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.

25. A Future in the Past: Peter Szondi’s Material Hermeneutics*

The role played by the “inexplicable” or by implicit structures survives today in almost identical form in other types of discourse. Although these do not assign the permanence to the values of “tradition” that Gadamer did, they have the same function as Gadamer’s discourse: they work to erase the boundaries and blunt the edge of a criticism that differentiates between its objects.

Consequently, Szondi’s critique of the deficiencies of philological criticism came with a turn to “hermeneutics,” construed as a “science” on the basis of a redefinition of its specificity (literary, historical, or juridical) and determined {354|355} by the nature of the object (see below, p. 358). With hindsight, we can better understand the implications of what seems like a closing-off, because Szondi intends not only (intra muros) to analyze the errors caused by excessive application of the positivist methods of the natural sciences to philological knowledge, [5] he is also concerned (outside this sphere) with the pretentious contestation, still alive today, of any critical approach in the field of writing, and with the way this attitude is legitimated by the assumption of total knowledge, an all the more dangerous assumption because it embraces and authorizes ignorance. Heidegger’s arbitrary transfers between languages, applied to the reinterpretation of texts, had changed the rules. The claim to immediate existential knowledge, based on trans- and a-historical categories, eliminated anything in textual analysis that could not meet philosophical expectations, creating an unexceptional methodology inherent to the discipline. Critical justification of these approaches had fallen out of favor. Hence the twofold movement imposed on what was a real advance. In the face of such contempt, one had both to distance oneself from the rejection of critical re-examination within scientific production and to demystify the theme of external immediacy that phenomenology provided. This dual orientation is a fundamental characteristic of Szondi’s approach—the critical catharsis in action—and of the battle he waged against a form of usurpation. The domain of textual criticism should be expanded; rules would ensue from that expansion.

The hermeneutics of the phenomenological schools under the influence of Wilhelm Dilthey holds that the field of historical consciousness controlled by the subject is limited. Consciousness is transcended by the appeal of the “dogmatic” power of tradition, rather than of the work itself. An interpreter cannot escape {355|356} it without hampering the artistic or poetic experience. It is tradition that, in principle, prevails over its objectivization in a “science of literature.” [7] Since the Romantic era, the front lines of literary criticism have been redrawn, and are still in flux. Interpreters remain the slaves of tradition. They can understand a text only if they allow themselves to be imbued by the voice, which stems not from the literary work, nor even from the author, but which nevertheless makes itself understood through the act of writing and listening, always the same and yet multiple. Empathy, doggedly rejected by Szondi, has a theoretical justification. It is not merely a matter of participation; if the literary work produces the elements that allow it to be understood, it is because these elements are inherent to a deep, general, and common structure. “Grasp what grabs us”; the paradox became the watchword of this doctrine for reading. [8] The vicious circle is not only accepted, it is set up as an end in itself. Understanding binds the reader, “grabs” him, just as, in Lacan’s theory, the imagination is in thrall to language. It is from this constraint, which obstructs the path to knowledge, that historical understanding and aesthetic analysis can emerge. Knowledge is pre-structured; its determinations direct and control both writing and interpretation. Order does not originate in the text; rather, it has multiple origins, whether unconscious or informed by layers of preconceptions. The common thread among different points of view is the search for an authority that could possess and at the same time dispossess the reader.

If descriptive hermeneutics methodically disparages the author’s reflection on his own work, and if such reflection is by definition suspect, it is because artistic production escapes the producer, who is continually outpaced by the inherent dynamism, anonymous and collective, of a power flowing through him that he can control only at the cost of becoming a mere “artist,” a master of artifice and fake authenticity. The more fettered the author, the more independent the interpreter. He can discover, re-invent, or even invent the meaning of a work that has not been subjected to the oversight of a consciousness. Indeed, science—as long as it sticks to its method and to its will to objectivize—is thought to misunderstand the nature of its own knowledge, which transcends the analytical power of exegesis, just as creation transcends the impulse of a subject-creator. {356|357}

Szondi was totally opposed to Gadamer’s approach, partly because of his own reserved temperament, but also with regard to method, where he subjects the criticism of literary understanding to the specificity of its objects. Tradition entails ruptures. Their presence can be detected only through their shifts. On the one hand, history can be grasped in the dialectical movement produced by the work, with its formal structure, and the external conditions of its production; on the other hand, it can be grasped in the distance experienced by the interpreter, since the latter can only overcome this separation in history by scrutinizing the initial gap through a critical reflection on his own distanciation. The interpreter includes the analysis of his own determinations in the act of comprehension. Thus one break in viewpoint can capture another. The critic situates himself by situating the author, who had situated himself before him. {358|359}

