Wednesday, June 04, 2014

On the Iliad by Rachel Bespaloff

I picked this book up at a used book store.  Professor Bespaloff is typical of the wise academics of the mid to late 20th century.  As usual I find myself in disagreement on many points presented in the work, notably her slavish devotion to the accepted “titans” of 20th century “scholarship”. 

When writers use words I do not know I am challenged:

1.      First I am forced to question the extent of my own knowledge.

2.      I am inspired to explore – to learn the new words and the insights they give.

3.      However, I often find myself questioning the motives of the author; did he just use that “that word” to show off?  Did he just use that word to show off, is he searching for the careful nuance that demands specifics.

Below is a list of words that gave me pause.  The first four are from the introduction, the rest from the body of the book by Bespaloff.

Syntactical - of, relating to, or according to the rules of syntax

Existentialism/existentialists -is a 20th Century philosophical movement that views human existence as having a set of underlying themes and characteristics, such as anxiety, dread, freedom, awareness of death, and consciousness of existing. Existentialism is also an outlook, or a perspective, on life that pursues the question of the meaning of life or the meaning of existence. It is this question that is seen of paramount importance, above both scientific and other philosophical pursuits.

Hypertrophic - excessive growth or accumulation of any kind.

Fecund - intellectually productive or inventive to a marked degree fecund imagination>

Obdurate – unmoved by persuasion, pity, or tender feelings; stubborn; unyielding.

Consubstantial – Of the same substance, nature, or essence.

Insouciance – lack of care or concern; indifference.

Plaint – An utterance of grief or sorrow; a lamentation.

Vicissitudes – the quality or state of being changeable : mutability.

Impalpable – incapable of being felt by touch : intangible

Parcae – In ancient Roman religion and myth, the Parcae (singular, Parca) were the female personifications, often called the Fates in English.

Disabused – to free from a falsehood or misconception.

Demiurge – a Platonic subordinate deity who fashions the sensible world in the light of eternal ideas.

Fatum – the god of destiny; originally the word 'fatum' meant 'the word of god' and in Greek religion it came to include the divinities of destiny, e.g., the Moirae, Parcae, and Sibyls; near the rostra in Rome stood statues of the Fata, the three Sibyls.

Plaint – An utterance of grief or sorrow; a lamentation.

Pathos – an element in experience or in artistic representation evoking pity or compassion.

Ethos – The moral element in dramatic literature that determines a character's action rather than his or her thought or emotion.

Immanent – Naturally part of something; existing throughout and within something; inherent; integral; intrinsic; indwelling.

Eudaimonism – The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.

Acerbity – sourness, with roughness or astringency of taste; harshness or severity, as of temper or expression.

I do not agree with many of the quotes that follow, others appear to be insightful.  I present them here to be considered and as a source of contrasts to my own ideas concerning The Iliad.  I cannot resist occasionally commenting, and have done so in brackets and italics. [example]


1. Art Defined:  “But although the artist’s problem seems to be mainly technical, his real imp0ulse goes beyond this—it goes to universe; and the true piece of art, even though it be the shortest lyric, must always embrace  the totality of the world, must be the mirror of that universe, but one of full counterweight.”  p. 12 (intro.)

2. Art, myth, and mathematics: “And this explains the connection—at first surprising to us—between myth and mathematics.  For every real approach of man to the universe can be called a presentiment of the infinite.  Without this, not mathematics, nor myth, nor art, nor any other form of cognition would exist.”  p. 14 (intro)

3. Myth is the archetype of all thought:  “Myth is the archetype of every phenomenal cognition of which the human mind is capable.  Archetype of all human cognition, archetype of science, archetype of art—myth is consequently the archetype of philosophy too.”  pp. 15-16 (intro)

4. When Myth becomes religion:  “Myth becomes religion when the mythical model of the universe, hitherto merely cognate or expressed in certain visible forms (of art, etc.) passes into the act of man, coloring his entire behavior, influencing his daily life.” p. 16 (intro)

5. On the Gods:  “Indeed, Homer’s humanization of the gods goes a step farther.  It is true that they are not stripped of their abstract, mythical character; what they were they remain—mere names of the gigantic forces they represent, forces which keep in motion the model of the world and the struggle of man.” pp. 18-19 (intro)

6. Homer’s Greeks already an ancient people:  “But the “Saffron Gatherer” of the eighteenth century B.S. already indicates the free naturalistic culture of a ripening age, characterized by the liberation of human personality, and the following period is that of the luxurious palace of Knossos, contemporaneous with the romantic mysticism of Ikhnaton’s Egypt.” p. 24 (intro)

7. On Hector as Hero:  Hector, “man and among men a prince,” is subject to apocalyptic mood of his time and, therefore, affectionately recognizes the peaceful achievements of the civilization for which he is ready to fight and to die.  P. 25 (intro)

