In breaking away from Partisan Review to found his own journal, Politics, Dwight Macdonald did something altogether splendid and moving, in getting to clear new moral ground, away from Leninism, Trotskyism, the usual hates and polemics of the left. I owe to Politics my discovery of Simone Weil, whose essay “The Iliad: Poem of Force” astonished and moved me at the end of 1945 by removing the stage heroics of the Trojan War and presenting the true horror of war, death by death by death, as the submission to merciless impersonal force that was the fate of innocent millions during Hitler’s war:
The true hero, the real subject, the core of the Iliad, is force. The force that is wielded by men rules over them, and before it man’s flesh cringes. The human soul never ceases to be transformed by its encounter with force—is swept on, blinded by that which it believes itself able to handle, bowed beneath the power of that which it suffers.
Force makes a thing of its victims. There where someone stood a moment, ago, stands no one.
The piercing simplicity of Simone Weil’s style went to the heart of the lasting fear of the war, of the Holocaust, of the forgetfulness it made imperative for so many people. The simplicity was what was left after war—it was elemental, absolute in its sense of what was true, the final truth, about war. As I read it I thought of a photograph taken by the Germans themselves during the war. A Polish Jew in rags, reduced to total helplessness, rigid with terror, utterly at the mercy of these soldiers in battle dress laughing at him, waits for whatever more it is they want to inflict on him. So another Jew was mocked by Roman soldiers.
Simone Weil, a Jew, had been deprived of her lycée teaching job because of her “race.” So ordered by a good French Catholic whose middle name was Xavier. She had written “The Iliad: Poem of Force” in Marseilles in 1940 while waiting with her parents to come to the United States. Refugees all. Surely it was the fate of the Jews—proscribed by Vichy’s own clerical Fascists, whose police rounded up more Jewish children than the Nazis demanded—that had led her to describe so trenchantly the domination by force.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. She was Jewish and looked it, but was obdurate, half-manic, in denying the Jewish sources of Christianity. She saw nothing in the Old Testament but the wars waged by the ancient Israelites against their national rivals and their extermination. Simone Weil, born in Paris to a Jewish doctor of Alsatian background and a Jewish mother born in Rostovon-Don, despised herself for being a Jew. Being labeled a Jew by her own people, the French, apparently troubled her more than the chance of being murdered because she was a Jew. “Assimilation” never saw a Jew more eager to deny herself. She declared herself so entirely…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.