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.”

But it turns out that this vivid image owes more to Goya’s menacing bayonets than to Homer. Lycaon, one of Priam’s sons and a half-brother to Hector, has just dragged himself from the rapids of the Scamander River, unarmed, it is true, but not naked. Achilles, who captured and enslaved Lycaon on a previous raid, is determined not to let him get away this time. He throws his heavy spear but misses: “the spear shot past his back and stuck in the earth, still starved for human flesh.”6 It is at this point that Lycaon “clung to the sharp spear, not letting go.” Weil tells us, twice, that there is “a weapon pointing at” Lycaon, when in fact Achilles’ spear is stuck in the ground.

Weil also manipulates for her own purposes the culminating encounter in Book 24 when the Trojan king Priam comes to Achilles’ tent to beg for the corpse of his son Hector:

No one saw great Priam enter. He stopped,
Clasped the knees of Achilles, kissed his hands,
Those terrible man-killing hands that had slaughtered so many of his sons.

As John Gould, in his authoritative analysis of rituals of supplication in Greek literature, notes, Homer’s “concentration on the hands as independent agents focusses the emotional tension on the central gesture”—clasping Achilles’ knees—“of Priam’s supplication.”7 When Homer’s attention shifts to Achilles’ hands, according to Weil, “the very presence of the suffering creature is forgotten.” In her translation, Achilles, “remembering his own father, longed to weep;/Taking the old man’s arm, he pushed him away.”

For Weil, Achilles’ harsh gesture is yet another example of force turning a person into a thing:

It was not insensibility that made Achilles with a single movement of his hand push away the old man who had been clinging to his knees…. It was merely a question of his being as free in his attitudes and movements as if, clasping his knees, there were not a suppliant but an inert object.

This analysis would be convincing if Achilles had indeed “with a single movement of his hand pushed away the old man.” But Weil has suppressed a key word from the passage, and this suppression undercuts her interpretation of the entire scene. That word is “gently.” Here is Robert Fagles’s translation:

Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand
he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory
both men gave way to grief….
Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears
and the longing for it had left his mind and body,
he rose from his seat, raised the old man by the hand….8

The point is not that Simone Weil misreads Homer but why she does so—namely, to isolate and intensify scenes of horror as Goya did in his Disasters. By inviting us to imagine Achilles’ spear pointed menacingly at a naked suppliant rather than stuck in the ground, and by suppressing Achilles’ “gentleness,” Weil has extracted from the complicated weave of Homer’s narrative two sharply etched “disasters of war.”

Weil had hoped to publish her essay on the Iliad in the Nouvelle Revue Française, the most prominent French literary journal. Jean Paulhan, the editor, admired the essay but requested substantial cuts, adding that of the members of his editorial board only the philosopher Jean Wahl thought the essay should be published in its original form.9 With the Nazi occupation of Paris during the summer of 1940, Paulhan was replaced by the collaborator Drieu la Rochelle, and Weil submitted the revised essay instead to the liberal-minded Cahiers du Sud, based in Marseilles, where Weil and her parents had fled with the intention of emigrating to the United States.

During the months of waiting for an exit visa, Simone Weil had her most productive period as a writer. Armed with a copy of the Iliad and a rucksack of clothes in case she was arrested, Weil haunted the offices of Cahiers du Sud, which had accepted her essay; she secretly distributed Resistance tracts, and filled the notebooks from which were culled the posthumous collections Gravity and Grace and Waiting on God, for which she is best known. Still seeking a life “far from hot baths,” she lodged for a few weeks with a farmer-priest in rural Provence, sleeping on the barn floor and joining in the daily work of the farm. Meanwhile, with the help of several priests she was in contact with, Weil continued to try to reconcile the “religion of slaves” she discerned in the Gospels (though not in the Roman Church) with the compassion for suffering humanity she had tried to express in her study of the Iliad. In May of 1942, she boarded a ship bound for Casablanca, and eventually sailed for New York with her parents on June 7.


Among the refugees waiting for an exit visa in Marseilles during that same late spring of 1942 were the writer Rachel Bespaloff and her traveling companion, the philosopher Jean Wahl. Fired from his post at the Sorbonne, where he was one of the first to introduce Kierkegaard and Heidegger to French readers, Wahl had been tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo at the prison of La Santé before being interned at the French concentration camp at Drancy outside Paris. A cholera epidemic and a sympathetic doctor led to Wahl’s temporary release, and he escaped to Vichy in the back of a butcher truck. Bespaloff, with connections and money available in New York, was eager to help Wahl (who had an invitation to teach at the New School) get out of France. Three weeks after Weil’s departure from Marseilles, Wahl and Bespaloff boarded a cargo ship bound for New York—the last refugee ship to leave France.

