High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics

by guest contributor Emelyn Lih

The work of Swiss literary critic, hermeneut, and historian of ideas Jean Starobinski can be characterized by its dedication to depth and diversity: diversity of periods explored (from Montaigne to Baudelaire to Claude Simon, to say nothing of the eighteenth century), of genres and mediums studied (from poetry to art to political philosophy to opera), of objects analyzed (from melancholy to acrobats to hermeneutics itself to the idea of liberty). Many of these strands twined together during his stint at Johns Hopkins University (1953-1956), where he engaged with such luminaries as the literary critic Georges Poulet, historian of medicine Owsei Temkin, and Arthur O. Lovejoy, founder of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Starobinski himself (Babelio)

Jean Starobinski

The recent conference at New York University’s Maison française devoted to Starobinski’s œuvre represented this diversity and paid tribute to the depths his myriad studies plumbed. Most immediately, the publication last year of a new collection of Starobinski’s writings La Beauté du monde (2016) under the direction of Martin Rueff (Université de Genève) prompted the day-long exploration of his work “High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics.”

Denis Hollier (NYU) introduced the first half of the program. Hollier began by commenting on the choice of Titian’s The Andrians for the conference poster, quoting Starobinski’s expressions of admiration for the painting, discovered in the summer of 1939 when the masterpieces of the Prado were evacuated from Spain and exhibited in Geneva. Hollier traced Starobinski’s treatment of the theme of the oppositions and transitions between life and matter, vitalism and mechanism, through various literary and artistic manifestations, including several representations of Pygmalion and Galatea. Here, as elsewhere, Starobinski proved acutely aware of the risk presented by art springing too readily to life. Pygmalion’s gesture was not a true encounter with the other, but a narcissistic fusion with the sculpture he has himself created. In criticism, this facility must be avoided: it is difficult to accurately present another writer “in his own words,” according to the principle of the Écrivains de toujours collection to which Starobinski contributed Montesquieu par lui-même, his first published book (1953).

Titian painting.jpg

Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-1526)

Philippe Roger chose a different point of entry into the question of the appropriate distance between the critic and his or her object. How can the critic shake free of the text’s paralyzing fascination without allowing the work to lose its power of enchantment? In a careful reading of the 1974 article « Le texte et l’interprète » (reprinted in La Beauté du monde), Roger explored the complex balance of power between a text and its interpreter as theorized by Starobinski, a relationship in which distance and intimacy do not prove mutually exclusive. The duty of the critic is to consolidate the object in its autonomy and specificity, to make it (in an apparent paradox) more resistant to analysis and thus to appropriation. This close reading then widened into a consideration of the roots of the ethical considerations discernible in the origins, margins and ending of Action et réaction: vie et aventures d’un couple (1999), in which Philippe Roger finds a return to the relationship between poetry and resistance identified in Starobinski’s first published texts, which came out during the Occupation. The strange conclusion to Action and reaction, where Starobinski quotes Valéry in a way that appears to invalidate the entire book’s objective, in fact proves a way to reintroduce value and thus an ethics into the dangerous infinite regression of actions and reactions. The critical relation can thus be read as a critical reaction and an assumption of critical responsibility.

The question of the appropriate distance from and sympathy with the object of one’s study ran through the day’s presentations, and prompted many speakers to interrogate their own relationship to Starobinski. Laurent Jenny (Université de Genève) evoked Starobinski’s preface to Jenny’s book La Parole singulière. His talk explored various means suggested by Starobinski of parrying the risks represented by the absence of a metalanguage that plagues the relationship between the hermeneut and a textual object: the interpreter’s gaze must seek to be gazed back at in return (« Regarde, afin que tu sois regardé » / “Look, so that you may be looked at in return,” as Starobinski advises in L’Œil vivant), a position that Jenny linked to Merleau-Ponty and to Cassirer. The object must be apprehended as visible, not as merely a fragment of language to be commented on in language. Starobinski’s appreciation of Leo Spitzer’s stylistics stems from this drive to identify (and indeed, to introduce) layers of opacity and silence between the text and its commentary.

