Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.18

Jean Bollack, The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan. Hellenic studies series, 73.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University, 2016.  Pp. xxxiv, 404.  ISBN 9780674660199.  $29.95 (pb).  

Contributors: Translated by Catherine Porter and Susan Tarrow, with Bruce King; edited by Christoph Koenig, Leonard Muellner, Gregory Nagy, and Sheldon Pollock.

Reviewed by Bruce Krajewski, University of Texas at Arlington (

As recently as 2012, one could find a statement like this from Rebecca Gould, "It is commonly believed that philology has died, and that little hope of, or reason for, recovery looms on the horizon."1 Antonio Gramsci's dream of philology as a "philosophy of praxis," as a task for everyone at all levels of society, seems now as remote as the capacity to imagine an alternative to global capitalism.2 Comparative literature departments are in decline—the places in North America for training people in languages—and Classics departments remain, for the most part, heavily subsidized Spielzeuge of elite institutions.

Could a turnaround be on the horizon? James Turner's Philology3 garnered the attention of The Wall Street Journal, but the reviewer threw a wet towel over any optimism about a renaissance in philology. "Philology played little part in the 20th-century rise of New Criticism, now very old, with its emphasis on context-free close reading, and even less in the craze for literary theory, which has wandered off in the direction of philosophical speculation. Mr. Turner, perhaps wisely, says nothing about the present 'bonfire of the humanities,' as seen in declining enrollments."4

Philology presents some obvious barriers to entry and has had some internal problems. For instance, philology rarely transcends nationalistic tendencies. Bollack, founder of a school of philology in Lille, has, according to one reviewer, suffered a bit from such nationalism. Bollack participated in "the old discipline of 'philology,' which in France has always been considered as a peculiarly German activity."5 Bollack's school for philology eluded the attention of Turner, as did considerations of several of the figures Bollack considers vital to the contemporary history of philology, such as Peter Szondi. This discrepancy in histories might say more about schools of thought within philology than about philology itself.

Within its 27 chapters, Bollack undertakes readings of a wide range of authors from Homer, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Sophocles, and Parmenides to Freud, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Mallarmé, and Paul Celan.6 Bollack's aim is, in part, to edify the reader about some of the principles of reading, and to settle some scores with interpreters who have not adopted his science of interpretation. What is this art of reading Bollack promotes? The Art of Reading contains a host of directives and observations about philology to answer that question:

• "The act of reading requires reactualizing a text as such while attributing to it all the characteristics of a unitary composition" (1)
• "In philology, nothing is certain, nothing can be taken for granted" (6)
• "Only a comprehensive view of the whole series of interpretations and the historical factors that underlie them, even if we are simply looking at errors, can allow us to move beyond doxography" (16)
• Ancient texts have "an esoteric nature" (40)
• "No reading of any sort can become clear in the absence of other readings" (48)
• "It is not the common, known meaning that one is seeking, but the unknown, the unsaid that is revealing itself, combined with the letter of the text. Here is the specific object of philology, the one it shares with no other science" (54)
• "The literal meaning decides" (55)
• "When one translates, one makes new discoveries at every turn" (133)
• "Without syntax, I would be unable to do anything at all" (135)
• "It is only when literality is established that the question of meaning, that is, the meaning of this meaning, of the philosophical significance, can be posited" (241)

Bollack's hermeneutics is not to be confused with the hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger or Hans-Georg Gadamer. Bollack intends to distance his own work from Heidegger especially, since Bollack speculates that his own interpretations did not fare so well among French intellectuals smitten with Heidegger. Bollack notes that the pro-Heidegger enthrallment in France diminished over time. "Given that the prevailing Parisian Heideggerianism is beginning to fade [mentioned in an essay published in 2001], perhaps a position such as mine may be able to score some points" (134-35). For Bollack, the most prominent feature of Parisian Heideggerianism is a lack of attention to syntax. Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, and others failed to master what Bollack sees as an essential interpretive skill. "None of those thinkers had fully grasped the syntactic nuances" (135).