For Szondi, history embraces real life experience, but above all its tragic truth; it challenges its own celebration, be it vitalist or organicist. Indeed, history is revealed in failure and exclusion, in the distance taken and the distance sustained. Its excesses are inherent to movement since, being inscribed in its negation, they are anticipated by it. Ideology doubtless has its source in the negation of this negation, more definite and more absolute than the hypostases derived from Presence or Absence. One failure is not the same as another. Each one is unique, a single signifier. Movement is not unique; neither is swallowing up. Movement neither adds nor subtracts anything, but it does destroy. The work is the moment of an unremarkable resistance; it derives its meaning from that moment because the moment is not followed by any other that concerns the work: the instant in question is just “that instant, there,” for want of a “being-there.” This threat is what ensures the work’s unique identity.

Szondi never invokes History. We are subjected to it in specific situations. And the very utopia that inspires him in the works of Benjamin or Adorno appears in his books more as a commonly used concept than as a principle. He speaks of historical philosophy only as a reference. If his reticence attests to a scruple, it also derives from a method: History, like other etiological systems, implies an arbitrary bond.

Clearly the method implies the permanence of cognitive elements in a changing world. Differences produced by historical evolution, which has been popularized in texts, do not bring about a radical epistemological break. The analysis of differences clearly defines a conceptual outline in the object. If the continuity of the conditions of understanding is accepted as a given, discussion no longer introduces responses that block critical analysis, and it no longer prevents the interpreter from making free use of his cognitive tools. With regard to literary hermeneutics—that is, “material” hermeneutics—Szondi chose to adhere to this pragmatic stance.

In his opposition to the philology of immanence, Szondi used the criterion of social mediation; the work was no longer considered the depository of traditional values. His demonstration remained incomplete because he deliberately limited his purview to the specific genealogy found in variable systems of interdependencies. Since he did not address directly either the social sciences or a science of society, he was able to avoid a direct approach to the problem of totality, at the heart of which dialectical movements occur, and from which they derive their meaning. Theories are documents designed for the historical understanding of the period in which they were conceived, reproducing their determinations as well as their interpretive opinions. Depending on the topic, Szondi confined himself to pointing out the text’s opposition to a prejudicial reading.

The core of the debate bears on the function of the work and of the task. A re-examination of the tools should allow critics to project their aim into the field of that specific and unfeigned “science” that is contested and contestable because of its excessive assimilations, and to acknowledge the precision that it gains. It is preferable not to tamper with the philological tool kit, since it might then have the after-effect of promoting the displacement of hermeneutics toward the “philosophical” position, leaving no space for the critical approach. The position Szondi chose condemns an alliance between a theory and a practice. The one is just as poor in philosophy as the other is poor in philology, if they both avoid the scrutiny of the interpreter’s historical insights.

On this point Szondi differed from such theoreticians of understanding as Dilthey. Material hermeneutics is devoted to the materiality of the text: language and form. The work is inscribed within a gap; it emphasizes its difference. The philologist re-evaluates the appropriateness of the aesthetic criteria deployed in order to understand the viewing angle and to know what he is talking about. The choice of the term “literary” instead of “philological,” which one might prefer when designating this secular hermeneutics, is the result of a refusal, since the philology of the ancients had not been obliged until then to submit its judgment either to a prior definition of the object or to the analysis of the critic’s position. It is clear that the ambition arising from modern philologies is of a resolutely and tactically modernist nature.

Works Cited

Cusatelli, G. 1979. “Intorno a Szondi, dopo Szondi.” Foreword to P. Szondi, Introduzione all’ermeneutica letteraria. Parma.

Duroche, L. L. 1967. Aspects of Criticism: Literary Study in Present-Day Germany. The Hague.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1974. “Hermeneutik.” In Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, vol. 3. Darmstadt.

———. 1982. Truth and Method, trans. from the German. London. Orig. pub. 1965.

Gumbrecht, H. U. 1988. “‘Über allen Wipfeln [sic] ist Ruh.’ Literaturwissenschaft jenseits der Literatur.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, no. 166, July 20.

Hays, M. 1986. “Foreword. Tracing a Critical Path: Peter Szondi and the Humanistic Tradition.” In On Textual Understanding and Other Essays, ed. P. Szondi, vii–xxi. Minneapolis.

Heidegger, M. 1941. Sein und Zeit. 5th ed. Halle. Orig. pub. 1927. In English as Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, New York, 1962.

