Wednesday, August 14, 2019

War and the Iliad (#WITMonth)

"It is hopeless to look in the Iliad for a condemnation of war as such. People make war, they put up with it, they curse it, they even praise it in songs and verses, but it is not to be judged any more than destiny is." 
-Rachel Bespaloff

A very serious Humpty engaged in some
late night lucubrations.
Despite that...there might yet be some judgment on war in this volume.

War and the Iliad, a New York Review Books reissue, contains two essays--by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff--about Homer's Iliad, written in the early years of World War II.

Weil's essay is the first out and the first in this volume; it's published in Vichy France in the winter of 1940/41. The title is 'The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,' and it begins: "The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away..."

Rachel Bespaloff was already working on her own essay 'On the Iliad' at this time, though she seems to have read Weil's before finishing her own; hers came out in French in 1943.

Both essays are more about the times than the Iliad, though I would say this was particularly true of Weil's. I don't know that I felt Weil was that insightful about Homer's text, but it was powerful and moving about war. It's often considered an anti-war or pacifist document, and while it is certainly anti-war, it's too despairing to be pacifist, I'd say; to argue for pacifism implies a measure of hope that something can be done.

The quote from Bespaloff above is I think partly in response to Weil, but I also think it's closer to the spirit of the author of the Iliad. Homer is not under any illusions as to what war is really like; he does not romanticize it; but it is material for stories; it is possible to behave well in wartime, though so very often men do not.

Both were translated into English by Mary McCarthy with idea that they would be published in one volume, but rights for Weil's essay were unavailable in 1947 so Bespaloff's essay with an afterword by Hermann Broch came out in an edition with Bollingen press. New York Review Books was able to put together the two essays with Broch's afterword and added an introduction by Christopher Benfey in 2005.

I had assembled a lovely pile of novels I thought I could read for #WITMonth, but I'm still thinking about Hermann Broch and I knew this had that final essay by him so that's what came of the top of the stack. I'm still hopeful that at least one of those novels gets read this month, but I also pulled Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times off the shelf because it has an essay on Hermann Broch. Half the Arendt volume's essays were originally in English, but half were translated from the German, including the essay on Broch, making it another possible #WITMonth book. I've already read the Broch essay.

And Weil and Bespaloff made me want to reread the Iliad. I was going to wait for the Emily Wilson translation, since I so much enjoyed her Odyssey, but now I may not be willing to wait.


  1. Hermann Broach seems to really be permutating your reading choices and even infiltrating mine via Margaret Drabble! Pretty good for a book that is the least readable alleged masterpiece. But those challenging books do that I find. Maybe because the reader spends so much time on them, the get under our skin in a different way that a book we fly through because we love it so much.

    So if you reread the Iliad, what translation will you choose?

    1. They do give you more to think about, don't they? And with a mystery or something that I do fly through, it's really a challenge to slow myself down sometimes and try to pay attention to the details. That is, if I bother (which I generally find I don't!)

      I'd probably read the Lattimore since I have it, though I find Lattimore no better than adequate usually. But I might hunt up the Fagles since I really liked his Aeneid and haven't read his Iliad.

    2. Do you have a preferred Iliad? There are some other new ones as well, I think.

    3. I've never read the Iliad or the Odyssey-historical novels yes, but not the originals. So I don't have a preference...

    4. Well, I'd say, you've got a treat ahead then! The Odyssey in particular (in a good translation) is just a fun read.

  2. OOH MY TYPING. ...THEY get under our skin in a different way THAN a book...

    I really should proofread. Sorry.