Carrying On Regardless
The poet, W. H. Auden, stands before a painting in the art museum in
Brussels. The picture is "The Fall of Icarus," by the
sixteen century Flemish painter, Breughel. Icarus was the son of
Daedalus, the legendary sculptor who ran afoul of King Minos and was
imprisoned within a massive maze. Daedalus made wings of wax for
himself and his son and they escaped in flight to Sicily.
Gloriously, they flew, glided, and soared; but Icarus, young Icarus,
ignoring his father's warning, flew too close to the sun. The sun
melted the waxen wings. The wings fell away. Poor Icarus plunged to
his death in the ocean.<br>
The white legs of poor young Icarus can be seen just beneath the
passing ship as he sinks beneath the waves. Life on sea and land
carries on regardless.
Auden writes a poem about the picture and its message.
"Musée des Beaux Arts."<br>
<em>About suffering they were never wrong,<br>
The Old Masters; how well, they understood<br>
Its human position; how it takes place<br>
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting<br>
For the miraculous birth, there always must be<br>
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating<br>
On a pond at the edge of the wood:<br>
They never forgot<br>
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course<br>
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot<br>
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.<br>
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away<br>
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may<br>
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,<br>
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone<br>
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green<br>
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen<br>
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,<br>
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.</em>
Auden writes that the Old Masters knew the position of suffering in
human affairs. What was it they knew? What is Breughel saying about
suffering? That no one cares about anyone else's suffering? A ship
-an expensive ship, Auden says: a cruise ship – is under full sail
just a few yards away from the drowning Icarus. It is obviously not
going to come about. It has somewhere to get to and sails firmly on.
The plowman must surely have heard the splash but, for him – well, it
had nothing to do with him. If it was an amazing failure, it was not
an important failure to him. A shepherd is gazing away from the ocean
into the sky; perhaps he sees Daedalus, the father of Icarus, still
soaring above the scene below.
Auden extrapolates from Breughel's painting. Suffering is.
Suffering happens while life goes on, while a window is opened or
closed, while someone is eating, or just walking along. In the Hebrew
Scriptures, the Book of Lamentations, the writer says, "Is it
nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any
suffering like my suffering"? The verse was later adopted by the
Christian faithful. One of Methodist John Wesley's most famous
hymns has as its title, "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass
by," referring, of course, to the crucifixion of Jesus.
There were thousands of people in the city of Jerusalem on that day,
opening and closing windows, eating, sauntering along, dogs playing,
farmers plowing. If it was an amazing failure, up on that hill, it was
not an important failure to them. There was the Warsaw Ghetto. The
camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, others. Thousands, millions, passed
by as if by a splash in the ocean.
Here at the beginning of Black History Month is a time to think of so
many generations of passing by, of not noticing, of carrying on
regardless. Images of black men hanging from trees while the dogs go
on with their doggy life and the torturer's horses Scratch their
innocent behinds on a tree. Robert Frost said, "In three words I
can sum up everything I have learned about life. It goes on."
I'm reminded of a persistent and annoying TV commercial: "I
didn't know." I didn't know. – "I didn't
know." While working on this sermon, I came across a passage by
the Hungarian writer, Arthur Koestler, from his essay, <em>On
Disbelieving Atrocities</em>. Koestler wrote:
<em>For, after all, you are the crowd who walk past on the road,
laughing; and there are only a few of us, escaped victims and
eye-witnesses of the things which happen in the jungle who, haunted by
our memories, go on screaming at you on the radio, in the newspapers,
and at public meetings. Now and then we succeed in reaching your ears
for a minute.</em>
<em>I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your
faces, a faint glassy stare entering your eye; and I tell myself: now
you have got them, now, hold them, hold them, so that they will remain
awake. But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourselves like puppies
who have got their fur wet; then you walk on, protected by the
dream-barrier which stifles all sound.</em>
Of course, I could not read that without seeing the words as if
projected against the backdrop of Breughel's painting. Did someone
at the rail of that expensive ship see that remarkable thing, a young
man with what looked like wings falling into the sea? And did he call
out "My God, look at that! Should they stop? Should they do
something? And, in the evening, in the Captain's cabin did they
say, "Oh, well, there is nothing we could have done?"
What is it, then, that the Old Masters knew? What is the message in
this painting? That none of us, none of us really care? Or, is the
message simply, that suffering is: it just is? Perhaps there is no
moral judgment in this painting, simply a statement of how things are,
of how it is with suffering.
Auden said that the purpose of poetry "of all art" is to
disillusion, to disenchant. The artist tells it "shows life"
as it is, so that we can live with it, so that we can live in it, with
honesty, authenticity, and courage. We know that no deus ex machina
would reach from offstage to pluck the poor Icarus from the waves and
that no everlasting arms would bundle up the astronauts before they
fell like shooting stars.
The artist's work portrays how the world is, how things are – as
if to say, "Here it is, do with it as you will." After all,
what good does it do to maintain the illusion that, all in all, people
are good ? as Anne Frank insisted ? and everything will turn out all
right? In ?The Longest Journey,? E. M. Forster writes of Mr. Pembroke,
<em>?He is, of course, absurdly young? He has no knowledge of the
world; He believes in humanity because he knows a dozen decent
<em>?And his friends are as young and innocent as himself. They are
full of the wine of life. But they have not tasted the cup – let us
call it the teacup – of experience?</em>
<em>Oh that teacup! To be taken at prayers, at friendship, at love,
"til we are quite sane, quite experienced, and quite useless to
God or man.?</em><br>
And the reality? It is with the suffering themselves ? of those who
know they are suffering, those who know they are dying, falling out of
the sky, sinking beneath the waves. Is it nothing to you all you who
pass by, sailing by with somewhere to go, sauntering by, plowing on,
carrying on, regardless.
