Rejected Responsibility: A Real Riot

Rachel Bespaloff, The Comedy of the Gods (trans. Mary McCarthy)

The Iliad has its share of the comic spirit. It even has humor: the Olympians supply it. Zeus’s court plays much the same role that worldly society and Alexander’s satellites play in War and Peace. The absolute futility of beings who are exempted by fortune from the common lot achieves, in the Immortals, a kind of showy, decorative stateliness. The gods of the Iliad and the worldlings of War and Peace have that want of seriousness (and by seriousness I do not mean heaviness) that for Homer, as for Tolstoy, is the distinguishing mark of the subhuman; this is what makes them such exquisite comic figures. Everything that happens has been caused by them, but they take no responsibility, whereas the epic heroes take total responsibility even for that which they have not caused. The gods’ irresponsibility begins at home; they are not responsible for themselves. Where the free individual is not asserting himself against Fate, responsibility has nothing to grasp. Anger spills out in a burst of laughter that sanctions the triumph of incoherence. Thus the gods elude mortal classifications; both innocence and sin are beyond them. Agents provocateurs, smart propagandists, heated partisans, these belligerents do not mind the smell of carnage or the clash of tragic passions. Condemned to a permanent security, they would die of boredom without intrigues and war.

Leave a Reply