“Musee des Beaux Artes” illustrated #vizpoem

Next week we will read some elegies, including Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and in preparation for that, I’d like to explore the vexed issue of allusivity. Allusion gets a bad rap, as I have argued elsewhere; too often it turns off readers who mistake it for unoriginality or pretentious posturing. Far from name-dropping, though, Auden uses intertextuality as a means of assaying the mutually illuminating features of artistic representation. Done well, an intertextual poem will provide a new vantage on the alluded-to text even as it uses that text to further its own representations in ways it couldn’t on its own. The example I’ll use is an ekphrastic poem called “The Musée des Beaux Artes” from the late 1930s, based on Pieter Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

According to the myth of the fall of Icarus, one of the more famous stories of Greek mythology, Icarus along with his father Daedalus tried to escape from a tower by gluing bird’s feathers to their arms with beeswax. Despite his father’s warning, young Icarus flew too high in the air and therefore too close to the sun, and his wax melted, whereupon he fell to his death. But in this painting, no matter our preconceived notions about the story, or how we might have imagined ourselves reacting to the same scene had we been there, the other people in the painting simply go about their lives instead of trying to help or even batting an eyelash in surprise. I could point out that most of the people in the painting are reasonably far away from Icarus, and so they might not have heard his cry. But this seems beside the point, because the painting is clearly understating the importance of Icarus’ fall in the grand scheme of things. The myth of Icarus is a story about hubris and unchecked aspiration which is then punished extremely severely (many might question, in fact, whether the punishment fits the umbrage of a young person’s arrogance). Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus includes Icarus in the title, so we know we should already have a baseline familiarity about the myth, and we should be looking for him somewhere in the scene. But, here the fall is not only not located in the center of the painting, but it makes no stir in the audience that the painting represents for us (and which we, the contemporary viewers, can use as a convenient foil to contrast to our own responses to the scene). If Icarus’ fall were right in the middle of the canvas, then we could speak of it in terms of the “Bystander Effect” (in which nobody helps because everybody assumes somebody else will), because Brueghel would be implicitly saying that Icarus was indeed the most important person in this situation and everybody else in the painting was completely wrong not to have seen the hand of the gods at work in their midst in the form of divine retribution. But he isn’t: he’s off in the corner like an afterthought, and if anything the farmer at his plough looks more like the main character of the scene because of perspective; he’s so much bigger than the others, and he’s the first thing you notice in the frame.

Auden notices this too, and expects his readers to know about both the Icarus myth and the Brueghel painting. I’m confident about this last sentence because I can tell you that “The Musée des Beaux Artes” was written right before the outbreak of World War II, and it occurs alongside many other extremely compassionate poems Auden wrote during those years to draw attention to the plight of people who were dying in the satellite conflicts leading up to WWII (like the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Spanish Civil War) and making connections between the suffering of people in far off lands at the hands of practitioners of fascism, militarism, Nazism, etc., that would shortly, if Western democracies did not stand up to them out of love for those who do not belong to our own countries, visit the same sort of destruction and suffering on America and England. That sort of political awareness of the wartime context makes this poem (for me at least) much more interesting in that it’s not just talking about abstract “suffering,” but about the many linkages between suffering, wherever, whenever, and to whomever it occurs around the world, to our own physical / mental comfort and aspirations.

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.

So an opening line like “About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters,” is one that really ought to spook you. First of all, just as whenever you take a multiple choice test, you should always beware the statement that’s phrased as an absolute, because even if you can only find one instance in which the statement isn’t true, its whole truth claim is still invalidated. And maybe this painting by Brueghel is the one instance in which the old masters (Brueghel among them) was wrong about suffering. Also, clearly the poem continues on beyond this first line, so the speaker’s point must be more complex than simply agreeing that yeah, Brueghel was right to deemphasize the fall of Icarus, because ethically speaking, nobody’s suffering is inherently more important than anybody else’s. And we all suffer to some degree or other, even if our suffering may not take on an exotic form involving beeswax.

Consider: to any one of us, deeply enmeshed in our own individual reality, the story of Icarus might mean more than it would if its events actually transpired before us. In other words, if we valued the myth precisely because it was a parable about how the arrogant deserve extreme comeuppance, or as an excuse not to fly too high using untested means of conveyance, then it actually has very little to do with Icarus beyond the fact that his character makes that object lesson about human behavior and physical limitations more concrete and interesting because it’s embodied in mythic narrative. So there’s no reason to have any expectation that the sun might have stopped shining at the moment before Icarus’ beeswax melted, or that the wind should stop blowing so that the ships could turn around and pick him up before he drowned… although it’s true that that sort of thing happens sometimes in Greek myth, and also sometimes in Hollywood. But not in real life. The possibility of a miraculous salvation for the falling hero (Zeus catching him in his hands out of the clouds, for example) does get a nod in Auden’s poem, but only in the form in its negation:

                                                                              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.

