Punk / Philology
About two things that have everything and nothing to do with one another
Date de parution : 17.08.2021
But perhaps the interpreter in me, who can’t help looking for a deeper meaning in anything written, is getting carried away already. So let’s keep to the obvious: the physicist Lichtenberg sneers at the misplaced view, the unworldliness of a discipline that practices its love of the written word in endlessly rereading the canon. Philology was often seen like this, as the keeper of sacrosanct texts, the defender of the authority of poetic words. From this perspective nothing could lie further apart than philology and punk. Where the one specializes in the lonely contemplation of the more or less ancient text, with the noble aim of apprehending and conveying its meaning, the other seeks destruction, the refusal of meaning in the immediacy of a situationist-schooled art of action and life. But the title of this essay has already shown that I can’t be content with this opposition. Indeed it’s perhaps as a philologist that I feel provoked by the claim that two things have nothing to do with one another to root out their underlying connections, which aren’t visible at first. I shall attempt to do so in the following pages.
Lichtenberg’s aphorism is one of the many jokes about the notorious quirkiness of the philologist, about his harebrained specialism. The mindlessness of his micro-logical pedantry is the recurrent theme of numerous philological satires. Near to Lichtenberg in time, Jean Paul describes the protagonist of his idyll, the schoolmaster Quintus Fixlein, as a similarly mindless philologist: not only is his preferred study that of printer’s waste, his philological research is limited to the Masoretic compilation of the frequency of certain letters in the Bible. But his magnum opus is a “collection of printing errors in German publications,” which the narrator characterizes as follows: “[Fixlein] compared the errata one with the other, showed which occurred most frequently, observed that important conclusions could be drawn from this, and advised the reader to draw them.” This may at first appear to be a grotesquely exaggerated satire on the mindlessness of philological praxis, but Fixlein’s very “respect for all spoilage,” his philological fondness for the worthless, has a subversive potential: by concentrating his passion for collecting on what is flawed, what has been discarded as useless, the philologist prevents its elimination from public consciousness. At a second glance the narrowness of Fixlein’s philology, as portrayed by Jean Paul, shows itself as a form of rebellion—and thus as a surprising conjunction of philology and punk.
The unexpected insight that indeed the most fatuous philological praxis has a subversive potential can be no better illustrated than by a certain Cantor Schnäzler, one of the numerous oddball philologists in Jean Paul’s work, in whom the peculiarly philological devotion to the remnants of a tradition is also both harebrained and rebellious. As an avid hobby philologist the cantor goes against the expurgation of hymns by cobbling together new ones from verses deleted from the new editions. In living up to his descriptive name [which means something like “slicer”; trans.], Schnäzler, like the scrap-loving Fixlein before him, becomes the representative of a “punk philology” avant la lettre:
Cantor Schnäzler […] compared the old and the new hymnbook and piled up the beautiful passages from the old one which the aesthetic Cleansing of the Temple had swept away, and indeed ordered this dead wood into especial hymns. […] This ingenious man not only fully excavated and accumulated everything from the old hymnbooks that had been omitted from the new ones […], he also—as we find in a castrated edition of the Latin erotic poets, in which all the objectionable passages are found in the back, but isolated, without even the merest nexus—mosaiced fine figures from these discarded stumps, these wooden legs and crutches […].
Like so many philologists, Schnäzler is first and foremost a collector of material. By causing the gathered “dead wood” to appear in the new guise of “especial hymns,” he saves it from a threatened oblivion. Here too it is a devotion to trash, to the “discarded stumps,” that constitutes the subversive potential of this philological praxis, and its affinity to punk. For the countercurrent of punk derived its name from the same scraps that the philologist Schnäzler took it upon himself to rescue: if we can believe Wiktionary, “punk” originally meant “rotten wood dust used as tinder.” As a byword for worthlessness it then became a derogatory term for the socially marginalized, for prostitutes and the sexually deviant. The punk subculture elevates such deviance, perceived as scandalous by the mainstream, to a provocative habitude. Punks demonstratively parade their marginality by dressing in rags and decorating themselves with cheap stuff like safety pins. The philological bricoleur Schnäzler does something similar, although he hardly sets out to provoke. His production of centos—that is, of patchwork poems—brings into repeated focus what is commonly censored, “castrated,” or banned from the canon as “objectionable,” and must necessarily rebuff the “aesthetic cleansers of the Temple.”
