Thursday, March 3, 2011


Christoph König, Denis Thouard (ed.), La philologie au présent: pour Jean Bollack. Cahiers de philologie 27. Série Apparat critique. Villeneuve-d'Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2010. Pp. 385. ISBN 9782757401163. €18.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (

Version at BMCR home site


As its subtitle indicates, this book is a Festschrift in honor of the French philologist Jean Bollack, who from 1958 to 1992 taught at the Université de Lille, founding there a successful "School of Philology," at the time very much against the Zeitgeist in France. As is evident in the (select) bibliography at the end of the book, Bollack is a formidable figure by any measure and his widely divergent interests are represented in the work of many students, friends and colleagues brought together in this volume. Readers of this review will probably be most interested in the first three sections of the book, but it is important to note that there is much more to Bollack's work than just his interest in Greek literature.

The book opens with an "envoi" by the two editors in which they place Bollack's intellectual achievement in its context, that of the old discipline of "philology," which in France has always been considered as a peculiarly German activity. This did not change in 1968, when so many other things in French higher education were transformed, although Bollack was given the chance by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique to create his own center in Lille.

The first section is entitled "En Grèce, à Lille" and consists of four papers in a rather technically philological vein. André Laks discusses the trajectory of Bollack's interest in the philosophy of Empedocles. Philippe Rousseau discusses the chariot races on the occasion of the games at the funeral of Patroclus in the Iliad and he does this by first looking closely at the ways in which the scene has been read in the past and then by closely reading the text to come to general but preliminary conclusions. Fabienne Blaise gives an equally close reading of a much shorter text: the two lines from Plato's Lysis attributed to Solon. In the final contribution Didier Pralon reads Aristotle's comment on Democritus in his De Caelo to propose a more appropriate interpretation of Aristotle Fr. 208 (Rose) from that author's "On Democritus ." All of these contributions demonstrate in practice Bollack's own approach in his reading of the Presocratic philosophers and of the major tragic works: a powerful combination of close reading and awareness of the critical tradition which these texts almost always carry with them.

It is in that spirit, one assumes, that the second section was given the title "Dans l'histoire des textes." Marc de Launay studies this aspect of Bollack's hermeneutics in terms that are a tad too idealistic and vague for this reviewer; no wonder that that he finds a similar message in two entirely different translations of the first chapters of the book of Genesis. In a rather chatty contribution, Erika Hültenschmidt reads Spinoza's grammar of Hebrew as scientia rather than historia. The link with Bollack is that Spinoza's grammar was rediscovered by Jacob Bernays, one of the founding fathers of philology in Germany about whom Bollack has written a short study. Christoph König then discusses the influence of Schiller on Wilhelm von Humboldt's thinking about literature, ultimately leading to a more critical form of philology. Michel Espagne offers a critical reading of the "heroic" biographies of German philologists in which he distinguishes different stages, corresponding to political developments in Germany, when for example in the nineteenth century the philologist is transformed from the "prince of science" into a hero of the new national culture. Dominique Bourel gives a brief history of the complete edition of the works of Moses Mendelsohn and in what is clearly a piece from a larger whole, Jacques Le Rider tells us a bit about Gustav Freytag. Perrine Simon-Nahum discusses the problematic nature of Bollack's Jewishness, an issue he himself has discussed in his book on Bernays. Simon-Nahum finds that the philology Bollack studied in Paris in 1945 was indeed essentially a German science and she writes that it is clear that Bollack considers it his mission to operate in France "une veritable réforme du sens" (160): a book of interviews with Bollack was called Sens contre sens. His Jewishness is for this critic central in Bollack's work as a suitably paradoxical "universalisation singulière" (167).

