While in Provence I made the first of what I suspect will be many readings of Rachel Bespaloff’s majestic essay On The Iliad and was so impressed by the depth of her insights into the power of the poem, into the timeless character of great art, and – still deeper – into the fierce, elemental nature of life itself, that her words have been reverberating through my imagination ever since.
The essay appears in a slim volume titled War and the Iliad which also contains Simone Weil’s essay The Iliad or the Poem of Force along with an essay on Bespaloff by Hermann Broch. Significantly, both Bespaloff’s essay and Weil’s were written at the time of the Second World War, though without apparent reference to each other. Weil’s piece is the more celebrated but I found that Bespaloff drew me deeper into the complexities of the soul and into a fuller apprehension of life as ‘essentially the thing that does not permit itself to be assessed, or measured, or condemned, or justified, at least not by the living.’
Her essay is relatively brief but so charged with compassionate intellectual acuity and imaginative energy that any attempt to summarise its riches would feel like a shabby act of plunder. However, I want to draw attention here to one of its central insights which I believe may have significant consequences for the continuing evolution of consciousness in our own time.
In drawing attention to the manner in which both the Iliad and the Bible closely link ethical experience and metaphysical questioning, Bespaloff observes how they were written during a time when ‘the ambiguous age of demoniac forces is just receding from view, the world of rational symbols has not yet been constituted. Magic no longer possesses anything but ineffectual rites to impose on recalcitrant nature, and philosophy has still to invent its own incantations for bringing beautiful abstractions to life.’
It was, she claims, a privileged moment in which ‘a particular mode of thought is evolved which cannot be expressed and transmitted to successive generations in conceptual form, but which reappears and holds good every time man comes up against himself at the dark turn of his existence.’ In such a moment mythic wisdom emerges as ‘interpreter of the invisible world and mediator between the sensible and the intelligible,’ and it does so through its efforts to hold antagonistic energies in creative tension within the overarching arena of impersonal cosmic justice.
Only a language arising from the deeps of what James Hillman called ‘the poetic basis of mind’ can articulate the experience out of which such mythic vision is generated. In Mary McCarthy’s skillful translation, Bespaloff’s prose is radiant with such energy. Though she escaped occupied France on one of the last refugee-ships to leave Marseilles, her life remained so acutely sensitive to the holocaustal horror of that ‘dark turn of existence’ which was the mid-20th Century that she eventually gassed herself in 1949. Her death at a relatively early age feels like an incalculable loss, but her vision and her words still hold good today, for we too are living in an interstitial age.
It’s an age when, even as they appear to gather accelerating force, the sometimes beautiful, abstract incantations of a scientific philosophy unaware of its own place within the inescapably mythological structure of thought cannot embrace the lived complexities of human experience; and yet a new, more inclusive mythic vision of our life embedded within a wider community of consciousness, both planetary and cosmic, has not yet come clearly into focus.
The development of such a vision will require a mythic language which speaks of more than of man coming up against himself. It will define and enact the process of human life coming into a new comprehensive relation with aspects of experience which have too long been disregarded or demeaned. For, as Anne Baring and Jules Cashford declared in The Myth of the Goddess in 1991, ‘it seems clear that a new poetic language has to evolve to allow back into consciousness a sensibility that is holistic, animistic and lunar in origin, one that explores flux, continuity and phases of alternation, offering an image not of exclusive realities, nor of final beginnings and endings, but of infinite cycles of transformation.’
Written half a century after Rachel Bespaloff’s tragic death, those words signalled the return of a profoundly regenerative mythic intelligence which would be open, alert and responsive to the most urgent needs of the age. Because the magnetic energy of her prose already feels adequate to those demands, Bespaloff offers us a vital example of the quality of consciousness required by our own perilous transitional times; and it may be that the most important service that novelists and poets can now perform is to be present at the continuing birth of such a language by attuning their imaginations to those elusive but enlarging requirements each time they try to write.