The Homeric gods, Style, and Blunt Criticism

Elizabeth de Waal

February 11, 1954     
741 Canal Street     
Baton Rouge 2, La.     

Dear Elizabeth: 1

Thanks for your kind letter of February 3rd. I hasten to answer it, in order to assuage all sorrows that I would take your criticisms (or any criticisms which you ever have to offer) in ill. Of course not, on the contrary, I am grateful for it, especially when it concerns my style, which I know all too well leaves much to be desired.

Hence, I acknowledge the justice of your remarks with regard to slangy expressions, especially since I am also aware of this defect, and I am doing my best in the revision in which I am engaged at present to eliminate such sores if I can catch them. There will be no "healthy specimen" or "rotter" in the book-form of the "History."

Not so sure am I about the justice of your remarks about the "tone" of contempt with regard to Homeric heroes. While "rotter" is slang and should not be used when speaking of the suitors, I cannot be blind to the fact that for Homer they are "dogs." (Also the adjective is used which is difficult to render in English. In the German translations it reads "hündische Freier" and "hündische Weiber," when Penelope speaks of the women of her household who side with the "dogs.") Homer is very careful to distinguish between the social rank of suitors when speaking as a narrator (they are always the "noble suitors") and their moral quality which appears when Odysseus or Penelope speak of them, that is, the persons who have to "suffer" from the discrepancy between social rank and moral stature. That happens to be the problem of the social and political courses; and the hero is the "sufferer" who in the end restores order by a mass-slaughter of the "dogs."

The same difficulty arises with regard to Priam. You complain that he is spoken of as if he were a farcical figure in a musical comedy. I am not so sure that precisely this impression was [not] intended by Homer. If we trust the Greeks who were somewhat closer to the epics than we are, and perhaps took them more seriously and not only as great poetry, we must consider the attitude of Herodotus. (At least I must consider it in the context of my "History.") Herodotus does not believe that Helen was ever in Troy, but that she was stranded in Egypt and there retained by the Egyptians for return to her husband.

His reason is the following: It cannot be assumed as within the realm of probability that any government would let its city go to destruction for no other reason than the one given by Homer: that the old king wants to feast his eyes daily on the presumably attractive lady and does not want to miss her. For a Greek with as large an intellectual horizon as Herodotus, Priam was so farcical indeed that he was implausible. He presumes that the Achaeans conducted the war against Troy because they did not believe the assurances of the Trojans that Helen really was not there at all.

Furthermore, I have to take into account that Plato wants to banish Homer from his Politeia for precisely the same reasons which you adduce in his favor in your letter: the great poetry of Homer throws the golden veil of his magnificent verse around persons and actions which are contemptible, and thereby may induce acceptance of the standards of morality of the persons thus glorified.

I can understand quite well that you do not like to see Homeric heroes in an unheroic light. (You are not the only critic who has expressed dismay at their treatment.) But I hope you will see that the matter is not simple, because I have to consider the Homeric heroes in the light in which they were seen by the Greeks—not in the light in which they are seen by contemporary readers. It will require a very judicious weighing of the "tone" if I want, on the one hand, not to fall into slang, and, on the other hand, not to falsify the intentions of Homer and the sense in which his work was understood by such men as Herodotus or Plato.

And now I only beg you not to take these explanations as dogmatic on my part. I have simply stated reasons—which are open to be invalidated by counter-reasons. And I hope very much to hear more from you in the matter.

I enclose an article on the Oxford Political Philosophers. You will perhaps find it also contemptuous in tone. But you will find in it also some explanations why sometimes a tone should be contemptuous, and not be genteel under pretext of innocuous "disagreement with other authors." I just recall a phrase from the author 2 of the Screwtape Letters:  It is advisable to keep an open mind with regard to technical inventions, kitchen-appliances, and the like; to keep an open mind with regard to the Ten Commandments is "moral imbecility." There seems to be a point where unequivocal expression of contempt is in order, a point at which the pretext of amiable conversation about intellectual matters with "colleagues" would be collaboration in crime.

Well, let that be enough for today. I only wanted to answer that particular question raised by you.

With all good wishes from both of us,

Yours most sincerely,        

1. Elizabeth de Waal, nee von Ephrussi (1899-2001). This extraordinarily gifted woman came from one of the premier Vienna banking families. She and Voegelin met in Kelsen's seminar in the 1920s. In 1928 she married Dutch businessman Hendrik de Waal. The family immigrated to England in 1938 after the bank owned by her father, Victor von Ephrussi, was "aryanized." Voegelin and Elizabeth de Waal stayed in contact throughout the years, until Voegelin's death.
2. C.S. Lewis.

CW VOL 30,
Letters from the 1950s
Elizebeth de Waal,
Feb. 11, 1954,
pp 209-211.

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