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Simone Weil’s Iliad: Misunderstanding Homer?

Simone Weil (1909-1943) wrote her slim but powerful book. The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, in 1940, after the fall of her native France to the Nazis. Weil, a philosopher, social activist, Marxist, and ascetic, admired the Iliad for its honesty in treating the realities of war, its foregrounding of love in different relationships, and the equity that it shows in its treatment of the two opposing sides in the Trojan War. But the most compelling thing that she sees in Homer’s epic is the idea of force: “the true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force. The force that men wield, the force that subdues men, in the face of which human flesh shrinks back” (Weil #1).

Weil’s critics often accuse her of a deep, even willful misunderstanding of Homer’s text. Weil understands the Iliad to be a work that is deeply anti-war, a view that has led to the charge that she is “blind to the wild joy and ferocity of archaic warfare which makes the epic blaze” (Steiner) and unable to comprehend the nature of heroism. One scene frequently mentioned by her critics is Priam’s supplication to Achilles in Il. 24. 468ff. Weil compares the figure of the supplicating Priam to “a dead body” (Weil # 11) in keeping with her emphasis throughout on living beings reduced to the status of a thing by force, and she claims that Achilles “push[ed] to the ground the old man clutching his knees” (Weil # 13). Homer, by contrast, compares Priam to a murderer arriving at someone’s home in supplication, where he is stared at with “wonder” (thambos, a word that Weil translates as “frisson”) and gently (eka) pushed away by Achilles. In the Iliad, Priam has not become an invisible object (as in Weil) but rather is all too human a figure perceived perhaps as a threat for the very humanity that he brings to their meeting, and Achilles is perhaps too anguished to allow the physically intimate gesture that Priam proffers.

Thus it seems that Weil wants too much to turn Priam into a victim of force according to the pattern she postulates, and most readers will disagree with the way she reads this scene. But the word thambos can describe both a sense of wonder and a shiver of awe in the beholder, and Weil’s “frisson” (“shiver” or “shudder”) may actually be a better translation of that word and Achilles’ experience than “wonder.” Weil herself opens up the possibility that Priam in his humanity evokes in Achilles a “shiver” of recognition: the suppliant before him is not a thing or a living corpse but a human being who can move Achilles to remember his own father and to weep. (Weil uses frisson elsewhere with the gloss of trembler; cf. Weil #30, 31, Il. 7. 215-17 and 11.544-6).

Weil’s emphasis on the dehumanizing effects of war, with the living turned into things, “a bundle of flesh, nerves and muscles that twitch” (Weil #10), certainly does call the whole notion of Homeric heroism - - and of the heroism in war in general - - into question, but this does not constitute a misreading of Homer. Rather, I would argue that Weil uses Homer’s descriptions of the effects of war to probe the double-sidedness of war and of the heroic nature: heroes become victims and victims become heroes. Those who count themselves as heroes and survivors become, in Weil’s world, victims of force themselves, for war enslaves everyone.

There is no doubt that Weil imports sentiments into Homer that seem alien to Homer. Weil, like Bespaloff, lived through a terrible time of war. In an effort to make sense of it, she looked back to a text about a very different kind of war, a war that spoke to her of similar passions and similar horrors.