It is true that our weakness could prevent us from defeating the force that threatens to overwhelm us. But this does not prevent us from understanding it. Nothing in the world can stop us from being lucid.
— Simone Weil
Humility before the real, before untamable existence, is what we learn from the grief and supplications of the tragic poets and the exhortations and lamentations of the prophets.
— Rachel Bespaloff
In the summer of 1939, two women visited an exhibition of Goya’s The Disasters of War at the Geneva Museum of Art and History.[i] Goya’s 82 etchings, graphic depictions of the human cost of war, impressed each of them deeply, especially in the shadow of looming European conflict. The day after the exhibition closed, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland.
Rachel Bespaloff and Simone Weil did not know each other. They saw the Goyas in Geneva on different days. But they had many things in common. Both were of Jewish descent, and both were French, although Bespaloff had been born in Ukraine. Both were philosophers, consumed by the questions of affliction and human suffering. Both would die too soon—Weil at 34 from malnutrition and heart failure in 1943, and Bespaloff at 53 by suicide in 1949. And both responded to the outbreak of World War II with influential essays on the Iliad.
Homer’s tragic epic, the founding work of European literature, bears impartial witness to the creative and destructive forces at work in the finite historical world. The poet sings of war, but his underlying theme is the complexity of human nature and human experience. There is rage in the Iliad, and cruelty, but wisdom and compassion as well.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the reflections of Weil and Bespaloff on this ancient epic provide a timely lucidity. For example, Weil’s analysis of wrathful Achilles pinpoints the ultimate futility of force. In the Iliad, the harder Achilles tries to enforce his will, the more resistance he generates. Weil could have been describing Vladimir Putin:
“Homer shows us the limits of force in the very apotheosis of the force-hero. Through cruelty force confesses its powerlessness to achieve omnipotence. When Achilles falls upon Lycaon, shouting ‘death to all,’ and makes fun of the child who is pleading with him, he lays bare the eternal resentment felt by the will to power when something gets in the way of its indefinite expansion. We see weakness dawning at the very height of force. Unable to admit that total destruction is impossible, the conqueror can only reply to the mute defiance of his defenseless adversary with an ever-growing violence. Achilles will never get the best of the thing he kills: Lycaon’s youth will rise again, and Priam’s wisdom and Ilion’s beauty.” [ii]
Weil argued that the Iliad’s true subject was not any one figure, but the fateful dynamics of force to which both Greeks and Trojans were subject: “Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” [iii]
In her opening paragraph of her essay, Weil sees both the victors and the vanquished as dehumanized and uncreated by powers not of their own making. The victors are “swept away” when force goes its own way, generating consequences they can’t control. The vanquished are turned into “things,” stripped of the capacity to think, or act, or hope. Even if a victim’s life is spared, he or she is as good as dead. Force “makes a corpse out of [them]. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.” [iv]
Goya’s war images convey this truth. They grant no wider picture of strategy or purpose, but only offer snapshots of an ambient violence, which seems to exist independently of the anonymous actors caught up in war’s depersonalizing horror. “What courage!” reads the artist’s caption, “Que Valor!” Was Goya being ironic? One might interpret this etching as an image of resistance—a brave woman standing on the bodies of her fallen comrades to reach the cannon’s fuse and repel the oppressors. But I can’t help seeing a pile of indistinguishable corpses, and a faceless figure whose own subjection to the laws of force has but one future.
As Weil put it, “for those whose spirits have bent under the yoke of war, the relation between death and the future is different than for other men. For other men death appears as a limit set in advance on the future; for the soldier death is the future, the future his profession assigns him.” [v] In his classic novel of the American Civil War, Stephen Crane said the same thing even more chillingly: War is “like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine.” Its “grim processes” are designed to “produce corpses.” [vi]
This pair of photos posted last week by a young Ukrainian couple on social media feels both stirring and sad. Scheduled to be married in May, they realized they might not live that long. So they rushed the wedding. As sirens sounded the Russian attack on Kyiv, they made their vows of lifelong fidelity. Then they took up arms to defend their city. Their courage is inspiring, like the man before the tank in Tiananmen Square. But their vulnerability is heartbreaking. May God protect them.
Weil describes the immutable laws of force, which has no regard for such “perishable joys.” [vii] “To the same degree,” Weil says, “though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.” In battle, thought and choice and hope are swept away. “Herein lies the last secret of war,” Weil says, “a secret revealed by the Iliad in its similes, which liken the warriors either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts, or God knows what blind cause of disaster, or else to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to anything in nature that is set into motion by the violence of external forces.” [viii]
In other words, everyone involved is a victim of war. That is why neither Homer nor Goya seem to take sides. The unflinching visual witness of The Disasters of War may have been undertaken in protest against the brutality of Napoleon’s army in Spain, but as the series evolved it became harder to distinguish the nationality of perpetrators and victims in the images. We only see human beings equally deformed by the workings of force. There is no great cause in these pictures, only suffering.
For me, one of the most disturbing images of the war’s first week was this video of a Russian soldier taking evident pleasure in the firing of missiles into Ukraine. As a Christian, I am obligated to see Christ in his arrogant face, but it is not easy. He is smiling at the death of his fellow beings. The patch on his uniform reads: “They will die and we will go to heaven.” Nevertheless, understanding this man to be himself a victim of force plants a seed of compassion in me. He has lost his humanity to the machinery of war. I must pray for him as well.