Even though Fixlein and Schnäzler may be caricatures, Jean Paul certainly catches a typical aspect of philological praxis in his amateur scholars’ waste-processing foreshadowing of the trash aesthetic of punk. The subversive self-conception of the literary ragman is particularly documented in a most impressive furor of philological textual agglomeration: Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621). On almost a thousand pages, this book edits—or rather anatomizes, as the title promises—virtually the entire written knowledge of the malady of melancholy. In its way(wardness), the Anatomy is a singular monument to the “punk philology” also pursued by Schnäzler—even by name a successor to the humanist anatomists. In Burton the rebellious, provocative side of this philological rag-picking is very much to the fore. The author, who appears under the pseudonym of Democritus Junior, describes his vast compilation as so much junk, as “a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dunghills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, without art, […] harsh, raw, rude, phantastical, absurd, insolent, indiscreet, ill-composed”—in other words, this “treatise” is punk, a single provocation to good taste and the scientific claim to clarity and systematics. The alarming sprawl of this literary monster is directly connected with the fact that its author is primarily a reader. “I have read many books,” writes Democritus in his preface, “but to little purpose, for want of good method I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries […].” So the Anatomy is above all the document of insatiable and unstructured reading, the product of a melancholy écriture–lecture, of an erratic roaming through books and libraries. Its disjointed patchwork, its garbage aesthetics of an accumulation of textual rags, can’t be separated from the melancholy reading to which this curious monument to humanist bookishness is due. Burton’s restless evocation of reading through the mass of recorded literature points to the origin and epitome of the characteristic melancholy of philological scholarship. For anyone ploughing his way from book to book, the written record will become a mere quarry and knowledge will disintegrate into a thousand pieces. Such is the melancholy vicious circle of Burton’s Anatomy, which raises this dissociation to the writing principle. The work therefore brings a side of philology into view to which I would like to pay special attention here. This is its saturnine side.
I am a philologist, that’s to say, a happy philologist. But melancholy is nevertheless my constant companion, my second given name. Without resembling her in the least, I sometimes sit in the midst of my academic clutter like Dürer’s Melencolia, surrounded by books and screens, and wish I could get her off my own back: MELENCOLIA I! Go, Melancholy. George Steiner has written about the sadness of thought, but I have often wondered whether we shouldn’t speak of the sadness of reading. For reading is the philologists’ line of work—and the source of their melancholy.
Reading, philologists endeavor to extract a meaning from the text, which for them is the world, only to experience again and again that this meaning eludes them. We are remarkably obstinate in this respect, constantly allowing ourselves to be tempted into the depths of a text by a promise of meaning, which we wish to uncover with all the much-mocked meticulousness at our disposal. But what we experience in the depths of the text is that language isn’t made to transport stable meanings—on the contrary. The vocation of philology as ars critica therefore lies in the exploration of this contradiction. This is also what links it with punk. Different as they are in their self-presentation, philologists and punks are actually experts in the elusion of meaning.
It’s precisely where the philologist succumbs to melancholy at the knowledge of the instability of all meaning that she is drawn to punk’s performative refusal of it—or sees herself standing in the corner with him as the silent comrade of his loud protest. Hartmut Böhme has precisely described the socio-critical dimension of the melancholic:
He embodies a temperament that deflects the authoritative meanings and values of society. He disturbs the cultural fabric of meanings and norms with the tenacity of his black disposition, the incredulity of his gaze on the empty horizon, the gloom of his feelings. The melancholic is a trouble-maker, because he disturbs the social consensus […].
The saturnine side of philology makes “trouble” for the social order built on unrelenting optimism and determination. It renounces its progressive stance and turns its gaze to the fragments of tradition, to the ruins of the past. “No future!” But as already suggested, philological melancholy is not simply a matter of looking backward. It has deeper roots in the act of reading, and therefore in critical activity itself. If you want to get to the bottom of the link between philology and punk, you have to look into this Saturnian praxis.