8. On Homer and the existence of Homer:  “Whether Homer existed or not, he is described as a very old man, blind as Milton, blind as Bach, blind as Fate; the style of old age in all its greatness, coolness, and abstract transparency is so obvious in his work that people had necessarily to conceive him in this form.  He himself became myth, and since behind almost every myth stands some historical reality, we ought not to ask whether he existed or not, but should simply accept him as the mythical old man, the eternal paradigm of an epoch which demands the rebirth of myth.”  p. 26 (intro)

9. On the recognition of true Art:  “Thus it is only natural that there came to be a mood of deep distaste for this kind of art [Iliad], and even for art at all.  This distaste is felt neither by the general public which, though sometimes bored, consumes what it is served, nor is it felt by the pseudo-artist who accepts success as a proof of his quality, but it is felt by the few genuine artists, and by those who know that art which does not render the totality of the world of art.  If art can or may exist further, it has to set itself the task or striving for the essential of becoming a counterbalance to the hypertrophic calamity of the world.  And imposing such a task on the arts, this epoch of disintegration imposes on them the style of old age, the style of the essential, the style of the abstract.  pp. 27-28 (intro)

10. Man and the individual in the “modern world”:  “Man as such is our time’s problem; the problems of men are fading away and are even forbidden, morally forbidden.  The personal problem of the individual has become a subject of laughter for the gods, and they are right in their lack of pity.  The individual is reduced to nothing, but humanity can stand against the gods and even against Fate.”  pp. 31-32 (intro)

11. Concluding BUNK – Homer, Jesus, and Hitler; the problem of relativism:  “Hitler thought to establish the new myth by forbidding the personal problems of men to exist.  But his was pseudo-myth, for the real myth lives in the problem of human existence, the problem of man as such.  However, if God has to exist, the devil eventually has to serve Him , and it is just the Nazi terror which may still ripen humanity for the ethical theogony [reference to the poems of Hesiod] in which the new myth will receive its being: if this happens, Fate again will be humanized, and presumably it will be not only human, as was Homer’s Force, but also humane, in so far as it is in accord with Europe’s Christian tradition  homer’s Force was to have been supplanted by Jehovah’s justice, Jehovah’s justice by Christ’s love, “Through cruelty force confesses its powerlessness to achieve omnipotence.”” P. 32 (intro)

12. Hector described:   “In the crowd of mediocrities that are Priam’s sons, he stands alone, a prince, born to rule.  Neither superman, nor demigod nor godlike, he is a man and among men a prince.  He is at ease in a kind of unstudied nobility that permits neither pride in respect to the self nor humbleness in respect to the gods.  Loaded as he is with favors, he has much to lose; and there is something in him that sets him above the favors, the natural endowments—his passion for defying destiny.”  p. 39

13. Power of Andromache’s plea:  “It is on Andromache’s account, more than on his people’s, his father’s, his brothers’, that the thought of the future tortures him.  The very image of the brutal fate that awaits her makes him wish for death. . . The pain of this leave-taking does not modify his decision which has already been made. “  p. 40

14. The final flight and fight between Achilles and Hector – example of Bespaloff’s miss-reading of The Iliad:  “. . . Hector feels weakness seize him; when he catches sight of his leaping adversary, he is no longer master of his terror.  Time after time he [Hector] has turned the tide of battle, he has taken the measure of Ajax and the very bravest of the Achaians; yet now he, the dauntless, “leaves and takes to flight.”  Homer wanted him to be a whole man and spared him neither the quaking of terror nor the shame of cowardice.  “Ahead flees a brave man, but braver still is he who pursues him at top speed.”  . . . he turns and faces his enemy, having first mastered himself.  [Actually Justice, Athena, had to trick him into combat once Apollo had deserted him.]  “I no longer wish to flee you [he lies], son of Peleus. . . . It is over. . . . I will have you or you will have me.”  What he fled from, what he now confronts, is not the gigantic Achilles,” but his own destiny [Justice]; he meets the appointed hour when he will be sent to pasture in Hades.  At least he will not die without a struggle, and not without glory.  Dying, he begs Achilles for a last time not to give his body to the dogs.  And for a last time his conqueror, drunk with cruelty, [NO!!! impelled to do justice at the cost of his own life.], is obdurate [unyielding] to his plea.”  p. 42

15. On Justice and the deaths of Hector and Achilles:  “Hector has to pay for Patroclus’ inglorious death, just as Achilles, later on, will pay for the death of Hector.   [Wrong – Hector was a murderer; he killed an unarmed prisoner of war who was wounded, helpless, and naked.  Achilles, on the other hand, gave himself a sacrifice on the Alter of Justice.”  To compare Hector’s death to Achilles is like comparing Hitler’s to Paton’s – it approaches the obscene.] p. 43

