War and The Iliad ~ Rachel Bespaloff

On The Iliad

HECTOR- In Baspaloff’s essay, “the true center” of the epic poem is the tragic confrontation of the revenge-hero and the resistance-hero. Achilles and Hector respectively. And the confrontation is a constantly changing rhythm, making everything uncertain. In the Iliad, the distinctions between good and bad do not exist.

there are only men suffering, warriors fighting, some winning, some losing.

Bespaloff seems to diverge from the argument on force made by Simone Weil.

To condemn force, or absolve it, would be to condemn, or absolve, life itself.

And life in the Iliad...is essentially the thing that does not permit itself to be assessed, or measured, or condemned, or justified, at least not by the living. Any estimate of life must be confined to an awareness of its inexpressability.

Life unfolds in all its inevitability and the stage play of life shines a light on the core of mans existence. It’s this dance, sometimes macabre, sometimes sublime that is the Cosmos. History is blind to all this, but the poet can set heroes before us godlier than the gods and more human than men.

THETIS AND ACHILLES- The bond between Thetis and Achilles comprises some of the tenderest scenes in the Iliad. Thetis, one of the gods, exhibits in her relationship with her son Achilles all of the human, mortal emotions of a mother. Achilles’ ardent attachment to his mother contrasts sharply with Hector’s relationship with his mother, Hecuba. Achilles is anchored to humanity by the tenderness he feels for his mother. This saves him from dissolving into myth.

HELEN- There really wasn’t much focus on Helen, either in the Iliad or in Logue’s rendering. But Bespaloff starts right off with Of all the figures in the poem, she is the severest, the most austere. She uses words and phrases like penitent and royal recluse. She has lost her freedom  – not directly through the actions of Paris or Menelaus – but by the will of the gods – especially Aphrodite, who plays her like a ukulele And is there hope for freedom under that immortal bondage? Either outcome of the war will still not set her free. Bespaloff is particularly cogent here, and passionate. An exile herself, this is very telling:

Homer is as implacable toward Helen as Tolstoy is toward Anna. Both women have run away from home thinking that they could abolish the past and capture the future in some un- changing essence of love. They awake in exile and feel nothing but a dull disgust  for the shriveled ecstasy that has outlived their hope.

Having not yet appeared in human history, Homer likens Helen’s guilt to original sin – before redemption and grace were an option. Before the specific “fall” of original sin, there was no state of innocence, only the absurdity of existence and the downward and inevitable spiral to mortal death. Unlike the-gods-made-me-do-it Paris, Helen doesn’t comfort herself with the gods culpability, but accepts the tragic guilt herself. As Helen realizes the moral weakness of Paris, she is more and more humiliated by his presence. She is alone and outcast behind the walls of Troy then – except for Hector. Without evincing a hint of lust, Hector shows Helen a good deal of compassion. Interestingly, according to Bespaloff, Homer represents beauty (in the guise of Helen) not as a gift, but as a curse. Then Baspaloff likens it to force or fate, which is the whole point of bringing the concept of beauty up

Like force, it subjugates and destroys –  exalts and releases. 

Homer never particularly details the beauty of Helen, of Thetis, of Andromache. But we intuit their beauty, they are recognizable to us, the modern reader. By the reaction of others to their presence they are known. People stop and stare and her beauty frightens them like a bad omen, a warning of death. Priam however, does not blame her, but blames the gods. Helen loses herself for a moment in reverie [from the Iliad]

“There was a world…or was it all a dream?”

When Eve was blamed for the original sin, it was her beauty that initiated man’s fall. Was the Garden of Eden like a dream as well? Beauty takes a hit again from the gods. Not from Baspaloff, or from Homer:

The curse which turns beauty into destructive fatality does not originate in the human heart. The diffuse guilt of Becoming pools into a single sin, the one sin condemned and explicitly stigmatized by Homer, the happy carelessness of the Immortals.

THE COMEDY OF THE GODS- While the gods lay about in their stand-up (or in this case chaise-lounging comic style), they taket no responsibility for anything they have caused. These are not good ‘parents’ where responsibility begins at home. Their mortal playthings meanwhile take all sorts of blame upon themselves, even when as is all too obvious it was out of their hands. It’s ironic, is it not, that taking responsibility for your actions is a lesson that man (back then anyway) took to heart. Not the gods, though. If in the present, God has died (or left us to our own devices) have they (He) left us this trait for not accepting responsibility for our actions as well?

Without the sins of the lust for power, war, betrayals, the gods would plain be bored to death. Even the God Apollo hates this about their divinity.

Time for a musical interlude? Let’s do it.

Bespaloff likens the relationship between Hera and Zeus, the tricks she plays on him and their give and take bartering, to musical comedy. There’s Aphrodite as well, all batting eyes and innocence – but she knows what she’s doing. And Athena, a warrior with a man’s muscles. These three gods (Hera, Aphrodite and Athena) were the three that got the ball rolling: at The Judgement of Paris.

Zeus even laughs pleasurably after he has unleashed the gods to intervene to their heart’s content. It’s all great sport. Unlike the god of Ismael, Zeus does not intervene directly, though he has his preferences. He distributes and watches. From Homer

There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus’s halls
and hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
now he meets with good fortune, now good times in turn.
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,
he makes a man an outcast – brutal, ravenous hunger
drives him down the face of the shining earth,
stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men.

God is the distributor. Man is the receiver and he has to deal.

TROY AND MOSCOW- This is really a short comparison of two epics: Homer’s of course and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Not much of interest here (for me at least) although it’s certainly possible that much of it went over my head! Can you believe it!! [insert ironic icon].  Except this: Bespaloff points out that Homer treats the forces of Troy and the Greeks equally (even though he is a Greek). Not so Tolstoy. There is no such impartiality for the enemies of Mother Russia. Impartiality does not obviate harshness, or vengeance – or magnanimity, for that matter. Here Bespaloff differentiates between “force” and “spirit”.

When war is seen as the materialization of a duel between truth and error, reciprocal esteem becomes impossible. There can be no intermission in a contest that pits – as in the Bible – gods against false gods, the Eternal against the idol. This is a total war, which must be prosecuted on all grounds and in all weathers, till the extermination of the idol and the extirpation of the lie are accomplished. 

This is a scary thought and is another way of seeing the message of the ‘true-believers’.

PRIAM AND ACHILLES BREAK BREAD- For Bespaloff, when Priam kneels down to the man who murdered his sons, there is nothing demeaning about the gesture. It has the ring of truth.  This is “the only case in the Iliad where supplication sobers the man to whom it is addressed instead of exasperating him”. This is where Achilles has the great epiphany. He’s as much a victim of force as Priam (this hearkens back to Weill). He becomes a man again, casting off (at least temporarily) his mantle of doomed tragic-war hero.

POETS AND PROPHETS- In this, the last section of Bespaloff’s essay On The Iliad, she takes a step back – or in the current vernacular flies up to 30,000 feet For her, between the Bible and the Iliad our experiences are encompassed in – some times in rich truth and sometimes in contradiction.

They offer us what we most thirst for, the contact of truth in the midst of our struggles. 

She argues for the “profound identity” between these two bodies of thought. Despite the contradictions, don’t over analyze one or the other she advises. They have more in common than we might expect. She makes a good argument.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “War and The Iliad ~ Rachel Bespaloff

  1. Excellent installment, and the musical interlude = genius.

  2. I thought so too 😀

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