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Simone Weil’s Homer: The Iliad

Homer's The Iliad translated by Peter Green Cover
The Iliad
by Homer (translated by Peter Green)
University of California Press
608pp
$62.00 AU
Published May, 2015
ISBN 9780520281417

In 1939, the French writer, philosopher and political activist Simone Weil, wrote the following:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force … at all times the human sprit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle …

For those who thought that human progress could eliminate force, she wrote, the Iliad was an historical document. For others, who perceived that force lies at the centre of human history, it remains ‘the purest and loveliest of mirrors’.

Weil’s essay ‘L’Iliade, ou le poème de la force’ – ‘The Iliad, or the poem of force’ – is as urgent as it is partial. Published in the winter of 1940, during the first months of the Nazi occupation of France, and available in English since 1945 as translated by Mary McCarthy, the analogies between the Iliad and the situation in Europe were, for Weil, striking and chilling. There were broken truces, a city under siege, and failed attempts to appease one man’s wrath. That Troy was destined to be sacked seemed inevitable, and that the Gods were dispensing justice that was fickle at best and arbitrary at worst, equally so. For Weil, waiting for an exit visa with a battered copy of the Iliad in her rucksack in case she was arrested, Homer’s great epic – now available in a gripping and muscular new translation by Peter Green – seemed to be completely of the moment.

The genesis of the Iliad remains a mystery and, for nearly two thousand years (most scholarship is happy to date the work at around 800BCE) the debates have continued, broadly mirroring the academic currents of the time. To the Romantics, for instance, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were the work of a single great poet. Twentieth-century critics, concentrating on its orality, and sensitive to the notion of literature as cultural artefact, imagined both books as compilations from the oral tradition. Thus, they argued, the inconsistencies, thus the presence of repeated epithets, such as ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, and ‘swift-footed Achilles’ – these were surely an aide-mémoire to recitation.

Green – who has previously translated Catallus, Juvenal, Ovid and Apollonios – chooses the ‘great poet’ view. While acknowledging that an answer to the question is ‘certainly impossible’, he finds the ‘notion of a master poet highly persuasive’. Other poems of the era survive, he notes (including a number that also deal with the Trojan War, and form part of the ‘Epic Cycle’ of works on the topic), but none come close to matching the ‘scale, dramatic intensity, and sheer overall brilliance’ of the Homeric texts. Herodotus and Aristotle ranked the works as surpassing all others of antiquity, and that view remains unchallenged. In aligning himself with the ‘single author’ view, Green has produced a work that is supple, idiosyncratic, and wonderfully charismatic.

While the Iliad and the Trojan War have become in many ways synonymous, the text itself deals with only a small portion of the war – 51 days, to be precise, during the ninth year of a ten year conflict. The story is both familiar and strange. The Trojan mortal Paris, having been called on to judge who was the fairest of the Goddesses – Hera, Athena or Aphrodite – chose the latter on the promise of being given the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, the wife of the Greek (Achaian) king Menelaus. Paris claims his prize and takes Helen to Troy. A ‘thousand ships’ are launched by the Achaians, Troy is besieged, and so the Trojan War begins.

Born in 1909, to a well-to-do Jewish family, Simone Weil remains one of the most enigmatic thinkers of the last century. Albert Camus called her ‘the only great spirit of our times’, while T. S. Eliot wrote that she had ‘a kind of genius akin to that of the saints’. Proficient in Greek by the age of twelve, she graduated first in her class of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1931, Simone de Beauvoir finishing second. Already deeply sympathetic for the plight of the working class (de Beauvoir relates in her memoir that she had only one conversation with Weil, in which she argued that the problem of life was to help people find meaning in existence, to which Weil replied ‘It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry’), in 1934, Weil chose to abandon her teaching career and work on a production line at a Renault factory. Up until then, she had, truth be told, never gone hungry either. She wanted to find out what that was like.

Physically weak, emotionally fragile, and intellectually mercurial, Weil was ill-suited to the demands of the work, with its monotony and the base cruelty. She wrote to her friend Albertine Thevenon,

Yesterday I was on the whole job the whole day (stamping press). I worked til 4 o’clock at the rate of 400 pieces an hour and I felt I was working hard. At 4 o’clock the foreman came and said that if I didn’t do 800 he would get rid of me… By straining to the utmost I got up to 600 an hour. Nevertheless, they let me start again in the morning. I was at the same job, and by making even greater efforts I got up to just over 650…

Paid per piece, her lack of productivity left her with little money, and under-nourished. But it was the lack of intellectual nourishment that affected her the most. With all of her concentration taken up with difficult, mundane and repetitive tasks,

the temptation to give up thinking altogether is the most difficult one to resist in a life like this: one feels so clearly that it is the only way to stop suffering!