Lucien Nouis (NYU) also discussed Starobinski’s relationship to Spitzer, as one of a series of three critical « égarements » – wanderings, detours, wrong paths taken – that Starobinski retraced both in deep sympathy with his subjects and in the desire to construct what one might call methodological cautionary tales. The hermeneutic circle may at any point collapse into a tautological circle, by bringing the text back to the interpreter, from alterity to sameness. Spitzer, for example, despite his opposition to Georges Poulet’s critique d’identification, treats the text like a woman to be seduced (a desire itself often prompted by the presence of a critical “rival”), with a passionate and jealous attention where the man is more present than the scholar. Nouis brought out the quasi-religious high fidelity required to watch steadily over a beloved writer’s shoulder even as he (Spitzer, Saussure, Rousseau) lapses into narcissistic mirroring.

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Conference participants (from left to right): Martin Rueff, Julien Zanetta, Laurent Jenny, Anthony Vidler, Joanna Stalnaker and Richard Sieburth (author’s photograph)

Richard Sieburth (NYU) introduced the second series of four presentations by describing a personal connection to Starobinski’s Geneva. The first panelist, Joanna Stalnaker (Columbia) used the motif of the bouquet and its cousin the florilegium or anthology – a bouquet of texts – to retrace Starobinski’s interpretation of the late Rousseau, beautifully punctuating her reading with other floral gifts: pages from Rousseau’s herbarium, late poems by Mallarmé, bouquets and scattered flowers as painted by the poet’s friend Manet. A bouquet is what holds things together, whether it be a bunch of flowers or the social order; in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau’s faith in the possibility of such cohesion falters, and in Stalnaker’s reading, Starobinski gives new voice to this worry, lending it ecological overtones.

Anthony Vidler (Cooper Union) ended his own talk by alluding to the rich potential for environmental analysis offered by such texts as Action and reaction; he focused, however, on Starobinski’s importance for historians and theorists of architecture as early as the 1950s and 60s. Read from a spatial perspective, La Transparence et l’obstacle helped imagine and interpret eighteenth-century French architecture, including the utopian fantasies of Revolutionary writers like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (who elaborated a particular version of Rousseauist architecture) and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Vidler explained how this fertile cross-disciplinary reading continued with the publication and translation of L’Invention de la liberté and 1789: The Emblems of Reason, two “masterfully a-art-historical” works whose approach to symbolism, to the notion of the event, and to the translation of political and social traumas into collective aesthetic norms nonetheless provided architectural historians with precious analytical tools.

Plan of ville idéale de Chaux.jpg

Plan of the ideal city of Chaux by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

Since Julien Zanetta, co-organizer of the conference, had entirely lost his voice, Laurent Jenny read his paper. It focused on Starobinski’s readings of Paul Valéry: the strong affinity between the poet and the critic was evident as early as Starobinski’s undergraduate thesis on self-knowledge in Stendhal, inspired in part by Valéry’s 1927 preface to Lucien Leuwen. Zanetta compared their readings of Stendhal, in that preface and in « Stendhal pseudonyme » (the last chapter of L’Œil vivant). Where Valéry critically situates himself behind Stendhal’s gallery of masks, Starobinski faces these multiple masks, examining their different functions. Both texts contain discreet nods to Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, he who observes « à distance de loge » (literally, from the vantage point of a box at the theater), an image that serves as a powerful metaphor for a hermeneutics poised between fascination and clear-sightedness. In Zanetta’s view, Valéry’s desire to “impersonalize” himself through his valorization of text over author is in the end not so different from Stendhal’s histrionic role-playing; Starobinski sees Valéry and Stendhal as equally Protean, both masked and demasking.

