognized extent to which his work was Nietzschean. I then tried to grasp his procedures of execution in the linguistic material, as the signs of a liberation embedded in a subtle and contradictory dialectics. It was probably no accident that several of the letters on which I most relied (to Gabriel Frizeau, March 1907, March 23, 1908, and February 27, 1909) turned out finally to lack manuscript versions, as others do too, perhaps. This coincidence no doubt shows {317|318} that, for certain aspects of his aesthetic, Saint-John Perse settled his opinions in a later phase of his life, in a way rather close to my own. Is not the vita understood and reinterpreted the truer one? For the poet André Frénaud, in the case of certain poems it was a matter of pushing the work of decoding to the point where it brings to light the momentum of the reflection inherent to writing. On these grounds, the two poets bore witness to a fragmented cosmology that characterizes modernity. {318|}


[ back ] * Originally published as “Lire les codes,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 221–222.