Yesterday I talked about Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” It appears in War and the Iliad which also has an essay by Rachel Bespaloff, “On the Iliad.” Bespaloff is the daughter of Daniel Pasmanik, a doctor and Zionist leader, and Debora Perlmutter, who had a doctorate in philosophy. She spent her early childhood in Kiev until the family moved to Geneva. Bespaloff studied dance and music and received her diploma in piano performance from the Conservatory of Geneva in 1914. Not long after, she moved to Paris and taught music at the Opéra;. She married, and in 1927 had a daughter which put an end to her musical career. In 1925 Bespaloff became friends with the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov and spent quite a lot of time with him and his philosopher friends, one of whom was Jean Wahl (he helped Weil get her Iliad essay published). So when her musical career ended, she took up philosophy. She was one of the first French readers of Heidegger.
Where Weil’s essay focuses on force, calling it the true center of the poem, Bespaloff views it differently:
Not the wrath of Achilles, but the duel between Achilles and Hector, the tragic confrontation of the revenge-hero and the resistance-hero, is what forms the Iliad‘s true center and governs its unity and its development.
Where Weil sees force turning people into things, Bespaloff sees resistance to thingness. She sees Homer showing “us the limits of force in the very apotheosis of the force-hero. Through cruelty force confesses its powerlessness to achieve omnipotence.”
For Bespaloff Hector is the hero of the story, the resistance-hero. “Suffering and loss have stripped Hector bare; he has nothing left but himself.” He knows his destiny. He knows what will eventually happen to Troy. Yet he does not give up; he looks Fate in the eyes and refuses to go down without a fight. Bespaloff acknowledges the devastation of the force which Weil writes of and even agrees with her on a few points. But where Weil is so grim, Bespaloff notes the beauty and attractiveness of force as well as the creative power of force. Nor does she see force as the focus of the poem. What Hector is resisting is not just the force of Achilles, but Fate. Fate rules the poem, even rules the gods themselves, for even they cannot change fate.
Ultimately, the Iliad turns out to be a poem of transformation. The human suffering and tragedy in the poem and the lives of its main participants, are transformed into something else, something more, something sacred. Bespaloff goes so far as to place the Bible and the Iliad side by side as the two most sacred western texts we have. The Iliad bears witness, it is a poem of ethics, teaches us about justice and fate and even love.
Bespaloff writes eloquently and thoughtfully on the poem. Her reading of it opened the Iliad up for me in ways I hadn’t expected or thought of. Weil’s essay was harsh and horror-filled. Bespaloff’s by comparison was compassionate, almost tender. I had never heard of Bespaloff until I read this book. I am glad to have found her and will definitely be seeking out her other work. The pairing of her and Weil’s essays was a stroke of brilliance. I’ve officially jumped on the New York Review of Books Classics bandwagon!