Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters.
— W.H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts
That’s what Auden tells us:
never wrong because their
paintings show how suffering
occurs while others don’t notice,
or care. People close their windows
while the girl screams in the alley.
They drive past the strange man
staggering alongside the road.
Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall
of Icarus gives Auden his example.
In the painting, Icarus has just
plummeted into the sea. Only his legs
and a tiny splash are still visible. Yet
the plowman in the foreground
goes on plowing. And the “expensive,
delicate ship” whose passengers may
have seen Icarus fall had, Auden writes,
“somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on.”
And so here’s my question: Where is
the father in this painting? Where
is Daedalus, who conceived and created
the wings and planned their escape
from the island prison; who carefully
instructed his son on the dangers
of flight and then, magically, sprang
into the air with him? Why did Brueghel
and Auden not see him scan the waters
for a sign of his foolish, elated boy;
and, not finding Icarus, searching
across every island; and finally,
realizing what must have happened,
pulling up to the spot, seeing
the tire marks and the smoldering wreck,
running down into the ditch, choking back
the tears, frantically trying to pry open
the door of the crushed vehicle?