JS: There’s a painting and a line of poetry about it that agitate me and I wonder if they ruffle your kilt as well.
W. H. Auden unfurls a well-known poem about this painting (ekphrasis) that includes the lines:
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…
What, then, are the important failures, and how does one recognise them and deal with them? I think Auden’s poem is partly about the limits of sympathy even as the self-awareness of the speaker seems to urge the reader to a new, heightened level of sensitivity to the various splashes around us. Isn’t our brief, flickering life itself a more or less unimportant failure? Keats’s epitaph always comes to mind: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” So, too, was Icarus’s name the moment after his legs disappeared into the green sea. And yet the poem itself—a tiny sea of ink—keeps his name (and Auden’s) alive. I think failure is an interesting idea to pursue. With what success we shall see.
KM: I like this poem too, but I think Auden is being a little naughty with us: “the ploughman may/Have heard…” Well, if he did, you can be sure as anything he would be rubbernecking like the best of them. Other people’s tragedies are fascinating and I think Breughel and Auden are making different points here. Or, rather, Auden is bending Breughel’s point to fit his own argument.
People love the tragedy of others and, I think, in it, see the grotesquely fascinating possibility of their own tragedy.
“Just fell clean out of the sky he did! Sank like a battleship!” I can hear the ploughman saying, if he had seen the fall.
It’s not really sympathy for others, just an extension of our own solipsistic ego. How would I deal with that if that was me? There but for the grace of God go I. Other people’s failures are both satisfying and worthy of inspection to see the possible consequences or learning curves for our own existence. Take dear Hillary Clinton, condemned for an uncertain time to walk the earth, like a contemporary Ancient Mariner, telling anyone who will listen how awful it was that the Orange Headed Monster beat her. Arguably, there is no greater picture of failure and despair on the planet and it is utterly exquisite to examine and imagine her pain in infinite detail. As Nietzsche says, “There is no feast without cruelty”.
Icarus’ failure is fatal; Hillary’s is merely chronic. Important for both of them, academic, interesting but, ultimately, unimportant for us.
JS: I am reminded of Beckett’s line, ‘There is nothing funnier than unhappiness’ and the fact that the Germans—those notoriously humourless people—nevertheless have a word for taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others: schadenfreude. Our ploughman might have found the fall of Icarus hilarious, the ultimate slip on the banana peel.
As to the idea that the tragedies of others present us with the possibility of our own, it occurs to me that this psychological insight has affinities with Freud’s idea of Thanatos, or a death-drive: the strong desire, as Hamlet would say, not to be. Does some part of us want to be Icarus? Not because he got to see so far from his dizzying, melting heights, but because he ends up as shark snacks. Hamlet’s many death-haunted thoughts and observations suggest that he—like Keats—was ‘half in love with easeful death.’ And on Joseph Conrad’s grave-stone, we find the following verse: ‘Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please’.
But let me return to Auden and what he is attempting in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Is the point of the poem that the old Masters were not wrong about suffering because they saw that we keep it at the margins of our lives, that we can only sympathise so far because the splashes of others are simply not our splashes? But the poem itself makes us far more self-aware of this distance and, in doing so, excites our power of sympathy. And yet, says Auden in another poem, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ I have always puzzled over that line and the way Auden a moment later claims that poetry is ‘a way of happening, a mouth’. Does poetry make a splash, or not? Has a poem ever made something profound happen? What kind of mouth does poetry have? Icarus no doubt screamed his head off on the way down. But no one heard it. Why? Because we are all ‘expensive delicate ships’ and have somewhere to go, and so must sail calmly on. But doesn’t knowing that make something happen in our selfish souls?
KM: Auden famously said, “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” But it is also, especially, for the non-religious, our confessional, shriving time where we should be at our most honest, and most exposed. The ultimate suffering, for the mind, seems to be the suffering of extinction, what MacNeice called, “the black hole hitherto shunned in dreams.” I don’t think poetry has ever made anything happen and it tends to be reflective, re-active. I often tell my students that 95% of all poetry is about love, sex, death or nature, sometimes separately, sometimes together. But it is also pretty unanimously grave, in every sense of the word. Wasn’t it de Montherlant who said, “Happiness writes in white ink on a white page.” When we confront ourselves in the confessional box of poetry, it is rarely a laughing matter. The humour of the gallows, at best. The mouth of poetry is set firm in a grimace.
JS: Indeed. It is the mouth that says, ‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio—the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.’ It is the mouth in the graveyard speaking into Yorick’s hollowed out ear. And of course the mouth that speaks all of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’—where we hear: ‘not to be here, not to be anywhere, nothing more terrible, nothing more true’. I really like ‘the confessional box of poetry’ and recall a lecture I heard 25 years ago about how the confessional lyric gained ascendancy as the Catholic confessional became more and more obsolete. The reader, then, becomes the confessor. Except we don’t care and there is no penance (when I was a Catholic lad, I thoroughly enjoyed lying to the priest about my little sins, thereby sinning in the confessional).
