On the Iliad
Lettres à Jean Wahl, 1937–1947
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…
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.