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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegal the Elder

I read a brilliant piece in The New York Times this morning about how suffering hides in plain sight.

The article features Bruegal’s paintings and W. H. Auden’s poetry. It’s about how human suffering and complacency go hand-in-hand. How it’s all, perhaps, a matter of perspective. How distant are we from the suffering: Is the war taking place in our city or on a distance continent? Are we watching its horrors on TV, or have we moved on to sipping wine with friends on the patio?

Here’s the poem by Auden that expounds on the painting above by Brueghal.

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.

The article is also a master course in reading poetry and art. It explains how lines five and 8 refer to the miraculous birth of Christ that the aged are waiting for. This glorious occasion is juxtaposed in lines 5 and 6 with the skating children oblivious to the coming slaughter by Herod’s hand.

The Brueghal painting depicting it is pictured below

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegal

The following five lines in Auden’s poem refer to another Bruegal painting where dogs chase and play with each other while soldiers slaughter a village.

Horror is hard to sustain. It dulls, it grows weary, it becomes a drudgery. The mind drifts. Life goes on. The sun continues to rise. We need its warmth and comfort. The trill of the songbird still thrills us. We need this too.

Yet all of our justified condemnation and horror at Putin’s brutal bombing of innocent civilians should not allow us to forget the 400,000 Vietnamese whose lives were lost when Agent Orange was sprayed over their villages and forests, destroying all of it. For what? Are we more innocent than Putin?

It’s a matter of perspective. That was then, this is now. A year or two or three from now, will the horror of this war fade? It will. Unless this all breaks out into WWIII as some fear.

Below is Auden’s poem on the day after Hitler invaded Poland. It’s a long poem so I’ve included only the 1st, 5th, and last two stanzas, the 8th and 9th. You can read the whole poem at this link.

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” another poet wrote. We will. We have no choice. The plowing, the fishing, the wine and the laughter must go on.

Isn’t that our fervent wish for the people of Ukraine, that they regain this normalcy? Even Vietnam has rebounded. Forgiven us.

Life must go on, we say from our safe, complacent distance. As it does, with or without us. Despite everything there’s a new birth taking place every second of every day.

The joy and sorrow, beauty and brutality of the human condition are woven into one seamless tapestry, glorious on one side and a hopeless tangle of knots on the other. All a matter of perspective, which side we are looking at in the moment.

Auden once said that the only true value of poetry and art is in the truth-telling that disenchants and disintoxicates.

Well, that’s one value of truth-telling for sure. But turn it over and the other is the truth-telling that enchants and intoxicates. Both are necessary. Especially in times like these.