During these tense months, Rachel Bespaloff, with Jean Wahl’s strong encouragement, was working on her own essay on the Iliad—“my method of facing the war,” as she put it. Editors and commentators continue to accept the view, put forward by Bespaloff herself and her associates, that the almost simultaneous writing of the two essays on the Iliad was, as Hermann Broch put it, “coincidentally parallel.” One would like to know more about Jean Wahl’s role in these proceedings, however. Monique Jutrin’s new edition of Bespaloff’s letters to Wahl clarifies the uncertainties without entirely dispelling them.

As an editor at the NRF, Wahl had read and admired Weil’s essay; a native of Marseilles, he also had close ties to Cahiers du Sud, where it was eventually published. He was a friend of Weil’s (they had first met in 1937, when together they attended the opening night of Giraudoux’s Electra) and an even closer friend to Bespaloff, and he eagerly followed the progress of Bespaloff’s essay on the Iliad. In March of 1942, she asked him where she might publish it, observing that Cahiers du Sud seemed doubtful since the journal had just published the “très belle étude de Simone Weil.” What an “amusing coincidence,” she remarked, adding (to diminish rather than augment the coincidence) that the writer André Rousseaux had also recently written “something on Homer.”

“Who is Rachel Bespaloff?” Camus asked Jean Grenier, his former philosophy teacher in Algiers, after reading and admiring Bespaloff’s impressive collection of essays Cheminements et Carrefours in August 1939. Bespaloff deliberately cultivated an aura of mystery, and much about her life and tragic death remains in shadow. Born in 1895, she spent her early years in Kiev in a cultivated Jewish family. Her father, Daniel Pasmanik, was a doctor and leader in Zionist circles, and her mother, Debora Perlmutter, had a doctorate in philosophy; by 1900 they had moved the family to the more religiously tolerant city of Geneva. There Rachel studied dance and music—her professor of composition was Ernest Bloch—and received her diploma in piano performance from the Conservatory of Geneva in 1914. By 1919 she was in Paris teaching music at the Opéra; three years later she married a Ukrainian businessman and associate of her father, Shraga Nissim Bespaloff—they had a daughter, Naomi, in 1927—and that was the end of her musical career.

It was the beginning, however, of her career as a philosopher and writer. Dr. Pasmanik and Nissim Bespaloff were both admirers of the Russian philosopher and religious thinker Lev Shestov, and were eager to bring out a French edition of the master’s works. Rachel Bespaloff met Shestov in 1925, and became a friend of several of the liberal-minded thinkers in his circle: Daniel Halévy (an associate of Péguy and friend of Degas); Gabriel Marcel; her childhood friend from Kiev Jacques Schiffrin; and Jean Wahl. After Dr. Pasmanik’s death in 1930, Nissim Bespaloff moved his family to the Villa Madonna in Saint-Raphaël, and began cultivating a cherry orchard. This vie de province with echoes of Chekhov did not appeal to Rachel, who felt cut off from Parisian intellectual life and complained of the dangers of “Bovary-ism.” She composed voluminous letters on her reading to Halévy and others. One of these meditations, an intense engagement with Heidegger’s recently published Being and Time, so impressed Gabriel Marcel that he recommended publication; “Lettre à M. Daniel Halévy sur Heidegger” appeared in La Revue philosophique in 1933, and was among the first discussions of Heidegger in French.10 Other essays followed, on Marcel, on Julian Green and Malraux, on Shestov, collected in Cheminements et Carrefours and published, in 1938, with a dedication to Shestov, who died the same year.

During the spring of 1938, Bespaloff began rereading the Iliad with her daughter. That fall, suffering from “nervous depression,” she checked into the same Swiss clinic in which Weil had spent a few months the previous year. Like Weil, Bespaloff spent many hours at the Goya exhibition in Geneva—“for me,” she wrote Jean Wahl in August 1939, “that was one of the greatest things this year.” Meanwhile, she continued to work on what she called her “Notes on the Iliad,” completing several pages “two or three months before the catastrophe of ’40,” and was unnerved when Jean Grenier sent her a copy of Simone Weil’s essay on the Iliad. “There are entire pages of my notes,” she wrote Grenier, “that might seem to be plagiarized.” What seems clear in retrospect is that Bespaloff had written much of her essay while unaware of Simone Weil’s work, but that she made revisions after learning of the “amusing coincidence.” After the “strange defeat” of the French in 1940, and the subsequent occupation of Paris, aspects of Weil’s essay, especially its dogmatic pacifism regarding the baneful consequences of any use of force, were bound to trouble readers like Wahl and Bespaloff, who were eager to support resistance against Hitler. “It is hopeless to look in the Iliad for a condemnation of war as such,” Bespaloff wrote, and with Wahl’s encouragement, her On the Iliad became an eloquent answer to Simone Weil’s “poem of force.”


