Monday, December 19, 2011

Not a single sparrow falls

If you don't know this painting don't read beyond this first paragraph until you have examined it closely. Click to enlarge.

The painting is titled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, or simply The Fall of Icarus. It was painted about 1560 and is ascribed (perhaps erroneously) to Pieter Breughel.

Icarus, of course, is the character in Greek myth, son of Daedalus, who flew with wax-attached wings too close to the sun. The wax melted and Icarus fell to his death. Yes, those are the lad's legs protruding from the sea at lower right. Funny fall, that. The sun is on the horizon, half set. A long curious arc it must have been that brought the boy to this particular place of demise.

But physics was not Breughel's subject. It is generally conceded he had something else in mind, namely the indifference of ordinary folks like you and me to the suffering of others. The boy drowns. The plowman plows. The shepherd gazes into the sky, indifferent (in this version of the painting). Even the fisherman, so near at hand, seems oblivious to the tragedy unfolding before his very eyes.

As W. H. Auden says in a poem on the painting:
…The plowman 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.
William Carlos Williams also wrote on the same theme:
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning.
The blade of the plow lays the turf cleanly over. The sheep dog sits faithfully beside his master. The sailors in the ship's rigging go about their business. A boy drowns.

This is quite different from Ovid's version of the foundational myth, which clearly inspired Brueghel.
A fisherman, who with his pliant rod
Was angling there below, caught sight of them;
And then a shepherd leaning on his staff
And, too, a peasant leaning on his plow
Saw them and were dismayed: they thought that these
Must surely be some gods, sky-voyaging.
In Brueghel, interest becomes indifference. This is, after all, Northern Europe in the 16th century, aflutter with commerce and technical innovation. We are halfway between Leonardo and Galileo. Copernicus has put the Earth into flight around the sun. Vesalius has laid the body bare. Gold and silver from new worlds west and east flow into the coffers of money managers. What is Icarus' sad demise to us? It is not just a mythical boy who is drowning; it is myth itself.