The third section of the book is devoted to Bollack's work on and for the theatre. Pietro Pucci examines his writings on the interpretation of Greek tragedy, more specifically his work on Sophocles. That is also the focus of an article by the Lacanian psychoanalyst Geneviève Morel who compares Bollack's reading of Antigone with that of Jacques Lacan. Morel seems to defend Lacan's radical reading, which amounts to a kind of psychoanalytical mythography that may well be of interest to other Lacanian analysts. More interesting to a larger audience of people interested in Bollack's work is Rossella Saetta Cottone's essay on the relationship between Euripides' Bacchae and Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes, two plays that have often been linked and that are thematically related, but Cottone reads them as a kind of dialogue between two writers on the role of women in the polis. John E. Jackson studies the asymmetrical loves in Racine's classicist play Andromaque and he demonstrates how that play is built on a series of contradictions and inversions which bring him, at the very end of the piece, to the conclusion that the play reveals the same dynamic that Bollack has found in so many other works: that "le dit poétique racinien reste inséparable d'un contre-dit qui lui donne seul sa profondeur" (234).

The fourth section deals with poets and painters and consists of creative work by friends of Bollack. Colette Brunschwig contributes reproductions of what look like drawings but are nowhere described; Yves Bonnefoy has a sonnet on painting; Jacques Dupin a poem for Bollack (and which seems to be about him too). The poet Pierre Oster contributes a series of prose fragments and the poet François Turner a dark incantatory text. Turner has collaborated with Bollack in translating the work of Paul Celan. Sabine Bollack translates two poems by Mila Haugova; Myrto Gondicas another two by George Seferis. Henri Meschonnic, a French philologist, poet, polemicist and Bible translator wrote (he died last year) about the rhythm of silence; he applies his ideas on rhythm to the absence of language, which is much more than a mere non-presence. In a rather short and sketchy piece, Meschonnic moves all too quickly from dictionary definitions of silence to silence in poetry. More reproductions of paintings and drawings follow, by Miklos Bokor and Emmanuelle Bollack, to close this section.

The fifth section is devoted entirely to a writer with whom he was very close. Bollack has published a lot about his friend Paul Celan, another German speaking Jew in Paris. Werner Wögerbauer opens the section with an interpretation of one of the poet's most obscure late poems "Sperrtonnsprache." Like Bollack in his readings of Greek works, Wögerbauer enters into a dialogue with both the poem and the tradition of interpretations about the work. Arnau Pons, a Catalan poet and translator of Celan, discusses the difficult relationship between the poet and his lover/colleague Ingeborg Bachmann as this can be read in some of Celan's poems. Franz Kaltenbeck contributes an essay on the important presence of Celan in Bollack's book on the poet. Bollack does not follow the modern critical dogma that poems are inexhaustibly rich: even in the interpretation of difficult and hermetic poetry, it is still possible to be simply wrong. Poésie contre poésie, Bollack's critical book on Celan, can also be read as an intellectual biography of his friend in which the latter's difficult relationship with Germany and with Martin Heidegger is a central concern. In a contribution that stays very close to Bollack's own writing, Tim Trzaskalik teases out some of that work's theoretical presuppositions and implications. Denis Thouard gives a Bollackian title ("Langue et contre-langue") to an essay that addresses Celan's famous poetological speech "Der Meridian," which then leads him to an attempt to describe Celan's implied poetics.

In the final section, a number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances share memories of Bollack. The Swiss specialist in the work of Friedrich Hölderlin Bernard Böschenstein remembers key moments in their collaboration. Mayotte Bollack, the philologist's wife and collaborator, remembers the couple's friendship with the germanist Peter Szondi, who drowned himself not, like Celan, in Paris, but in Berlin in the lake on the border of which the poet Kleist had shot himself. Jean Bollack was responsible for the publication of Szondi's collected works, most prominently his university lectures. Pierre Judet de La Combe, a former doctoral student of Bollack and now director of research at the CNRS, the French general research council, writes about the fertile history of the "School of Lille" and its institutional embedding, but especially its impact on a generation of scholars in a wide variety of fields. This essay demonstrates Bollack's impact on a whole generation -- not just on scholars of Greek literature and philosophy, but also on the fields of intellectual history and contemporary German literature. Apart from a few copy-editing issues, this well-produced book is a fitting tribute to an important European scholar.

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