Reading means collecting, legere. The reader encounters a connection not as given but as primarily or at best retrievable. To the philologist, the written record of the past shows itself to the philologist as a collection of fragments, disiecta membra, the restoration of whose organic unity is her task. The fact that this is no easy one is indicated by the Greek word for philological “inquiry”: ζήτημα, familiar as the title of the classical-studies publication series Zetemata (Ζητήματα, “research questions”). ζήτημα is literally “the sought-for” (derived from ζητεῖν, to seek), but the literary evidence for this search avouches its arduousness. Euripides’s Messenger tells of how Pentheus is torn into pieces by his mother and her companions (Eur. Ba. 1137–1139):
κεῖται δὲ χωρὶς σῶμα, τὸ μὲν ὑπὸ στύφλοις
πέτραις, τὸ δ᾽ ὕλης ἐν βαθυξύλῳ φόβῃ,
οὐ ῥᾴδιον ζήτημα
His body lies in pieces, some under jagged rocks
some in the leafy forest undergrowth—not an easy search.
Kadmos confirms the gruesome find a little later, when he returns to his palace “with the remains of Pentheus” (Eur. Ba. 1218–1221):
οὗ σῶμα μοχθῶν μυρίοις ζητήμασιν
φέρω τόδ᾽, εὑρὼν ἐν Κιθαιρῶνος πτυχαῖς
διασπαρακτόν, κοὐδὲν ἐν ταὐτῷ πέδῳ
λαβών, ἐν ὕλῃ κείμενον δυσευρέτῳ.
Weary of the endless search I bring his body, for I found him in the gorges of Cithaeron, torn into pieces. No two limbs could I gather from the same place in the impassable forest.
Like this mournful gathering together, philological reading is οὐ ῥᾴδιον ζήτημα—not an easy search. It is instead an endeavor in the double sense addressed by Walter Benjamin in “The Task of the Translator,” as one that implies its insolubility. For like the living body of Pentheus, the one and entire urtext sought for in the garnering of reading is irretrievably lost. It has been destroyed by the ravening time (tempus edax) embodied by Saturn. The melancholy of philology, its saturnine side, feeds on the knowledge and recurrent experience of this loss. Philological reading is always undertaken in the sign of Saturn, the sign of an incurable bondage to time.
In a magazine article with the programmatic title of “Saturnalia, Concerning the Earth’s Ruling Planet of Saturn in 1818,” Jean Paul expressed this bondage with unmistakable incisiveness:
Saturn should rule the year 1818 as if, as god of time, he were not the master of all the centuries and every least minute one speaks of them. […] We live on nothing but the past, exterior and interior, and instead of being surprised that a buried Portici lies on a sunken Herculaneum, we need only look nearby to see the quietly falling snowflakes of time covering themselves over; and the letters passed hereto stand as the headstones of once-lived moments of reading.
For the philologist this last turn of phrase is decisive: in the sign of Saturn, of the transience of all “once-lived moments of reading,” the meaningful words crumble into their meaningless parts. With his puzzle-picture reverse from speaking text to an accumulation of memento-mori letters, Jean Paul puts his finger on the precariousness of reading and the meaning it brings about: all meaning is based on a constructive act of vivification, without it ever quite being able to deny its origins in the graveyard of letters. The flipside of reading is therefore decay, and philology—precisely because it goes against and deals with decay—is mindful of this reverso.
Jean Paul’s “Saturnalia” are significant to the question of saturnine philology because, as the title implies, they take account of the characteristic ambivalence of the deity, who has always been seen as the epitome of the melancholic temperament. For after the above-quoted plaintively sighing opening the article does in fact become an upbeat celebration of unbridled scholarship. This switch from gloom to exuberance has its mythological foundation in Saturn’s polarity.
Kronos, Chronos, Saturn. Philological time
More than all the other ancient gods, Saturn, or his Greek counterpart Kronos, is a god of extremes, a “god of opposites.” He is not just the grim destroyer who also became the god of the underworld during the Roman Empire; initially he is a god of fertility. As the “father of agriculture” and ruler of the Golden Age he is the “god of crops and prosperity.” It is to this golden-age Saturn that the Saturnalia in December are dedicated, that excessive annual festival celebrating corporeal abundance and the suspension of the social order in remembrance of a mythical primordial era.
The time of this festival is significant: the paradoxical Saturnian interconnection of fertility and death has its calendrical equivalent in the characteristic ambivalence of the turn of the year, a chronological threshold. In their celebration of the renewal of the time cycle at the end of the year, the Saturnalia also revel in the boundless appetite of ravening time. Cicero’s book De natura deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) describes Saturn as follows:
Κρόνος enim dicitur, qui est idem χρόνος, id est spatium temporis. Saturnus autem est appellatus, quod saturaretur annis; ex se enim natos comesse fingitur solitus, quia consumit aetas temporum spatia annisque praeteritis insaturabiliter expletur.
