On Icarus and L’Appel du Vide

We all know the myth of Icarus, the boy who disobeyed his father’s commands not to fly too high and too close to the sun with his wings built of wax and feathers, whose wings melted, and thus fell to his death in the sea. It is one of the most popular and enduring of the Greek myths. It has been told time and time again, from the earliest Greek poets, to the Romans Hyginus and Ovid, a variety of Renaissance playwrights and poets (no less than Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton), and modern poets like Auden, Williams, and Sexton. It has been represented in art throughout these time periods as well. And there are similar stories in Hindu, Chinese, and Babylonian mythology as well. It has even inspired a psychological term: “Icarus Complex,” to characterize certain kinds of bipolar mania, relating to the symptoms of being obsessed with heights, fire, and water, displaying narcissistic behavior, and extremely far-fetched fantasies/thoughts.

But why do we all continue to be so enchanted by, or fascinated with, or obsessed with Icarus?

Consider this painting, “The Lament for Icarus” by Herbert James Draper:

The Lament of Icarus (1898); Herbert James Draper; from Wikipedia Commons
The Lament of Icarus (1898); Herbert James Draper; from Wikipedia Commons

Or the “Icarus” by Henri Matisse, one of the plates he made to illustrate his book Jazz:

Icarus (1947); Henri Matisse; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Icarus (1947); Henri Matisse; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

And the famous “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” ostensibly by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (though there seems to be some question about that):

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); from Wikipedia Commons
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1555); Pieter Bruegel the Elder; from Wikipedia Commons

This last was the inspiration for the poems by both W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams (two of my favorite poems, frankly). I’ve included them here, because why not.

Musee des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

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.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

But then there is also the now-less-known poem by Stephen Vincent Benet. Benet is one of my personal favorite poets (you’ll noticed I created a photoset specifically for his poem “Nos Immortales”), but he is not much remembered these days. When I was in high school we was still discussed somewhat because his (truly amazing) short story “By the Waters of Babylon” was included the old Prentice Hall Literature textbooks (he also wrote the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster”). And some people still remember him because he wrote the epic long-form narrative poem John Brown’s Body. One of his short stories was even adapted into the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He won the Pulitzer twice. And yet no one really talks about him anymore, and certainly not about his poetry as a whole. I fear he is considered too flowery and emotional for modernism and contemporary poets.

In any case, his poem about Icarus is one of the best (in my humble opinion). He approaches the pathos, the inspiration, rather than the tragedy or hubris of the story.

“The Winged Man”
Stephen Vincent Benet

The moon, a sweeping scimitar, dipped in the stormy straits,
The dawn, a crimson cataract, burst through the eastern gates,
The cliffs were robed in scarlet, the sands were cinnabar,
Where first two men spread wings for flight and dared the hawk afar.

There stands the cunning workman, the crafty past all praise,
The man who chained the Minotaur, the man who built the Maze.
His young son is beside him and the boy’s face is a light,
A light of dawn and wonder and of valor infinite.

Their great vans beat the cloven air, like eagles they mount up,
Motes in the wine of morning, specks in a crystal cup,
And lest his wings should melt apace old Daedalus flies low,
But Icarus beats up, beats up, he goes where lightnings go.

He cares no more for warnings, he rushes through the sky,
Braving the crags of ether, daring the gods on high,
Black ‘gainst the crimson sunset, golden o’er cloudy snows,
With all Adventure in his heart the first winged man arose.

Dropping gold, dropping gold, where the mists of morning rolled,
On he kept his way undaunted, though his breaths were stabs of cold,
Through the mystery of dawning that no mortal may behold.

Now he shouts, now he sings in the rapture of his wings,
And his great heart burns intenser with the strength of his desire,
As he circles like a swallow, wheeling, flaming, gyre on gyre.

Gazing straight at the sun, half his pilgrimage is done,
And he staggers for a moment, hurries on, reels backward, swerves
In a rain of scattered feathers as he falls in broken curves.

Icarus, Icarus, though the end is piteous,
Yet forever, yea, forever we shall see thee rising thus,
See the first supernal glory, not the ruin hideous.

You were Man, you who ran farther than our eyes can scan,
Man absurd, gigantic, eager for impossible Romance,
Overthrowing all Hell’s legions with one warped and broken lance.

On the highest steeps of Space he will have his dwelling-place,
In those far, terrific regions where the cold comes down like Death
Gleams the red glint of his pinions, smokes the vapor of his breath.

