In the final installment of our summer series, we consider the two landmark essays collected in War and the Iliad and Costa-Gavras’s Greek masterpiece, Z. You can find our first installment, on Italian fascism, here; our second installment, on race in America, here; and our third installment, on belief and unbelief, here.
A month ago, we thrilled to the youthful delights of French New Wave cinema. It seems appropriate that, as the days get darker both literally (post-dinner walks now take place after sunset) and figuratively (the mad ravings of QAnon are now coming from the Oval Office), we’ve moved on to gloomier territory. War and the Iliad brings together two essays on Homer’s epic poem: Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and Rachel Bespaloff’s “On the Iliad.” (Hermann Broch’s “The Style of the Mythical Age: On Rachel Bespaloff” serves as a coda.) Weil and Bespaloff both fled France for the United States in 1942, and their essays on ancient war are haunted by the contemporary violence they lived through. My Night at Maud’s, which we watched a few weeks ago, finds love at the center of existence. War and the Iliad finds suffering.
“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force,” Weil writes in the first sentence of her 1940 essay. “Force revels only in an abuse that is also self-abuse, in an excess that expends its store,” Bespaloff writes in her essay, published three years later. And what is force, this thing that Homer so powerfully imagined and that Weil and Bespaloff, in the midst of World War II, thought so compellingly about? Weil describes it with characteristic clarity: “It is that x that turns anybody who is subject 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.” Force doesn’t belong to any person (Achilles or Hector) or any nation (Greece or Troy). It’s more like an electric current, now moving acting here, now shifting there. Wherever subjugation and dominance live, there it is. Force is that which dehumanizes, even unto death.
We can see this dehumanization at work in Homer’s poem and in the world around us. In the Iliad, Achilles kills Hector, then drags his corpse behind a chariot. In our time, capital reduces workers to abstract inputs of labor; racist policing turns Black people into Black bodies. In each case, objectification turns back on the objectifier. Achilles becomes inhuman, more thing than person, through his treatment of Hector; so too does the labor-squeezing owner and the trigger-squeezing policeman. As Weil puts it, “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.”