The death of Icarus

How foolish can the president’s wife be? Very foolish indeed, it seems, unless what recently was reported and I witnessed on TV is totally misunderstood by me. On her trip to “inspect” a recently government created detention camp for children separated from their undocumented refugee parents and would be immigrants, Melania Trump wore a jacket with the inscription on the back, “I really don’t care. Do U?” Is this a statement suggesting that she does not care what reporters write about her fashion choices, or her disregard for the plight of the detained children and their desperate parents? While I think this is probably meant for the photographers and reporters, I find the choice of the inscription unbelievably stupid.

It was an interesting coincidence that Gail and I, the other evening, watched a TV reportage about the famous Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) whose painting entitled “Landschap met de val van Icarus” or “Landscape with the fall of Icarus” addresses Melania jacket’s scribbled inscription. In a way it also addresses our president and his dedicated collaborators and followers who, in all probability, prefer to think about children’s forced separation from parents in the more Trumpian literary form of “I don’t give a damn. Do U?”

Just in case you do not know the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, here is a brief summary.

In Greek mythology Icarus is the son of an Athenian creative genius and craftsman by name of Daedalus. The latter created the labyrinth near king Minos’ palace at Knossos to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of his wife and the Cretan bull. King Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the labyrinth because he gave his daughter Ariadne a ball of string in order to help Theseus, the enemy of Minos, to survive the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from Crete by using artificial wings made from feathers, held together by wax. The father cautions his son of the danger of flying too low or too high. If too low, the sea’s humidity might clog the feathers; if too high, the sun might melt the wax. The two take off and Icarus the son, emboldened and giddy by their success, ignores his father’s advice. Soaring into the sky, he gets too close to the sun, loses the wings as the wax melts, falls into the sea and drowns. The area where the tragedy supposedly occurred is called the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island southwest of Samos.

As we watched the TV program, it occurred to me that during my five year stay in Brussels, Belgium, long ago, I bought a few reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings one of which was Icarus’ fall, now hanging in our dining area. Quickly I got it from its place on the wall and reacquainted myself with its content.

While there have been many attempts to make intelligent guesses of what Bruegel meant by giving us his painted interpretation of Icarus’ fall and death, I came to the conclusion that master Bruegel, predating by roughly six centuries our own recent catastrophic events of children being ripped from their parents at our southern border by US law, carries a lesson for us all.

If this is of interest to you, use our phenomenal electronic wizardry and make Bruegel’s picture appear on your computer screen. I will try to guide you.

The scene is taken from a hilltop. In the left lower corner in the foreground a man behind a plow pulled by a horse prepares furrows for planting. This takes all his attention. In the far distance we see outlines of a city on the shore of the sea which stretches toward the horizon. Below the plowman graze a bunch of sheep. The shepherd stands with his back toward the sea as he looks into the sky as if in deep meditation. The sea holds several sail boats and two ships, one of them, the larger one, is seen in the right lower corner of the picture, as it is sailing into the harbor. Between that ship and the peremptory where the plowman works and the shepherd below gazes upwards, there is a narrow sea passage. Looking carefully into that area in the lower right of the picture, beyond a fishing fellow sitting on the shore, one can see two legs of a partially submerged drowning individual – obviously those belonging to Icarus, fallen from the sky and drowning in the sea.

No one knows what master Bruegel had in mind when he painted the picture. As I read its meaning, it suggests the sad reality that relatively few people pay attention or desire to pay attention to tragedies happening in their close purview. We close our eyes and ears so as not to hear; so as not to get involved; so as not to be drawn into the tragedy ourselves. The plowman sees nothing nor does the shepherd. The fisherman watches his line and disregards the man plummeting from the sky and drowning.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Thus, having compassion means to participate and to share in the suffering person’s lot. This, in turn, means that to be compassionate means taking risks. We all know that words are cheap compared to actions which can be dangerous and costly.

The recent and ongoing crisis of children being separated from their refugee parents at our southern border and the public outcry against this practice heard throughout the land – yes, even among some of our Republican fellow citizens – and the subsequent forced backpedaling by the president who rescinded this inhuman practice demonstrates clearly that when there is the will to resist injustice perpetrated by even the highest authority in our land, things happen and the will of the people prevails.

My congratulations go the United Methodist Church for censuring their member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for his directing I.C.E. to carry out these inhuman activities.

Let us not turn a blind eye to other human being’s suffering, and remember Hillel’s teaching, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a):

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

One thought on “The death of Icarus

  1. Thank you, Dear Walter….. Thank you. — Kathy

    Katharine R. Meacham, Ph.D. Professor Emerita, Philosophy, Mars Hill University Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Social Medicine, UNC SOM-Asheville Course Co-Director, Ethics & Humanism, UNC SOM-Asheville Campus (828) 273-2983 (cell); k rmeacham@gmail.com

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