Suffering Can Only Be Told in Detail
“Beware the toils of war,” Sarpedon the Lycian hero says to Hector, “the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world.” Buried inside that terrifying image of war trawling for the lives of men, its net stretched from one horizon to the other, ushering the mortals into the cod end, is the Greek word for flax, the thread that the Fates use at the beginning of each of our lives to spin our destinies. And so the metaphor makes an assumption: war is part of destiny. It is not an aberration or a strangeness. It is, for Homer, a theater in which the structure of reality is revealed.
Simone Weil and many others have read the Iliad as an antiwar poem. But to see it as a polemic in that sense is to reduce it. Homer knows about the reality of suffering but never thinks of a world without conflict. On the shield of Achilles, the smith god Hephaestus creates dazzlingly opposed images of the good world and the bad, set against each other. But even in the good world of justice there is still murder and violence. We might long for peace, but we live in war, and the Iliad is a poem about the inescapability of it.
All of that lies behind the Iliad‘s massive oversupply of suffering. The poet’s conception that the Greeks have been on this beach for nine long, dreadful years—a historical absurdity—stands in for eternity. This is how things are. This is how things have always been. This is how things are going to continue to be. War is the air a warrior society must breathe. And alongside that everlastingness of grief, its repetitive return, is a deeply absorbed knowledge that suffering can only be told in detail. No counting of casualties will do; no strategic overview will understand the reality; only the intimate engagement with the intimacy of pain and sorrow can ever be good enough for the enlightenment that is Homer’s purpose.
Scholars have worked out that 264 people die in the course of the Iliad. It doesn’t seem enough. One atrocity in some villages on the northern borders of Syria, one nighttime drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, one week of car bombs in Baghdad—any of them can outdo it. Only the epic engagement with Atē, the blind goddess of ruin, whose name means both “wrongness” and “wickedness,” can tell what those figures conceal. People are pitiably weak in the face of ruin, pathetically hoping that their prayers for happiness might prevail….