Sunday, October 14, 2012

War and the Iliad

Long ago, probably in college, I read Simone Weil's essay "The Iliad: The Poem of Force." In rereading the Iliad since, I have thought now and then of her opening assertion that
The true hero, the true subject, the center of The Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away.... To define force--it is that x that turns anybody subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.
NYRB has had the happy thought of collecting the essay into a book, War and the Iliad, with Rachel Bespaloff's "On the Iliad" and "The Style of the Mythical Age" by Hermann Broch.

One cannot ignore the role of force--men killed, cities sacked, persons enslaved--in the Iliad. Yet on rereading Weil's essay, good though it is, I find that it says more--or at least I learn more--about her, in particular her need to identify with the powerless, and her desire to unite her love of the Greeks with her Christian conviction, than about the Iliad. If the translation of the essay is faithful, Weil cheats a little on her citations. Christopher Benfey's introduction points out the omission on the adverb "gently" when Achilles removes the suppliant Priam's hands from his knees. I notice also, among other examples

"If you can make an old man fall silent, tremble, obey, with a single word of your own ... " Yes, Homer says that the old man grew fearful and obeyed "the word", but Agamemnon's dismissal ran to several: Fitzgerald gives it a dozen English words, Fagles eleven.

"Achilles himself, that proud hero, is shown us at the beginning of the poem, weeping with humiliation and helpless grief--the woman he wanted for his bride has been taken from under his nose, and he has not dared oppose it." Yes, but more No. There are hints of an affection between Achilles and Bryseida, and she says later on that Patroclus promised that she would become Achilles's wife. The sources I have read suggest that Patroclus was soothing her with empty and impossible promises, though. More to the point, Achilles seems far more upset over lost prestige than over a lost love. And "not dared to oppose it" is too strong; Achilles had his sword half drawn to cut down Agammemnon before Athena warned him off the action.

Weil writes that "The Iliad formulated the principle long before the Gospels did, and nearly in the same terms, 'Ares is just and kills those who kill.'" I should say rather that the statement in Matthew "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword" expresses an imperative to live otherwise; Homer expresses no such imperative, and in fact cannot imagine it as a possibility. The occasional wish that there might be no war is definitely a conditional contrary to fact.

I had not previously heard of Rachel Bespaloff, and am grateful to have read her essays. They seem to me to engage the Iliad more closely than Weil's does. The first essay, "Hector", begins
Time and suffering have stripped Hector bare, he has nothing left but himself. In the crowd of mediocrities that are Priam's sons, he stands alone, a prince, born to rule. Neither superman, nor demigod, nor godlike, he is a man and among men a prince. He is at ease in akids of unstudied nobility that permits neither ride in respect to the self nor humbleness in respect to the gods.
This and the rest seem just and well put. She is very good on Thetis and Achilles, Helen, Achilles and Priam. Her concluding essay, "Poets and Prophets" strikes me as a sounder comparison of the Old Testament to Greek literature than Weil makes. I don't set up as a judge of Homeric criticism, but the back cover quotes Robert Fitzgerald as saying
This book is about the best thing I have ever read on the art of Homer, and unless you have tasted the poem in Greek, Mme. Bespaloff will serve better than the translators to convey how distant, how refined an art it was.
 Broch's essay on the mythical style, on "the style of old age" tells me chiefly that I will need to reread it, and to read more of Broch.

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