Observing herself, she noted that,

… all the external reasons (which I had previously thought internal) upon which my sense of personal dignity, my self-respect, was based were radically destroyed within two to three weeks by the daily experience of brutal constraint. And don’t imagine that this provoked in me any rebellious reaction. No, on the contrary; it produced the last thing I expected from myself – docility. The resigned docility of a beast of burden.

The production line produced humans stripped of their humanity. There was only one way, she wrote, to ‘reconquer the sense of human dignity’ – through consent, through servitude – to become what it was those in power desired. In a later essay, ‘Waiting on God’, first printed posthumously in 1951, Weil revisits her time at the factory, writing that it was there that she had,

received forever the mark of the slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron which the Romans put on the forehead of their most despised slave. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave.

The Iliad opens with an act of betrayal and an act of wrath (mēnis). Having been camped outside Troy for nine years, a plague sent by Apollo strikes the Achaian army. Their commander Agamemnon, consults the oracle Kalchas, who tells him he must return the captured daughter of the priest of Achilles, Chrysies, to the Trojans. Reluctantly giving her up, he takes, as compensation Briseis, the maiden that his greatest soldier, the half-man half-God, Achilles had taken as his prize. Furious, Achilles withdraws from the battle, and remains brooding in his ship for much of the battle.

Meanwhile, the war goes on, described in words that still shock in their immediacy. As Green’s translation has it,

He fell with a thud,
the spear lodged firm in his heart which, beating still,
sent vibration out to the spear’s butt-end,

the armies of Agamemnon and the Trojan Hektor clashing again and again, the momentum swinging wildly backwards and forwards, ‘a game of seesaw’ as Weil calls it, subject to the skill of the warriors and the fickleness of the Gods. The Gods are a thrilling part of the story, behaving, as Green notes in his Introduction,

like members of a large unruly family… they quarrel, intrigue, are spiteful, bear grudges against one another and are deeply involved, for the lowest of motives, even going so far as to participate in the fighting.

Zeus forbids the Gods from interfering, then changes his mind. Hera, who sides with the Achaians, sleeps with Zeus, her husband and brother, to lull him into sleep, so that the Greek army can regain its advantage. They pout, they fight, and, when they feel they have been dishonoured, indulge in swift and brutal retribution.

The turning point of the epic comes when Achilles’ favourite, Patroklus, is killed by Hektor. Grief-stricken, Achilles vows revenge, and re-enters the battle, despite knowing that if he kills Hektor he will, himself, be condemned by the Fates to die. He and Hektor do battle, Achilles slays the Trojan commander, and, in what arguably remains the most powerful display of retribution in all of literature, he ties Hektor’s corpse behind his chariot and drags it three times around the burial mound of Patroklus. Only when Hektor’s father, Priam, the king of Troy, comes to Achilles in supplication, does the Achaian warrior relent. The Iliad ends with this act of supplication – although the war continues, ending with the death of Achilles and the sack of Troy.

The central formal problem facing a translator of Homer how to deal with the poetic form, the epic hexameter. Each line consists of six dactyls (dah-di-di, dah-did-di, dah-di, dah-di-di, dah-di-di, dah-di-di). In Homer’s Greek, all vowels have a fixed quantity, either long or short, which can be adjusted by their position in the line. English, lacking this scope, and with its tendency to shorter lines, can quickly sound at best lugubrious, at worst dull. Most successful translations have found ways to retain the liveliness of the poem, while adopting different forms. In Alexander Pope’s famous 1720 translation, for instance, the problem of hexameters is effaced, by Pope’s use of ‘heroic couplets’, while the Robert Fagles 1990 version, using a loose five beat line, also achieves the ‘springiness’ of the dactyls, while sacrificing an authenticity that Green wishes to retain. (Green argues that as well as producing a readable version, he wanted to produce a version that could, like its source, be declaimed.) To maintain the Homeric feel of the text, Green gets around the problem by using a close approximation of the scheme, ‘a variable 6/5 stress line ranging from 12 to 17 syllables’. It renders a vivid translation, that is anything but lugubrious, and not for a moment, dull.

