The fall of Icarus: Strike diary 5

In my last post, I mentioned Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of Icarus (or rather Landscape with the Fall of Icarus). I’d like to return to this painting, as it happens to be one of my favourite.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus, 1560s. One of the most beautiful pictorial representations of the story as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.

The painting, which is believed to be an early copy rather than the original Bruegel, is to be found in the Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts, where it is part of the second largest collection of Bruegel works in the world (I guess the largest is in the Prado Museum – I’m not sure). As a child, I often visited the museum and enjoyed the lively details that are characteristic of Bruegel’s style.

Last winter, I had the pleasure of introducing Tween T and Big Boy G to Bruegel’s work. I was happy to see that both boys were particularly attracted by The Fall of Icarus, which in my opinion is the finest pictorial representation of the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus, who attempted to escape Crete and King Minos with wings made of feathers and wax. After a good start, Icarus grew cocky, and flew too close to the sun. The heat caused the wax to melt, and Icarus fell into the Aegean Sea.

In Bruegel’s painting, Icarus’ fall is only a detail, almost unnoticeable at first – a mere splash in the water. Instead we see a ploughman, a shepherd, and a fisherman. They do not appear to notice the momentous events unfolding in front of them.

Bruegel’s inspiration was of course Ovid’s version of the myth of Icarus. There too, we encounter the ploughman, the shepherd and the fisherman. But there, they do notice the flying Daedalus and Icarus:

Some fisherman catching fish with a quivering rod,
Or a shepherd leaning on his staff, or a ploughman on his plough-handle,
Saw them and was struck with amazement, believing them to be gods
Who could tear through the air (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.217-220).

In other representations of the myth, the fisherman, shepherd and ploughman notice Daedalus and Icarus flying. Painting by Joos de Momper, 1564-1635.

The onlookers believe Daedalus and Icarus to be gods, and do not witness the only-too-human fall to earth. The message in Bruegel’s version is much more powerful. Yes, hybristic behaviour will lead to a downfall, but nobody will really care. Everyday life in all its simplicity will go on.

No wonder Bruegel’s painting has inspired some great ekphrastic poems: one by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) and one by W.H. Auden (1907-1973). I like the simple musicality of Williams’ free verse:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

All this is ‘unsignificant’.

As you may have guessed, there’s a message here. However, if Icarus falls to earth, if university management has to back down, how (un)significant will that fall be? For criticism of the strike does not fall on deaf ears: pensions are much worse in the private sector than in universities; concerns over pensions are a luxury when so many academics live such a precarious existence (why didn’t we strike over that); aren’t there much more important things going on in the world? I know that I’m personally striking for much more than pensions, as a way to reclaim the fact that we (staff) are the university, but I do find it hard to answer such questions. This striking business ain’t easy!


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