Hölscher, U. 1975. “Wie soll ich noch tanzen?” In Sprachen der Lyrik: Festschrift für Hugo Friedrich zum 70. Geburtstag, 376–393. Frankfurt.

Jauss, H. R. 1970. Literaturgeschichte als Provokation. Frankfurt.

Nägele, R. 1983. “Text, History and the Critical Subject: Notes on Peter Szondi’s Theory and Praxis of Hermeneutics.” boundary 2, vol. 11, no. 3, The Criticism of Peter Szondi (Spring):29-42.

Staiger, E. 1953. Die Zeit als Einbildungskraft des Dichters. Zurich. Orig. pub. 1939.

———. 1991. Basic Concepts of Poetics. Trans. J. C. Hudson and L. T. Frank. University Park, PA. Orig. pub. 1946.

Szondi, P. 1972. Lektüren und Lektionen. Frankfurt.

———. 1974–1975. Studienausgabe der Vorlesungen. Ed. Jean Bollack. Frankfurt.

———. 1978. Schriften. Frankfurt.

———. 1986. Peter Szondi, On Textual Understanding and Other Essays. Trans. H. Mendelsohn. Minneapolis. Orig. pub. 1978.

———. 1995. Introduction to Literary Hermeneutics. Trans. M. Woodamsee. Cambridge, U.K. In French as Introduction à l’herméneutique littéraire, trans. M. Bollack, with an afterword by J. Bollack, Paris, 1989.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Un futur dans le passé. L’herméneutique matérielle de Peter Szondi,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 117–127.

[ back ] 1. Works dealing with the response of German scholars to Heidegger’s philosophy in the two decades following World War II are presented and explained in relation to their origin in Duroche 1967. The author conducts an analysis of the theoretical prerequisites for reading such authors as Emil Staiger, Max Bense, Theophil Spörri, and especially Johannes Pfeiffer, and helps to explain the reaction that arose in the sixties.

[ back ] 2. Gadamer 1982:251. Historical research echoes quite magically the self-generated display of tradition—the “thing” that is also called “dogma,” both in texts and in language.

[ back ] 3. [TN: A departure from the expected word order.]

[ back ] 4. See Szondi 1995:16, for his critique of Chladenius’ work: “It is also empirical, which means it is specific enough not to ignore individual problems for the sake of concentrating on an act of understanding.” [TN: Johann Martin Chladenius (1710–1759), a German philosopher, theologian, and historian, was considered one of the founders of hermeneutics. He declared reading to be a science, not an art. Szondi dedicated four chapters to him in his Introduction.]

[ back ] 5. See the conclusion of Szondi 1986:3–22, “On Textual Understanding.”

[ back ] 6. See Staiger 1991.

[ back ] 7. Gadamer (1982:469) uses the term “dogmatic” to refer to content untouched by historical objectivism. See also Gadamer 1974, col. 1069: the validity claimed by art should always be called “dogmatic.”

[ back ] 8. Gadamer’s adaptation (1974) of a quotation from Staiger (1953:11): “was uns der unmittelbare Eindruck aufschliesst, ist der Gegenstand literarischer Forschung; dass wir begreifen, was uns ergreift, das ist das eigentliche Ziel aller Literaturwissenschaft” (“our immediate impression on reading a text is precisely the object of literary research; that we should grasp what grabs us, that is the real aim of the science of literature”).

[ back ] 9. Literary hermeneutics is special, in that it is doubly separated, both from the imitation of nature and from an object that is assumed to be assigned to it in advance.

[ back ] 10. Gadamer 1982:263.

[ back ] 11. Gadamer 1982:263. The “remainder,” not included in the original totality, is “contingent” on both the author and his public. “Not occasionally only, but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author. That is why understanding is not merely a productive, but always a reproductive attitude as well” (264).

[ back ] 12. Gadamer 1982:263.

[ back ] 13. Gadamer 1982:265 (“a genuine productivity of process” [einer echten Produktivität des Geschehens]).

[ back ] 14. The formula is borrowed from an article by the philologist Uvo Hölscher titled “Wie soll ich noch tanzen?” (“Why should I honor the gods in the dance?”; Hölscher 1975, from line 896, spoken by the Chorus, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King).

[ back ] 15. Gadamer 1982:361.

[ back ] 16. For an incorrect usage of the concept of “application,” see Gadamer 1982:278. Theology and law provide the “true model.” (We can see here the stakes involved in the claim for a specific hermeneutics.) Also 302: “Understanding … involves application,” that is how it attains the “character of an event.” The philologist weaves “the great tapestry of tradition which supports us.”