‘Breaking bread with the dead’ is a superb line. Section I of The Waste Land is an explicit performance of that rite. Is writing poetry a little like what Plato says about studying philosophy: a preparation for death? Why do you write poetry? Don’t you want to make a splash of some kind? I think I write to amuse and divert myself and to see if anyone thinks I have any talent. But mostly I write because it is pretty much the only thing that doesn’t make me feel like a profound waste of three-dimensional space.
KM: I think all art is an attempt to defeat death. To achieve immortality through different means and, to an extent, it works. The fact that I think a little about Dickens and Shakespeare every day means they are still a little bit alive. They have transcended the great oubliette that awaits most of us and live on, after a fashion. Some writers face death head-on. Didn’t Dylan Thomas write “And death shall have no dominion” and Donne, “Death, thou shalt die”? I will not achieve immortality through my writing, but I do want to capture something that has not yet been truly noticed. At least produce one artefact for the great museum of observation
JS: I think just about everything humans do, from planting crops, to raising children, to fitting a kitchen, to having sex, to having a martini, to creating works of art—is an attempt to cheat death. I have to say I am in the Woody Allen camp when it comes to the immortality-through-art trick: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my works. I want to achieve immortality by not dying”. Having said that I don’t want to live more than another 20 years or so. And I don’t care if I leave nothing of literary worth behind me. I think Auden’s ‘breaking bread with the dead’ is about as good as life gets, just as writing dialogues with interesting people is a kind of sacramental meal, washed down with goblet after goblet of white ink. Is this the only kind of feast without cruelty?
KM: Back to Breughel. I’m still baffled why Auden focuses on “suffering”. I’m sure Breughel’s point is more about Icarus’ hubris and then his general insignificance in the great scheme of things rather than anything else. The silly boy is literally a mere drop in the ocean as, indeed, will we all be. If you look at the canvas, the amount of space taken up by humans compared to nature is tiny, as it should be. The sea and the sky remain, the people disappear. The tragedy is in the seriousness with which we focus on our insignificant lives.
JS: It’s because it is the only life we get and we don’t want to screw it up or have it end abruptly. And the paradox we must eat every day is: on the one hand the universe is unimaginably large and we are merely specks of dust in the great scheme of things; on the other hand, we are at the centre and circumference of our lives and see all meaning emanating from ourselves. That is one difficult circle to square. I think most people deal with it by altogether forgetting the cosmic part and living in the small world of ego. It helps to marginalise suffering to keep it on the borders of this self-absorbed life, ploughing forward, blithely oblivious to anything but the dirt ahead of you, the furrows behind you. Suffering is what others do while one keeps one’s head down.
KM: Which kind of brings us full circle and explains the fascination we have for other people’s tragedies, boys falling out of the sky etc. It’s a vicarious way of examining potential suffering in our own lives without actually admitting the possibility of it. We are picking the scab of our existence – a far less wholesome image than breaking bread with the dead. The eternity of the vibrant world –
the whole pageantry
of the year was awake tingling with itself (William Carlos Williams)
pitted against our own ephemeral lives.
Did you know there is a Belgian proverb: “En de boer ... hij ploegde voort” (And the farmer continued to plough…)
JS: And then there is Candide’s mechanical reply, having seen the sundry horrors of the world and having felt the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: “Yes, but we must cultivate our garden.” He ends up like our ploughman, keeping his head down, tending to his post-lapsarian plot of ground, miles from sea-splashes. We are not far off Gogo and Didi sticking near their bare tree, waiting. Is anything funnier than their unhappiness?
KM: Well, funny is one word. With those two we are forced to watch a horror that we can only laugh at. The plot that they tend is six feet deep and two feet wide and they were born astride it.
JS: Speaking of people making their own grave plots, what should we make of this image?Here we have a cityscape with the fall of employees who, thirty minutes before, were sitting down to morning coffee at their desks. Fictional and mythic ‘falls’ may be edifying and even diverting if we even pay attention to them. But how are we supposed to respond to the images above? My darkest reading: no differently at all! Unless one of those falling is a husband or wife or mother or child of one’s own. But if you do not know them, how are they more real than Icarus or Gogo or Didi? How important can their ‘failure’ really be?
