Friday, February 13, 2015

Achilles Heel, Meet Ahab's Heel

In your exquisite rush to grow up,you resorted to what many a young man and woman of your sensitivities did; you carted home armsful of books.  Your ambitious plan was far from original, but  the numerous venues of your youth did not seem at the time to be ripe with opportunities for experience. 

Persons your age in novels seemed to do a good deal better than you.  They were plunged into greater misfortunes, historical causes, and life-changing adventures. Some of your boyhood favorites were being asked to step up, to take command, to deliver messages, to put on disguises in order to sneak through enemy lines.

True enough, your father took you aside at one point to tell you that you were the man of the house before he went east on what seemed a remarkable project.  For some months, your dwelling was filled with mannequins and a wide variety of interchangeable heads for these mannequins.

While being delegated man of the house did mean you got to carry his Waltham pocket watch, you got no noticeable raise in status pay grade from your mother or sister, nobody asked you to deliver messages, nor creep through enemy lines.  

The notes and picture postcards your father sent you from remote parts of New England and New York, while cheery and optimistic, mentioned the mannequins and heads less and less, leaving you time to contemplate the mystery of their future, then to prepare you for other remarkable turns in your father's ventures, including a scientific plan to determine outcome in speed contests among thoroughbred race horses.

While you were being turned on the lathe of experience, you turned to reading the experiences of others, doing your best to work within the causes and times of characters.  At the time you were aware of how literal-minded you were.  At the same time, you were aware of how reading an ever widening selection of adventure stories was in a real sense Shanghai-ing you from your literal mindedness.

Somewhere in this process, you became immersed in the reading of myths and heroes' tales, the phrase "Achilles' heel," scurrying into your imagination to the point where, one afternoon, when your father noticed you limping, he became convinced you'd outgrown a pair of shoes.  

You assured him your shoes were fine.  Your explanation:  You'd heard the best way to judge a man was to walk a mile in his shoes.  Since Achilles was long gone, you were left wondering what it was like to be Achilles, and would he, with that heel of his, have to walk in a different manner.  That night at dinner, your father told your mother, "The acorn does not fall far from the oak."  At the time, you took that literally, but you knew it meant something else as well.

Achilles was one of your earliest introductions to flawed characters, to such an extent that you were sure to mention him in literature classes, where the subject of the flawed hero and the anti-hero came up for discussion.

You knew you were fast leaving literal-mindedness behind you when you began speaking up for the concept of the anti-hero, with whom, as a general rule, you had no trouble identifying with, following such men and women into the darker sides of experience.  You could do so with complete comfort, thanks to your belief that most anti-heroes were seeking meaningful--your term--redemption rather then storybook redemption.  By then, you'd moved from Achilles to Gatsby as an example.  In your vision, Gatsby was at once an anti-hero because of the way he'd amassed his wealth, and a flawed hero because of his naive belief that Daisy's love would lead to a meaningful redemption.

And now, to put this into yet another perspective, you have begun to wonder about the outcome and dynamics of giving a darker character, say Ahab, arguably not a hero, some Achilles heel of empathy or generosity to temper his egregious sense of Free Will run amok.  You are beginning to like the sound of it.  The Ahab's heel.

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