Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a large
painting from the 1560s that hangs in Belgium’s largest museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts
– and is held to be a meticulous copy of an original (now lost) work by the Flemish
artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It shows a superficially bucolic scene: ships are taking
sail, a shepherd is tending to his flock, distant cities look prosperous and ordered.
But in the bottom right hand corner of the canvas, a tragedy is unfolding, all but unheeded.
Reckless Icarus, the legendary figure from Classical mythology, is in the final stages
of one of the ancient world’s most famous aeronautical disasters. Together with his
father Daedalus, the young man had made himself a pair of wings, glued together with wax.
Daedalus had warned his son not to fly too close to the sun in case its heat were to
melt the structure, but the impetuous boy soared too high anyway and, in the painting,
has just tumbled down into the waves, to his death. Icarus’s end is deliberately not
the central focus of the painting. The eye is drawn instead to
the glittering cities and smart ships in the distance. As if to emphasise the point, the
ploughman at the centre of the painting references a popular proverb: ‘No plough stops for
the dying man.’ This neglect of Icarus’s tragedy is, at one level, terrifying and sad.
We read into it how little the world cares about our own pains. And yet, from another
perspective, this neglect is deeply gratifying and importantly redemptive. It is one of the
central sources of our unhappiness that we spend so much of our lives fearing for our
reputations and wondering what others will think of us when we fail – as we inevitably
will at points. The slightest change in our image in the eyes of others can obsess us.
We lie awake at night wondering how we could cope without the approval of people we don’t
even like very much. We surrender our freedom to the verdicts of strangers. But the painter’s
stroke of consoling genius is, here, to show us how, when we really mess up, almost no
one will be looking or caring very much. The farmer is too busy ploughing, the shepherd
is too taken up with thinking about the weather, someone else is overwhelmingly intent on fishing.
Our tragedies don’t occupy society the way we fear they will. A few people might notice
for a moment, then swiftly move on to the next thing. We are at the centre of the galaxy
only in our own minds. Other people mostly don’t care what happens to us or what we’ve
done. The world is still filled with humans who haven’t heard of us and never will.
Those who might be angry or disappointed with you now will have forgotten all about you
soon enough. Your disgrace will, in time, be subsumed within the larger amnesia of a
consolingly indifferent world. It isn’t just Icarus who is being swallowed up and
obscured by the waves: some of the same obscurity awaits our greatest errors and embarrassments. We hope you enjoyed this film. For more from The School Of LIfe you can subscribe to our channel and take a look at our range of products on our website.