The day’s last talk was given by Martin Rueff. After a detailed explanation of Louis Althusser’s concept of theoretical practice, he set about justifying the parallel he proposed between aspects of Starobinski’s and Althusser’s thought, which might at first appear surprising since Starobinski’s method – and more generally, what Rueff called the Swiss brand of French theory – is so rooted in practice and in constant, concrete confrontation with the text, and so wary of systematization and overarching structure. By identifying similarities in the two writers’ attitude toward theories in history of science and of medicine (in Starobinski’s case, especially in three articles from the early 1950s, on Speransky, Sigerist and Canguilhem), Rueff arrived at a definition of Starobinski’s method as a hermeneutical theoretical practice (« une pratique théorique herméneutique »).

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La Beauté du monde (Gallimard, 2016)

The conference concluded in a lively discussion, much of it centered on Martin Rueff’s statements about Starobinski’s relationship to philosophy (that he is one of the last thinkers to refuse to give in to its prestige) and to history (that it represents, for him, the ultimate horizon of the real). Many of the presenters underlined the profound continuity of Starobinski’s thought (with Philippe Roger sketching out some of the differences between the Swiss critic and Roland Barthes), and how this continuity allowed for important convergences between the day’s presentations, despite the diversity of discipline and approach. The challenge of combining sympathy and distance, affect and rigor, adhesion and lucidity, ran through the day’s presentations, producing the sense of a renewed commitment—I am tempted to say a vow, as in taking vows—to the highest fidelity in critical practice.

My own first encounter with Starobinski was in the context of his article « La journée dans Histoire », in which he mobilizes his lasting interest in the shape, order and occupations of the day as a signifying structure to explore its expression in Simon’s beautiful and difficult novel Histoire (1967). The shape of the day or « la forme du jour », which Starobinski has explored in a multitude of instances, from antiquity to the Nouveau roman, seems apt for capturing the well-ordered, polyphonic and coherent progression of this Friday in February devoted to his work. All eight presentations had clearly been inspired by Starobinski in multiple ways: for the group of speakers coming together from Paris, Geneva and New York, this occasion served as an invitation to return to Starobinski’s own favorite objects of study; to explore the sophistication and subtlety of his reflections on literary-critical and historical method; and to be reminded of his unfaltering standards of truth, care and accuracy in the exercise of criticism.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics was held at the Maison française of NYU on Friday February 17, 2017 and was sponsored by the Center for French Civilization and Culture of NYU and the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York.

Emelyn Lih is a graduate student in French at New York University. Her master’s research at the École normale supérieure in Paris focused on literary representations of the Spanish Civil War, from Georges Bernanos to George Orwell and Claude Simon. She is preparing a dissertation on the relationship between autobiography and history in postwar French literature.

Philology Among the Disciplines (II): Roles, Limits, Goals

by John Raimo

“Those who don’t know, do theory.” As per Nikolaus Wegmann, this slogan of modern philology touches upon something odd this “ancient form of knowledge” and its persistence into the present day. Philology fitfully attempts to absorb theory in his reading: it historicizes both the scholarly subject at hand and the attendant methodology at a stroke. Different sorts of distances open up between the two according to the field, the scholar’s present moment, the lengths of historical and cultural distance involved, the languages present, and finally the great accumulations of previous scholarship. The philologist stands on the shoulders of giants rather than astride a cemetery. Yet it would be a disservice to varied scholarly traditions and achievements to consider philology an impossibly-idealized historicization or plain recognition of temporal distance. Something more rests at stake. It requires the most ecumenical mind to start making sense of what may no longer be a discipline, but which nevertheless continues to inform all our work.

Scholars at Notre Dame’s Rome Seminar’s “Philology Among the Disciplines” continued to move between philology’s definitions and applications, limits, roles, and problems. The primary fields of discussion included literary study, classics, philosophy, and theology. Each conversation unearthed issues regarding hermeneutics, exegesis, historical semantics, and finally practical techniques—both our own and those of past readers. At least one larger question nearly began to answer itself, namely what relationship pertains between Sach- and Wortphilologie. That is, clear historical developments and scholarly practice link text-driven philology with other disciplines and (crucially) vice-versa. The scholarly traffic ran and runs both ways. The larger question haunting the seminar, however, concerned neither philology’s influence nor history per se but rather its status as a body of techniques, a science, a proto- (or even a post-) discipline, and its potential roles today. Is it a “sublime form of craftsmanship” practiced by scholars rather than anything like a science, as Lorenzo Tomasin recently charged? Or do philology’s claims to authoritative interpretation extend more broadly and perhaps somehow more ‘particularly’ today?