In writing about the Iliad, Weil was repeating Goya’s message that “violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress. The conquered brings misfortune to the conqueror, and vice versa.[ix]
Rachel Bespaloff, writing during the Nazi invasion of France, attributes the Iliad’s impartiality to the seeming impartiality of life itself:
“With Homer there is no marveling or blaming, and no answer is expected. Who is good in the Iliad? Who is bad? Such distinctions do not exist; there are only men suffering, warriors fighting, some winning, some losing. The passion for justice emerges only in mourning for justice, in the dumb avowal of silence. To condemn force, or absolve it, would be to condemn, or absolve, life itself. And life in the Iliad (as in the Bible or in War and Peace) 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 inexpressibility.” [x]
The impartiality of Homer and Goya is echoed in one of the most remarkable battle scenes in the history of cinema. In Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, U.S. marines are trying to take a Japanese position on a Pacific island in World War II. But instead of encouraging the viewer to take sides, the director presents both the Americans and the Japanese as common victims of force, as if we were seeing war through God’s eyes. On the soundtrack the gunfire and explosions remain faint, barely there, while a slow elegiac score, like the music of weeping angels, allows us to reflect on the tragedy of violence instead of stirring our partisan emotions. One of the soldiers, a kind of Christ figure, speaks in voice-over:
This great evil, where does it come from? How does it still enter the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this, who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth? Is this darkness in you too? [xi]
Impartiality is not the same as indifference. Although she favored pacifism, Weil wrote her essay after joining the fight against fascism in Spain (the near-sighted and clumsy intellectual had to be sent home after accidentally stepping into a pot of boiling oil). She spoke out in favor of struggles for independence in the French colonies, and worked for the French Resistance. Similarly, Bespaloff renounced her own pacifist sympathies when Hitler seized France. Both women felt their ideals constrained by the “yoke of necessity.” [xii] Sometimes force simply won’t let you abstain. Bespaloff would later lament that history had forced her entire generation “to live in a climate of violent death,” amid “the smoke of crematories.” [xiii]
To see everyone as a victim is to realize the limits of force and begin to discover the power of compassion. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” said Jesus. And Weil, who got to know Jesus pretty well in her final years, urged us to “learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate.” [xiv]
This is not a prescription for passivity in the face of naked aggression. Along with most of the world, including many of Russia’s own people, I support the Ukrainian resistance, but it’s not enough just to take sides in the ancient game of force. Even as we are swept up in the necessities of conflict, we must strive to imagine a better way and a better world.
In late 1942, when Weil was working in the London office of the French Resistance, she proposed a plan to parachute hundreds of white-uniformed nurses onto battlefields, not only to tend to the wounded but also to provide an image of self-sacrificial goodness in the midst of cruelty and violence. She herself wanted to be in the first wave of this non-violent invasion. In submitting her plan to the Free French authorities, she made a visionary argument:
“There could be no better symbol of our inspiration than the corps of women suggested here. The mere persistence of a few humane services in the very center of the battle, the climax of inhumanity, would be a signal defiance of the inhumanity which the enemy has chosen for himself and which he compels us also to practice … A small group of women exerting day after day a courage of this kind would be a spectacle so new, so significant, and charged with such obvious meaning, that it would strike the imagination more than any of Hitler’s conceptions have done.” [xv]
Charles de Gaulle thought her quite mad, and her plan of course went nowhere. But I always find myself inspired by “impossible” visions which refuse the seductions and delusions of force. When Hitler invaded Poland, W. H. Auden wrote a poem, “September 1, 1939,” calling upon the lovers of justice to “show an affirming flame” in the night of “negation and despair.” As we now weigh our best measures against the worst possibilities, Auden’s key line is more urgent than ever:
“We must love one another or die.”
[i] After Madrid was bombed in the Spanish Civil War, the Prado’s art treasures were moved to the League of Nations in Geneva in early 1939. The museum exhibition with the Goya etchings ended on August 31 of that year. The invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939.
[ii] Simone Weil, in Simone Weil & Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 54. Thanks to NYRB for publishing these essays together for the first time.
[iii] Ibid., 3.
[iv] Ibid., 3.
[v] Ibid., 21-22.
[vi] Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ch. 8, quoted in War and the Iliad, p. xi.
[vii] The term is Bespaloff’s, referring to Hector’s recitation of everything the war is about to take from him: his city, his family, his comrades, his very life (War and the Iliad, 43).
[viii] War and the Iliad, 26.
[ix] Ibid., 20.
[x] Ibid., 50.
[xi] The Thin Red Line (1998), written and directed by Terence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones (1962). Released by Twentieth Century Fox. A beautiful blu-ray edition is available from The Criterion Collection. Jim Caviezel, whose other-worldliness rose above the warring world to intimations of the Transcendent, spoke the voice-over. He would eventually play the role of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).
[xii] War and the Iliad, 21. The phrase is Weil’s.
[xiii] Ibid., 23.
[xiv] Ibid., 37.
[xv] Simone Weil, quoted in Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 155.