by Cicero Bruce
“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.”11What it endeavors to show above all else is that in Homer’s poem, and ever in human warfare, souls are utterly transformed by their contact with force, shrunken, mastered, deceived by the force men mistakenly imagine themselves able to handle, misshaped by the force to which men submit involuntarily or otherwise as victims or wielders of it. Throughout the essay force is understood as that which “turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.”12
Published originally during the Second World War, Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and Rachel Bespaloff’s “On the Iliad” are two of the last century’s finest discussions of Western literature’s preeminent epic. The former, said Elizabeth Hardwick, “is one of the most moving and original literary essays ever written.” The other, wrote Robert Fitzgerald, “is about the best thing I have ever read on the art of Homer.”1Penned in the author’s native French, the essays were rendered into English by Mary McCarthy. McCarthy’s translation of Weil’s appeared in November 1945, when Dwight McDonald published it in Politics. Its appearance in McDonald’s journal came as no surprise to Bespaloff, who was then negotiating with American editors about a plan to print the two translations together in one volume, a plan unrealized until 2005, when they were finally bound together by the New York Review of Books under the title War and the Iliad.
“On the Iliad” originated in 1938, when its author, a French-Jewish philosopher like Weil, began making notes on Homer’s poem while rereading it with her daughter.2As France bore up under the Nazi occupation that ensued two years later, Bespaloff labored to shape her observations into a formal composition, “my method of facing the war,” as she put it.3With the help of childhood friend and distinguished editor Jacques Schiffrin, the essay was ultimately published in the United States by Brentano Books upon Bespaloff’s desperate immigration to New York in 1942. The Brentano edition, De l’Iliade, was the basis of McCarthy’s translation, which, in 1947, became the ninth volume of the distinguished Bollingen series.4
When, during the winter of 1940, Weil’s “Poem of Force” first appeared as “L’Iliade, ou le poème de la force” in the Cahiers du Sud, it temporarily unnerved Bespaloff, who was then still completing her remarks on Homer’s masterpiece. At a glance Weil’s essay seemed uncomfortably similar to her own. “There are entire pages of my notes that might seem to be plagiarized,” she told Jean Grenier.5“What seems clear in retrospect,” says Christopher Benfey in his introduction to War and the Iliad, “is that Bespaloff had written much of her essay while unaware of Simone Weil’s work, but that she made revisions after learning of [what she came to call] the ‘amusing coincidence.’”6
It is highly probable, Benfey informs us, that the strange coincidence of the almost simultaneous writing of the two essays is attributable to the influence of Jean Giradoux’s popular drama La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu. From the time of its publication in 1935 to Germany’s invasion of Poland, the play was as much in the mind of the French intellectual as the threat of war was in the air of Europe, for its author foredoomed, in comical but no uncertain terms, the inevitable conflict between the Gallic and the German peoples. By the time they came to write on the Iliad, Bespaloff and Weil had internalized Giradoux’s discomfiting themes and dramatized forebodings. The title of one of her early opinion pieces, “Let Us Not Begin Again the Trojan War,” suggests the influence of Giraudoux’s play on Weil’s political imagination. “At the center of the Trojan War, there was at least a woman,” she observed here with reference to the warmongering rhetoric entre deux guerres. “For our contemporaries, words adorned with capital letters play the role of Helen.”7
Giraudoux encouraged the French to think of themselves as assailable Trojans, of Hitler and his forces as menacing Greeks at the gates of Troy. The urgency of the play’s message was humorously conveyed by its title, which takes the form of an “official” pronouncement: “The Trojan War will not take place.” In the opening scene, Cassandra begs to disagree. “Doesn’t it ever tire you to . . . prophesy only disasters?” scolds Andromache. “I prophesy nothing,” says Cassandra. “All I ever do is to take account of two great stupidities: the stupidity of men, and the wild stupidity of the elements.” To make Andromache see that war is inevitable, Cassandra asks the queen to “[i]magine a sleeping tiger.” That tiger, she says, has been prodded out of his sleep by “certain cocksure statements,” of which Troy has been “full” for “some considerable time.”8 After Germany’s invasion of Poland, the ominous parallel between the European crisis and Homer’s epic, which commences with breached pacts and failures to appease the wrath of Achilles, appeared frighteningly apt to Bespaloff and Weil.