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A Tale of Two Iliads

De l’Iliade

by Rachel Bespaloff
Meaux: Revue Conférence, 704 pp., 28e

On the Iliad

by Rachel Bespaloff, translated from the Frenchby Mary McCarthy, with an introduction by Hermann Broch
Pantheon/Bollingen, 126 pp. (1947; out of print)

Lettres à Jean Wahl, 1937–1947

by Rachel Bespaloff, edited by Monique Jutrin
Paris: Claire Paulhan, 192 pp., 24e

The critic Kenneth Burke once suggested that literary works could serve as “equipment for living,” by revealing familiar narrative patterns that would make sense of new and chaotic situations. If so, it should not surprise us that European readers in times of war should look to their first poem for guidance. As early as the fall of 1935, Jean Giraudoux’s popular play La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu encouraged his French audience to think of their country as vulnerable Troy while an armed and menacing Hitler was the “Tiger at the Gates” (the play’s English title). Truth was the first casualty of war, Giraudoux warned. “Everyone, when there’s war in the air,” his Andromache says, “learns to live in a new element: falsehood.”

Giraudoux’s suggestion that the Trojan War was an absurd contest over empty abstractions such as honor, courage, and heroism had a sinister real-life sequel when Giraudoux was named minister of wartime propaganda in 1939. In the wake of Munich, Minister Giraudoux announced that the most pressing danger to French security was not the Nazis but “one hundred thousand Ashkenasis, escaped from the ghettos of Poland or Rumania.”1

After September 1939, the analogy between the crisis in Europe and the Iliad—which opens with broken truces and failed attempts to appease Achilles’ wrath—seemed altogether too apt. During the early months of the war, two young French writers of Jewish background, Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, apparently unaware of the coincidence, wrote arresting responses to the Iliad that are still fresh today. During the winter of 1940, Weil published in the Marseilles-based journal Cahiers du Sud her famous essay “L’Iliade, ou le poème de la force.” Three years later—after both Weil and Bespaloff had fled France for New York—Jacques Schiffrin, a childhood friend of Bespaloff’s who had become a distinguished publisher, published De l’Iliade in New York under the Brentano’s imprint.

The idea of bringing these two complementary essays together was first pursued by Schiffrin and Bollingen editor John Barrett. After Mary McCarthy translated both essays into English plans were made to publish them in a single volume.2 When rights to Weil’s essay proved unavailable, Bespaloff’s On the Iliad appeared separately in 1947, as the ninth volume in the Bollingen series, with a long introduction—nearly half as long as Bespaloff’s own essay—by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, author of The Death of Virgil. In their respective essays, Weil and Bespaloff adopt some of the same themes while diverging sharply in their approach and interpretation. In her essay Weil condemns force outright while Bespaloff argues for resistance in defense of life’s “perishable joys.”


Most of human life, Simone Weil wrote in her essay on the Iliad, “takes place far from hot baths,” but her own discomforts were mainly self-inflicted. She was born in Paris in 1909 into an assimilated, well-to-do Jewish family. Her father was a kindly internist and her mother a forceful woman who looked after the children. Simone Weil was a gifted child, graduating first in her class in philosophy—Simone de Beauvoir was second—at the École Normale Supérieure in 1931. Her mentor was the philosopher Émile Chartier, known as “Alain,” under whose guidance Weil’s political convictions began to surface. Beauvoir recounts her first—and last—conversation with Simone Weil:

She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre outfits…. I don’t know how the conversation got started. She said in piercing tones that only one thing mattered these days: the revolution that would feed all the starving people on the earth. I retorted, no less adamantly, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to help them find a meaning in their existence. She glared at me and said, “It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry.” Our relations ended right there.

Simone Weil had never gone hungry either, but during the mid-1930s she began to seek opportunities to experience the suffering of others. During 1934–1935 she took a break from her teaching to work on the assembly line at a Renault factory. Two years later she was in Spain, enlisting in a workers’ brigade against Franco’s forces. The physical frailty and clumsiness that had made factory work such a trial for her brought near disaster when she stepped into a pot of boiling oil and severely burned herself, forcing her to return to the world of bourgeois safety she so despised.

Weil’s experiences in the Renault factory and in Spain confirmed her growing convictions regarding the dehumanizing effects of modern industrialism and war. She traced these tendencies back to the ancient Romans who, in her view, established a mechanistic regime based on brute force. In several powerful essays written during the mid-1930s, she lamented the Romans and argued that Napoleon and Hitler were their imperial successors.

A committed pacifist, Weil argued for negotiations with Hitler and endorsed Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Alluding to Giraudoux’s caustic play, she wrote an essay, published in 1937, titled “Let Us Not Begin Again the Trojan War,” in which she condemned the debasement of civic language. “At the center of the Trojan War, there was at least a woman,” she wrote. “For our contemporaries, words adorned with capital letters play the role of Helen.”

