Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bernard Knox, Soldier and Scholar

We're moving out of Iraq. That's good news.

Restrepo is playing at Salem Cinema. That's local news.

Bernard Knox has died. That's sad news.

Whenever we think about war, we need a stiff drink. 'Cuz it's all sad news.

You know the meme for Platonic dinner parties, the ideal guest list for your perfect night of conversation? We mark the passing of one we wish we got to sit next to. (Illustration: David Levine, New York Review of Books)
Bernard Knox led a life as richly textured as the classics he interpreted for modern readers. After studying classics at Cambridge, he fought with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. While serving in the United States Army during World War II, he parachuted into France to work with the resistance and went on to join the partisans in Italy. Returning to the United States with a Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre, he resumed his study of the classics.
Knox wrote first on Sophocles and then ranged across other writers from classical Greece and Rome.

About the Iliad he wrote:
The Iliad accepts violence as a permanent factor in human life and accepts it without sentimentality, for it is just as sentimental to pretend that war does not have its monstrous ugliness as well as to deny that it has its own strange and fatal beauty, a power, which can call out in men resources of endurance, courage, and self-sacrifice that peacetime, to our sorrow and loss, can rarely command. Three thousand years have not changed the human condition in this respect; we are still lovers and victims of the will to violence, and so long as we are, Homer will be read as its truest interpreter.

This was recognized by Simone Weil in an essay written long before she left her native France for wartime London, where she filled her brilliant notebooks with reflections on Greek literature and philosophy in the short time left to her to live. This classic (and prophetic) statement - L'Iliade ou le Poeme de la Force - presented her vision of Homer's poem as an image of the modern world.
The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad, is force. Force as man's instrument, force as man's master, force before which human flesh shrinks back. The human soul, in this poem, is shown always in relation to force: swept away, blinded by the force it thinks it can direct, bent under the pressure of the force to which it is subjected. Those who dreamed that force, thanks to progress, now belonged to the past, have seen the poem as a historic document; those who can see that force, today as in the past, is at the center of all human history, find in the Iliad its most beautiful, its purest mirror.
She goes on to define what she means by force: "force is what makes the person subjected to it into a thing." She wrote these words in 1939: the article was scheduled for publication in the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, but before it could be printed Paris was in the hand of the Nazis and her compatriots, like all Europe, were subjected to force and turned into things - corpses or slaves.
A tip of the pint to a great scholar.

(If this isn't beery enough, go read about dwarf hops and changing relations between brewers and growers over at Beervana. Jeff took a hopyard tour with a bunch of commercial brewers and the Oregon Hop Commission, and his notes are very interesting! Image: Near Independence, circa 1935, Oregon State University.)

No comments:

Post a Comment