BMCR 2004.02.37

Response: Mackinnon on Murnaghan on Weil

Response to 2004.02.24

Response by

Since Wilamowitz sneered at Nietzsche, many an academic has dismissed work by non-academics only to find that it proves more enduring than their own. As a non-academic reader of the BMCR, my enjoyment is sometimes reduced by these dismissals. Sheila Monaghan’s review of Simone Weil’s essay on the Iliad is a case in point. Three simple points seem apposite.

First, British academia is not yet totally obsessed by credentialism (though things are getting worse). I imagine Griffin, Macleod and Taplin praised Weil’s essay because they liked it, rather than because of Weil’s credentials.

Secondly, if one does want extraneous reasons for taking Weil’s essay seriously, it would seem more relevant to look at her work as moral and religious thinker than her performance as a ‘stellar student’ or her ‘life experiences’. Weil’s ethical writings are worth reading even by those who, like me, do not share her theism. For those who do not know them, they are a little like what Samuel Beckett might have written had he believed in God. They are of much more than merely ‘historic’ interest. I don’t recall, by the way, that they contain anything as silly as the claim that ‘suffering is inherently ennobling’.

Thirdly, Weil may or may not be right that the poem’s view of war is deeply negative. I remember, as a student, finding her argument convincing. But if she was wrong, there seems no reason to think it was because she was less ‘informed’ than ‘scholars’ (by whom I take Murnaghan to mean professional academics?). The relevant information is surely in the poem itself, and there seems to be no reason to think Weil had not read the whole poem. The quality of her attention may have been less ‘complete’ than that of the authors to whom Murnaghan refers; but this has nothing to do with her professional status.

In any case, Weil’s essay makes the permanent contribution that no-one who reads it carefully can any longer take Homer’s admiration of the ‘heroic code’ for granted (and they will need better arguments to defend it than the rather weird claim that war ‘is the only way of life’ in the Iliad). That is the kind of sharpening of the attention that we read criticism for.