During the spring of 1937, in fragile health and suffering from severe migraines, Simone Weil checked into a clinic at Montana in Switzerland, as a way station on a long-planned trip to Italy. At Montana she befriended a young medical student named Jean Posternak and, finding him an eager pupil, suggested that he “learn Greek, it’s an easy language.” She copied out for him a few hundred lines from the Iliad in her own translation. On her return from Italy, she announced to Posternak that she had developed “two new loves.” One was T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, of which she wrote: “Never since the Iliad, so far as I know, has a war been described with such sincerity and such complete absence of rhetoric, either heroic or hair-raising.” “The other love,” she wrote, “is Goya.” Weil was deeply moved by a new edition of Goya’s series of etchings The Disasters of War. “It arouses,” she wrote Posternak, “an equal degree of horror and admiration.”

It is easy to see why Weil would be drawn to Lawrence and the Arab resistance fighters. In a letter to propaganda minister Giraudoux, she protested his defense of French colonial policy: “And how can it be said that we brought culture to the Arabs, when it was they who preserved the traditions of Greece for us through the Middle Ages?” But Goya’s depiction of war, I believe, had a more important bearing on Weil’s interpretation of the Iliad. During the summer of 1939, she renewed her admiration for the artist with repeated visits to the great Goya exhibition at the Museum of Art in Geneva, where the treasures of the Prado had been moved for safekeeping during the Spanish Civil War. The exhibition closed on August 31, the day before Germany invaded Poland.

The “disasters” Goya depicted—graphic scenes of torture, rape, mutilated corpses, firing squads, mass burials—were carried out by Napoleon’s troops in their invasion and occupation of Spain between 1808 and 1814. Goya claimed to have witnessed many of these atrocities and portrayed them with dispassionate objectivity. And yet there are no names attached, no recognizable officers or victims, and, perhaps most importantly—as Susan Sontag points out in her discussion of the series in Regarding the Pain of Others—no narrative: “Each image, captioned with a brief phrase lamenting the wickedness of the invaders and the monstrousness of the suffering they inflicted, stands independently of the others.”3

For Goya’s anonymous scenes of mayhem are typical “products”—as Stephen Crane expressed it in The Red Badge of Courage—of the machinery of war. And this—as becomes immediately clear from the opening sentences of her extraordinary essay—is how Simone Weil (whether drawing inspiration or confirmation from Goya) read the Iliad, as a disconnected series of “disasters of war,” without narrative or comprehensive meaning beyond the dehumanizing operations of force.


Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force has a single argument, stated clearly in the first sentence and shown to hold true for the entire Iliad. “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force,” which she defines as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” Instead of showing how force plays on the various characters of the Iliad (Achilles, Hector, Helen, and the rest), Weil examines a procession of human types—the suppliant, the slave, and the soldier—and shows how force reduces each of them to a soulless thing. If force itself is the hero, it hardly matters who is wielding it or why. Weil’s essay opens with a barrage of brief quotations from the Iliad. Here is the first passage she quotes:

  …the horses
Rattled the empty chariots through the files of battle,
Longing for their noble drivers. But they on the ground
Lay, dearer to the vultures than to their wives.

And the second:

  All around, his black hair
Was spread; in the dust his whole head lay,
That once-charming head; now Zeus had let his enemies
Defile it on his native soil.4

Weil gives no context for these extracts, nor does she identify the victims; reduced to “things,” they are, for her, nameless anyway. It’s not that she expects us to recognize these passages—Agamemnon slaughtering Trojans in Book 11, Hector’s outstretched corpse in Book 22; she wants us to look instead at the “inhuman spectacle the Iliad never tires of showing us.” “The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted,” she writes. The passive voice conceals Weil’s own strategy: it is she, not Homer, who “offers” these spectacles undiluted.

It is striking how few aspects of the Iliad Weil dwells on in an essay of forty pages or so, and how much she leaves out: the whole “comedy of the gods” (as Rachel Bespaloff called it), Helen’s ambiguous role, the embassies and negotiations. When she considers two scenes of supplication, which ought to interrupt the battle, her detailed analyses merely confirm for Weil that the Iliad—in Christopher Logue’s memorable phrase—is “all day permanent red.”5 In both scenes, however, Weil modifies Homer’s version in slight but telling ways. She introduces the first passage, characteristically, without names or encompassing narrative: “A man stands disarmed and naked with a weapon pointing at him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him.” Then she quotes a few lines from Book 21:

Motionless, he pondered. And the other drew near,
Terrified, anxious to touch his knees, hoping in his heart
To escape evil death and black destiny….
With one hand he clasped, suppliant, his knees,
While the other clung to the sharp spear, not letting go….

We have the image clearly in mind: a callous soldier points his spear at a naked man begging for his life, who realizes “that the weapon which is pointing at him will not be diverted.”

  1. 1

    See Jeffrey Mehlman, “A Future for Andromaque: Aryan and Jew in Giraudoux’s France,” in Mehlman’s Legacies of Anti-Semitism in France (University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 47.

  2. 2

    See William McGuire, Bollingen: An Adventure in Collecting the Past (Bollingen/Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 104–105.

  3. 3

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p. 44.

  4. 4

    All translations from the Iliad, unless otherwise indicated, are Weil’s, in Mary McCarthy’s English version.

  5. 5

    Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer’s Iliad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). A striking feature of Logue’s creatively “rewritten” passages from the Iliad is that, like Weil and Bespaloff, he draws parallels between the Trojan War and World War II, most explicitly in borrowings from Céline and in vivid lines juxtaposing the Russian advance on Berlin with sulking Achilles.

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