More on Brueghel and Icarus
Now that I’m on the topic –
Alexander Nemerov has written about Auden’s poem as a parable of the role of the intellectual in times of social crisis. His investigation sheds valuable light on the sources and historical context of the poem, especially its links to Auden’s recent experience of the Sino-Japanese War in 1938, where he had travelled as an observer together with Christopher Isherwood. (They wrote a book about it called Journey to a War: Isherwood wrote the prose, and Auden wrote a sonnet sequence called Sonnets from China.)
Nemerov writes: “Absorbed in his own activity, oblivious to the suffering taking place at his back, [the ploughman] is for Auden the modern intellectual at the end of the 1930s.” The ploughman, “undoubtedly the painting’s most emphatic figure of artistic isolation…inscribes line after line in the ground before him in a classical trope of writing.”
However, and even more interesting in my view, is the way that Brueghel’s painting (see the previous post) according to Nemerov creates an association between the ploughman in the foreground and Icarus – implicitly, in its form and visual techniques – making the ploughman absorb the tragedy behind him in an act of creation: The furrows in the earth “mimic” the waves around the legs of the dying Icarus, who disappears under the water on the same horizontal plane as the plough digs into the ground.
This indicates, in other words, that the artist can absorb the social by turning inwards: “The plowman, head down, back hunched, concentrating on his own world, produces an intensified form of melancholy that exemplifies – even meticulously aggrandizes – the anonymous tragedies for which otherwise there would be no commemoration.” As Nemerov points out, there’s a parallel here to the lines of Auden’s Yeats poem, where he writes: “With the farming of a verse / Make a vinesyard of the curse…”
There are two additional points from Nemerov’s article which I find especially worth mentioning. First, he calls attention to the significance of the poem’s title: The actual “Musée des Beaux Art” (built in 1880) is apparentyl adorned both back and front with huge sculptures of heroic, winged figures – while Brueghel’s painting is “hidden” in the back of a sculpture hall. This contrast between heroic representations of mythical figures with wings, and the anti-climactic portrayal of Icarus’ legs in the painting, is naturally exactly the contrast Auden evokes in his laconic lines about “a boy falling out of the sky.”
Secondly, Nemorov points out that, if you look quite closely at the painting, you’ll discover a light-coloured round shape under the bushes to the left of the ploughman’s field, which on closer inspection turns out to be a human face looking up – the head of a corpse! And, even more conspicuously, there is a knife lying casually about on the edge of the field… I won’t misrepresent Nemerov’s article with too speculative an interpretation, but as he writes, “A possibility of violence lurks within [the farmer’s] space.”
…the sense of a wrong having been committed, a tragedy having taken place; a crime for which everyone (fisherman, plowman, shepherd, sailors) has an alibi, all alike minding their own business – yet among whom the plowman stands out, larger and closer, right before our eyes, too conscpicuously indifferent. […] What is hidden there is a claim about the rebellious, even murderous powers of the artist – a capacity to remain outside the simply ameliorating functions assigned to art making by even its most perceptive critics. Auden, writing in 1938, was one such critic. The political exigencies of those years – the need to find a humanistic and life-commemorating value in the Old Masters – makes the poet’s perhaps willful failure to see understandable.
Concerning the last claim: As I am at the moment elbow-deep into Auden’s ideas about Original Sin and his analysis of the development of totalitarianism in the 1930s, I must claim to know better than Nemorov on this point. I think Auden’s writing represents anything but a “willful failure to see” a crime in which “everyone” is in some way implicated. (I realize that Nemorov is referring specifically to the implied crime in Brueghel’s painting, but on a general level this is such an important part of Auden’s intellectual framework in the late 30’s and during WWII that it cannot be disregarded.) Exhibit A from New Year Letter (1941):
The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed,
We all had reason to detest,
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved
And under lock and key the cause
That makes a nonsense of our laws.
I rest my case. (Not really, but by the time my thesis is finished I shall perhaps do so)
Btw, did you know that Auden is apparently credited with inventing the word “apolitical”? In 1939! The discovery was (of course) made by Edward Mendelson, whose excellently edited volumes of Auden’s prose you’ll all naturally run out and buy at the first instance.
For anyone with an especial interest in the topic, I’d recommend Nemerov’s article, which includes very interesting excerpts – writing and photographs – from Auden and Isherwood’s Journey to a War. You can find it here.