For he is named Kronos, which is the same as Chronos, which is to say an interval of time. But he is called Saturn because he is sated with years; we imagine him eating his children because time devours its intervals and is insatiably overfed with years past. (Cic. nat. deor. 2, 64)
In equating the insatiability of the mythical child-devourer with abstract time, Cicero paints a picture of the destructive tempus edax, in whose sign I have placed philological reading.
But it’s worth noting that the clichéd affinity of philology (of bookishness) with Saturn masks a concrete connection between the ars critica and personified time. This is visible in the above passage: the god of melancholy reading, that ambivalent embodiment of primordial abundance and inescapable mortality, is the product of a philological act. The connection arises from the allegorical conflation of Kronos, the harvest god of the Golden Age, and Chronos, short-lived time rushing back and forth towards the end. Κρόνος ≈ χρόνος. That’s what philology does: it reads (gathers) words together, so as to elicit sparks of meaning from their conjunction.
The col-lectio of Kronos and Chronos is particularly striking: the change of letter in the word for time already records a distorting, deferring displacement: the knowledge in writing of the unattainability of the Golden Age. In recollection of the myth of Saturn’s going to ground in Latium, it could be said that Chronos appears here as Kronos emerged from latency, as the already displaced name of a paradisical (primordial) state in which the earth bore fruit without the intervention of human beings. The unattainability of an age in which—according to myth—harvests were made without sowing is also made much of by Ovid in his ironic description of the saturnia regna, the rule of Saturn, as “aurea prima sata est aeteas”—“first a golden age arose,” but literally “first was sown” or “planted” (sata est). If even the earliest age has to be sown, this means nothing other than that as a primordial state the Golden Age doesn’t exist. Philology has inscribed this unattainability into the name of time with the transformation of Kronos into Chronos, as reconstructed by Cicero.
The deeper irony—and melancholy—of this generic reading lies in the fact that the punning duplication of the name is the product of a philological operation: as an act of reading to construct meaning, the change of letters that turns Kronos (also) into Chronos, as it were performatively confirms the loss of the aurea aetas, that Golden Age in which the furrows (versus) of the text needed no ploughing but bore fruit on their own, without human intervention.
Yet it is also clear that if this age had not always been past, there would be no philology. If the texts spoke for themselves, if the meaning of the words were beyond doubt, we wouldn’t have to read emphatically. The fact that the operations of textual criticism are reflected in the allegorical reading-together of Kronos and Chronos enables us to probe the cause of a specifically philological melancholy: as ars critica philology specializes in a necessarily invasive work on the text; you might say that it cultivates the field of the word, brings forth fruits of reading according to the rules of its art—in the knowledge that each of its acts means the end of the “spontaneous,” “natural” production of meaning.
pun(k) – The disobedience of the word
But here again we see the double face of Saturn. For there is another, saturnine aspect to this melancholy time-bound dimension of the philological art of reading. The doubling of the name from which the deity Saturn proceeds is also a manifestation of the disobedient fertility of language that is the prime nourishment of literature, but also of philology. It is this fertility that the punning cultivated during the Saturnalia emphasize by generating a cornucopian abundance of hidden and secondary meanings from letters set in motion: god shave the queen—to give a more recent example. From pun to punk is just one letter, and the proximity, it seems to me, is obvious: there is something revolutionary, anarchic, about the pun. It mocks the illusory stability of linguistic sense by deforming apparently fixed meanings and dissolving them into multiplicity or risibility. “Thank punk,” I read again on the wall of a building only yesterday, and it reminded me of a remark by Jörg Drews: “The pun,” he writes, with recent literature in mind, “mimics the state of a meaningless world.” In this it turns out to be the language of punk. The fact that one of the punk’s preferred means of rebellious self-presentation is language, or to be more exact, the inscription disempowered as graffito, has always made him sympathetic to me as a philologist. Wherever there are punks, things are covered with text—from walls to jackets to bodies. Punks seem to have made themselves at home as eternal zombies (“undead”—another similarity to philology) in a realm of slogans, whose ghastly quality they confidently display on their heads. With their spiky hairstyles, pierced faces, and lettered clothing, they celebrate the carnivalesque blending of σῶμα and σῆμα into a written body, figuratively inscribed with the violence of the world. The closeness of punk to pun lies in the abundance of implication conveyed in their equally humble and eccentric bearing.