Example of a 'stemma' tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. "Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis," Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

Example of a ‘stemma’ tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. “Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis,” Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

No single conversation definitively answers such questions, of course. Yet some brief notes drawn from the conference may at least underline these problems’ significance and the intellectual openness they provoke for scholars across fields and more particularly for intellectual historians.

Ralf Grüttemeier’s talks on literary trials and authorial intention opened the second week of seminars. The angle of legal history clearly binds the two. If a single, authoritative recovery of one coherent authorial intention remained a philological ideal for a great deal of time, it persists well into today’s categories of libel, blasphemy, and obscenity. Landmark literary trials such as those surrounding Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du malOscar Wilde, Joyce’s Ulysses, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as well as the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (helmed by Bernard Williams), and the United Kingdom’s current libel laws together demonstrate drives to institutionalize philology within modern state judiciaries. That is, this does not concern literature-as-law or vice-versa but rather attempts to identify interpretation with social consensus and enforce disciplinary boundaries in the matter of professional expertise–whether literary, juridical, or otherwise.

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

For Grüttemeier then (borrowing from Bahktin), independent philology can otherwise act as a break on centrifugal flows of knowledge both into state control and within disciplines. Historicization and scholarly differentiation occur even in the act of positing authorial intention. The process itself affords a varied and still contentious history from Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor (with untroubled authorial intent available to recover), Schleiermacher’s imperative to “understand the text at first as well as and then even better than its author,” Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous injunction against the “intentional fallacy,” and the great moment of the ‘death of the author’ in thinkers as diverse as Kristeva, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida among others held against the so-calledCambridge School’ of intellectual history and indeed all historians of ideas. Whether the idea of intent remains a necessary or even possible working fiction in different fields remains as much a philosophical and political question as one for philologists.

The history of philology itself presents different challenges for classicists, not least when looking to perhaps the most fundamental object of philology—etymologies. Enrica Sciarrino and W. Martin Bloomer looked to Roman translations and transformations of Greek philology. Latin translators and poets from Livius Andronicus and Ennius to the playwright Terence worked in a dual capacity as philologists and writers. A recognizable literary space grew in the shadow of imperial conquest as Rome absorbed Greek culture. That is, demonstrable philological skill with Greek lent original literary authority until a gradual rift opened between creative writers and professional critics.

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for 'Heauton Timorumenos'; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for ‘Heauton Timorumenos’; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

Yet etymologies and semantics (especially as a matter of innovation) remained huge decisions, as Bloomer made clear when discussing Varro’s etymologies in his De lingua latina libri. A rough sort of early antiquarianism combined with social, political, and moral imperatives to record the past. That is, Varro saw morphological changes, the preservation of texts, and political consensus as intimately related in a project of historical transparency. Hence a ‘politics’ of philology was present from the beginning as actual methodologies—appeals to a complex sense of natura (something apart from social usage), analogy, grammarians, custom, authorities, and citation—crossed from Greek refugees to the Roman elite. Etymology as such possesses its own particular rhetoric of fundamental nature and politics which has enchanted thinkers from Isidore de Seville to Martin Heidegger and beyond.

In the wake of modern classical studies, however, the question remains: has philology become a self-justifying, “normal science” or does it remain a sensibility, orientation, or even a simple goal? Dieter Teichert approached the impasse via a reexamination of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics. In extraordinarily brief terms, one can well ask whether Gadamer’s notions of understanding prior to scientific explanation, hermeneutic circles, ‘historically-effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), and ‘less-subjective’ exegesis together pose the gravest challenge to historicization. Is philology still possible? Naturally—even Gadamer’s own readings of Celan suggest as much as opposing philosophical claims from Husserl, Dilthey, Ricœur and others such as Gregory Currie and Joseph Margolis. What may be more broadly deduced, however, would be that philology itself cannot level purely hermeneutic claims against competing interpretations.

