Return of the Warrior

We started by continuing a discussion touched on last week, the judgment of arms that decided Odysseus and not Ajax would inherit the arms of Achilles. Ajax opens after the judgment has already taken place, and Laura explained that, as is true with the general plot events of most Greek tragedies, the result was likely already known by the audience. She further explained that the playwrights (e.g. Euripides, Aeschylus, and in this case, Sophocles) presented their own interpretations of these events, which could vary significantly. The group agreed there were clues, albeit vague ones, to how the judgment was determined, particularly towards the end of Ajax, when Teucer argues with Menelaus and then Agamemnon about whether or not Ajax will receive a proper burial. Both sons of Atreus allude to a democratic process that was undertaken in the judgment of arms, and that Ajax’s betrayal of such neutralizes his burial rights. However, who was included in this process is not clear. Teucer is defiant to the last, insisting that the laws of the gods demand Ajax be buried, and he eventually prevails after Odysseus lends his support and convinces Agamemnon to treat Ajax’s body as that of the hero he had long been until shortly before his death.

We discussed how Ajax’s repudiation of this democratic process may have been received by his men and the rest of the Greek army? Who has betrayed whom? Laura also suggested considering an episode that pre-dated the Greek army’s voyage to Troy. When the fleet found no wind to carry them across the Aegean Sea, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter’s life to pay their passage to the gods (a deed which would later cost him his life at the hand of his wife, Clytemnestra, after returning from the war). What can we learn from the comparison of these two episodes? Agamemnon gave his up own child to fight the war, whereas Ajax could not countenance what he saw as not just the dishonor but the crime of being perceived as second to Odysseus. His defiance of the gods, even up until his suicide, may seem remarkable compared to Agamemnon’s fealty to them, particularly since neither can be considered to ultimately prevail. Can we consider their fates in terms of their men? Are Ajax’s men now comparably worse-off than Agamemnon’s? How is his responsibility and status as a leader diminished or emboldened by his final acts?

Probably the most important question posed during the session was two-fold: Should we consider Ajax a wounded soldier? And if so, how do we heal him? This led to a discussion over what society can reasonably expect of men at war. Can a semblance of normalcy be maintained? Is normalcy even beneficial in this theater? Joe talked about friends and comrades he had known whose respective backgrounds had collided with military training and culture and combat situations in Iraq to form what he called “a perfect storm” of struggle to cope and an eventual failure to transition back to civilian life. Further, everyone agreed that a common theme in Ajax, that crying is a supremely womanly act of weakness, persists in the modern military and, indeed, in modern society generally.

The session ended with a conversation that ventured into how society deals with death and whether violence is a threat that we sincerely condemn or a tool whose offensiveness is paid lip service but nevertheless respected.