[ back ] 17. Gadamer 1982:236–238, following Heidegger 1941, §63, 310–316. The reader “must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s quality of newness.” And then turning away from difference: “The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that [und damit] the text may present itself in all its newness, and thus be able to assert its own truth [seine sachliche Wahrheit] against one’s own fore-meanings” (238, also 260–266).

[ back ] 18. See Gadamer 1974, col. 1070.

[ back ] 19. See Szondi 1995:2–3.

[ back ] 20. A theory, by virtue of its weak points or its ambiguities, can be used, at least in part, by a rival family, through a continuous process of assimilation. So certain Heideggerians have been able to lay claim to Adorno’s thought. Szondi has not been spared these misunderstandings. To enhance one’s reading, one risks tempering differences cumulatively, in order to respond to the plurality of viewpoints (see, for example, Nägele 1985:56). Relativism is reintroduced in a roundabout way. Szondi had chosen his alliances, moderating each one by the others, as is usually the case, and as shown here. His reticence as a critical theoretician, in the face of excessive and audacious theoretical speculations, protected him from other misrepresentations. The attitude or position triumphed over dogma.

[ back ] 21. Szondi 1995:114.

[ back ] 22. Horizontverschmelzung. The use of the concept of “immersion” (Versenkung) in history, traces of which can be seen in the work, refers to a contrary theory.

[ back ] 23. To transport oneself into the horizons of the past is to attain “a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity, but also that of the other” (Gadamer 1982:272). See the homologous position attributed to Friedrich Ast, in Szondi 1995:101–103.

[ back ] 24. Nägele 1985:54–56.

[ back ] 25. The essay “Über philologischer Erkenntnis,” which has been republished several times, has become a classic in the theory of literary methodology; the Introduction complements and extends it (see Szondi 1978, 1:263–286, and n5). In English, as “On Textual Understanding,” in Szondi 1986:3–22.

[ back ] 26. See Szondi 1995:49–50.

[ back ] 27. For Jauss (1970:185-186), the “fusion of horizons,” with an explicit reference to Gadamer’s theory, takes on the appearance of “an active process of understanding” in the form of an overt tension between question and answer.

[ back ] 28. For this course, see the first part of Szondi 1974-1975:5, and the comments added on pp. 2–3. Szondi never taught anything that he would not have published.

[ back ] 29. Gumbrecht 1988.

[ back ] 30. Adorno was very important to Szondi in his personal life; Benjamin’s work was the model of an exceptional relationship to literature (and to the book), and both he and Lukács exemplified the form of the essay. A study of their importance in the development of Szondi’s method should be based on the differing use he made of each of the three bodies of work. See, for example, the critical defense of Lukács, namely of his theoretical premises, against his own position, in Szondi’s course, published as “Die Theorie des bürgerlichen Trauerspiels im 18. Jahrhundert” (Szondi 1974–1975, 1:31).

[ back ] 31. Despite his undeniable precautions, Michael Hays’ presentation of Szondi’s method (and of his work as a whole) ends up erasing the sharpest distinctions, which he has, in fact, mapped out for himself (“situating oneself in relation to one’s own critical discourse, as well as in relation to the textual object” [Hays 1986:ix]). Hays fails to distinguish the hermeneutics analyzed and practiced by Szondi from that of Heidegger or Derrida, which goes by the same name. Thus he ends up writing that Szondi abandons the “hermeneutic method” (when has he practiced it?) or uses it against the hermeneutic tradition (which one?). The origin of the error lies in not dissociating Szondi from deconstruction (xxi), and failing to situate deconstruction in the tradition from which it stems, a tradition that Szondi contested. Thus one needs to find what is hidden in his discourse, “what is unspoken,” so that dialectics can be displaced into the sphere of language and the unconscious, towards its true object legitimated by the post-modernists. “While the polysemic nature of language inscribes the difference between subject and object, signifier and signified, idea and event in the text, a dialectical understanding of this difference allows nonetheless for a critical evaluation of these relationships; for knowledge is derived not from an assumed sublation of difference, but from an effort to allow the poles of difference to comment on each other” (xix). One cannot serve two masters. An even more tendentious presentation can be found in Cusatelli 1979.

[ back ] 32. The circumstances are regrettable. We should not misjudge the situation. However much pain he experienced, Szondi knew, as did Adorno, that the protesters’ favorite targets were the most open minds; on the whole, he shared with the students a good number of the reasons for their rebellion. He was certainly not defending his own status. It is true that in the end he felt like a foreigner in his own place. But did he even have a place?