Against the American Empire, Weil and Bespaloff on the Iliad, Understanding Dante

By Benjamin Schwarz

April 2005 ATLANTIC


Against the Beast, by John Nichols (Nation Books). “Empire” is once again a fashionable term of opprobrium deployed by domestic opponents of American foreign policy. This compendium of anti-imperialist expression from the Founders to the present is often illuminating but, frustratingly, obscures as much as it elucidates. John Nichols, The Nation‘s Washington correspondent, admires the late William Appleman Williams, that insightful if often gaseous New Left diplomatic historian, who always urged those on the left to learn from conservatives. So, appropriately enough, the selections here are in many ways ecumenical. The book will reveal to all too many progressive critics of the Bush administration that Eugene Debs, Senator Burton “Bolshevik Burt” Wheeler, and Gore Vidal share a foreign-policy tradition with such conservatives as Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft and Pattumblr_mc5rjiCXiD1qk18xq Buchanan. That tradition has emphasized the limits of America’s power; been wary of a universalist conception of U.S. security interests; warned against excessive presidential power, secrecy, and deception in foreign policy; and held that democracy can’t be imposed by war, that the United States cannot and should not remake the world in its image, and that, to quote John Quincy Adams, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” (George Will, whose conservatism is getting the better of his party loyalty, seems increasingly to be embracing this tradition.) Indeed, a reader of much of this book would draw the same conclusion as Carl Oglesby, the president of Students for a Democratic Society, who said during the Vietnam War that “the old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate” (alas, not quoted by Nichols). But unlike Will, Nichols too often lets his political prejudices get the better of his professed non-interventionism—and in so doing shirks his editorial responsibilities. Hence we’re treated to the less than penetrating sloganeering of Tim Robbins and Patti Smith regarding the war in Iraq; but in a chapter devoted to post—Cold War foreign policy Nichols skips from opposition to the first President Bush’s adventures in the Gulf to opposition to the second’s. Missing is any criticism of the foreign policies conducted during the eight-year Democratic interregnum. Those policies may have been wise or foolish, but they included NATO enlargement, which was the most ambitious and far-reaching expansion of the American “empire” since the beginning of the Cold War. They also included a war—justified by official arguments that were at best exaggerated and misleading—conducted absent congressional and UN authorization, against a Yugoslav regime that, while thuggish, presented no threat to the United States (and during which our British ally’s commander protested to the future Democratic presidential candidate General Wesley Clark that the latter’s tough-guy tactics threatened to “start World War III”). All these actions would appear to be, and indeed were, grist for the anti-imperial mill—but those protests are omitted here, which makes one wonder if some progressives’ opposition to “empire” is determined less by principle than by politics. As an introduction to this foreign-policy tradition, then, I’d recommend instead the eccentric Bill Kauffman’s America First! (1995), which is as much a cultural polemic as a political one. Perhaps the most valuable quotation Nichols includes is Vidal’s historical corrective: “There is now a myth that the isolationists were pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic. This is nonsense. Practically every Socialist in the country, starting with Norman Thomas, was an isolationist.” When supporters of the current administration hurl the I-word (a bipartisan slur: the Clinton administration also used it), thoughtful dissenters should quote Walter Lippmann (who, along with Charles Beard, goes surprisingly unnoted by Nichols). During the Vietnam War he urged America to “eschew the theory of a global and universal duty, which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention, but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness.” Accused of neo-isolationism, Lippmann retorted, “Compared to people who thought they could run the universe, or at least the globe, I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

weilWar and the Iliadby Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff (New York Review Books). In the early months of the Second World War two brilliant and despairing Frenchwomen of Jewish background each wrote an essay on the Iliad. Weil’s “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force” and Bespaloff’s “On the Iliad” remain the twentieth century’s most beloved, tortured, and profound responses to the world’s greatest and most disturbing poem. Before the war ended, Mary McCarthy had translated both essays into English, and plans were soon made to publish them together in a book, but to no avail. Here, thanks to NYRB (one of the very few happy innovations in contemporary publishing), the two are finally between the same covers. This is an especially important service for Bespaloff’s essay, which has never been as readily available as Weil’s (a Quaker study center reprinted Weil’s piece as a cheap pamphlet, in which form it was de rigueur in Vietnam-era Western Civ classes). Although Weil and Bespaloff explored some similar themes, the ardent Weil contrasts with the coolly Gallic Bespaloff; Weil highlights the poem’s savage, pulsating energy and its violence, Bespaloff its “lucid tenderness and delicate precision,” its comedy, and its celebration of Hector’s civilized values and his futile attempts to protect life’s “perishable joys,” even as she assesses the stark Homeric world view, which “acknowledges a fall, but a fall that has no date and has been preceded by no state of innocence and will be followed by no redemption.” But Bespaloff’s triumph is undoubtedly her deeply sympathetic portrait of Helen, which she couples with a jaundiced appraisal of the passions that imprison her. (In a comparison of Helen and Anna Karenina, Bespaloff’s judgments are epigrammatic: “They awake in exile and feel nothing but a dull disgust for the shriveled ecstasy that has outlived their hope.”) As proper French intellectuals, both Weil and Bespaloff were rigorously trained in ancient Greek, but neither was a classical scholar. Their essays nevertheless were long prized as much by classicists as by writers and philosophers. Weil’s piece, though,AVT_Rachel-Bespaloff_3095 has recently been dented, which is consistent with a general revisionism regarding this—it must be acknowledged—difficult, self-centered, and somewhat self-important saint. To be sure, Weil’s interpretation (famously encapsulated in the opening sentence—”The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force”) is reductive and in some ways anachronistic (the Second World War, of course, broods over her piece). But a number of academics, most notably Seth Schein in his otherwise penetrating book The Mortal Hero, fault Weil, a pacifist, for failing “to recognize the nobility and glory of the slayers,” and for thus slighting the allure of violence in the Homeric world. This misses a lot. In fact the tension between Weil’s revulsion toward and attraction to violence informs, indeed propels, the essay (in her first paragraph she describes the implacable power of force in sexually submissive terms, and avers that for those perceptive enough to place violence at the center of human history, “the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors”). Weil’s essay is imperishable and unsettling precisely because, like Homer (whose similes poignantly juxtapose the brute aspects of battle and the tranquillity of domestic life), she recognized the seductive power of war’s terrible beauty, and both the vicious ecstasy of subjugators and the suffering of their victims. Despite some academic carping, these essays (and Bernard Knox’s masterly introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation) are the key introductory critical works for general readers of the Iliad, but no one has done for Homer what John A. Scott has now done for Dante in Understanding Dante (Notre Dame). An Australian scholar, Scott is one of the world’s leading Dantisti. In this summa of his career he has written a commanding, elegant overview of Dante’s works, analyzing his historical context; his political, moral, and religious ideas; the structure and texture of his writing; and the state of Dante scholarship. Scott has accomplished the nearly impossible: he has married close interpretation with broad synthesis—and in clear, often vigorous prose. This is a significant and deeply satisfying book.


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