pages 182-215 in Simone Weil: An Anthology, trans. Mary McCarthy, ed. Sian Miles, Penguin, 2005
In the Greek and Roman studies, I had two loves: Homer’s Iliad and tragedy, particularly those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. I admired the Iliad for Homer’s look of distance. He tells the story of a great war. Each of the combatants realizes the war is a zero-sum game ending in death, yet they persevere. The point?–to exchange the commodity of honour on the battlefield by killing, or being killed. The purpose of such a life?–to become immortal, become an object of song for future generations of singers to sing. The funny thing is by dying they succeeded. I admired Aeschylus and Sophocles’ tragedies for a similar reason. Though their protagonists suffer terribly, they understand suffering to be a natural part of existence. There was never a need to explain suffering away. We are not gods. Therefore, we suffer, and terribly. Attempts to justify suffering and evil seemed to me contrived. In Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I found a beguiling theodicy: suffering and misery transform mortals into immortals. We are not remembered for our happiness.
In my student days up to the present day, I would read all the secondary material on epic and tragedy. In later years, I would be fortunate enough to add to the material myself: a new theory of tragedy based on risk and an article on fate and free will in epic. From time to time–not often, but often enough–the footnotes and bibliographies in this secondary material would mention an essay with a most curious name: L’Iliade ou le poème de la force (The Iliad or The Poem of Force). At the time, I never sought it out to read, but the name haunted me. What did Simone Weil mean by ‘poem of force’? So intriguing…
The idea of force fascinates me, and many others. Nietzsche turned force into a fundamental drive behind all other drives in his will to power. Bob Dylan devoted an album–Love and Theft–to examining force and power. Rush did the same in their album Power Windows. Last month, I ran into another article mentioning Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force. It was time. I ordered a copy of a Penguin anthology of her works. I’m glad I did.
When Writing about Force, One Must Have Force
One of my complaints in the classics was that I’d read or hear so many people without force talking about some the most forceful personalities the world has known. I remember one time there was a presentation on Caesar. It was delivered in this monotone and uninterested voice, completely devoid of passion. I remember wondering why someone would study and research Caesar who was so devoid of the spirit of Caesar. The eye sees the sun because it has in it that spark that is the sun’s fire. How can one see Caesar who doesn’t have in their eye the gleam of fire lighting up Caesar’s eye? Reading Weil, there was no danger of this. From the first sentence, force permeates her essay. Her concentration of power is amazing. To read Weil is to be in the presence of greatness. Consider her opening paragraph:
The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.
In a tripartite construction (hero…subject…centre), the first sentence boldly announces force is the protagonist in the Iliad. It is not Achilles. It is not war. It is not rage. It is force. There is no buildup to this discovery. It is stated point-blank in one sentence, and the opening sentence. The second sentence, in another tripartite structure, provides examples of force. The language is direct and ornate at the same time. Then the third sentence slips into the passive voice, a construction frowned upon by writing experts who prefer the active voice, the voice of doing rather than being done to. In the third sentence the human spirit is ‘shown to be modified’. But here too, there is a reason. The passive voice shows the overpowering force of force over the human spirit, which, in the passive construction, is being held in thrall. The passive construction highlights the helplessness of the human agent in the face of force. Brilliant. Then the concluding couplet: ‘For those dreamers…’ and ‘For others, who powers of recognition are more acute…’. In the closing couplet, Weil makes it plain that she is aware that there is another way to look at the work, an opposing reading. She also makes it clear, in most forceful language, where she stands. Force, for those with the eyes to see, is the eternal mover upon which a philosophy of history can be built. She died, I think, too young to fulfil her destiny. Who has the greatness to take her up where she left off? Do such people still exist today?
Her power blew me away. On my first reading of The Iliad or the Poem of Force, I had been working on a paper. Reading her essay made me throw my paper out and start anew. It was embarrassing how she could say in hundreds of characters what I needed hundreds of words to make clear. It is seldom that I encounter such a powerhouse. The last encounter I had with greatness of the highest level was five years ago reading Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience.
Force is Simplicity
Though the essay is short, Weil picks her examples for maximum effect. Her familiarity with the Iliad comes through in how effortlessly she comes up with the perfect example to describe each of the faces of force. To Weil, a religious-anarchist thinker, force is the motivating power shaping history. She once told Trotsky once that he was mistaken. It was not class struggle, but force that would decide the future. I’m also reading Karl Jasper’s critique of Nietzsche right now, and I can’t help but wonder if Weil was familiar with Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will to power was the underlying drive. For Weil, however, force is something that comes and goes. It is with us one moment, and gone the next:
Still more poignant–so painful is the contrast–is the sudden evocation, as quickly rubbed out, of another world: the faraway, precarious, touching world of peace, of the family, the world in which each man counts more than anything else to those about him:
“She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace
To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing
A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle.
Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,
Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles’ arm.”
Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.
Weil accomplishes so much with so little. So too Homer. Andromache pour Hector a bath. We don’t know what’s going through her mind. Then the narrator interjects: Hector’s already dead. The effect is not unlike something Dylan pulled off more recently in ‘Cross the Green Mountain:
A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.
Both poets step back and let the readers weigh the human impact of death. Weil’s genius is in her short turn of phrase ‘then as now’. It is a poignant reminder that she is critiquing a poem of war during a time of war–the first year of the Second World War. When the world gives you force, it is a good time to examine force.
Why We Read the Greats
Weil doesn’t make for the easiest reading. So why read Weil? It’s worth it reading the greats because they can give you insight into unrelated problems you’re working on that you can’t think through. The greats have a different perspective. Whether you agree or not, to follow along their argument, your mind is working on a different pitch, sometimes just trying to keep up and other times contorting itself to unravel the strange intellectual knots. As the mind goes through these motions, sometimes it can catch a glimpse of something else that it’s been working on from this new angle, and from this new angle, find a breakthrough.
One of my interests has been the relation between fate and chance. In a paradoxical way, they seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin. Fate is chance with the benefit of hindsight (thank you AB for that catchy turn of phrase). I’ve been writing about how chance and fate are intertwined in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I hadn’t, however, figured out how chance and fate in the Iliad was intertwined. I had a feeling it might be, because, to me, chance and fate is invariably linked in tragedy, and, the Iliad, although classified as epic, is also understood by some–including Plato–to be the prototypical tragedy. But, the Iliad thus far had defeated my attempts to unify the two forces of chance and fate. They just seemed too far apart. In the Iliad it was like how Weil described: force is the ruling power, and determinate force could allow no room for chance to function. Even in Patroclus’ funeral games, where several of the contestants slip, the slip is shown not to be accidental (e.g. by chance) but is, to those in the know, caused by the gods.
While I was reading Weil, part of my brain must have been thinking about chance and fate. But her writing was making me think hard, and when she quoted this passage, the answer came to me:
Even to Achilles the moment comes; he too must shake and stammer with fear, though it is a river that has this effect on him, not a man. But, with the exception of Achilles, every man in the Iliad tastes a moment of defeat in battle. Victory is less a matter of valour than of blind destiny, which is symbolized in the poem by Zeus’s golden scales:
“Then Zeus the father took his golden scales,
In them he put the two fates of death that cuts down all men,
One for the Trojans, tamers of horses, one for the bronze-sheathed Greeks.
He seized the scales by the middle; it was the fatal day of Greece that sank.”
By its very blindness, destiny establishes a kind of justice.
In a flash it came to me: Zeus may have rolled dice to determine the fates of the Greeks and the Trojans. Chance and fate in the Iliad are intertwined as well. Even though I’ve known the passage with Zeus and his scales for a long time, I needed to read Weil to think it through. It must have been her words bringing together “blindness” and “destiny.” It’s moments like this that make reading the greats worthwhile.
The Loveliest of Mirrors
The Iliad is a poem of force. Force makes all those who fall under its dominion things. But the Iliad is beautiful because, in the process of becoming a thing, the people of the Iliad remember friendships, think of moms and dads faraway, and contemplate what life that could have been. Despite the go-fever of war, every so often, they recover the soul. There is a spattering of these precious moments, moments where the war-machine Achilles and Priam, the king of kings, come together to cry, Achilles for the father whose son he has slain and Priam for his son who Achilles has slain. And that, to Weil, is what makes the Iliad that poem the poems among.
In Weil’s own time, factories and war too would sap the soul and turn people into things. But Weil too in her own time would see souls, for an instant, break free of force. And in these moments, she would see again Andromache drawing a bath for Hector, already dead. And in these moments, I am sure, she was drawn back to all that is the Iliad, the loveliest of mirrors. We are the creatures of force, yet, in that great moment, for an instant, we rise above before force reasserts its crushing power. Weil’s mirror too, is also the loveliest in that she was writing on a poem of war during a time of war, and it may be, that we will never understand the Iliad like how she understood it, until we find ourselves looking at it, like Weil, from a time of war. Today, critics like myself living in Canada, are only peacetime critics.
Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
Simone Weil was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century: a philosopher, theologian, critic, sociologist and political activist. This anthology spans the wide range of her thought, and includes an extract from her best-known work ‘The Need for Roots’, exploring the ways in which modern society fails the human soul; her thoughts on the misuse of language by those in power; and the essay ‘Human Personality’, a late, beautiful reflection on the rights and responsibilities of every individual. All are marked by the unique combination of literary eloquence and moral acuity that characterized Weil’s ideas and inspired a generation of thinkers and writers both in and outside her native France.