In its excessive production of meaning, the pun resists the law of economic understanding; in it, language shows its freakish face, its genuine maladjustment to the circumstances of communication. To give just one pertinent example of the common bond between the pun and punk: the first studio album by the German band Die Ärzte was called Debil [moronic] (1984). Because of its provocative lyrics it was placed on the index of media harmful to young people. On the almost identical cover of the reissue in 2005 the red lettering of the title was overprinted in black.
The band members were correspondingly shown with horns and tails. It must be obvious why I cite this particular example: this playful emendation is philology as punk—punk philology. As demonstrative self-censorship, the play of letters announces the programmatic oscillation of punk between idiocy and devilry, between nonsense and black humor. Language makes it possible. James Joyce inexhaustibly memorialized this same anarchic language in Finnegan’s Wake. Its endlessly punning “sintalks” (FW 269.3) is evidence of what Werner Hamacher writes about literature in general:
Literature is a matter of language in extremis, at the boundary where it is shoved and pierced by a disorderly, untamed, wild affect or uncontrolled coincidence.
Literature is “disorderly, untamed, wild” where it gives center stage to language, or to be more exact, writing itself. “The proteiform graph itself is a polyhedron of scripture” (FW 107.8), is how Joyce expresses the uncontrolled proliferation of lettered meaning to which his punning text is devoted.
Nothing, except literature, is more intimately familiar with the linguistic abundance announced in the play of letters than philology, in its mastery of slow reading. As such, recalling its basis in criticism, Nietzsche brought philology into play against the prejudices of theological or philosophical interpretation. Reading as philology does—that is, “well”—means, for Nietzsche, reading “slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes.” It is in this judicious slowness that philological reading becomes the adventurous experimentum linguae, the experience of an untoward, willful language. The time that philology spends with the words, the continual attention to the body of the writing, inevitably opens up a potentially proliferating semiosis of alphabetic material. In the saturnalian pun, which countercultures from all times have known how to deploy, any philologist will discern a feast of proliferating readings—and in the word-playing text one that makes use of the destructive productivity of philology.
Knowledge of the fact that the most judiciously reading philologist isn’t safe from the proliferation inherent in language is preserved in Lichtenberg’s aphorism at the head of my essay: “He always read Priam instead of ‘prime’” [for the sake of meticulousness, it should be said that the original reads: “Er las immer Agamemnon statt ‘angenommen’”; trans.]; here we have reading as that constructive activity which twentieth-century literary theory, particularly poststructuralism, ennobled for some but rendered suspicious for others. The insight that the text has to be brought about first and foremost and again and again through reading gives rise to the self-conception of a never-ending philology.
Although the ars critica, as an art of text constitution, claims its careful reordering of letters as a restorative counter to the ravages of time, it has to admit that it participates in them—as is evident from a look at the critical apparatus of any academic edition and the conjectures and emendations it documents. But the sometimes frustrating multiplicity of competing readings that can be seen here is also evidence of the creative latitude gained through the irreparable lost of the original text. Philology occupies this space not just as the endless interpretation of open works but as textual criticism: by tarrying with the letters, the ars critica specializes in a threshold realm where meanings are initiated; a chronotopic interval between sign and sense.
Every critical reading takes place via the ambivalence of a writing that conceals as much as it reveals. Debil or Devil? The skeptical disposition of philology feeds not least on its insight into the material contingency of a meaning than can turn into its opposite with a single letter. Its familiarity with the more or less damaged artefact of the text is also an acquaintanceship with the semantic anarchy of writing. The permutability of letters, which philology is forced to take on, has its great moment in the explosion of meaning of the pun.
And so a different image of philology appears from the one evoked at the start: philology, particularly where it remains mindful of its critical foundation, isn’t so much the preserver of authoritative texts as the keeper of a knowledge about the volatility of meaning. In practicing the art of reading as the melancholy, saturnine production of readings, it also criticizes the one unalterable meaning. Herein lies its affinity with punk: both, in a way, are parasites of a symbolic order to which they refuse to kneel. Where philology creates doubt as to the unambiguity of the world and fosters skepticism towards the authoritative, it connives with the punk that is literature: “Philology is not literature, but it is also not philology if it does not join forces with literature.” “He always read Priam instead of ‘prime’.”