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

2016.04.28 | By Gregory Nagy

This posting of 2016.04.28 is Part VI of what I started in the postings of 2016.03.09, 2016.03.31, 2016.04.07, 2016.04.14, and 2016.04.21, which were Parts I and II and III and IV and V. 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.

Bronze head of Homer, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley. Passport photo of Paul Celan, with staples visible, 1938, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Bronze head of Homer, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photo by Rob Shelley. Passport photo of Paul Celan, with staples visible, 1938, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ch.23. “Between Hölderlin et Celan” (Bollack 2011)

§23A. For Bollack, friendships cannot get in the way of fierce polemics. Clearly, Bollack was good friends with André du Bouchet (1924–2001), a poet acclaimed for his creativity with words. A public intellectual, du Bouchet was one of the founders of the prestigious journal Éphémère, which published in its first volume, appearing in 1966, a French-language version of “The Meridian” (“Le Méridien”) by Paul Celan (1920–1970). Among the many poetic experiments of du Bouchet were his translations, from the original German into French, of poems by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843). He also tried his hand at translating poems composed in German by Paul Celan, often seeking and receiving advice on this or that turn of phrase from his friend Bollack, whose Sprachgefühl for the German language—especially for the linguistic idiosyncrasies of Celan—he evidently respected. And here is where the trouble begins: it is all about the reception of Hölderlin by Celan as interpreted by du Bouchet, whose interpretations were vigorously resisted by Bollack.

§23B. The year is 1986, and Bollack is attending a session of the Hölderlin Society in Tübingen. One of the speakers is du Bouchet, who recounts a remark he heard once spoken viva voce by Celan himself. The remark went back to 1970, sixteen years earlier, on the occasion of a bicentennial commemoration of Hölderlin’s birth. And this was just a short time before the death of Celan by suicide in the same year. Bollack goes on to quote the remark of Celan, introducing the exact words proleptically by first describing the astonished reaction of du Bouchet to what he heard: “He would never have expected to hear his friend, whom he so much admired, declare out of the blue: ‘There is something rotten in Hölderlin’s poetry.’”

§23C. As the story unfolds, we see that du Bouchet struggles to develop an explanatory model for this remark of Celan about Hölderlin. And Bollack undertakes a demolition of this model, applying his own hermeneutics to show that the essence of Celan’s remark is already encoded in a poem of his entitled “Tübingen, Jänner” (“Tübingen, January”). This poem, as Bollack shows, refers not only to the poetry of Hölderlin but also to the pernicious appropriation of Hölderlin by Nazi ideologues. Celan’s symbol for such an appropriation is an allusion in this same poem to the Wannsee Conference, “where in early 1942s the Nazis decided on the extermination of the Jews.”

§23D. The blind spots of French literati in interpreting the poetry of Celan can be traced back, Bollack finds, to their over-reliance on the thinking of Heidegger, whose hermeneutics he has already attacked in an earlier essay, as mentioned in §10B of this foreword. In the present essay, Bollack sharpens his attack by targeting Heidegger’s influence as an interpreter of Hölderlin for the French intelligentsia.

§23E. In this connection, Bollack highlights Celan’s poem “Todtnauberg,” translated into English as “The Mountain of Death,” which centers on the poet’s visit in 1967 to the chalet (Hütte) of Heidegger himself in the Black Forest. What Bollack says here about this remarkable poem can serve as a preview for what else he will say about it in his final chapter.

Ch.24. “Grasping Hermeneutics” (Bollack 1997m)

§24A. Peter Szondi … Hardly a word about him in the twenty-three chapters of Bollack that precede this one … And no word at all so far from me in this Foreword … But now we get to see the vital importance of Szondi for the *hermeneutics* of Bollack.

§24B. Peter Szondi (1929–1971) and Bollack were long-time friends, and, after Szondi committed suicide in 1971 (so, not long after the suicide of Paul Celan in 1970), Bollack was asked to edit a posthumous publication of his friend’s Nachlass (Szondi 1974–1975). What Bollack included in this publication was the script, as it were, for an influential course that Szondi had taught, Introduction to Literary Hermeneutics, and Bollack’s present essay comes from an Afterword that he composed for a French-language version of the Introduction (Szondi 1989). This course, as Bollack emphasizes, showed clearly the evolution of Szondi’s own interest in “a non-theological hermeneutics, proper to literature, starting in the eighteenth century.” What follows this essay, Chapter 25, will delve into the story of that evolution.