Now, this could be a sermon about our universal guilt for the human
condition. It could be one of those pointless pulpit diatribes against
our innate selfishness and lack of caring. Again, the Breughel
painting could be the backdrop for that kind of communal put-down. And
I could send you all home in a blue funk because you allow the world
to suffer ? as if, with a little effort and a few dollars you could
have saved the boy, the whales, the forests, the air, the earth. Here
you are on this ship, enjoying your cruise, ignoring the cries. Here
you are plowing ? metaphor for whatever it is you do ? while ignoring
the plight of suffering humanity.
But the sermon isn't about that, what would be the point? And I
don't think the painting is about that. I don't think
Breughel's point was that we're all wicked and evil because
the boy is drowning and we're carrying on regardless. I think the
point is simply, as Auden said, that this is the way it is with
Again, as Auden said about art, the point is to disillusion us, if
need be, to get us out from behind our illusions to where we might be
of some use to God and Man. In his poem, ?For the Time Being,? he
wrote ? and wrote for this very time of year,
<em>??Once again As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision
and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility,
once again we have sent Him away, Begging though to remain his
disobedient servant, The promising child who cannot keep his word for
long. The Christmas feast is already a fading memory, and already the
mind begins to be vaguely aware Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension
at the thought Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now Be
very far off??</em>
It is said by some that both Breughel's painting and Auden's
poem hold Christian messages. Perhaps. And, if so, it must be a very
subtle message and (as is said nowadays) way deep. There is no obvious
or even disguised Christ figure in the picture. The fallen Icarus
falls for no one but himself that I can see: not laying down his life
for his friends; Just falling into the ocean having flown too close to
the sun, and that is always a metaphor for hubris more than sacrifice.
One could see moral judgment in the painting, I suppose, as if there
is an implied ?ought? in those details. The ship's company ought
to be in the water frantically swimming to save the boy. The fisherman
on the shore ought to leap in and try to save him. The plowman should
have left his plow, the shepherd his sheep.
But, no, I believe the message is clear enough: suffering is and life
The Hebrew and the Christian religions proclaim that we live in a
landscape of fallen innocence, reaching for an apple, reaching for the
sun, reaching for the very stars and the consequence, so the teaching
goes – God's punishment for our rejection of innocence – is
universal suffering. Even the Greeks, humanist to the core, blamed
Icarus for his own literal downfall, his fault being his hubris, the
pride with which he soared toward the sun.
But there never was a time of innocence. The priests and the prophets
and the theologians got it wrong. It is, as Auden says, the Old
Masters who were never wrong about suffering. It simply is, while life
Well, if Auden is right and the purpose of art is to disillusion ?
I'm disillusioned! So, good, as art and the artist's say, now
you are without illusion. Now you can live in the world as it is and
be of some use to God and man. The earth is warming. The world is
warring. The Forests are disappearing. The air does grow foul.
A boy falls into the ocean.
And are you plowing, minding your sheep, fishing? Are you sailing on,
going somewhere? Of course you are. Life goes on. There is food to be
found or earned. There is work to be done. There are places you must
go. There are flocks you must tend. Or you are old. You are tired. You
are not well. And you are absolved of all guilt by this simple reality
that suffering is. It will go on while you open and close your
windows, while you eat, and while you saunter down the street.
Is there, therefore, no hope for the boy fallen from the sky? We
don't know that. We still have the right and privilege of
optimism. We still hope. While the message of the painting is that
suffering is and is imbedded in the life that life goes on, it is,
again, not a message of moral judgment, nor is it a message of
hopelessness. You and I know that there are those, most perhaps, who
carry on with their lives regardless (having no regard for) the
suffering about them. But we also know that there are those who act in
the face of suffering, who, if they cannot, Christ like, take all
suffering upon themselves they do take some part of it to themselves
and wrestle it to victory or disaster.
We know that, at any moment that fisherman who lives daily with the
reality of hunger, oppression, and disease may have carelessness
overcome by compassion, may toss aside his line and leap into the
water in vain or successful attempt to save that boy. We know that,
beyond the painting's borders someone may be rowing furiously
toward the inevitable, perhaps to grab an ankle or say a prayer as the
boy slips away.<br>
We know that, seeing that painting and hearing Auden's poem, we
might, just might, ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the
that landscape. We might at least be satisfied to have the opportunity
to raise the question with ourselves.
It is not that we can do nothing about suffering. Of course we can.
The message of the painting is that we cannot end it. The suffering is
and is finely woven with the good to produce the real world in which
we live. Let that sink into any stultifying, guilt-inducing idealism
about single-handedly bringing about world peace or saving the whales
and the rain forests and we are ready to reach out and take a
manageable piece of suffering, manageable for you, in your life, and
engage yourself with it.
Albert Schweitzer, generally held to be a runner-up to Christ himself,
discouraged would-be Schweitzers from casting their lives into his.
This hospital in the jungle is my lot, he said, ?Search and find if
there is some place where you can invest your humanity.?
The illustrated lesson for the day is that we have not deserved
suffering. It is not our punishment for preferring humanness to
innocence. Suffering is not the consequence of reaching beyond
imagined boundaries. When we reject such notions, When we have turned
from ancient priests to stand before such Masters as this who saw life
fully and saw life whole, then we will know suffering as life that is
side by side with joy, with beauty of sound and sight, with courage
and, yes, with pride that we can slip the surly bonds of earth, that
we can here and there turn aside death, here and there feed the
hungry, here and there, without arrogance or violence, settle a peace
upon some troubled land.