Jean Bollack in English, a preview of a foreword to The Art of Reading, Part V

2016.04.21 | By Gregory Nagy

This posting of 2016.04.20 is Part V of what I started in the postings of 2016.03.09, 2016.03.31, 2016.04.07, and 2016.04.14, which were Parts I and II and III and IV. In these postings, I preview the text of a foreword I am putting together for a 2016 book containing twenty-seven chapters based on articles and essays by Jean Bollack, The Art of Reading: from Homer to Paul Celan, translated into English by Catherine Porter and Susan Tarrow.

“Ulysses and the Sirens” (1909), by Herbert James Draper (English, 1864–1920); oil on canvas, 176.9x213.4 cm; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums, UK.
“Ulysses and the Sirens” (1909), by Herbert James Draper (English, 1864–1920); oil on canvas, 176.9×213.4 cm; Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums, UK. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Ch.20. “Benjamin Reading Kafka” (Bollack 2010)

§20A. Before attempting to read this essay, readers should be advised to brace themselves. To form an idea of the depths and the complexities to be confronted—not even to mention the sheer length of time it takes to read the chapter, which can most easily be grasped from the start by contemplating the total number of footnotes (181)—I list here the main characters that figure in the drama of Bollack’s argumentation. First we have Franz Kafka (1883–1924) and Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) themselves, who are already marked as the protagonists in the title of the essay. But then we also have the literary executor and ex post facto premier reader of Kafka, Max Brod (1884–1968). And we have as well a number of other eminent readers, especially Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), Ernst Bloch (1885–1977), and Hannah Arendt (1906–1975). And these are only the main characters in what I just called the drama of Bollack’s argumentation. There are also some important secondary characters who occasionally rotate into the foreground, and they are too numerous to mention here. The one exception, however, who must not only be mentioned but also spotlighted, is a figure who enters the drama only toward the end of Bollack’s essay—and then stays there. He is Paul Celan (1920–1970).

§20B. Mention of Celan in this essay by Bollack takes place at a point where the reader has already read nearly 20,000 words of argumentation. Only about 8,000 words remain to be read in the essay. But the entrance of Celan in Chapter 20 here signals the essence of Bollack’s argumentation.

§20C. It all goes back to an essay of Benjamin on Kafka, originally published in 1934 and designated simply as “Essay” in the translation of Bollack’s own essay. As Bollack notes, Celan at one point actually refers directly to the original German text of the Essay, listed as Benjamin 1934 in my Bibliography below. The direct reference is to be found in Celan’s Büchner Prize speech, “Der Meridian” (“The Meridian”), delivered at Darmstadt in 1960. But there is more to it, much more. As Bollack shows, Celan creates in his own poetry a readerly response not only to Kafka but even to the reception of Kafka by Benjamin. We see here a kind of poeticized reception of a reception of Kafka, crafted deliberately as an alternative to the theorized reception that plays out in the essay of Benjamin on Kafka. Bollack in his own essay on Kafka says ironically about the theorized reception: “Kafka was unable to prevent readers from speaking about things he was not speaking about.” In the end, Bollack senses that Celan is the best mediator for the real logos of Kafka. It is as if Kafka would have approved of the mediation.

§20D. Why is the reception of Kafka by Celan so all-important for Bollack in his own essay? It is mostly because the poetry of Celan responds to Kafka in a way that solves the problems created by Benjamin in his readings of Kafka—in interaction with rival readings as criticized by Bollack in the first 20,000-odd words of his complex essay. What comes into play in Bollack’s proposed solution is a matter of *hermeneutics*, that is, the kind of methodology that he himself developed in his approach to such ancient thinkers as Heraclitus. Here we see an implicit return to Bollack’s essay (1997i) on the Heraclitean logos, as republished in Chapter 17 of his Art of Reading. As Bollack argues there, the thinking of Heraclitus focuses on meaning as a function of language, that is, of the logos. Similarly, the work of Kafka is for Bollack “fully situated in language, by language, and in language.”

§20E. Whereas Bollack’s comparison of Heraclitus with Kafka is only implicit in this essay, there are works that make the comparison explicit. I have one particular work in mind as I say this: it is a book by David Schur (1998), entitled Heraclitus and Kafka. I am betting that Bollack, if he had seen this book, would have approved.

§20F. From time to time in the essay of Bollack, but not all that frequently, he interprets Kafka directly—instead of indirectly through intermediaries, as when he resists or embraces respectively the mediations of the likes of Benjamin or Celan. My favorite example of a direct interpretation is when Bollack comments on a short story of Kafka’s entitled “Silence of the Sirens” (1931). As Bollack sees it, the reason why the Sirens do not sing is because they have understood the desire of Odysseus to hear them, not only the stratagem that he has invented to hear them. The Sirens of Kafka do not sing, but Odysseus “believes he hears them.”