The most striking overlap between the two essays concerns Homer’s evenhandedness toward Greeks and Trojans. Weil had called the Iliad as “impartial as sunlight…one is barely aware that the poet is a Greek and not a Trojan,” while Bespaloff writes: “Who is good in the Iliad? Who is bad? Such distinctions do not exist; there are only men suffering, warriors fighting, some winning, some losing.” Homer’s neutrality fits Weil’s overarching argument far better than Bespaloff’s, however. If Homer refuses to take sides, Bespaloff does not hesitate to do so. The hero of the Iliad in her view is neither “force,” as it was for Weil, nor its embodiment in Achilles. Her hero is Hector, to whom she devotes her opening chapter:

Suffering and loss 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…. Loaded as he is with favors, he has much to lose…. Apollo’s protégé, Ilion’s protector, defender of a city, a wife, a child, Hector is the guardian of the perishable joys.

Bespaloff’s hero, then, is not forcebut resistance, and Hector is the “resistance-hero”: “Not the wrath of Achilles, but the duel between Achilles and Hector, the tragic confrontation of the revenge-hero and the resistance-hero, is what forms the Iliad’s true center, and governs its unity and its development.”

The impression left by Simone Weil’s essay is of battle and the horrors of battle. In Bespaloff’s essay battle is almost entirely missing. Hector is her hero because he is the guardian of noncombatants. Unlike Weil, Bespaloff is particularly attentive to Homer’s women; her compassionate portrait of Helen in exile is a permanent contribution to Homeric criticism. For Bespaloff, Helen will lose no matter who wins the Trojan War: “Paris or Menelaus may get her, but for her nothing can really change. She is the prisoner of the passions her beauty excited.” One senses a personal, even autobiographical investment in Bespaloff’s comparison of Helen to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

Homer is as implacable toward Helen as Tolstoy is toward Anna. Both women have run away from home thinking that they could abolish the past and capture the future in some unchanging essence of love. They awake in exile and feel nothing but a dull disgust for the shrivelled ecstasy that has outlived their hope.

Bespaloff lingers on the moment, “a scene of starry serenity,” when Priam from his perch on the ramparts asks Helen to name the Greek heroes in the enemy camp set to besiege Troy. “Here, at the very peak of the Iliad, is one of those pauses, those moments of contemplation, when the spell of Becoming is broken, and the world of action, with all its fury, dips into peace.”


Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff arrived in New York within weeks of each other, during the summer of 1942. Weil joined her parents in an apartment on Riverside Drive, desperate to find a way to join De Gaulle’s Free French in some capacity in London and finding respite from her impatience with both Americans and French émigrés only in the Harlem church services she loved to attend.11 Her final letter from New York before leaving for London in the fall of 1942 is a long and passionate self-defense addressed to Jean Wahl. Wahl, who had accepted a position teaching philosophy at Mount Holyoke, had evidently conveyed to Weil rumors concerning her alleged sympathies toward Vichy. “What may have given rise to such rumors,” she told Wahl, “is the fact that I don’t much like to hear perfectly comfortable people here using words like coward and traitor about people in France who are managing as best they can in a terrible situation.” She took the occasion to repudiate her earlier pacifism, which she had so eloquently expressed in her essay on the Iliad:

Ever since the day when I decided, after a very painful inner struggle, that in spite of my pacifist inclinations it had become an overriding obligation in my eyes to work for Hitler’s destruction… my resolve has not altered; and that day was the one on which Hitler entered Prague—in May 1939, if I remember right. My decision was tardy, perhaps…and I bitterly reproach myself for it.

Simone Weil died on August 24, 1943, in a sanatorium in Kent, having deliberately restricted her intake of food to the rations inflicted on her compatriots in occupied France. The Italian writer and critic Nicola Chiaromonte, who had read Weil’s essay on the Iliad in Marseilles during his own flight from Paris, encouraged his friend Dwight Macdonald to publish it in the journal Politics, where it appeared, in Mary McCarthy’s superb translation, in November of 1945. (Later, in recognition of its pacifist argument, it was reprinted by the Quaker publishing house at Pendle Hill in Philadelphia.)

Rachel Bespaloff worked on French-language broadcasts for the Voice of America before accepting a teaching position, at Jean Wahl’s recommendation, at Mount Holyoke, where she taught French for six years, beginning in 1943.12 In 1945, Wahl returned to France to resume teaching at the Sorbonne, leaving Bespaloff, as she put it, “even more alone.” She complained of the uncertainty of her temporary contract at Mount Holyoke, and described the feeling of being cut off from friends and cultural life in New York and Paris as “like an amputation.” Mary McCarthy met Bespaloff only once, at a dinner party in 1947 given by Jacques Shiffrin, with Hannah Arendt and Hermann Broch among the guests. McCarthy described her as “a small, dark lady who wore white gloves and who talked a good deal about Jean Wahl.” That same year, Bespaloff’s husband, from whom she was separated, died in New York. Her last essay, an eloquent meditation on Camus’s work entitled “The World of the Man Condemned to Death,” was published in French in Esprit in 1950. Camus, she wrote, “belongs to a generation”—her own—“which history forced to live in a climate of violent death,” amid “the smoke of crematories.” During the spring break of that year at Mount Holyoke, Rachel Bespaloff sealed her kitchen doors with towels and turned on the gas. She died on April 6, 1949.13

This Issue

September 25, 2003