Archive for February 2005

Achilles and the Afterlife

February 17, 2005

If Achilles were to sit before Michael Vronsky for judgment in the afterworld, it would be a hard trial for the greatest fighter of the Achaians.  Both Achilles and Michael were ferocious warriors, but they did battle for very different reasons.  Achilles fought first and foremost for himself: his possessions, his name, and his glory.  He chose a glorious, short life in Troy over a long, less exciting life in Phthia (Iliad 18.88-110).  Michael fought for his own life but also for those of his friends and countrymen.  Achilles would tell Michael he is a hero because (1) he was extraordinary in his bravery and his fighting skills; (2) he had no reason to fight for Phthia because Troy has done nothing to it, and he had no reason to fight for the Achaians as a whole because they had done nothing for him, so he had to fight for himself; (3) whereas Michael best served his friends and family by coming home, Achilles best served them by fighting gloriously in Troy and dying there so that the family name could be remembered forever.

Achilles would stake his first claim to heroism by pointing out that he was an extraordinary fighter who battled best when the pressure was highest.  Even without his armor, he struck fear into the Trojans (18.202-238).  In Books 21 and 22, he wreaked havoc on a number of heroes; even Hektor, the greatest of the Trojans, fled from him (22.131-167).  Eventually, Hektor, too, fell to Achilles’s sword (22.220-336).  Michael would be sympathetic to this claim.  He engaged in “one shot” deer hunting, for instance, because he savored the intensity of that one moment.  He showed incredible valor as a prisoner of war; whereas Stephen and Nick crumbled during Russian Roulette, Michael kept calm, encouraged his friends, and eventually outsmarted the captors, saving the lives of all three Americans.  He orchestrated the escape down the river and later carried a crippled Stephen on his back a long distance to the South Vietnamese line.  Michael and Achilles are both familiar with extraordinary achievement and would consider each other brothers in this regard.

The two men would differ on the subject of patriotism.  Michael, Nick, and Stephen went to war primarily to serve their country.  Even after the war had broken Michael and his friends, they were still able to sing “God Bless America,” albeit a slow and somber rendition, after Nick’s funeral.  Achilles, however, readily admitted that the Trojans had done nothing to him or to Phthia (1.152-158).  (He would probably challenge Michael to tell him what the Vietnamese had done to the United States.)  Achilles considered his timé, the material symbols of his wealth, so important that he abandoned the entire Achaian army after Agamemnon confiscated his concubine.  His absence alone was a terrible blow to the Achaians, and on top of that, Achilles entreated the gods to do further harm to the Danaans so he could look better in comparison (1.1-5, 169-171, 223-224, 393-427).  He refused peace even after Agamemnon offered him a vast quantity of goods, including said concubine, in restitution (9.115-158).

To defend his actions, the Greek hero would argue that in any relationship, there must be justice for both parties, and in his contract with the rest of the Achaians, he had been wronged time and time again.  Though he was the best of the warriors and does the most fighting, he always received a smaller portion of the time, material wealth which symbolizes valor, than Agamemnon, who was not as good of a fighter (1.161-171, 225-244).  By accepting this injustice, Achilles needlessly shamed himself.  Even if he accepted Agamemnon’s gifts, he would have to take a subservient position in the Achaian hierarchy, and this he could not do (1.292-296, 9.158-161).  Achilles also wondered what was so patriotic about fighting in the Trojan War.  He once asked Odysseus, “Are the sons of Atreus alone among mortal men the ones who love their wives?” (9.337-343).  Achilles assessed that his society was corrupt, and he could prove himself a hero only by fighting for something that was pure: himself.  He did whatever he could to expand his own glory, or kleos, so others would remember him (18.121-126).  In Achilles’s ideal world, everyone in both armies would die except for him and Patroklos so they could storm the wall together and take all the glory for themselves (16.97-100).

Michael might agree that Achilles had no reason to fight for his country or for his people, but he could then legitimately ask Achilles why he abandoned his family and friends both at home and abroad.  Achilles had the choice of returning home to Phthia, leading a long life in his father’s house, and having many children (9.308-409, 18.88-110).  He also had the choice of accompanying Patroklos into the battlefield, possibly protecting his friend from death (16.60-90).  He refused both.  Michael, on the other hand, was fiercely loyal to his friends.  He did everything could to fulfill his promise to bring them all back home.  Michael carried a crippled Stephen home from the river in Vietnam and from the Veterans Hospital.  He returned to Saigon when it was falling, gave up thousands of dollars, and risked his life in Russian Roulette because there was a chance he could save Nick, who was insane at this point.  When Michael pointed the gun to his head during the game, he first said to Nick, “I love you.”  After Nick died, Michael broke down crying over Nick’s body.  Why, Michael would ask, did Achilles not make the same sacrifices?

Achilles would answer that he was not abandoning his family when he stayed in Troy; rather, he was honoring them.  Throughout The Iliad, Homer tells us of men who have left the comforts of home to prove their valor, to expand the legacies of their families, and to prove they are the sons of their fathers.  These men include heroes like Diomedes (4.370-418) and Glaukos (6.119-231), minor characters like Pandaros (5.192-216), and even common soldiers like Imbrios, son of Mentor, who only receives mention in death (13.169-182).  If all these men fought in order to surpass their fathers and bring glory on their houses, then surely, Achilles felt the same desire.  As Thetis told him, he was born to have a short life; in other words, he was meant to die in battle (1.413-420).  Achilles would also maintain that the Vietnam War was vastly different from the Trojan War.  Though friends and fellow veterans congratulated Michael, Nick and Stephen for going to the war, their friends Axel, John, and Stanley received no shame for their decision to stay home.  John hastily explained to Michael that he would be going if he didn’t have to take care of his niece, but that is the only excuse any of the three had to make.  The Trojan War, however, was one of the pinnacles of the Greek civilization, and all the best of the Achaians were there to do battle (2.455-492).  Homer says that even if he had ten tongues, he could not name all the men who went to this battle, though he is able to name several dozen leaders on both sides (2.492-877).  Achilles would say that Michael did not have to go to Vietnam, but he would have had to go to Troy.

The mention of Patroklos, however, would wound Achilles deeply.  He did not seem to regret the effects of his rage on the other Achaians, but when he learned that he inadvertently caused the death of Patroklos, a heartbroken Achilles finally realized the horrible effects of his wrath and abandoned his feud with Agamemnon (18.6-115).  Achilles would admit to Michael that Patroklos’s death proved that his rage carried too far.  He would, however, note that this tragedy was the will of the gods, so Achilles was not completely responsible for it.

I do not know what final judgment Michael Vronsky would pass on Achilles.  Michael, after all, fought for life: his own life and those of his friends and countrymen.  As a prisoner of war, he frantically moved from strategy to strategy, from wanting to abandon Stephen to jumping off the helicopter to save him, because he so desperately wanted to live.  After he returned home, he loved the trees and could spare the deer.  Thoughts of immortality never crossed his mind.  Achilles, however, fought for death.  He calmly accepted his own end and wanted to bring everyone else down with him.  This, he thought, was the only way to achieve immortality.  The two also had very different attitudes about home.  In the world of “The Deer Hunter,” people risk their lives and suffer terrific hardships so they can go home.  In The Iliad, people leave home so they can risk their lives and suffer terrific hardships (12.310-328).  That both could be considered heroes speaks volumes about the cleavages of time and the contrasts of cultures.