KM: That’s a pretty ugly curve ball I wasn’t expecting. I think the thing is that I respond academically and intellectually to Icarus’ downfall, but as a man and fellow human to the 9/11 images and so find them infinitely more distressing. Also, I know 9/11 happened whereas the story of Icarus could just have been one of Ovid’s pan pipe dreams. Plus we’ve overlooked the hubris that I think Breughel, and certainly Ovid, is driving at which colours our perspective on the silly boy. I get where you are coming from though. I think it’s about proximity. Nobody really feels the death of, say, English soldiers at Isandlwana because it’s too Victorian, too far back. This year we will remember the centenary of the conclusion of The Great War.
At what point will this:
cease to have relevance? We don’t commemorate the dead of Waterloo 1815, but we are emotional about the dead of the battle of Loos 1915. At some point those Belgian farmers will want their land back for growing beets or for housing developments. At what point will the dead cease to be live?
JS: The circle of life. As some poet said, “One day trees will be trolleys and trolleys will be trees.” It is folly to say “Never forget” but the moral imperative is well-taken nevertheless. The 9/11 photographs of plummeting people are distressing, but only for so long. Mass graveyards are also distressing but I begin to think that the sheer volume of the dead is inversely proportionate to the sympathy they generate. If that sounds unfeeling, it’s because it is. But I would rather be unfeeling than get cosy with kitched-up emotionalism. There’s far too much of that sentimental frippery in our time, no?
KM: Oh yes, the Diana disease, as I call it. If emotion comes too quickly, it had better off not come at all. “The circle of life” has a nice Zen feel to it which brings us back to the importance/unimportance of our individual lives as we live them. And death is but a part of that, albeit a chilling part. Funnily enough, Philip Larkin who, as we know, had a chronic fear of death, once said he thought the moment of death would be like an orgasm. How terribly French of him?
JS: French or Egyptian à la Shakespeare? Cleopatra conceived of thousands of ways of dying (having an orgasm) before that asp—hardly believing its luck—fed on the Queen’s brown breast. If death is a kind of orgasm, that is at once the cruellest and kindest fate. I have a strong suspicion that death is the ultimate anti-climax. Followed by an eternity of nothingness. That fierce imaginer of death, Emily Dickinson put it this way in “I heard a fly buzzed when I died.”
With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz - Between the light - and me - And then the Windows failed - and then I could not see to see –
KM: Is Dickinson bringing us back to Breughel there? Inconsequential happenings at our climactic moment? “Its human position; how it takes place/While someone is eating or opening a window”?
JS: A deft connection. In fancier, philosophical terms, I would say that Dickinson is recording the death of sense experience, the implosion of phenomenology as her eyes (also the windows to her soul) fail—an important failure, the important failure—but only for her. I am also reminded of Heidegger’s idea that dying is the one thing that no one can do for us. We necessarily die alone, even if surrounded by ‘loved ones’. We are always on the margins and then we fall off the map altogether. Does that fact make life more beautiful or more absurd?
KM: Or even a death connection. We do die alone, but I always envisage the moment of death as sudden and instant and then it’s over. The ripples that span out after our white legs have disappeared into the green are what our loved ones have to deal with. It is for them to contemplate the enormity of death and the suddenness with which we slip away through the cracks of the world. One of my undergraduate tutors wrote a poem reflecting on the death of his father, which I have always remembered:
That death is yours which will teach you All that can be learned about death. And when you die yourself That will be something for someone else to learn. The death we know in our life is the only death we know, Our certain share in immortality.
JS: Pretty lines. But what immortality? Ripples spread out and die as quickly as one whose name was writ in water.
KM: I think there is a certain poetic licence going on there. I remember all the deaths I’ve dealt with, of people close to me and so, I think, that splash and those ripples spread out a little further than you’re suggesting, but I agree it’s not forever. Time erases us all in the end. Better, perhaps, to remember Horace: "Lusisti satis, satis bibisti. Tempus abire est" ("You've enjoyed yourself, indulged yourself. It's time to go"). It’s just our ego yelling from its own solipsistic shell.
JS: Damned ego. It thinks it’s so important, even when it fails to make much of a splash. Dying is probably the best thing for it!
KM: Remember when Othello says “Chaos is come again”? I think what he’s referring to is the lonely, undefined existence that had no meaning before he met Desdemona. A time when he was able to comprehend the uselessness of the human condition and, as a soldier, the probability of death. His relationship with Desdemona gives meaning to his existence and breathes life into his ego thus rendering him self-important. American Space Head, Terence McKenna, once said that: “Chaos is what we've lost touch with. This is why it is given a bad name. It is feared by the dominant archetype of our world, which is Ego, which clenches because its existence is defined in terms of control.”
Only when we accept chaos can we accept the thrust of Breughel’s painting; a ploughman will till his lonely furrow, a rich ship may sail casually past and, somewhere, a boy may fall from the sky to show that shit happens, not spectacularly, but mundanely.