Everything falls into place

Philip Kennicott writes in The Washington Post:

There is [a?] painting called “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” once thought to be by Pieter Bruegel, now believed to be a high-level copy of a missing original by the same artist. It has been an inspiration to poets, including W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, because it depicts, with brutal humor, a simple fact that most of us are loath to acknowledge: Suffering is incommunicable.

Somehow I missed the news about the new attribution, although it dates back to the mid-1990s so I should have found out earlier. At any rate, there’s a consensus the composition is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder himself, whoever executed the painting.

I wouldn’t throw around the word incommunicable too often, especially when it doesn’t quite fit. Auden isn’t saying Icarus’s pain can’t be expressed or understood. Rather, as was obvious to the “old Masters,” people have always been good at compartmentalizing away others’ suffering.

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.

Writing this in the late 1930s, Auden had solid reasons, which the coming years would solidify further, to see looking away from others’ agonies as default human behavior. Perhaps it is a consequence of the “not me, not I” reflex, helping to dull one’s fear of becoming a victim and one’s hatred of the perpetrators by placing the outrages beyond some imaginary protective wall.

In more pacific times, however, viewers may grow confident that the ploughman heard nothing and the folks aboard saw nothing – all but a perpetually drunken sailor whose fantastic tales no one had ever believed. The hero dies unnoticed. Not because everyone deliberately turns away. Just because.

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