During the mid-sixteenth century, the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder created a work titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” If you did not have the title of the painting to guide you it would be quite easy to miss the impact of this particular piece. At first glance it seems to be a fairly typical Flemish landscape: in the foreground a man plows a field, behind a shepherd guards his sheep, and in the distance ships sail in rocky bay. Then, as you look more closely at the bottom right-hand corner you notice two little legs disappearing into the ocean. Icarus, his wax wings melted by the sun, has plunged into the sea and none of the people in the painting (or even the viewer outside the frame) noticed the tragedy taking place before their eyes. A few centuries later, the poet W.H. Auden viewed the painting in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels and wrote some lines reflecting on the very human tendency to ignore the suffering of others.
Musee des Beaux Arts
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 Breughel’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.
Every time I read this poem I feel chastened, ashamed that I dare go on with my ‘doggy life’ while others are suffering around me. I have been Icarus, plummeting into the water, suffocating in darkness, splashing with my might, hoping in vain for someone to save me. Well, to be honest, sometimes I have wanted to fall into the sea and drown quietly; I hope my kicking legs will not be noticed, that any splashing I make will not draw attention. Surely my hubris meant that I deserved oblivion. Unlike Icarus I have always made it to shore, but even then I have often emerged on the beach exhausted, dripping wet and alone.
And yet, even more often than I have been Icarus I have been the plowman or the shepherd, turning away from the splash and pretending that I do not see. There are many reasons for this—perhaps I don’t know how to swim, perhaps if I neglect my flocks to save the boy my sheep will run away and my family will be destitute, perhaps I must plow my field that day and have no time. Sometimes there is something I can do to ease another’s suffering and I deliberately ignore them and go on with my life. If this is truly the case, then I am wrong.
Upon re-reading the poem, however, I realized that the condemnation for those who turn away from suffering comes in the second stanza. In the first, Auden mentions two types of ‘innocents’: children who are unaware of the significance of events happening around them and animals that are incapable of understanding or offering aid. Am I excused, then, if I happen to be living my ‘doggy life’ and tragedy is happening just around the corner? What if it is happening across the state? The country? The world? The problem is, I am not a dog and unfortunately I am not a child anymore. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world, both near and far, that I feel impotent and incapable of doing anything. Or sometimes I feel guilt because I am just enjoying a nice, happy ‘doggy life’ day while somewhere nearby (as well as far away) someone else is having the worst day of their life.
These kinds of paradoxes are what make mortality such a powerful experience for us. We are not omnipotent or omniscient and cannot see or alleviate all of, or even most of, the suffering in the world. What, then, can we do? I was comforted recently by reading a post written last year for the tenth anniversary of September 11. In it, Sunny proposes that our willingness to acknowledge suffering, to ‘watch a while’ with those whom we cannot help individually, and to remember and acknowledge them is a Christ-like act. This soothes my heart. Perhaps the plowman and the shepherd and the people on the ship could have done nothing to help Icarus. But, as Auden points out, they still could have at least turned to acknowledge him instead of passing by.
And so, the next time I read Auden’s poem I will still feel that prick of guilt, that exquisite paradox that mortal life is both beautiful and painful. But, I will also remember that doing something is better than nothing. I will resolve to do a better job to be more aware of those around me, to notice the splash, and to avoid ‘sailing calmly on’ when I have just seen someone fall from the sky.