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.]

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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