Nobody asked the sun whether it wanted to keep shining, and nobody checked to see whether the wind cared or the ships felt remorse. Because that would be absurd: these are metonyms for the bystanders rather than typological allusions to the Olympian gods. It’s more appropriate to ask why the human beings in the scene didn’t do more (since the human beings could certainly have done more), and whether either Brueghel or Auden regret that Icarus died through the bystanders’ negligence. After all, if the Nazis had taken over the planet in WWII, the sun would have kept shining and there still would have been ships and wind; there also still would have been people, and life would have gone on. But there would have been a lot more suffering.

I think Auden’s tone is admirably precisely rendered, although not particularly clearly in terms of the intertextual linkage to Brueghel’s painting. At the end of the first stanza the speaker weirdly calls up for our appraisal an unplaced moment in one or more works by unspecified old masters, in which suffering is rendered in some sort of characteristically understated way, as

                                                    some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

On the one hand, as a dog-lover I love the fact that Auden is talking about dogs (“with their doggy life”) and what they might have desired in a poem alluding to the high seriousness of Greek mythology: I don’t get the sense that we’re talking about a Great Dog like three-headed Cerberus or something – Cerberus didn’t have a doggy life, he guarded the Underworld for Hades, that’s a pretty non-doggy big deal. But why do we get mention of the “torturer’s horse” as being “innocent”? I’m not trying to suggest that the horse is not innocent of the torture its master makes his profession, but it’s a weirdly dissonant image to being up, and the speaker apparently felt the need to call the horse an innocent, so something is amiss here. It should call to your mind a lot of questions about the relationship between proximity and culpability: whether being at the scene of a crime, even if you are definitely not the perpetrator, might make you somehow complicit in that crime. Maybe the torturer’s horse is guilty of not throwing his master, since he must on some level know his rider is a bad dude, horses and riders know each other pretty well, I gather. Or maybe, like the contrast I just made between the desires of the inanimate landscape and the moral obligations of human beings, the contrast is being made between what animals witness, know, or do, and the much greater responsibilities we should assign to human beings, who ought to be measured to a higher standard. If it were “the torturer’s best friend” rather than “the torturer’s horse” we would like that other human being a lot less than the horse, who can’t be expected to choose his master in the same way we choose our friends. So ask yourself how far removed you would need to be, as a human being, before an audience would feel comfortable calling you an innocent if you were standing right next to a torturer while scratching your behind against a tree: the torturer’s second cousin? The torturer’s casual acquaintance? Someone who didn’t know the torturer and was five miles away? 500 feet away? The guy that happened to be standing right next to the torturer but didn’t know him from Adam and is now appalled to learn he is a torturer and, oh, hey, yes the torturer does appear to be torturing that guy over there now that you mention it and he bothers to look?

Now swap out “torturer” and replace with “Nazi.” Now swap out “spatial proximity” and replace with “being able to make a difference before somebody who is suffering actually dies from their suffering,” like the sailors on the ship or the farmer at the plough, or for the case of WWII, any of the Western democracies who had the resources to intervene in China or in Spain, or for the Jews fleeing from Germany before the war, but who chose not to because they were much too caught up in their own suffering to intervene to stop the suffering of others.

OR, consider that there may be a difference between the farmer at the plough, who is facing away from the direction Icarus must have fallen, and the sailors on “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen.” That’s my reading for why Auden’s speaker, even though he masks the agency of the people in the scene by talking passively about the ship instead of the sailors, says “must have seen” – there’s no doubt that they were aware of Icarus’ suffering. And they did nothing, perhaps because they believed that if it wasn’t Icarus falling it would be someone else, and so what difference did it make? Well, it made quite a difference to Icarus. And so by our awareness of someone else’s suffering, which poems like this one endeavor to promote, we become partly responsible for assisting those who suffer. You enter the poem thinking about art, within a poem which is obviously about art commenting on itself, which may not seem at all related to the politics of WWII. You exit the poem having been made aware of a profound moral imperative toward other people who are suffering. The first step is recognizing that Auden and Breughel agree that all suffering is valid, and that qualifying some people’s suffering as being more important than other people’s suffering is a trap that can lead directly to discrimination, inanition, and extermination. Hitler based everything Germany did during the Third Reich on what he called the unnecessary suffering the Allies inflicted on the Germans through the peace conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and he argued that the past suffering of the Germans should be more important to the Germans than the suffering of the Jews, the Gypsies, homosexuals, and eventually the Poles, Russians, French, English, Americans, and all non-Aryan scapegoats in general. But Auden goes even further than Brueghel to say that suffering, although perhaps a constant, is not so great an enemy as indifference to suffering, which makes villains of us all.

I’m actually not sure that Auden and Brueghel disagree about that, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen it in Brueghel’s painting without Auden’s help.


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