Shake Off That Indifference

Oct 31, 2016

Brueghel's painting Icarus depicts the contrast between the everyday life and the tragic fall of a boy from the sky. In his poem, W.H. Auden suggests that everything turns away "quite leisurely from the disaster."
Credit Brueghel, 16th Century Belgian painting / Wikipedia

I sat, basking, recently, in the sunlight of this dying autumn season, a few butterflies flittered amongst faded zinnias and browning marigolds, a wasp sank sluggishly to my table, and I was thinking.   

The last few months…so tough…increased work demands, mounting pressures and expenses at home…a dying friend, my head cold. The shameful mockery of our democratic processes during this year’s Presidential campaign… The recent arrests of three southwest Kansans for plotting a terrorist attack on a Muslim-Somali community…. Then, the opening lines of WH Auden’s  poem, from the late 1930’s, came to mind:

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….”

That’s me: I’m guilty. I’ve just been walking dully along. For one, I’ve not been as invested, as committed, to HPPR’s Radio Readers this fall as I could have been. But who can blame me? These books have been, well, hard.

My Antonia, set comfortably in the past, had a couple of rough moments. But reading Enrique’s Journey and re-reading What is the What— both set in my life time, well, I kept interrupting my own reading to wonder: where had I been? What had I been doing? … these harrowing lives, starvation, nativism, desert crossings, train jumpings….other people’s struggles are literally existential. I know. Each of our books has a happy ending: ….Antonia is the heart of a happy family. Enrique finds his mother; his wife and daughter join him. Valentino’s story is told, he earns his degree, returns to Sudan to help re-build his homeland. And me? What have I done? What can I do?

Icarus is a figure from Greek myth. He was a boy whose father created wings for him to fly, and fly, he did, so high that his wings, made of wax and feathers, melted, and Icarus fell to the sea where he drowned.  Depicted in a 16th century Belgian painting, the death of Icarus is incidental. No one notices; no one’s life changes because of it. Auden writes:

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: …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.

It’s not yet been decided what Auden wanted us to make of his poem, this admission that life goes on no matter the tragedies, our own or of others.  Yet the poem shakes my indifference.  As does Eggers’ What is the What.

Yet, what can we do? Well, we can continue reading. We can listen, we can pay attention, we can make room at our tables, and in our communities, for everyone. We can stop labeling the tragedies and losses of others as unimportant failings.

I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas. These are my views and are not endorsed by NPR, HPPR, its employees or supporters, nor are these the views of the membership of HPPR’s Radio Readers.

Thank you for listening.