Widgets Magazine


Force in (and out of) fiction

The arrival of spring has seemed, to me, sharp as a bedroom corner, the abrupt convergence of seasonal walls. After spring break, the campus seemed to glow with an unfamiliar sunshine, making everything I read in and out of classes feel lighthearted and moving. The poems of Emily Dickinson I read for my poetry class felt in harmony with the environment in which I read them, marking her language with a kind of sunlit beauty.

Amidst the brisk joy of this past week, I spent part of it reading about the equalizing nature of force and violence — the way none of us are spared from their destruction — in Simone Weil’s 1939 essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.”

An incisive reflection on the unsurpassed merits of the “Iliad” for its honest depiction of force as something which nobody can ever truly possess, and to which everyone is subject, the essay opens by stating that for those “who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the ‘Iliad’ is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.”

Written after the fall of France, the essay asserts that the “Iliad” is the greatest Western epic, surpassing the “Odyssey” and the “Aeneid,” because of its lack of a clear hero who will capture the audience’s sympathies. For Weil, force’s role is one of turning those subjected to it into things, and those who abuse others under the belief that they possess it will eventually be subjected to it as well. The loveliness of this literary mirror lies in the universality of force’s destruction, the despair from which nobody is spared.

If part of the brilliance of the “Iliad” lies in its honest depiction of war — that is, one without any clear, permanent victors — I want to reconsider my beliefs on the responsibility of fiction and the effects that narratives with clear protagonists can have on their readers.

In response to the Proust Questionnaire question, “On what occasion do you lie?” novelist Zadie Smith said, “Daily, to my children, about almost everything.” While we don’t necessarily turn to fiction to convince ourselves of an untrue or idealized version of the world (although we certainly can if we choose to) the same way parents lie to protect their children, I think there is a certain kind of convincing we seek when we read fiction.

Reading stories allows us to convince ourselves of the emotional reality of a world outside our own, one that, while still often characterized by pain and suffering and destruction, provides a point of removal and of escape. That removal often hinges most powerfully on the fact that most fiction offers an alignment with a certain perspective, a central figure with whom we are encouraged to empathize. And that alignment seems to me a convincing of sorts.

The difference between the “Iliad” and other fiction, then, can be seen through this lens of conviction: The convincing of the latter becomes unnecessary in the former’s depiction of a universally recognizable world, one without any lasting heroes.

Is the “Iliad” a fascinating exception, or should the role of fiction be one of accurate, unbiased representation — one without clear, sympathetic protagonists?

I’m inclined to believe that the human necessity for story, rooted in an oral tradition, is born in part out of our desire to empathize, to escape, to witness a manipulation of narrative elements in order to produce a wholeness and a linearity that doesn’t unfurl as cleanly in real life. Though I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role and responsibilities of fiction to its readers, I don’t know that there’s anything I can conclude that could ever be fully true — the genre is too diverse, one in which the “Iliad” rests on one end, a singular point within this endless library of literature.

And though I find that I am perhaps no closer to discovering or holding to any rigid beliefs about fiction, I am at least left with Weil’s transcendent concept of force.

While, according to Weil, the “Iliad” may be “the only true epic the Occident possesses,” I think re-examining literature through this lens of force, of whether or not a character can ever fully and permanently subdue or be subdued, may demonstrate that this theory of eventual equalization in terms of subjection and suffering is more common than the essay implies.

I’m also looking for the presence of force in my own life and challenging myself to recognize the subtle dynamics of power that, while certainly not as violent or polarizing of war, permeate human interaction. And perhaps this reminder of the impossibility of complete power — the universality of our powerlessness in the face of greater, unknowable forces — will allow me to look at my own life and others differently, to try to make it more open to and full of love.

It is this alteration of perspective, this new way of looking at the world, that makes literature feel so stark and full and motionary. Each new lens feels as landscape-altering and brightening as spring.


Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.