A new edition of Simone Weil's and Rachel Bespaloff's essays on the ethics of the Iliad.
by Peter Campion
Poetry Foundation Media Services
War and the Iliad, by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff with an essay by Hermann Broch. Tr. by Mary McCarthy. Introd. by Christopher Benfey. New York Review Books. $14.95.
It was an eerie coincidence. In Marseilles during the late spring of 1942, two writers at the height of their powers, unknown to each other, were both struggling to find a berth on a ship to America and were both thinking about the same poem. Simone Weil had finished her essay on the Iliad two years before, but she still carried the book in her rucksack along with a change of clothes, in case of arrest and imprisonment. Rachel Bespaloff's reading of the poem was likewise colored by her own experience of war: her companion that spring, the philosopher Jean Wahl, had been tortured by the Gestapo.
Of the two essayists, Weil remains the better known. "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force" follows from similar obsessions as the letters, meditations, and notebooks she wrote while deliberating over her conversion to Catholicism. There's the same fascination with double binds: suffering and redemption, guilt and expiation descend from the realm of abstraction to take on weight and dimension in Weil's writing. She has a unique skill for delineating their precise physics. That's what makes her commentary on Homer so valuable: she intuits the ethical center of the poem as if she has entered it entirely and felt its properties in action. At the very beginning of the essay she writes, "The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. . . . it is that x that turns anybody who is 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." Weil sees force as both the ultimate reality of the poem, and the ultimate illusion. Those who believe they've mastered it are apt to be destroyed the next time it see-saws.
Homer's poem, Weil believes, works to reflect force back at the reader. An ethical person must escape the locked cycle of violence and oppression, yet escape with full knowledge: "Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice."
Bespaloff might have lacked the supreme confidence that shows in Weil's prose. It's probable, in fact, that before revising her essay for the final time she read and admired "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force." But "On the Iliad" actually seems to me the greater of the two. Like Weil, Bespaloff comes to that question about the connection of art and ethics, yet she gives a more surprising, deeper answer.
For Bespaloff, art is the distillation and enlargement of those ecstatic moments when we apprehend ethical truth. It's not that art tells us how to be good. On the contrary: "the step from ethics to morality involves the same betrayal of value as the descent from aesthetic contemplation to hedonism." Even if that distinction between "ethics" and "morality" seems like fussy semantics, you get what Bespaloff means. She believes that art creates a suspension: it captures and holds ethical truth before it can be polluted by our contingent systems of laws and conventions. She finds her ultimate example in that passage of the Iliad in which Priam visits the tent of Achilles to plead for the corpse of his son, Hector. The grieving king and the killer of his son face each other not with hatred, at least for that moment, but with respect. Priam's act is both horrible to imagine and gorgeous. With his supreme sense of justice and his disregard for established boundaries, "Priam appears in the epic like the poet's delegate," writes Bespaloff. "He typifies the watcher of tragedy, the man who sees it all."
You might disagree with Bespaloff's take on the role of the poet, or with Weil's. But even if you end up convinced that art and ethics have nothing to do with one another, the question about their relation remains one that all serious writers must ask themselves. More and more, the strength with which a poet engages this quandary seems to me the defining element of his or her work, whatever his or her responses may be, and even if these responses remain implicit or inconclusive. I'm convinced that such deliberation (or its lack) determines what the poet wants the poem to do.
With the faultless translations of Mary McCarthy, the informative and eloquent introduction by Christopher Benfey, and with the great Austrian novelist Hermann Broch's afterword, the new edition of the essays stands as example of this kind of responsiveness.
Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People, and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson.
© 2007 by Peter Campion. All rights reserved.
Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.