Ch.21. “Reading the Codes” (Bollack 1997l)

§21A. Chapter 21 can serve as a transition. It contains fewer than 500 words, in the wake of the 28,000-odd words of Chapter 20. We have heard already from Paul Celan, who signals modernity, and we will hear more as we read the chapters that follow this one. But first, the discourse of Bollack will now stop and take stock before moving further away from the ancient world and taking big steps toward modernity in general. A specific case in point, for the moment, is Saint-John Perse (1887–1975).

§21B. At this point of transition in the book, Bollack needs to make sure that his readers keep in mind something quite basic about his approach to texts both ancient and modern. There is no point, he says, in trying to seek a universal meaning for any text to be studied. Rather, in terms of Bollack’s *hermeneutics*, it suffices to view the text as something that is both *historical* and *trans-historical*. Here is how he puts it: “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.” For his hermeneutics, it is an absolutist imperative to study each and every instance in the reception of a text—even if the completeness of such a study needs to be deferred beyond a lifetime or even beyond an eternity of study. The meaning of the text may not be eternal, but the study of the meaning needs to be so. There can be no final word about the meaning of the word. Instead, there is only an eternal decoding: “the hermeneutics of texts decodes what has always been coded, in some sense.”

Ch.22. “A Sonnet, a Poetics—Mallarmé: ‘Le vierge, le vivace . . .’ ” (Bollack 2008)

§22A. In the course of his decisive transition from the ancient to the modern world in Chapter 21, Bollack had already compared the modernist poetics of two figures. One of these two was Paul Celan, whose poetic creations were highlighted also in Chapter 20. But Bollack in Chapter 21 mentioned only in passing the other of the two figures whose poetics he was comparing there, and I in turn did not mention him at all in the part of my foreword that dealt with that chapter. Here in Chapter 22, I make up for that temporary elision. The figure in question is a modernist poet from an earlier era, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898). In Chapter 22, Bollack engages more fully with the poetics of Mallarmé, and I take this opportunity to signal the value of this engagement. The primary text that Bollack has chosen from among the poetic creations of Mallarmé is “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui,” which is the second in a tetrad of poems entitled “Plusieurs sonnets” in the 1899 Deman edition. The translators of Bollack have chosen for the English translation of Mallarmé here the version crafted by the late Barbara Johnson. This exquisite English version of the French text enhances all the more for me the pleasure of introducing the chapter, since the translator was a dear friend.

§22B. For the hermeneutics of Bollack, the importance of this poem by Mallarmé can be summed up this way: “the sonnet is a poem about poetry, even about the particular poem that is in the process of being written.” In making this argument, Bollack takes the opportunity of disagreeing with a host of received opinions about the sonnet, emphasizing his own methodological insistence on the importance of the wording as an index of the process that is poetry. Acknowledging the occasional contentiousness of his critiques, he observes: “I am prepared to except, in part or in full, the studies (and there are surely some with which I am not familiar) to which the critiques formulated do not apply.” Among those critiques, I submit, is the exegesis by Barbara Johnson, with whose work on the same sonnet Bollack seems to have been unfamiliar.



Benjamin, W. 1934. “Franz Kafka: Eine Würdigung.” Jüdische Rundschau 39, nos. 102/103 and 104 (December). Reprinted in Benjamin 1978, 2, part 2:409–438, and notes, 2, part 3:1153–1276.

Benjamin, W. 1978. Gesammelte Schriften (ed. R. Tiedemann and H. Schweppenhäuser). 5 volumes. Frankfurt.

Bollack, J. 1997. La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe. Paris.

Bollack, J. 1997i. “Réflexions sur les interprétations du logos héraclitéen.” In: Bollack 1997:288–308.

Bollack, J. 1997l. “Lire les codes.” In: Bollack 1997:221–222.

Bollack J. 2008. “Un sonnet, une poétique—Mallarmé: ‘Le vierge, le vivace . . .’.” Mémoire et oubli dans le lyrisme européen: Hommage à John E. Jackson (ed. D. Weisner and P. Labarthe) 581–594. Paris.

Bollack, J. 2010. “Benjamin devant Kafka.” Walter Benjamin, le critique européen (ed. H. Wissmann and P. Lavelle) 213–277. Lille.

Johnson, B. 1985. “Les Fleurs du mal armé: Some Reflections on Intertextuality.” Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism (ed. C. Hošek and P. Parker) 264–280. Ithaca, NY.

Nagy, G. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge.

Schur, D. 1998. Heraclitus and Kafka. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 44. Cambridge, MA.