Seventy-five years ago, as the Nazis were methodically implementing their conquest of Europe, the French philosopher/mystic Simone Weil published a long essay titled “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” In her perceptive take on Homer’s poem, she describes force as “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad….,” and defines it as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” (The Nazis brought this practice to a new level, and still stand as role models for those who would like to turn people into things.)
But Weil is quite aware of force’s two-edged nature: “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.” Drunk with power, seeing only things, these first can’t see any outcome other than total victory.
However Weil goes on to describe the way the fortunes of the Greeks and the Trojans alternate seemingly at the pleasure of the gods. She quotes in her own translations the vivid scenes of slaughter, first of one, then the other, that pile up like the bodies with their brains bashed, having made the change from human to thing; a corpse. The visceral horror of those scenes is such that “A monotonous desolation would result if it were not for those luminous moments, scattered here and there throughout the poem, those brief, celestial moments when man possesses his soul.” And how does that happen? “…it is in a moment of love that men discover their souls….”
The essay is essentially a literary analysis, and while she makes no reference to the dark shadow of war being cast over Europe, the parallels are unmistakable. Her home city of Paris had fallen to the Nazis, and she was living in Marseilles with her parents, waiting for an exit visa which would allow her to come to America. The essay was not published in America until 1945 in the journal Politics, translated by Mary McCarthy. By then Weil had been dead for two years, gone at the age of 34, and the gods had in fact changed their minds about Germany; VE Day came on May 8. By not making the clear connection to the one war, however, she made a clear connection to all War; to the eternal process that is inevitable when one country, one sect, one person, seeks domination over another.
She also describes those moments of love that do break through the “monotonous desolation:” hospitable, filial, brotherly, conjugal, even the friendship that can occur between mortal enemies such as Achilles and Priam. “These moments of grace,” she says, “are rare in the Iliad, but they are enough to make us feel with sharp regret what it is that violence has killed and will kill again.” They stand out in sharp relief, like rays of light in a darkened room, because the story is essentially one of strife and conflict, so that even the “Greeks,” when they aren’t fighting the Trojans, are fighting among themselves.
One name that is missing from this essay is that of Odysseus, a fighter, yes, but whose cunning finds a means to end the war where force alone could not: the Trojan Horse. The story of his return, or nostos, to his kingdom of Ithaca is given short shrift by Weil, saying in passing, “The Odyssey seems merely a good imitation, now of the Iliad, now of oriental poems…” But there is a long tradition which sees it in fact as a fuller expression of the love she describes, as an allegory of a spiritual journey from division and strife back to unity and love. It can be seen as the quest of one person to rid himself of a false warlike identity back to “my very self,” from “sacker of cities” back to “gentle king.”
Through all his trials and temptations, the hair-raising adventures and the long stretches of isolation, Odysseus is intent on returning to Ithaca and those other aspects of who he really is: his wife Penelope, son Telemachus, father Laertes. When he does return he must at last employ force in a proper way to “clean house” of the nest of parasitical suitors who are trying to convince his wife and son that he is dead, like the swarm of negative feelings and thoughts that try to convince us that we are merely mortal.
Seen this way, the Odyssey is the logical complement to the Iliad. Together they are a complete quest myth–the outward journey of the ego toward glory (kleos) and the intoxication of force, and the return inward, seeing the reverse side of that journey, this time conquering not the “enemy,” but oneself. It is an allegory for the psychological journey we must all make if we are to throw off the limitations that keep us burdened by, as Emerson says, the “corpse of our past.”
Plotinus, the 3d century neo-Platonist invokes the Odyssey when he says, “For Odysseus is surely a parable to us when he commands the flight from the sorceries of Circe or Calypso–not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of sense filling his days. … This is not a journey for the feet; …you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.” (Ennead 1.6.8)
This inner vision leads ultimately to the opposite of force. We become instead drunk on universal love; it becomes that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a divinity. It is a lesson that needs to be learned over and over, until we realize that nothing can be resolved by the use of force. I believe it is this universal love that Weil herself was on a journey to find, and that she too would be bound by her conclusion that we must “learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor scorn the unfortunate.”