Lessons learned from Icarus

Icarus - C JohnstonI found myself thinking the other day about Breughel’s painting, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. It could have been the ducks that caused this train of thought. Last winter, four wild ducks arrived, set up camp around the dam and, in the spring, produced half a dozen ducklings. The whole entourage then took up foraging residence for the summer, until some hidden signal triggered their departure and they were gone as abruptly as they’d arrived.


Well, this year, just as the frosts are getting seriously down to their secret ministry in the creaking cold moonlit nights, the ducks have returned, with new recruits. Fifteen of them ritually take over the lawn and garden each morning for a long, leisurely breakfast in the slowly warming sun. Absurdly, we find ourselves detouring and tiptoeing so as not to disturb them. Who owns this place, anyway? Haven’t these ducks ever heard of the ANZ bank? But if, inadvertently, we do scare them – a banging door, an injudiciously sudden appearance – they lift off, all fifteen of them, in perfect unison. As if radio controlled, they swoop in formation through a couple of wide arcs that bring them down to the dam where, webbed feet splayed like the baffle plates on a Boeing’s wings, they glide onto the no doubt freezing water. The landing is not actually visible from the house, but it’s audible – a succession of splashes as the squadron arrives home.


Breughel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’And that might have been what reminded me of Breughel. I was thinking about the ducks and their sploshing drop into the dam while I was doing the ironing. (Don’t ask. Sometimes even the best organised guard is lowered: it only takes a moment’s lapse of concentration, the fortress is breached and the defenders over-run with jobs, chores and tasks). The point is that, in Breughel’s painting, the fall of Icarus – a sensational event caused by his flying too close to the sun and melting the wax with which his father, Daedalus, had glued his wings – takes place in spring and nobody pays much attention. The farmer goes on ploughing, the shepherd watches his sheep, a fisherman peers into the depths, an elegant ship plunges on under its ballooning sails. Off to the side, perhaps in the corner of the eye, Icarus hits the water and his legs flail comically before he sinks forever.


Auden's Musee des Beaux ArtsIn his marvellous poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, W.H. Auden reflects on Breughel’s curiously offhand account of a big event: ‘About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’ This is what happens in Breughel’s ‘landscape’. ‘Everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster,’ Auden says.

How people react depends on the fabric and urgencies of the lives on which the boy’s fall impinges. If you’re ploughing at the time, it’s quite reasonable for that to occupy wholly your attention – the weather might change, you don’t want to get caught by nightfall, and so on. If you’re looking after your flock of sheep then you focus on them vigilantly: sheep being what they are they’ll be through the fence or over a cliff if you did otherwise; and if you are sailing, the fall, however clearly seen, is a diversion and will not be allowed to become an interruption. Life, even grossly sybaritic life, goes on.


IcarusBreughel’s message – and Auden’s – is: like it or not, life goes on. In grief, for example, we must accept that, despite the loss of a loved one and the shock or injustice of the death, carrying on – becoming immersed in tasks, having a drink after work, making love – is not callous. You might call it the Icarus Effect – lives go on as if a boy had not suddenly plunged out of the sky into the water. You keep working, you sail on, you continue fishing, you look the other way among your flock of sheep – as if nothing had happened. You do this because, to some extent, you can’t afford to do otherwise. Not only pragmatic imperatives – like ploughing or shepherding – but also reasonable emotional caution dictates that you take account of T.S. Eliot’s observation that humankind can only stand so much reality.

There’s a lot of reality around at the moment – at Guantanamo, in Baghdad, in East Timor, in Australian workplaces … To be fully human, we must observe, take account of, if possible influence, these realities as best we can; but at the same time life, ordinary quotidian life, must go on. In our age perhaps more than ever before, it is impossible to pretend that Icarus did not fall from the sky, yet it is a human imperative to keep sailing calmly on.



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