Floating downward, very clear, still the echoes reach the ear
Of a little tune he whistles and a little song he sings,
Mounting, mounting still, triumphant, on his torn and broken wings!

I think it is Benet’s poem that gets closest to understanding our continuing obsession with the character and fate of Icarus. It is not simply a question of a young man who disregarded his father’s warnings; it is not simply a question of hubris. It is about desire, daring, defiance.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is also about self-destruction.

I think there is a strong connection between the Icarus myth and the French concept of “L’appel du vide” – the call of the void. The sudden powerful urge some people feel to jump from a high place when they come to them – for instance, the balcony of a tall building, a tourist spot at the Grand Canyon, etc. There is no conscious, reasonable, thought process. The person need not even be remotely suicidal, or depressed. Sometimes the desire simply arises out of nowhere, without warning. I wonder how many people have found themselves nearly stepping off the edge before the even realize what they’re doing. I wonder if anyone who did commit suicide did so by accident, in response of the call of the void, when they would never have done so under any other circumstance.

Go ahead and jump. I'll bet you can fly.
Go ahead and jump. I’ll bet you can fly. (Photo mine.)

I think of myself, visiting the Grand Canyon with friends, jumping onto outcroppings and pillars no sane person should. Of balancing on one leg so I can dangle the other foot over the edge. Of thinking: “Go ahead and jump. I’ll bet you can fly.” I think of myself sitting in my room alone at three in the morning, with a razor lined up against my wrist, waiting for some kind of sign. Yes or no.

And for some reason, I always think of that great line from The Dark Knight (yes, the Nolan Batman movie), that line we all know: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

That may be true. But also consider that some people may only want to watch themselves burn. Self-immolation, literal and figurative, is a powerful motivator. And sometimes that desire arises out of nowhere. From nowhere. From the depth of the void. And sometimes it calls to us from above, from the glow of the sun.


Songs to Be Sad To

“Background Music” by fotolover14

I have a deep, obsessive, possessive love for music. All music. I know a lot of people love music, and almost no one doesn’t like at least some music. But I mean like… CRAZY possessive love.  I listen to almost every genre of music. I have season tickets to the city symphony. I spend money I don’t really have on rock concerts. I am constantly and voraciously acquire new music, new bands, little-known artists, local favorites. I play the piano and the flute. I sing. I rarely sit in silence because I would much prefer to have music playing at all times of the day and night. I collect headphones, for cryin’ out loud!

I live with a soundtrack.

Right now my soundtrack tends to reflect my depression. Some times I go in search of happy, up-beat music to combat the sadness, but more often than not I gravitate toward music that matches my feelings.

Current favorites include albums by Of Monsters and Men, Dry the River, and The Classic Crime.

Silent Sister

News flash: everything sucks.

from gocsuyngam.com

I hate everything and everything hates me. And that’s fine. That’s just fine, because this shit just ain’t worth it. I don’t know why everything has to be so damn horrible. I don’t know why people are being shot to death not just in other cities and other countries but also just ten minutes down the road from my house. I don’t why my friend with M.S. is being treated like shit at our university. I don’t know why the woman I kinda-sorta-maybe-love is crippled with depression and self-doubt. I don’t know why my mother can’t find a new job. I don’t know why my family and I have spent our entire lives living in fear of not having enough money for the rent, or the next electric bill, or groceries. I don’t know why we find kittens killed on the side of the road and I have to stand there and watch my mother make herself violently ill with grief over their little bodies just so she can later watch me make myself violently ill trying to dig through hard red clay in 100 degree weather so I could bury them. I don’t know why my brain no longer works and my sense of purpose or motivation has evaporated and the one thing I have worked for my whole life no longer feels like the right thing to want. I don’t know why everything is so damn hard.

I just know everything IS hard, and it sucks, and I hate it, and it hates me. And I am too fucking tired and angry and despairing to give a flying fuck WHY.

from Hyperbole and a Half

Storm in a Bottle

I am trying to keep breathing. I am trying to keep myself motivated and awake and moving.

Long story short: the semester started this week. This means several things: first, I’m teaching again; second, I have to force myself back into something resembling a regular and reasonable schedule; third, and most horrifyingly: I really REALLY need to stop avoiding the problem and find a way to get my mind and soul into a place where I can actually work on my dissertation.

