Published Humanitas, Volume XXI, Nos. 1 and 2, 2008

At the outbreak of World War II, two French Jewish intellectuals— Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff—wrote responses to Europe’s unfolding catastrophe in the form of literary essays on Homer’s Iliad. Their explorations of violence, power, fate, freedom, and the machine of war, as seen through the lens of ancient Greece’s founding epic, have themselves achieved the status of classic political and philosophical texts. In the essay that follows I will explore Weil’s and Bespaloff’s contrasting readings of the Iliad, recently published together for the first time by New York Review Books. How does each writer re-imagine the poem to make sense of the human condition and the harsh realities of warfare? In the shadow of totalitarianism and genocide, what moral and political resources do they find in Homer? Does either of the two writers offer a more compelling interpretation of Homer’s epic? What might Weil and Bespaloff—and Homer—have to teach us about the geometries of force today?

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