I have a few works of art that have had significant influence upon my theological life and Breughel's Fall of Icarus is one of them. Icarus, as you probably know, attempted to fly with feather wings held together with wax, made for him by his father Daedalus. Icarus ignored his father's warnings and flew too close to the sun which melted his wings and he fell from the sky into the sea and drowned. Breughel (although some dispute this) painted the myth into a medieval landscape and you can see the legs of icarus in the bottom right-hand corner or the painting behind the ship. The myth, written by Ovid, speaks of a ploughman, shepherd and angler, all of them amazed that the gods would approach them from the sky, but the painting takes a different attitude and seems to have the three figures simply gpoing on about their business, life as usual, even though a man with wings has fallen from the sky into their world. The shepherd does appear to be looking to the sky, but he is facing the wrong direction and is leaning against his staff in a restful posture. Apparently there is an old Flemish proverb, part of which says, "the farmer continued to plough," which references our indifference to the sufferings of our fellow humans. A moment of spectacular and tragic failure, captured in the bottom corner of a painting, the moment of death, lost in the immensity of the landscape and the nonchalance of those portrayed in the work.
It's said that story of Icarus is about hubris and failed ambition (his image is used on the Bankruptcy Court at the Amsterdam Town Hall), but I am taken by Breughel's additional angle, that the failed ambition is over-looked rather than taken into account by the by-standers. They are not moved by his failure, life just goes on, and they completely ignore this moment.
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;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
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; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."
Auden wrote this right before the Second World War and seems to address the subject of the approaching war through art and uses Breughel's painting to give voice to his concerns that perhaps people would not hear otherwise. He compares the old world with the new and essentially says that in both cases life goes on and we are immune to the suffering of others. Auden seems to see signs of impending disaster that nobody else is voicing and he uses his encounter with the poem to highlight his concern. He is worried about the course toward war that has been set, and names the suffering it will undoubtedly cause.
I'm saying all of this with Syria in mind. However, I think in this case, the suffering of people is being used to justify hubris, in calling for military action against the country. It feels like 'flying too close to the sun to me,' there is so much unexplained, or at least, that I haven't heard explained in a way that makes sense. 'Assad' must go, well sure, he seems to be yet another dictator/leader who controls and manipulates his country, causing suffering, hardship and fear. But then what? There doesn't seem to be a unified resistance movement or opposition party. There have been those terrible images of rebel fighter brutality. Then there is Iraq, Afghanistan etc. etc., have we not yet learned the lesson? I get the feeling that there is a 'we are right this time' attitude, and I think it is dumb. I dont think we should be like the ploughman, shepherd and angler, leaning into spring while others are locked in a 'winter of discontent,' but I'm not sure that bombs are the answer. What is? I don't know, I truly don't, but not bombs, not again.
Slavoj Zizek had some interesting things to say in today's Guardian newspaper Comment section. Syria is a pseudo-struggle, is the title of his op-ed piece which he ends with this rather enigmatic paragraph,
"So what is happening in Syria these days? Nothing really special, except that China is one step closer to becoming the world's new superpower while its competitors are eagerly weakening each other."
Now, Zizek has his own stuff going on and lately I find myself parting company with him more often than not, but I do share his belief that there is a pseudo-struggle here and I fear that there is a tendency to get drawn into things because of a desire to fly too close to the sun.
I don't know what I'm talking about exactly, I'm just trying to give words to some things I'm feeling, so apologies if this post feels fragmented and incomplete...it is.