16. The Iliad as tragedy – not a romance: “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.”  p. 48

17. Some thoughts on Thetis:  “Zeus, after all, outraged the goddess in her by delivering her to Peleus, whose bitter old age weighs heavy on her immortal youth.  She does not forget the injury, and she remains much less the wife of Peleus that the Sea’s daughter and Achilles’ mother.”  p. 54

18. On the return of Hector’s body:  “And in the end, it is to Thetis that Zeus turns to get this madman to come to his senses and restore Hector’s remains to Priam.  On this mission, she is al tenderness and consolation.  “She sits down beside him and caresses him with her hand and speaks to him, calling him by all his names.”  Achilles submits to the gods’ command, conveyed to him by his mother: the untamable is tamed; in obedience he finds for a moment the serenity that is always eluding him.”  [Bunk – the decision was Achilles, he was not lulled into some mood by the caresses of his mother but chose to act in accordance with Justice, and in obedience to the Natural Law that is the gods.]  p. 55

19. On the love of Achilles for Patroclus:  “For Achilles, self is at the center of love.  What he adores in Patroclus is his own reflection, purified—in Thetis, the sacred origin of his line.  [More obscene bunk – If all Achilles loves in himself why would he give away his life and future happiness to obtain Justice?]  p. 56

20. On Achilles’ motivation:  “Destiny, he knows, can “carry him off to death,” by two quite different routes.  He has chosen the steep road that ends on the edge of the abyss.  He will sacrifice home-coming, reunion with his father and his son, for the pleasure of massacring the Trojans, avenging Patroclus, and watching bot friends and foes quake at the sight of him.”  [Bunk, Bunk, BUNK – This is the greatest show of Professor Bespaloff’s ignorance and bias.  Achilles did not sacrifice all he and his mother worked so hard to provide him with, the love of his grandchildren, for the rubbish Bespaloff opines.  He, as Socrates explained in his apology, sacrificed his life for Justice.  To condemn Achilles for making war on Hector brings dishonor on any hero who gives his life for a just cause.  Every soldier who died to defeat the Nazis of turn back the monsters of Marxism is thus disrespected. ]  p. 57

21. On Helen:   “Of all the figures in the poem she is the severest, the most austere.  Shrouded in her long white veils, Helen walks across the Iliad like a penitent; misfortune and beauty are consummated in her and lend majesty to her step.  For this royal recluse freedom does not exist; the very slave who numbers the days of oppression on some calendar of hope is freer than she.  What has Helen to hope for?  Nothing short of the death of the Immortals would restore her freedom, since it is the gods, not her fellow men, who have dared to put her in bondage,  Her fate does not depend on the outcome of the war: Paris or Menelaus may get her, but for her nothing can really change.  She is the prisoner of the passions her beauty excited, and her passivity is, so to speak, their underside.”  [I will let Euripides’ tragedy, The Trojan Women, speak for me on this.  Hecuba explains to the scheming Helen, that her” lust became her Cyprus.”]  p. 61

22. Aphrodite, Cyprus, rules Helen:  “Aphrodite rules her despotically; the goddess commands and Helen bows, whatever her private repugnance.”  [See my comment in 21 above.]  p. 62

23. How Homer presents beauty:  “Homer carefully abstains from the description of beauty as though this might constitute a forbidden anticipation of bliss.  The shade of Helen’s eyes, of Thetis’ tresses, the line of Andromache’s shoulders—these details are kept from us.  No singularity, no particularity is bought tour notice; yet we see these women; we would recognize them.  One wonders by what impalpable means Homer manages to give us such a sense of the plastic reality of his characters.”  p. 67

24. Priam blames the gods for his own failings – this is his excuse and Bespaloff’s opinion of it:  Here—and this is unusual—the poet himself, speaking through Priam, lifts his voice to exonerate beauty and proclaim it innocent of man’s misfortune.  “I do not blame you.  I blame the gods, who launched this Achaian war, full of tears, upon me.”  The real culprits, and the only ones, are the gods, who lie “exempt from car,” while men are consumed with sorrow.  The curse which turns beauty into destructive fatality does not originate in the human heart. The diffused guilt of Becoming pools into a single sin, the one sin condemned and explicitly stigmatized by Homer: the happy carelessness of the Immortals.”  p. 68

25. All war is the war for Helen:  “Meanwhile Helen stands helplessly watching the men who are going to do battle for her.  She is there still, since nations that brave each other for markets, for raw materials, rich lands, and their treasures, are fighting, first and forever, for Helen.”   p. 69

26. More blaming of the gods while praising heroes:  “Everything that happens has been caused by them [gods], but they take no responsibility, whereas the epic heroes take total responsibility even for that which they have not caused.”  p. 74

