fall of icarus

fall of icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is described in W H Auden’s famous poem Musée des Beaux-Arts , named after the museum in Brussels which holds the painting.
© Bridgeman Art Library / Royal Musuems of Fine Arts of Belgium

Fall of icarus
This neglect of Icarus’s tragedy is, at one level, terrifying and sad. We read into it how little the world cares about our own pains. And yet, from another perspective, this neglect is deeply gratifying and importantly redemptive. It is one of the central sources of our unhappiness that we spend so much of our lives fearing for our reputations and wondering what others will think of us when we fail – as we inevitably will at points. The slightest change in our image in the eyes of others can obsess us. We lie awake at night wondering how we could cope without the approval of people we don’t even like very much. We surrender our freedom to the verdicts of strangers.
It shows a superficially bucolic scene: ships are taking sail, a shepherd is tending to his flock, distant cities look prosperous and ordered.

Fall of icarus
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure…

If you look very closely, you can see the spindly legs of a small body that has just fallen into the sea, while the country folk on the shore are just going through their daily routine:

Fall of icarus
The news reached King Cocalus and he immediately asked for Daedalus for he knew that if anyone could solve the puzzle, it would be him. His old age hadn’t affected the brilliant mind of Daedalus and when he saw the puzzle, he knew exactly what to do. At one end of the sea-shell, he placed a drop of honey and then tying a string to an ant, let the insect in from the other end to wander through the myriad spirals of the shell. Drawn by the sweet smell of honey, the ant emerged at the other end, stringing the shell through and through. Minos knew that he had found his man. Immediately, he demanded that the wily old fox be handed over but Cocalus had other plans. He coaxed King Minos to stay a while in Camicus to rest from the long trip. Seeing no harm in it, Minos consented and waited while the chambermaids were getting his bath ready. In the meantime, Cocalus’ daughters, who for years had been charmed by Daedalus’ inventions and stories and couldn’t bear to see him taken away, conspired to kill Minos. When it was time to take his bath, they poured scalding hot water on him. In his soul, this could have been the revenge of Daedalus: he saw the death of the man who led, in some point, to the death of his son.
Delirious with desire for the bull, Pasiphae asked Daedalus to construct for her a hollow wooden cow. Getting into the strange contraption, she made amorous advances towards the bull. Their bizarre union resulted in the birth of the Minotaur which was half-man, half-bull. Ashamed at his wife’s deed, Minos wanted to hide the monster which was growing violent and gigantic day after day. For this reason, he asked Daedalus to build a labyrinth for the beast, a structure with many twists and turns where a person could get lost interminably. Such was the intricacy of the edifice that even Daedalus had a tough time finding his way out. In fact, Ovid makes worthy mentions of Daedalus in his works. In Metamorphoses, Ovid says that the labyrinth was constructed with such shrewdness that even the master-craftsman barely found his way out. The Minotaur was kept at the center of the labyrinth, hidden away from prying eyes. It had to be fed with young people and was the horror of Minos’ enemies and subjects.

Fall of icarus
“About suffering they were never wrong / The Old Masters…how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” 1 So wrote W.H. Auden in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts in response to his viewing the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c 1558) by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 2
This theme of compassion failure pervades the short work by physician Anton Chekhov,“A Boring Story: From an Old Man’s Notes 14 : Nikolai Stepanovich, a medical professor emeritus, describes himself as “a highly distinguished man of great gifts and unquestionable usefulness.” At age 62, though, this professor is depressed and clearly suffering from his own preoccupations and vulnerabilities. He tells us that he has tic douloureux, false teeth, a bald head, poor memory with a decline in his mental agility, and incapacitating insomnia. With the “fervor of the hypochondriac,” the professor peruses therapeutic texts and self-medicates with a different medication daily. 14 Nothing holds his interest or gives him pleasure, including the sight of his wife, now “this old, very stout, ungainly woman with a dull expression” 14 whom he had once “passionately loved.” 14 His lectures used to give him more enjoyment than anything else but now make him feel tortured and ashamed. He no longer has any patience or compassion for his students. To one young man who has invested five years in medical study but has continually failed the professor’s exams, he cruelly suggests that he abandon his training. To another student, who seeks mentoring advice from him, he is caustic and dismissive. He describes himself as indifferent, which he defines as a “paralysis of the soul, a premature death.” 14