The Poem of Force
Some time ago, a dear friend shared with me a photocopy of some sections of Simone Weil’s essay The Iliad or The Poem of Force. I remember being haunted by those pages at the time, and I kept them in a safe and prominent place but never opened them again. Until, at least, the other day, when I was reminded of the text by a mention in Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.
Written in 1940, after France had fallen around her, Weil meditates on the West’s oldest account of the inhumanity of human warfare. Here she watches the death of Hector at the hand of Achilles. The translation is by Mary McCarthy; the edition a pamphlet published by the Quaker community of Pendle Hill:
To define force—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. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us:
… the horses
Rattled the empty chariots through the files of battle,
Longing for their noble drivers. But they on the ground
Lay, dearer to the vultures than to their wives.
The hero becomes a thing dragged behind a chariot in the dust:
All around, his black hair
Was spread; in the dust his whole head lay,
That once-charming head; now Zeus had let his enemies
Defile it on his native soil.
I see that NYRB Classics has a new edition of the McCarthy translation. But I just ordered a used copy of the pamphlet on Amazon.
Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.