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Lewis Ayres‘s talk on the development of early Christian thinking demonstrated another important register of philology, namely its ideological presuppositions. This characterization is not quite right, however, in the light of early Christian reading practices drawing apart from Hellenistic traditions. Ancient philosophy (its links to rhetoric and grammar), dogma, and polemics were tightly interwoven into considerations of what constituted scriptural texts—let alone how to actually read them. IrenaeusAgainst Heresies invented something like textual commentary in the act of contesting Valentinians via close readings of soon-to-be-canonical texts, while Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho demonstrated shifts between literal and figurative readings as permitted (or demanded) by theological dogma. A distinctly Christian hermeneutics arose in the circle again between text and practice; yet as Ayres demonstrated, the philological assumptions were embedded from the beginning.

The Rome seminar’s concluding symposium brought all these terms together in a final framework: disciplinarity. Carsten Dutt offered a forceful characterization of philology as an epistemic means and an end unto itself, then as a Hilfswissenschaft (or ancillary discipline) in historical and comparative linguistics as well. This is not exclusively tied to textual studies, however. More importantly, philology serves to historicize the objects of scholarly study as a means towards “a disciplinary framework whose constitutive aim is to acquire historical knowledge about language and texts.” This methodologically-disciplined historicization may be well-termed normative and problematic at the most detailed levels, yet neither scholarship nor scholarly communities can function in its absence.

Brad Gregory seconded this claim while emphasizing philology’s role as a common denominator or even basic ideology with and between disciplines. That is, philology’s ideals at the least serve as the basis for any interdisciplinary endeavor in the humanities. Similarly, its pervasive presence admits the possibility of wider scholarship within the proper fields themselves: one can think here of classicists making recourse to pottery fragments in reconstructing texts, or legal historians turning to literature. Philology is not always visible, but its ideals guide almost every scholarly humanistic practice, as James Turner, Rens Bod, and Sheldon Pollack among many others have persuasively argued.

If philology generally forbids one from making generalizations—even ones primarily intended for intellectual historians–I will nevertheless hazard a few. The same gap between Sach- and Wortphilologie calls for an awareness of other disciplines’ methodologies and research agendas (past and present). Moreover, some sense of the history of one’s own respective discipline remains necessary at the methodological level. Interdisciplinary studies need not be forced in light of common languages and complementary bodies of expertise. The act of scholarly interpretation always functions in light of previous scholarship: even ‘the death of the author’ was not a reset-button. As such, philology can also act as a break on flows of knowledge, whether institutional or otherwise: the insistence on history also situates each individual work against the larger field of humanistic inquiry.

Finally, the imperative remains to learn languages to a deeper extent as a matter of professionalism. One doesn’t need to talk about graduate training here so much as perhaps to critique the notion of ‘reading knowledge,’ or at least criticize ignorance of scholarship in other languages. This entails something more than renewed self-reflection or a more conservative turn against theory. Take the rise of global history. ‘The state’ in the abstract has become the premier unit of analysis. Yet moving beyond questions of classical origins to flatly equate ‘the state’ with ‘stato,’ ‘état,’ ‘Staat,’ ‘estado’ and so forth rings a false note. Every one of those words has multiple histories and hence presupposes different techniques, competencies, bodies of knowledge, and finally methodologies to study in full depth.

Where then does philology ultimately land us? It’d be nice to say on the page itself, but the better answer would be to say continually looking up from the text and then back again.

ca. 1940, London, England, UK --- Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

The author thanks W. Martin Bloomer, Carsten Dutt, and Brad Gregory among all the seminar presenters and participants for their work and thoughts—many of which unfortunately had to go unaddressed above. Anthony Grafton, Suzanne Marchand, Madeleine McMahon, and Gregory Mellen also deserve thanks for key references and exchanges.