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Reading Homer in Troubled Times: Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad

On the Iliad, by Rachel Bespaloff (1895-1949), reflects its author’s personal background as a Jewish refugee from occupied France, her literary and philosophical concerns, and the historical circumstances in which she wrote. It is often discussed along with Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” but it is fundamentally different from Weil’s essay in important ways, and in this paper I analyze and interpret it independently, as well as in relation to Weil’s work.

After training and a career as a pianist and choreographer, in the 1930s Bespaloff became a leading philosopher in the areas of existentialism and phenomenology, and her major essays were gathered in Cheminements et carrefours (1938). That year she began to re-read the Iliad, when her daughter studied it at school, and she drafted at least part of her book prior to the fall of France in May-June 1940. Bespaloff continued to work on it through 1942, without knowledge of Weil’s essay until December 1941, although it had been published a year earlier in a journal in Marseilles, where both women lived as refugees, before escaping to New York City via Casablanca. Yet parts of Bespaloff’s short book (c. 80 pages), first published in French in New York in 1943, then translated into English in 1947 by the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy (who had translated Weil’s essay two years earlier), seem to respond directly to Weil’s essay. For example, Weil famously sees “force” as the “true hero, the true subject” of the Iliad and condemns it as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” For Bespaloff, however, “force” is more complex: “divine insofar as it represents a superabundance of life that flashes out in contempt of death,” and “detestable insofar as it contains…a blind drive that push[es] it on…to its own abolition and the obliteration of the very values it engendered.”

On the Iliad is best understood and discussed as thematically continuous with Bespaloff’s philosophical writings, focusing on subjectivity and transcendence, on human freedom and ethical choice in a universe from which a morally-relevant God is absent, and on poetry as conferring glory by bearing witness to the truth of experience and to actions that would otherwise be forgotten. Drawing on Kierkegaard, Bespaloff elucidates the poem’s existential “instants” or “moments” of “clarity” and “contemplation,” “pauses in the flux of Becoming” (and the poem’s narrative), “when the spell of Becoming is broken, … the world of action…dips into peace,” and transcendent reality shines through, “forced on us by the tragic vulnerability of our particular existences.” Three such “moments” are the scenes where Priam and Helen converse on the wall of Troy and he absolves her of blame for the war (3.161-243), where Hector and Andromache converse at the Skaian Gate (6.405-529), and where Priam supplicates Achilles and the two break bread together and marvel at one another (24.485-633).

In my paper, I analyze the short, perceptive chapters Bespaloff devotes to characters with whom Weil is rarely concerned--Hector, Helen, Thetis, the gods--and to the scene between Priam and Achilles, a propos of which she situates her work on the Iliad historically, noting that “today [sc. at the time of writing] outrage does not stop with the body or soul….It makes the victim ugly in his own eyes….Humiliation… has never before so eroded the inwardness of existence.” I also discuss critically her comparisons of the representation of war in the Iliad with its representation in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and of the relationship between gods and mortals in Homer’s poem with that in the Hebrew Bible.

Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad remains a model of intellectually and ethically engaged interpretation, from which scholars, students, and other readers of the poem can still profit.