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Homer, Simone Weil, and loss

[Reposted from 9/10/11*]

One of my fondest memories of college is sitting in Greek 401, poring over Homer's Iliad. We would each take turns translating the text, and then the whole class would discuss what had just been translated. I remember, as if it were yesterday, my friend translating the following exchange between Andromache and Hector. (This is from Robert Fagles's translation.)

..Andromache
Pressing close beside him and weeping freely now,
Clung to his hand, urged him, called him: Reckless one,
My Hector your own fiery courage will destroy you!
Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me,
And the destiny that weighs me down, your widow, now so soon

In reply, Hector tells his wife he must fight. He imagines that after the fall of Troy Andromache will be a slave woman is some Argive city. An Achaean will look on her and say,

"There is the wife of Hector, the bravest fighter
They could field, those stallion-breaking Trojans,
Long ago when the men fought for Troy." So he will say
And the fresh grief will swell your heart once more,
Widowed, robbed of the one man strong enough
To fight off your day of slavery. No, no,
Let the earth come piling over my dead body
Before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away.

After  the class finished translating the section, our professor, who was a 30-year veteran of teaching classics and a veteran of the US Navy, seemed to be holding back tears. He wasn't the only one.

In a famous essay, "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force," Simone Weil argues the true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. And she defines force as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him." Weil's essay is a powerful piece of literary criticism. It makes you want to read the Iliad and it makes you want to read more of Weil. (This is not to say the essay does not have its problems. It certainly does. For example, Weil sees the Iliad, and not the Hebrew Scriptures, as the proper context for the New Testament. Irenaeus of Lyon argues that Valentinus and the so-called "gnostics" read the New Testament in precisely this way.)

Weil notes, rightly, that the Iliad is a miracle. "Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjections of the human spirit to force. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to his own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is." Whether we face force under the guise of disease, or violence, or chance, it will make things of us all. Pray that we never exert force on anyone else, and pray that we have the courage and wisdom to know how to stop those who do.

Force might be the true hero of the Iliad, but the true object of the poem, what's thrown in front of us, is loss. The reader cannot confront the poem without confronting the loss that each character faces: losses of spouses, of friends, of parents, of children, of countries. We see this in Achilles's reaction to Patroclus's death, in Priam's supplication of Achilles for the body of Hector, in the eulogies that Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen offer for Hector. Hence the tears -- Andromache's and ours.

Homer presents us with a world where each hero knows he is going to die, and no one is quite sure of the justice of his cause. Mercy is in short supply in the poem; grace does not exist. An impersonal Fate rules the deathless and the deathbound. The poem cannot tell us how to deal with our own losses, but it shows us the virtues of those Greeks and Trojans who have dealt with theirs.

Spurred, as usual, by Anthony Domestico's post, I have been reflecting on the need for a great 9/11 work of art. I remain agnostic on whether any artist has yet been able to explore the depths of force and loss that the day and its aftermath brought. Perhaps it's too soon. Perhaps we don’t need one. We have the Iliad. Our original epic already and always has more force and loss than we can bear.

[*I was recently reviewing old posts and fixing some formatting that had needed fixing. As I was doing that, I came across this piece I wrote for the old Verdicts blog. I figure people might have missed it then, and unfortunately, what I wrote there remains all too relevant. The force that Weil discussed is in the news again in the form of sarin gas and Tomahawk missiles. On a personal note, over a year ago, I became a father, so Andromache’s words to Hector about Scamandrius have an added power for me.  I’m teaching the Iliad once again this semester, and I’ve barely begun to learn all the lessons it teaches. I wonder if anyone ever has.]

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It seems to me that the English word "violence" better translates what the Iliad is about.  (By "violence" I mean the sort of force which aims to destroy an opponent.) Yes, there are lesser forces at work in the Iliad, but it seems to me that the work is directed towards the irrationality that is violence.  I didn't get past the first battle, an event so horrible that I didnt' have to read further.  Homer makes his point early -- that war is madness.

It seems so very odd to me that The Odyssey could be invented by the same person (group?).  The spirit of the thing is so different from the Iliad -- it's ultimately optimistic.  Or have I misread both?

Makes me think of the expression 'the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must' from the Melian dialogue (Thucydides).

Violence or force is simply energy expended. It is powerful energy but like any other powerful energy, like even sexual energy, it needs to be directed, trained and put in an overall context of purpose. It seems to me that it is not so much the force that is the problem but the rationality guiding (or not guiding) the force.

Wars are guided by leaders who direct these irrational forces (like soldiers or warriers who are trained for a purpose). But it is not the warriors who are to blame. It is always the leaders who require discipline and virtue because it is they who unleash these forces.

9/11 looked irrational as we were being blunted by that force but there was a rationality behind it. A distorted rationality but a rationality nonetheless.

 

Force and violence figure very prominently in history and literature because they are the easiest and quickest response to stress and challenge. Phrases like "kill 'em" and "go to hell" come readily to mind and lips, but we struggle to remember "turn the other cheek" and "do unto others..." That's possibly why we survived into history. Pacifist branches of genus Homo never made it out of prehistory. The Neanderthals may have been cheek-turners.

Still, for all its horrendous carnage, indiscriminate force is not the main fact or point of the Iliad. Homer tells us in the first line that his theme is the wrath of Achilles. It is not the Trojan War as a whole, but that  baleful wrath that plays out over a few short weeks in the war's tenth year. With Achilles' immediate defiance of Agamemnon and withdrawal from battle and his fatal rejection of reconciliation in Book Nine, we are immersed in a tragedy that will rend the heart of the protagonist and bring him and his longtime adversary Priam to a kind of austere, belated enlightenment.

Just as many brave men might have died without this episode; just as many devoted wives might have ended their days in slavery; but seen as a consequence of Achilles' character and decisions, the present slaughter and the doom of loved ones spread his tragedy to the farthest horizons, even as King Lear's dotard vanity and impulsiveness—small sins in themselves—grow in power and consequence until they shake the very heavens. We care little for impersonal forces, or even for the will of Zeus, except as they wreck the lives of those we admire and love.

A bit off the track but maybe not:

A few days ago I attended a forum in which one of the presenters gave a quote, which moved me so that I copied it down.

"Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I 'll tell you the story of war."

I thought I heard him say it was from Aeschylus, but I cannot find the quote via Google. (It would be reasonable for Aesycylus to write that since he was a soldier, who fough valiently in the Persian War.)

The presenter left before I could talk to him.

Until very recent times, the only stories of war that we have center on, and are largely or completely told in the words of, the powerful.  Even the stories we learn of the ordinary foot soldiers of the American Civil War were mined by modern scholars from the journals and letters of the true foot soldiers.  Before that, virtually nothing - and for clear reasons in the development of literacy.

The war that is known by the private soldier, whether he is one of the Myrmidons or a foot soldier of the Great War - known only to his God, or a Marine Corps Pfc. humping the boonies along the DNZ, is utterly different than the war known by the Heroes.  There are elements of fear and of anger, of every human emotion (very much including love); there certainly is violence.   But what structures all that is power – who wields it and how it is applied.  So the war of Achilles and Hector is never the war known by the foot soldier, no more than Patton’s war was my father’s, nor Westmoreland’s was mine.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.