At the outbreak of World War II, two French Jewish intellectuals--Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff--wrote responses to Europe's unfolding catastrophe in the form of literary essays on Homer's Iliad. Their explorations of violence, power, fate, freedom, and the machine of war, as seen through the lens of ancient Greece's founding epic, have themselves achieved the status of classic political and philosophical texts. In the essay that follows I will explore Weil's and Bespaloff's contrasting readings of the Iliad, recently published together for the first time by New York Review Books. How does each writer re-imagine the poem to make sense of the human condition and the harsh realities of warfare? In the shadow of totalitarianism and genocide, what moral and political resources do they find in Homer? Does either of the two writers offer a more compelling interpretation of Homer's epic? What might Weil and Bespaloff--and Homer--have to teach us about the geometries of force today?
Far from Hot Baths: Weil's Pacifist Reading of the Iliad
Simone Weil's "L'Iliade, ou le poeme de la force" first appeared in December of 1940 and January of 1941 in the Marseilles journal Cahiers du Sud. Weil, described by Albert Camus as "the only great spirit of our time," was a philosopher who graduated with distinction from the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1931, a committed socialist who worked in a Renault assembly line and volunteered to fight alongside anarcho-syndicalists in Aragon during the Spanish Civil War, and a convert to Christianity who embraced Catholicism after receiving a mystical vision in 1938. (1) Her meditation on the Iliad as a revelation of the universal and dehumanizing effects of force--on victors and vanquished alike--is an essentially antiheroic, spiritual, and even pacifist reading that emphasizes Homer's moral neutrality and the insensibility of all wars.
According to Weil, "The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force." (2) The cumulative effect of the poem is not to valorize its warriors, Greek or Trojan, she suggests, but to demonstrate how the human spirit is modified, blinded, deformed, and enslaved under the weight of force, even as individuals imagine force is something they can control, possess, or contain. Weil defines force as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing," and declares that force lies not only at the heart of the poem but "at the very center of human history." The great value of the Iliad is its bitter yet unsentimental depiction, in myriad ways, of living beings undergoing violent transformations into sheer matter, corpses dragged behind chariots in the dust, as a result of their contact with force.
Even more dramatically, the Iliad shows how a free individual caught up in the machinery of war can be transformed "into a stone ... into a thing while still alive." In the strange interval of time between when a fighter realizes he is doomed and the sword strikes, his soul is already crushed, petrified, reduced to a state in which he is incapable of thinking or hoping. Even those suppliants whose lives are somehow spared by their enemies, such as King Priam at the feet of Achilles, must spend the rest of their days recalling the force of death that once hung over their heads. The result is a permanent scarring or deformation of their psyches that produces "a compromise between a man and corpse." To say that a seemingly alive person is a thing is a logical contradiction. "Yet what is impossible in logic becomes true in life, and the contradiction lodged within the soul tears it to shreds."
But force not only destroys and does violence to the weak in Weil's reading of the Iliad. "Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates." If human beings are driven, as Nietzsche insists, by a sheer will to power, in Weil's politics all merely human wills to power must ultimately be seen as expressions of hopeless delusion, since the appetite for power is produced by nothing other than the will of power at work in history. It is power itself, in other words, that possesses and manipulates men, not the other way around. Even the most clear-sighted warriors are unable to exercise restraint after experiencing victory in battle. Those who have been temporary channels of force imagine "that destiny has given complete license to them." Patroclus presses his advantage to his own destruction at the hands of Hector. Hector then rejects Polydamas' prudent counsel, refusing to allow the Greeks to escape, insisting instead that the Trojans pursue "glory at the ships."
At the precise moment when force bestows success it thus gives birth to an irresistible blindness or hubris in its carriers that invariably spells their destruction. In Homer's universe there is "not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force." Those "who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed." Common soldiers, such as Thersites, may be abused and humiliated by their superiors, but Achilles and Agamemnon also will weep tears of humiliation in their turn. Every fighter in the Iliad other than Achilles experiences a defeat in battle, and Achilles is nearly destroyed by the river god Scamander. There is a strict moral economy at work in the poem, Weil writes, so that retribution falls with "a...