Ch.25. “A Future in the Past: Peter Szondi’s Material Hermeneutics” (Bollack 1997n)

§25A. Peter Szondi, in redefining what Bollack calls the “science” of literary study, resisted the intellectual influence of Heidegger—especially with reference to the mediation of Heidegger by way of Gadamer and his hermeneutics. Bollack’s own general resistance to this same influence is explored already in Chapter 10 (as signaled at §10B of my Foreword). Then in Chapter 23 (as signaled in my §23D) the resistance becomes more specific as Bollack starts to counter Heidegger’s role as interpreter of Hölderlin for the French intelligentsia. Here in Chapter 25 the resistance becomes even more specific as Bollack joins forces with Szondi. Bollack mentions here in passing his own rejection of Heidegger as interpreter not only of Hölderlin but also of Georg Trakl (1887–1914) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). The intensity of Bollack’s criticism here of Heidegger can be explained at least in part by what we read already in Chapter 1—even as an adolescent, as Bollack professes there—“I was imbued with Rilke.”

§25B. Addressing directly the literary or “material” hermeneutics of Szondi, Bollack sets up as a foil the philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer. Comparing the two interpretive systems, Bollack describes the hermeneutics of Gadamer as a kind of pseudo-theology. On the overall work of Szondi as philologist and literary critic, I take this opportunity to recommend the incisive analysis of Koenig 2015.

Ch.26. “Reading the Signifier” (Bollack 1997o)

§26A. Here Bollack takes up once again his longtime search to find meaning in the poetry of Paul Celan. This time, the point of departure is the Cratylus of Plato, viewed as an idiosyncratic exercise in decoding. Bollack senses that such an exercise leads to understanding, little by little, “a network of truth.” And here is where Bollack’s study of Celan converges with what he described earlier as the literary hermeneutics of Szondi. Bollack now reminisces about his past efforts in defending Szondi as an interpreter of Celan, seeing beyond—far beyond—the charges of “biographism” that had been leveled against the poet. Szondi in his own right had defended himself against such charges directed at him by none other than Gadamer, arguing that the literary critic must attempt a reconstruction of the context of any code that needs to be decoded.

§26B. Bollack sees this argument of Szondi as a key to decoding the poetry of Celan, which is constructed by way of “initially enigmatic words” that come from “a personal encounter with the world.” A shining example for Bollack is a poem of Celan entitled “The Mountain of Death,” which as we have already noted in §23E centers on the visit of the poet in 1967 to the chalet of Heidegger in the Black Forest.

Ch.27: “The Mountain of Death: The Meaning of Celan’s Meeting with Heidegger” (Bollack 1997p)

§27A. Now we get to see why Bollack would have wanted to invoke the Cratylus of Plato in the previous essay that leads into this the last essay of the volume. Much like the word-plays of Plato’s Socrates, the “initially enigmatic” turns of phrase in the poem by Celan as featured already in the title of the essay, “Mountain of Death,” come from “a personal encounter with the world.” The wording of Celan in this poem is enigmatic and at the same time utterly revealing, once the meaning is decoded.

§27B. It all comes down to a primal meeting between the poet Celan and the philosopher Heidegger in the dark forest that is the Black Forest. As Bollack says, “now a poet has come to introduce the philosopher to his own forest and, more than that, to impose on him the truth of a place by remaking it de profundis.” And what is perceptible, he adds, “vanishes before the truth of words.”



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

Bollack, J. 1997m. “Dire les herméneutiques.” In: Bollack 1997:115–116.

Bollack, J. 1997n. “Un futur dans le passé. L’herméneutique matérielle de Peter Szondi.” In: Bollack 1997:117–127.

Bollack, J. 1997o. “Lire le signifiant.” In: Bollack 1997:337–339.

Bollack, J. 1997p. “Le mont de la mort: le sens d’une rencontre entre Celan et Heidegger.” In: Bollack 1997: 349–376

Bollack, J. 2011. “Entre Hölderlin et Celan.” Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle 986–987:193–207.

Bollack, J. 2012a. “Une fiction anthropologique.” Savoirs et clinique. Revue de psychanalyse 15:177–193.

Koenig, C. 2015. “Philological Understanding: Ethics, Method and Style in the Work of Peter Szondi.” Textual Understanding and Historical Experience: On Peter Szondi (ed. S. Zepp) 71–88. Paderborn.

Szondi, P. 1974–1975. Studienausgabe der Vorlesungen (ed. J. Bollack). Frankfurt.

Szondi, P. 1989. Introduction à l’herméneutique littéraire (tr. M. Bollack, afterword by J. Bollack). Paris.