There are other unique challenges facing the translator of the Iliad. One is Homer’s kenning use of repeated epithets (‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘swift-footed Achilles’) which may or may not have been useful for orators, but are definitely used by Homer as a handy way to shorten or lengthen a line. Thus, while he may often be swift-footed, Achilles might also be ‘son of the sleeked haired Leto’ should things need a bit of extra padding. Another is Homer’s use of extended similes, some of which stretch to breaking point. Green’s wholesale decision to regard the poem as having a single author of genius makes, in a sense, this problem disappear. While most translators have chosen to use repeated epithets sparingly – William Cowper, introducing his 1791 edition sets the tone, noting that ‘the reader will not find them repeated so often as most of them are in Homer, for a reason that need not be mentioned’. True to his word, he doesn’t mention it. Following Cowper, Stephen Mitchell’s 2011 translation omits most epithets completely, treating them as dead weight, while Fagles’ translation adjusts the wording of the epithets to make them blend in with the action at hand – ‘swift-footed Achilles’ is only such while running. For Green, however, the repeated epithets, as he notes in his Introduction, are ‘no odder than the da capo repetition of a dominant theme in a string quartet’. And as in a string quartet, the epithets change meaning depending on their context. In one memorable passage from Book 3, the epithet ‘divinely handsome’ for Paris occurs five times in just over 40 lines, shifting its meaning from the purely descriptive as he ‘prances’ about in a leopard skin, to an accusation of cowardice as he runs away from Hektor (‘panic stricken at heart, [he] shrank back from his countrymen, evading fate’), to an openly derisive sobriquet (‘here’s a leading man who gets to be champion on good looks alone, without strength or courage in his heart’). The effect is richly comic.

Similarly, the extended similes give the author an idiosyncratic voice; rural, vivid, and at times wonderfully irascible, an old man brandishing his stick

All at once they came charging out like a swarm of wasps
by the roadside that boys have a way of provoking to fury,
constantly teasing them in their nests along the highway,
as children, will, creating a widespread nuisance,
so that if some traveller passing by should happen
to annoy them by accident, they with aggressive spirit
all come buzzing in defense of their offspring –
like them in heart and spirit the Myrmidons now
streamed forth from the ships…

One feels Homer may have found himself standing in the shoes of that ‘traveller passing’ some time before.

‘To define force,’ writes Weil in her essay,

it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected 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… a thing [for instance] dragged behind a chariot in the dust.

But the transition from ‘man’ into ‘thing’ does not only occur in death, that is simply its ‘grossest and most summary form’ – it can and does occur in life.

How much more varied in its processes, how much more surprising in its effects is the other force, the force that does not kill… it will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of a creature it can kill at any moment, which is to say at every moment. In whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a man into a stone.

Thus the human is turned into a thing while it still alive. An ‘extraordinary entity’, she writes, ‘a thing that has a soul’.

It is on two key moments of supplication in the Iliad that Weil concentrates to explore the dehumanising effects of force, both of which – as Christopher Benfey notes in his Introduction to the New York Review of Books edition translated by McCarthy – she glosses to add weight to her urgent argument. In the first, in Book 21, Achilles, roused from his fury at Agamemnon by his greater fury at Hektor, encounters on his way to battle Hektor’s half brother Lykaon, who has just returned from Troy after being previously captured and sold into slavery by Achilles. Lykaon pleads for his life (‘I’m your supplicant, I deserve your respect’), Achilles refuses to spare him (‘not one shall escape death, whomsoever before Troy’s ramparts a god puts in my hands’).

In Weil’s account,

a man [Lykaon] stands disarmed and naked, with a weapon pointing at him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him. Just a minute ago he was thinking, acting, hoping.

The spear is, in fact, in the ground, but Weil’s gloss changes nothing – Lykaon’s life is in Achilles hands, and it is inevitable that Achilles will take it.

Lykaon, stripped of all choices, has become a thing, his ‘soul’ – as Weil would say where Homer wouldn’t – belongs to another. Everything is denied him. ‘If,’ Weil writes,

you confront a human being with a touch or sight of something horrible or terrifying, this bundle of muscles, nerves and flesh likewise twitches. Alone of all living things, the supplicant we have just described neither quivers nor trembles. He has lost the right to do so.

She had written of the factory, regarding any moment of irritation or bad humour, ‘one must swallow them, they can have no outlet in word or gesture… in this situation, thought shrivels up and withdraws, as the flesh flinches from a lancet. One cannot be “conscious”.’

The apotheosis of her argument, the apotheosis of the Iliad itself, is the meeting of Priam and Achilles, in Book 24. The Trojan king has come to reclaim the body of his son Hektor. Achilles, all but two of his attendants absent, has just finished eating when,

Unnoticed, great Priam came in, approached Achilles,
embraced his knees, and kissed his hands – those terrible
murderous hands, that had killed so many of his sons.