The longer version: The first week of the semester went mostly okay, in a weird way. I discovered on Monday that I could somehow switch a part of my brain on for a little way and be this version of myself that was cheerful and energetic and even gregarious. But afterward, when I was done working for the day and heading home to make something for dinner, I was suddenly so exhausted and so depressed and so despondent I could barely make it up the stairs to my room. I hadn’t turned off or worked past the bad stuff, just stuffed it to the pit of my stomach for eight hours to build up and gain momentum like a storm in a bottle. If this is the only I can manage the semester, it’s going to be very long and very painful. But hypothetically it could work.

That last one though, the one about my dissertation? Yeah… that is SO not happening. That particular storm has been building for MONTHS and is not likely to resolve itself any time soon. And judging from the email I just got from my dissertation direction this morning… that situation is gonna become untenable any day now.

Silent Sister

Lord Shiva Is Dancing In This House

“Nataraja3” by Benjamín Preciado Centro de Estudios de Asia y África de El Colegio de México – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Lord Shiva is dancing in this house;

even now he stands mid-step, foot raised
to stamp the ground and set the
whole world shaking.
And the world of this house,
at least, responds.

His cinnamon-colored skin glistens
in the pale light of ageless stars and
dim, forty-watt bulbs.
His dark eyes are lined with kohl
and stare out across the curve of the world –

But it is this pea-green & mustard-yellow sofa,
this antique dining-room table,
this vinyl-floored kitchen,
that exists in the universe of his eyes.

It is the world of this house
that is dying.

Walls of dark-wood paneling
tremble and quake, and sweat
pours down the window panes.
Bookshelves topple like pillars;
crystal candleholders, picture frames,
books and lamps and remote controls,
leap into the air and orbit the room
and its occupants.
Tornadoes twist and turn,
tearing at curtains and rocking chairs.

When the Dancer of the Steps of Death
dances, entire civilizations
crumble in his wake.
But now it is this house that
steps in time with him.

The Lord of Chaos pauses,
foot raised, mid-step,
ready to continue –
willing to stop.

And then he stomps the ground,
as the pounding of the pots on the stove
and the singing of the sofa and the chairs
and the screaming of the windows
and the wailing of doors
orders him to begin the dance again.

Silent Sister

Last-Minute Reprieve

As my life continues to spiral out of control, I am scrabbling for every tiny bit of good to keep me above water. Thankfully, I’ve had two last-minute reprieves yesterday and today. Nothing that will fix the biggest problems, but things that will keep things stable for tiny bit longer.

First of all, I had been panicking about my inability to pay my tuition this semester. I was considering taking a leave of absence, I was number-crunching, but mostly I was staring at my student account with blank, frozen terror. Then, yesterday, just hour before tuition payments were due, I was approved for a small grant and a small private student loan. Just enough to cover the tuition. And felt myself releasing a breath I had been holding for days.

Second, as I think I’ve mentioned, due to severe financial problems, my landlord is kicking my mother and me out. We have been scrambling to pack and find a new place to live, worrying that no one will approve us for a lease. We were expected to be out of the house by Sept 1st. But today the landlord caved in and agreed to let us stay another month. Another month to try and find something. Another month to pack without feeling like I would have to throw things in the back of a truck. Another month for my mother to hopefully find a new job and for my first adjuncting paycheck to hit. Another month to breathe.

I am thankful. And I am trying my best to hold onto these small good things. And yet, my brain cannot help be immediately remember that this does not fix anything in the long run. I am still broke. My mother is still unemployed. We still can’t find a new place that will approve us for a lease with our bad credit. I am still depressed as shit, and just barely resisting the urge to drop out of my PhD program, and go into hiding. Or do something even more drastic.

So I’m going to sit here, and try to hold onto this momentary reprieve, and remind myself to breathe.

Death Wish

Joshua Earle, CC0
Joshua Earle, CC0

Death Wish

angry screaming over pounding bass
guitars screeching through a million notes
that is how your life has always been
riding whining motorcycles
hair catching the wind in a golden net
fierce eyes gleaming silver in the sun
as you grin, playing chicken with Death
cling to your smiling nonchalance
wield your flashing knives and razor tongue
and wonder why you never cry
but don’t tell a soul that you’re bleeding
search for answers in half-smoked cigarettes
and empty bottles of tequila
and as the jello shots and cigarettes
fade from your blood, and your sleek, fast bikes
weigh down your wings more than they set you free
you yearn more than ever to feel
the earth fall away beneath you
smile then, for the taste of Death is sweet
a high cliff on the blue horizon
is attractive to a troubled soul
go ahead and jump… I’ll bet you can fly

Alex Wong, CC0
Alex Wong, CC0

Silent Sister