27. On the goddesses and the judgment of Paris:  “But here, again, truth to human experience somehow moves this marital farce to a plane of more substantial reality.  There is Hera with her big stupid eyes, her obstinacy more brutish than evil, and the real genius she shows while subjecting Zeus to a successful “war of nerves,” from which she always comes off with the honors.  There is Aphrodite, all smiles and shims, enchanting and futile in her weakness, yet not so defenseless as she seems.  There is Pallas Athena, a warrior with a man’s muscles, expert and treacherous, who can send Ares rolling to the ground with the force of a single blow, who knows how to harbor a grudge and let rancor steep within her until her revenge is brewed.  These are the three goddesses involved in the judgment of Paris, and each in her own way reveals the other side of the eternal feminine whose tragic purity is embodied in Andromache, Helen, and Thetis.”  p. 76

28. Homer portrays war as it is:  “Homer and Tolstoy have in common a virile love of war and a virile horror of it.  They are neither pacifist nor bellicist [one who advocates war]. They have no illusions about war and they present it as it really is, in its continual oscillation between boisterous animal spirits that break out in spurts of aggressiveness and the detachment of sacrifice in which the return to the One is consummated.”  p. 83

29. The death of a soldier:  “He tumbled, as an oak tree tumbles, or a poplar, or a slender pine tree that carpenters with freshly ground axes lay low on a mountain top to make a ship’s keel.  Even so he lies, measuring his length on the earth, before his horses and chariot, moaning and clawing the bloody dust.”  p. 84 (Homer’s own words)

30. What we fight for:  “In the same way, during the perilous attack on the wall that protects the Achaian ships, Hector, as he reassembles the Trojans and the Allies for the assault, weighs the force that each individual has in reserve for the defense of his “goods”: an earth and a sky, loved ones, things long cherished that have dissolved into the very substance of life.  “One omen is best, to fight for one’s country,” he tells Polydamas.   . . . The necessity imposed on the individual by the threat of slavery or annihilation forces him to endure these truths, but it does not dissolve his personality in the anonymous mass; it denudes him but at the same time it exalts him.”  pp. 86-87

31. The power of Priam’s plea:  “In insisting on his right to pity, the vanquished is not bowing down to destiny in the person of the mane he is entreating.  The unheard-of ordeal he inflicts on himself, equal to the love that sustains him, has nothing base about it”  p. 98

32. Miss-statement of Achilles nature:  The perfect conformity of his [Achilles] nature to his vocation of destroyer makes him the least freeperson there is; but it give him in return a bodily freedom which is in itself a magnificent spectacle.”  [The truth is that Achilles is the most free man on the field, he alone choses for himself his fate.]  pp. 99-100

33. Miss-statement of Achilles choice:  “The glory he has chosen in preference to a long life is the immortality of omnipotence not the immortality of the soul.”  [Achilles chose to go home and live in peace – he only goes to war to answer the crimes of Hector, to fight for justice, to defend the self-evident truth].  p. 105

34. Reason and Myth (Faith): When reason can go no further, he [Plato] lets myth take over”  p. 116

35. A claim that law is man-made – BUNK:  “Law is an altogether human work, a fragile bridge more durable, however, than it looks, as the swell of the passions sweep it without submerging it.  IF it falls to pierces, the great lawmaker is there, ready to do it over and perfect it.  He is working on the foundations of the just city, trying to make them solid.  The harshness of Creon is as alien to him as Antigone’s intransigence; he negotiates with life, knowing it suppleness and inflexibility.  He tries to blend it to the commandment of justice, and justice to the commandment of necessity.  He deals in compromise, to be sure, but hold compromise between two colliding absolutes.  [What a relativist rant – an unreasonable claim.  Two truths cannot contradict each other.] p. 122

36. Solon and Athenian Justice:  “She [the Earth] will bear witness well for me before the seat of Justice, grandmother of the Olympian gods, black Earth whose boundaries I have just now lifted, planted on all sides, a slave formerly and now free. . . I have written laws that are the same for the miscreant and for the upright man, ordering for all a very straight justice.”  pp. 124-125

37. More relativist equivocation on Truth and Justice:  “But what could be more Greek, more essentially Athenian, than this solidarity of justice and joy on the earth set free by free men?  Transcendent justice and justice immanent in life do not always coincide; the lawmaker’s takes is to reduce the interval that separates them to a minimum.  pp. 125-126

38. Christianity the synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism:  Christianity effected a tremendous synthesis between messianic religion and the mystic philosophies that were prevalent in Greece at a time when the distance between Judaism and Hellenism was most considerable.”  p. 126

 I disagree with much of what I read and hear – it is a man’s duty.  I read this book with growing skepticism.  The attempt to impose the Bible into the Iliad was troubling and the constant relativist point of view disconcerting. I believe gave me much food for thought and plenty of points to rail against when I finally get around to writing my book, Re-righting Achilles.