Bruegel's "The Fall of Icarus" and Memorial Day
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I am sitting comfortably on the edge of a beach in Hawaii , under the ironwood trees, reading. My eyes drift to the horseshoe bay in front of me. Burly men take their tiny children out into the water, a knot of women sit on the sand nearby with towels, drinks and sunscreen. Two dogs pull desperately on their leashes, wanting to plunge into the surf and play with the laughing children.
There is a sailboat in the bay riding the gentle waves at anchor, and over to my left several intrepid hang gliders jump off the high cliffs and catch the updraft , moving them over the blue, blue water. Men in the sky, a sailboat, the ocean, people on the beach---suddenly I flash on Pieter Bruegel’s painting of “The Fall of Icarus.” It must be because of what I’m reading, Caroline Alexander’s “The War That Killed Achilles,” and it’s Memorial Day.
The book uses the Trojan War as an exemplar of all wars and the men who fight in them.
The painting is a window into how people ignore important things happening in their midst. W.H. Auden beautifully captures the thought in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.”It goes to the heart of Memorial Day. If people don’t go somewhere and picnic they are in a cool movie theater, or taking advantage of all the sales at every store and car lot. All too few are really thinking out the reason for the holiday. They are too busy looking the other way like the people in the painting.
At the moment the United States is engaged in two wars. Never fight a land war in Asia , ancient wisdom says. And yet we have done so, repeatedly, with unsatisfactory results every time. We are at war, but we are far from being on a war footing as we were for World War II. The people who are affected every day seem to be primarily military families.
I remember during the Vietnam War Hawaii was on the list for R&R, rest and recreation. Back then I dated several guys on leave from that war. They didn’t talk about it, but how being on leave was like a parallel universe, because no one seemed to think about the war. Being out in the world, as they called it, was unnerving for them. People were looking away, just as they do in “The Fall of Icarus.” Remembering why we have this holiday is painful---no one wants to think much about death and loss. For the young soldiers here then danger was ever present. Walking in Waikiki , a car would backfire and half a dozen men would drop to the ground. The rest of us kept on going. In restaurants they always tried to sit facing the door and would never cross an open space but went around the perimeter. Do any of them still react that way, I wonder?
War shifts perspective forever; there is the life before and the life after. The Iliad tells us about all soldiers then and now, what they honor, why they fight, what they feel. But Homer doesn’t leave it at that. The end of the epic is about funerals, honoring the dead, and how nothing consoles the families and how lives are crushed.
It is hard to look at all that but we must, sometimes, stare it in the face. Terrible injury, death and despair confront us daily on TV, at the movies and in high tech games. And then we get up and walk away.
Back in ancient Greece and today, the one place all men and women in war want to get to can be summed up in one word; home. And you would think that those of us who are at home, would spend a little space of time on this day thinking about why we send people into the awful maelstrom of war and about those who never came out of it and back to that elusive utopia we enjoy every day---home.
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