Much of The Art of Reading consists of a laundry list of other thinkers' interpretive failures. (1) Too many people put words into Kafka's mouth. "Kafka was unable to prevent readers from speaking about things he was not speaking about" (276). (2) Well-known figures play fast and loose with textual evidence. Walter Benjamin reads Kafka according to "the preconceptions of his own vision" (263).7 (3) Too many critics imagine that Oedipus is something other than a walking dead man from the beginning of Sophocles's narrative (147). Bollack insists that the proper reading of Oedipus takes the Labdacid family history into account, and brackets Oedipus as a kind of tragic remainder to a mathematical quotient tainted at the outset. Oedipus is "the child of unholy parents" (138). Bollack conveys a consistent message about readers who cannot get themselves and their agendas out of their own way, readers who "failed to consider the conditions under which they themselves were exploiting the text" (39).

In one of the prominent cases at this collection's end, Bollack takes the liberty of informing his readers that his personal relationship with Paul Celan guarantees the correctness of Bollack's view about Celan's famous "Todtnauberg" poem. In addressing Celan's study of Kafka, Bollack wants people to know that he and Celan "had participated together in the earliest demonstrations at the beginning of May 1968" (298). These awkward autobiographical moments undermine Bollack's appeals to strict constructionism elsewhere, to a laser focus on the text and on the literal. While complaining that other scholars are textual libertines, Bollack prides himself on "limiting myself to the words and the writing" (288). He limits himself, except when he doesn’t.

In this collection of essays, Bollack functions most frequently as wrist-slapper rather than hermeneutical cheerleader whose enthusiasm becomes infectious. Unlike Gramsci, Bollack does not seem to be endorsing democratic reading practices, as readers might have imagined from Bollack's spotlighting his unelaborated role in the May 1968 demonstrations. Bollack's presuppositions for philology might obviate potential egalitarian impulses for the discipline. When a person's "spiritual guide" (6) is Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (like Bollack, Nietzsche held a Chair of Philology at the University of Basel, the school where Bollack learned philology), it's difficult to believe that the person wouldn't be infected by Nietzsche's nefarious views about hierarchies among human beings (e.g., philologists as Übermenschen?). Merely one generation prior to Bollack’s, Gramsci had invoked philology as a non-elitist, non-esoteric activity: "One should not care a hoot about the solemn task of advancing Dante criticism or of adding one's own little stone to the edifice of commentaries and elucidations of the divine poem."8 Gramsci pursued a larger political agenda on behalf of philology, and was willing to entertain a philological practice that addresses "future possibilities of meaning."9 Whereas Gramsci developed what is called a "living philology,"10 Bollack's philology, by contrast in style and content, reads like something D.O.A.


1.   Rebecca Gould, "Philology, Education, Democracy," The Journal of Aesthetic Education 46.4 (Winter 2012), 58. Gould issues such a statement despite developments like "the new philology" movement among medievalists a mere three decades earlier. See Siegfried Wenzel's "Reflections on (New) Philology," Speculum 65.1 (January 1990), 11-18.
2.   See Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, especially the Fourth Notebook. Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks. Vol. II. Joseph Buttigieg (ed. and trans.) (Columbia University Press, 1996).
3.   James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
4.   Tom Shippey, "Book Review: Philology by James Turner," The Wall Street Journal (July 3, 2014); online at The Wall Street Journal.
5.   See Geert Lernout's review of the 2010 volume La philologie au présent: pour Jean Bollack; online at BMCR 2011.03.11.
6.   For those interested in a chapter-by-chapter commentary, written by Bollack’s self-described “friend,” Gregory Nagy, one is available online at Classical Inquiries. Several posts by Nagy on the blog are excerpts from Nagy’s introduction to The Art of Reading.
7.   Bollack's lengthy and caustic essay on Benjamin (chapter 20) runs counter to the encomia about Benjamin-as-philologist in a recent collection about the discipline. See Philology and Its Histories, Sean Gurd (ed.) (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2010).
8.   Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Vol. II, 257.
9.   Roberto Dainotto, "Gramsci and Labriola: Philology, Philosophy of Praxis" in Perspective on Gramsci: Politics, Culture and Social Theory, edited by Joseph Francese (London: Routledge, 2009), 52.
10.   Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Vol. I. Joseph Buttigieg (ed. and trans.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 60.

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