Kneeling, and still clutching the knees of Achilles, Priam calls on the slayer of his son to remember his own father, Peleus and to show him pity for he has

…borne what no other mortal on earth has yet endured:
I’ve brought to my lips the hand of the man who killed my son.

He stirs in Achilles the ‘urge to weep for his father’ and, moved, he ‘took the old man by the hand, gently pushing him away.’ Here Weil deliberately misreads Homer. ‘She provides her own translation of the passages, rendering it as ‘The other, remembering his own father, longed to weep, taking the old man’s hand, he pushed him away.’ The word ‘gently’ is suppressed.

For Weil, Achilles is able to push Priam away because, unlike the king, he is ‘free in his attitudes and movements, as if, clasping his knees, there was not a supplicant but an inert object.’ Weil removes the word gently in her translation – strengthening her argument by distorting the text.

But for Weil, writing in 1939, the ellipsis is justified. She writes to Albertine to describe working on the factory floor.

Imagine me in front of a great furnace which vomits flames and scorching heat full in my face. The fire comes from five or six openings at the bottom of the furnace. I stand right in front of it to insert about thirty large metal bobbins … I have to take great care that they don’t fall into the holes because they would melt. Therefore I must stand close to the furnace and not make a clumsy movement, in spite of the scorching heat on my face and the fire on my arms, which still show the burns.

By the time she came to write her essay, the dehumanising of humans was spreading across Europe and while docility – the letting go of the ‘I’ – was still the ideal goal of the human, this was only authentic as a choice of the self that renounces it, not as an imposition from without, be it by another individual, a culture, a political system, or a war. To commemorate the death of Patroklus, Achilles built a pyre, onto which he casts four horses, two dogs and ‘twelve noble sons of the high-spirited Trojans’. For Weil, much of humanity was now staring into the furnace.

Achilles returns Hektor’s body to his father, and agrees to a nine-day truce for mourning. ‘A supplicant,’ writes Weil, ‘once his prayer is answered, becomes a human being again, like everyone else.’ However,

There are other, more unfortunate creatures who have become things for the rest of their lives. Their days hold no pastimes, no free spaces, no room in them for any impulse of their own. It is not that their life is harder than for other men’s nor that they occupy a lower place in the social hierarchy; no they are another human species, a compromise between a man and a corpse… here, surely, is death but death strung out over a whole lifetime; here, surely, is life, but life that death congeals before abolishing.

Three years after writing her essay, Weil herself was dead. Having reluctantly left France for the US with her family on the promise that she could return, she had made it as far as England, where she worked with the provisional government. Desperate to get back to France, she wrote to de Gaulle proposing that she lead a front-line nursing squad which, as well as providing care, would inspire the nation by inevitably generating young female casualties. De Gaulle thought her mad. Denied the possibility of return, she died in a sanatorium in England, limiting her food intake in solidarity with her compatriots to the point of starvation. As Hektor, who, at the moment of his death, became Troy, and hoped through his suffering to spare that of his city, so Weil became one with the sufferings of her country. Like Hektor, she believed that, despite the sacrifice, their homeland would still ultimately burn, but, unlike him, she did not flinch. She was 34.

The Iliad ends with one of its most moving passages, the funeral of Hektor. A crowd gathers around the pyre, which they quench with fire-bright-wine. His brothers and comrades ‘gather up the white bones, still mourning, with great tears streaming down their cheeks, took them and laid them away in a purple casket’. The build a burial mound, and then go back and share

a glorious feast,
in the palace of Priam, the king who was Zeus’s nursling.
Such were the funeral rites for Hektor, the breaker of horses.

Achilles will die, Troy will burn, Odysseus will take ten years to wind his way home. This wonderful new translation reveals again why the Iliad continues, after two and a half thousand years, to hold up a ‘pure and lovely mirror’.

References

Homer, The Iliad (trans. Robert Fagles), Penguin (1991).
The Iliad: A New Translation (trans. Stephen Mitchell), W & N (2011).
The Iliad of Homer (trans. Alexander Pope), CreateSpace (2014).
The Iliad (trans. William Cowper) CreateSpace (2014).
The Iliad (trans. Peter Green), University of California Press (2015).
Simone Weil, Simone Weil: An Anthology (ed. Sian Miles), Virago (2005).
–    Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil, Routledge (2002).
Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad, New York Review of Books (2005).