Sunday, October 21, 2012

TFBT: Simone Weil’s Poem of Force

The librarian who ordered this “scholarly tome” for me laughed about its size. For the last 2,500 years scholars have studied Homer so admittedly it’s arguable that there isn’t much left to say. Simone Weil apparently took this approach because her study of the Iliad is only thirty-nine pages long. Most of us know that the Iliad is not about the fall of Troy. Admittedly it is about the Trojan War, but even then just a small slice of the first war between East and West and that towards the end. In fact Homer’s masterpiece is about the choice of Achilles. Either to live a comfortable and long life in obscurity or to die young and win undying fame. Since we still talk about the son of Peleus and Thetis three millennia later, he apparently chose the latter option.

By extension the choice of Achilles is the choice we all have to make in our life. Weil believes that the Iliad is about force. She defines force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” The word is
in the Greek and it’s all over the Iliad.

Considering the brevity of this “scholarly tome” about bia it is amazing how much I disagree with. According to Weil, Homer presents “force in her grossest and most summary form, (with) no consoling prospect of immortality” nor halo of patriotism descending. But this isn’t right. Admittedly, Homer never admits to paradisiacal afterlife until late in

The Iliad’s sequel. But, Homer’s audience knew of the Elysian Fields, of the Isle of White and of the warm western breeze always perfuming the far shore of the great river Oceanus. And the halo of patriotism (and martyrdom) certainly hung over Hector, the primer model for knightly behavior through all of western history.

She goes on to discuss in marvelous language about the horror of Priam kissing the hands that slayed his son, the hopeless slavery envisioned for Hector’s wife. Weil demonstrates well that “force is as pitiless to it’s possessor as its victims”. Then using the example of Thersites’ beating, she dwells on the evils of classism. But it is arguable that Thersites was not a common foot-soldier (J.Marks 2005) Thersites was the son of the king of Calydon and the cousin of Diomedes. He was someone’s father; some peoples’ ancestor. He was of aristocratic blood. But, even if the example of classism is improper, the charges against force and a class-based society are a product of Western culture and our myth of a classless society. The issue of class is not so black and white for all audiences of the Iliad for the last twenty-five centuries.

Weil speaks of Achilles’ force-born fierceness and ruthlessness. But, does Achilles have any more say in the matter than the hungry lion or raging fire he is so often compared too? The gods created him for this moment and assigned him his destiny. Weil talks about karma, but never mentions hubris. Nor does she mention
ate the divine folly that leads men to disaster; the false dream Zeus sent Agamemnon, the gods determining Panadaros should fire the shot to ends the truce and Athena tricking Hector into his death. Nor does she speak of the will of Zeus and the divine determination to relieve Mother Earth of the burden of men.

She argues that war is not a game. That “with the majority of the combatants this state of mind does not continue.” But, we’ve played this game for thousands of years. The greatest poet after Homer reminds us that “all the world’s a stage”. How many plays, poems, books and films have we written about war, even this war with Brad Pitt playing in the latest films?

Towards the end of the study she writes with stirring, moving words as Homer did before her about the meeting of Priam and Achilles and the powers of force at work there. She continues in this vein giving Homer all the glory and praise he deserves for his genius. She moves on to praise the genius of Greece in the Iliad, the Athenian tragedies, Pindar and the writers of the New Testament. And yet even here with the Christian covenant she never mentions Heaven or Paradise. She writes steadily of death (Thanatos) without ever mentioning the illusion of death.

The booklet ends with a short biography. Weil died in 1943. Her obsession with force and death might be a product of the age. Like many radicals of the era, she jumped on every liberal cause that came along; communism, the Spanish Civil War, the French Resistance… In the end she made the same chose as Achilles she died at thirty-four and this little red book will be her unending fame.


1 Mary McCarthy translation 1956
2 The American Journal of Philology.
The American Journal of Philology

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