Update: in response

Fudging Homer

Written in response to:

Simone Weil’s Homer.

It seems to me that Simone Weil’s essay says more about her desire to identify with the powerless, and about her wish to reconcile her love of the Greeks and of the Gospel, than about the Iliad. This is not to say that it is not worth careful consideration, but that one should read it warily, and perhaps after a recent reading of the Iliad.

Weil fudges with more than an omitted adjective or two. For one example, she writes:

Achilles himself, that proud hero, is shown us at the beginning of the poem, weeping with humiliation and helpless grief–the woman he wanted for his bride has been taken from under his nose, and he has not dared oppose it.

Yes, but more No. There are hints of an affection between Achilles and Bryseis, and she says later on that Patroclus promised that she would become Achilles’s wife. The sources I have read suggest that Patroclus was soothing her with empty and impossible promises, though. More to the point, Achilles seems far more upset over lost prestige than over a lost love: Agamemnon will be wild with rage not because he stole Briseis but because he did not respect the best of the Greeks.  And ‘not dared to oppose it’ is just wrong; Achilles had his sword half drawn to cut down Agamemnon before Athena warned him off the action.

For another, Weil writes:

The Iliad formulated the principle long before the Gospels did, and nearly in the same terms, ‘Ares is just and kills those who kill.’

I should say rather that the statement in Matthew, ‘He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword’ expresses an imperative to live otherwise; Homer expresses no such imperative, and in fact cannot imagine it as a possibility. The occasional wish that there might be no war is definitely a conditional contrary to fact.

Having said that, Weil’s essay is certainly worth reading or rereading. The NYRB volume you list is an excellent place to find it; it also includes Rachel Bespaloff’s ‘On the Iliad’ and Hermann Broch’s ‘The Style of the Mythical Age: On Rachel Bespaloff’, both excellent essays. Bespaloff seems to me to engage the Iliad far more closely than Weil does. Her essays on Hector or on Thetis and Achilles or Priam and Achilles seem to me to be just as they should be. I am no qualified judge, but the back cover quotes Robert Fitzgerald on it: ‘about the best thing I have ever read on the art of Homer’.

Finally, thank you for announcing the appearance of Peter Green’s translation.

George Jansen
Washington, DC

Published September 11, 2015