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  • Joe Collins

Auden, Breughel and the Particularity of Suffering


Breughel’s well-known painting, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, is generally interpreted as being a study on the pride of humankind, and how things are likely to conclude if any of us make the mistake of getting too far above our station. According to the myth, Icarus, and his father Daedalus, are imprisoned on the island of Crete. The pair build wax wings to escape, which seems to go well until Icarus becomes too ambitious and flies too close to the sun. His wings melt and he falls to his death in the sea. Breughel captures the moment of Icarus’ death, depicting him as a slightly absurd and undignified figure - legs spread – hitting the water head-first in the corner of the painting. In the meantime, the busy nature of the rest of the image captures the lack of consequence to those close to the scene of the young man’s suffering: the ploughman is not even looking, neither is the horse, nor shepherd (nor any of his sheep); several ships pass by, going about their business as though nothing has happened. Neither man nor nature seems interested. Icarus cuts a lonely, almost comic, figure.

For many observers, Breughel’s piece demonstrates the folly of excessive pride: how things that one of us might think of as being of great importance, are in fact of no importance at all. In the scheme of things, an individual’s aspirations and ambitions (and Breughel shows us the scheme of things in his work) are worth just a small splash in a sea that stretches to the horizon. No one cares.

WH Auden came to the painting in Brussels at the start of the Second World War. His reflections on the feelings evoked by his viewing are captured in his poem ‘Musee de Beaux Arts’. It is an interesting piece for any number of reasons, but it is Auden’s subtle movements away from the general interpretation which has always pricked my interest. His first line makes a bold assertion of what both he and, importantly, the artist, think is the theme of the work: ‘About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters’.

The conversational style is interesting. It is at odds with both the generally-accepted subject matter (suffering/ ambition/ pride) as well as the precise rhythmic pattern, with which the poem is constructed. But it is the topic of the painting that most interests the poet. For Auden, it is not pride nor ambition which is singular to man and with which it is difficult for others to empathise: instead, it is the particular nature of his suffering. Auden’s first line makes clear that this is not only his view: the Old Masters saw it, too – and, according to Auden, were never wrong on the topic. They knew that suffering

. . . takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

Walking dully along . . .

Where dogs go on with their doggy

Life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The indifference of those in Breughel’s work to the fate of the imperilled Icarus is not an indifference to pride, but to suffering; not just the suffering of the moment, but also of what is to come. The skaters in Auden’s poem (a reference to a further painting), skate away, oblivious to the birth of Christ happening at the same time, and testify to the fact that ‘even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course’. So, too, the ‘torturer’s horse’ makes a statement. Despite witnessing the massacre of the innocents, it has its own concern: an itch on its innocent backside. Suffering takes place in a lonesome valley. It is particular to the individual and needs to be understood in relation to that individual’s inner world. Making sense of that inner world – and making sense of experience and suffering – is to witness something astonishing. As Auden puts it:

. . . 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.

Auden and others of his generation had a particular interest in suffering. They were, after all, living through its apotheosis, made manifest in the death camps that grew from the ideology of the Third Reich. But even the horror of those events does not change what Auden is trying to point out to us: our suffering belongs to us alone and it is for us to explore it for meaning.


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