In Memoriam: Jean Bollack

~ by André Laks, translated by Leonard Muellner ~
Jean Bollack died on December 4, 2012, at the age of 89. He was a singular figure, both as a philologist and a human being. One way, admittedly a somewhat paradoxical way, to get a sense of what sort of person he was, is to attribute to writing what Leonardo da Vinci said about painting : è cosa mentale, ‘it’s a mental thing.’ Texts were not for him what they are often taken to be, namely documents or expressions. A text read by Jean Bollack was always the trace of the distance taken by a subject who, because he also was a reader himself, re-configured some previous text or texts. The term “réfection”  – re-configuring, or re-shaping –  was his byword. This applied not only to great literary works but also to productions that are generally less valued, such as doxographic works, whose riches he knew how to expose and exploit. In 1973, the year that I first met him, he dedicated his seminar for the Master’s degree to the placita of Aëtius. This was unique at that time (it still would be), but he made it possible to do such a thing at Lille, a university that was at one and the same time important and in disfavor both socially and institutionally — for at least part of its teaching faculty, it was often just a ticket to Paris. But Jean Bollack preferred the margins to the center: not for the sake of marginality itself — he never ceased to strive for recognition — but for the freedom that marginality provided. The Center for Philological Research that he founded at Lille, and which gave its name to a school, was for some time an unequalled focus of debate and creativity.
“In the end, it’s pretty simple,” and “what we are doing is, in the end, basically humble.” These two phrases of Jean’s are not, I believe, among those that he committed to writing. He spoke them at the rue de Bourgogne, when we were discussing a particularly illuminating reading that he had given a few days before of a poem by Celan. I found these phrases striking, because simplicity and humility were not within the scope of Jean Bollack’s work, whether it was his own work or that of his team, nor were they part of his personality. For him, humility was submission, hierarchy, bad faith, and manipulation. He detested it as a form of hypocrisy. And simplicity was, above all, a hermeneutic obstacle to be wary of, just as immediate comprehension is an obstacle according to Schleiermacher. And yet there are essential links between difficulty and simplicity, as there are between humility and grandeur. That is what the words “in the end” express, although they do so differently in each of the two sentences reported above. Humility consists in the ambition to be up to the work being interpreted – an ambition that was constantly being exposed. Properly speaking, it is knowing what the interpretive situation demands (which includes knowing the interpreter’s social stance vis-à-vis the work, ‘knowing one’s place’). “In the end, what we are doing is pretty humble” is addressed to those who, through superficiality or self-interest, are ignorant of what it takes to interpret properly or who prefer to ignore it. “In the end, it’s pretty simple”, when said of Celan or Empedocles, signifies, by contrast, that once your approach is at the right level, understanding comes with illumination as its epiphenomenon, as Aristotle says that pleasure is an add-on to other activities, including cognitive ones. Between these two “in the end” expressions, one that pertains to the interpreter’s situation, the other to his ambition, there are a number of midpoints and tensions. In the end, there is nothing simple about the relationship between them, which definitely requires humility, since nothing is more difficult than to satisfy the demands of both simultaneously. All those who shared in the work of Jean Bollack know something about it. But accepting the notion of working in that relationship and so of exploring the relationship itself is probably what each person who has felt solidarity with Bollack’s approach can best do to honor his memory.
An epigraph to Sens contre sens. Comment lit-on? (2000), a book of interviews by Patrick Llored, defines Jean Bollack’s theoretical positions in the clearest and most accessible way. The formulation is by Stanley Cavell, from his Voice of Reason, and it seems to have been crafted for Bollack: “Only someone who is a past master of a form of knowledge can accept a revolutionary change in it as its natural extension; and when he accepts that change or proposes it, he does so with the goal of remaining in contact with the very idea of that kind of knowledge, with its own internal rules of comprehensibility and completeness.” There was a popular short version of this idea that served as our badge of honor, one which we were working for with Bollack, often on a daily basis: “to be more pedantic than the pedants themselves.” The goal envisioned was the meaning, something that can never be attained without the resources of pedantry but that pedantry is in itself unable to attain — because meaning is the thing that it is.
Naturally the question, then, is to know what exactly one thinks about the cosa mentale and the distance that is, paradoxically, its substance. From that point of view, it will take some time to evaluate the contribution of Jean Bollack as concerns both his particular interpretations (on the subject of Greece from Homer to Epicurus, with a stress on archaic thought and the tragic poets) and as concerns the hermeneutic theory that supports them. The body of work that he has left us is truly abundant and diverse (an online bibliography can be found at but also hard to access. It makes great intellectual demands, and his writing style, cleansed of all rhetoric, is a permanent protest against the commonplaces both seen and unseen that flatten profiles and make things seem easy to assimilate and digest. The stakes and the circumstances of what was his voyage cry out for reconstruction. Since Jean Bollack’s interpretations proceeded from a point of view that was not wedded to the usual, standard understanding of traditional philological and historical disciplines, it was not instantly identified. His intention was to redefine philology, of whose history and resources he was profoundly aware — and he also knew its demons. For him, it was a question of giving a purer sense to the words of that whole tribe – a Mallarmean gesture, so to speak. The distance that he took allowed him to have an effect on a circle of non-specialist readers, including psychoanalysts, theatre people, poets, and artists, but without vulgarization or adaptation. One of Jean Bollack’s talents was to be able to move from Greek literature, his area of academic competence, to modern and contemporary poetry, in which he was always interested but to which he turned more and more as the years passed. The two fields and their sets of problems intersected and converged and were strengthened in him as much by their differences as by their similarities. His work on Paul Celan, who was a friend of his, had a major impact on Celan studies, probably more so than his work as a Hellenist — for instance, his monumental edition with commentary of Oedipus Rex — has had on an ancient studies, even if his edition of Empedocles, also a monumental work, attracted attention as well as criticism (Pierre Aubenque wrote about in Le Monde and Walter Burkert wrote a long review for Gnomon). It has at least been partially absorbed by the discipline. Some day it will be necessary to ask why the two sets of works were so differently received; also to confront the difficulties, and even the impasses of his approach. But that a true body of work exists is undeniable. For an introduction to it and in particular to the idea that guided it, of a “critical hermeneutics,” the reader has at his disposal a book that appreared a few months before his death: Denis Thouard’s Herméneutique critique. Bollack, Szondi, Celan, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion. Jean Bollack’s last book, Au Jour le jour, whose publication he did not live to see (Presses Universitaires Françaises, 2013), is an intellectual log book, his own Zibaldone, written over the course of his last years. It makes clear what a person he was.